Life on this earth is a series of never-ending choices. We face a blizzard of choices every day. How we respond to the choices facing us goes a long way toward determining what kind of person we are, what kind of life we have, and, ultimately, whether or not Christ will take us to heaven at His second coming.
Choices. Think about all the choices we make. When we woke up this morning, you started right in making choices-to get up or just lay there for a few minutes; to pray, to read the Morning Watch, or to turn the radio on to listen to the weather forecast. On getting dressed─do I wear the gray suit or the blue one? A red tie or a blue one? I imagine most of us have already made 40 or 50 choices this morning from awakening to right now. Maybe more.
Do we think about all these choices we make each day? Probably not. Confronted with getting out of bed each day, many of us make the same choices day after day. That pattern of behavior is called a "habit." A habit is nothing more than choosing the same thing each time we are confronted by a certain situation. We all have habits. For example, I always tie my necktie with a full Windsor knot. It is a habit. I could tie a half Windsor if I had to, but given the choice, I prefer a full Windsor. Another habit is making hoagies for Friday supper. Linda usually prepares the Sabbath meal on Friday, so, to save her the effort of cooking two meals on Friday, I usually make hoagies. It's a habit.
Our question this morning is this. With all the possible choices we face each day, how can we know what the "right" choices are? Do all choices have a "right" answer?
Those are tough questions. They have been the subject of scholarly thinking, debating, and writing for millennia. Most philosophers agree that choices are not "right" or "wrong" in and of themselves. The "rightness" or "wrongness" of a choice can only be evaluated on the basis of some set of values or standards. By comparing the choice to the set of values or standards, rightness or wrongness is determined. Do standards exist to guide our choices? Yes, many standards exist. The Ten Commandments are one set of standards. Laws and regulations are other kinds of standards. Why do so many different laws and regulations exist? They exist because humans are selfish and sinful. You may have never thought of it that way before. But that answer is true and correct.
Take driving an automobile as an example. There are lots of laws and regulations that govern driving. You have to take a driver's test to demonstrate your knowledge of the traffic laws and regulations. Why do these laws and regulations exist? They exist to enforce certain values and to support certain habits to protect innocent people. For example, most states have stringent laws against driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Why? To protect other people-drivers and pedestrians-from being injured by drivers under the influence of alcohol. Medical research has demonstrated that drinking alcohol or smoking dope severely reduces a person's depth perception, peripheral vision, and muscle reaction time. That's a medical fact. If a person drives under the influence of these substances, then other people are at increased risk of injury.
If we had true Christ-like characters, we would love our neighbors as ourselves. We would love our fellow humans so much that we would avoid any choices which would harm them. We would even avoid choices that just increase the risk of harming them. Here is where sin enters. When someone chooses to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, what that person is really saying that their personal desire to get "high," their personal "good feeling," is more important to them than the safety of other drivers and pedestrians. This is their choice: Love of self, selfishness; or agape love for fellow human beings. To restrain a person from overindulging in self-love through alcohol, laws and regulations were written prohibiting drinking and driving.
Nearly all of the laws and regulations in America relate, in one way or another, to fundamental Biblical principles, such as having agape love for your neighbor. That is why philosophers, theologians, and political scientists say that American society is based uponJudeo-Christian principles. Other countries are founded on different principles. For example, SaudiArabian laws and regulations are based on Islamic principles. Because Judeo-Christian principles are the key underpinning of American laws and regulations, the social values that create expected patterns of behavior-habits-primarily have a biblical foundation.
What guides our choices? Do we make choices that glorify self or that glorify Jesus? If we want to make choices that glorify Jesus, what are those choices? There are two kinds of answers to that question. One is the quick answer, the reflex answer: "Do the will of God." If we want to serve Jesus, to bring glory to Him, then we ought to do His will. That seems simple enough. Friends, I think it is too simple, and perhaps also too superficial. The quick answer simply begs the original question, leading to the more difficult and, I think, more insightful question, "If doing the will of God is the right choice, what is the will of God?" We pray in the Lord's Prayer for God's will to "be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10, NIV). What are we praying for when we pray, thy will be done?
There are 11 different Greek words in the New Testament that are all translated into English as "will.'" Let me share some texts to illustrate the differences in meaning between them:
- Some texts use the word to mean a future time, such as Matthew 2:13 (KJV), "Herod will seek the young child."
- Another usage is to do a kindness, as in Luke 2:14 (KJV), "Peace, good will toward men," or Ephesians 6:7 (KJV), "With good will doing service, as to the Lord."
- Another usage is as an agreement or a judgment, as in Revelation 17:17 (KJV), "For God hath put in their hearts to fulfill his will."
- Another meaning is to intend to do something, to be willing to do it, as in John 18:39 (KJV), "Will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?"
- Another meaning is to burden heavily with something, as in 1 Corinthians 9:17 (KJV), "If I do this thing willingly," meaning, if I do this thing of my own heavy burden. All these are not the meaning we seek this morning.
There are three closely related Greek words translated "will" that match our concern this morning. Consider Matt 7:21: Not everyone that saithunto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
This is the text that best illustrates the meaning we are interested in this morning. If we want to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, we must do the will of His Father. Notice the emphasis on the word "do", we must do the will of God. What is this "will of God" the Father that we must choose to do to enter heaven?
The Greek word translated "will" in Matthew 7:21 is, "thel-ay-mah", which means an act or a choice. Specific meanings include a purpose or a decree. More abstract meanings include a willingness or an inclination. English synonyms are a desire or a pleasure. Literally, thel-ay-mah means, the choice of God, the purpose or decree of God, the inclination or willingness of God, the desire of God, or to do the pleasure of God.
There are 59 times in the New Testament where thel-ay-mah is used. There are several that capture the real essence of the will of God. John 6:37-40 (RSV): "All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day."
This text is interesting for several reasons. First, two different wills are contrasted. Jesus says he came not to do His own will, but the will of His Father. Thus, everyone has their own will; a will separate from God's will. Second, the last phrase defines the will of the Father-that every one who sees the Son and believes on Him should have eternal life. God's will, literally God's desire or God's wish, is that everyone who sees Jesus and believes on him should have eternal life. Third, and most important in my opinion, is that this will of God the Father is something that we have to choose to do. Following the will of God involves our free choice. This text presents a conditional promise. If we choose to do something-see the Son and believe in Him-then it is God's wish for us to have eternal life.
Too often, people believe that the will of God is some powerful force that automatically creates a set of conditions we are powerless to influence. The insurance industry declares that certain unusual events-hurricanes, tornados, floods, hailstorms-are "acts of God." When these things happen, and good people lose their belongings or are injured or killed, some people proclaim that the losses were "God's will" because they were "acts of God." Friends, this may be a valid insurance argument, but it is certainly not a valid theological argument.
Why would a loving God bring death and destruction upon His followers, those who love Him? We cannot reconcile a loving God acting this way. I believe that Satan is behind this notion of acts of God, perpetrating it to cause people to doubt and disbelieve God. If Satan can convince us either that God is unloving or that we are not loved by God, then Satan has succeeded in injuring our relationship with God, replacing trust in God with doubt. Sadly, many people have swallowed Satan's argument that God is an illogical dictator who turns us into robots and forces us to do things, and if we resist being turned into robots, that God hurts us. Rubbish! We are not puppets in a fantasy where God pulls our strings. God created us with freedom of choice. We bear the responsibility for the outcomes of the choices we make. If I choose to build a house in a flood plain, I will eventually be flooded out. If I choose to settle along the Carolina seacoast, I will have to endure an occasional hurricane. We must bear the responsibility for the outcomes of choices we make. Satan would have us believe that we should not have to bear the consequences of our choices.
I believe that God loves each one of us, and that we should never allow any situation to threaten our faith in God and His deep, abiding love for us. I also believe that we must always recognize that our choices bear consequences and evaluate those choices and potential outcomes before finalizing our decisions.
In Messages to Young People, page 156, Ellen White said: "There are three ways in which the Lord reveals His will to us, to guide us ... God reveals His will to us in His word, the Holy Scriptures. His voice is also revealed in His providential workings; and it will be recognized if we do not separate our souls from Him by walking in our own ways, doing according to our own wills, and following the promptings of an unsanctified heart, until the senses have become so confused that eternal things are not discerned, and the voice of Satan is so disguised that it is accepted as the voice of God. Another way in which God's voice is heard, is through the appeals of His Holy Spirit, making impressions upon the heart which will be wrought out in the character. If you are in doubt upon any subject, you must first consult the scriptures. If you have truly begun the life of faith, you have given yourself to the Lord, to be wholly His, and He has taken you to mold and fashion according to His purpose that you may be a vessel unto Honor. You should have an earnest desire to be pliable in His hands, and to follow whithersoever He may lead you. You are then trusting Him to work out His designs while at the same time you are cooperating with Him by working out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Testimonies, vol. 5, page 512).
God's will is revealed in three ways: (1) through the Scriptures; (2) through providential workings; and (3) through the prompting of the Holy Spirit upon our hearts. Begin with studying the scriptures. Then surrender yourself wholly to God and follow Him.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians (5:15-20, RSV): "Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of God is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and forever giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father."
In this text, Paul tells us to look carefully at how we live our lives, making wise choices and not foolish ones. Foolish choices are contrasted with the will of God. Wise choices include addressing one another in psalms and hymns and giving thanks. Friends, that means attending worship services. The will of God is that we worship him, and not alone but with other humans, "always and forever giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In Testimonies, Volume 4, pages 53 and 54, are these words: "God calls after you again. He seeks to reach you, girded about with selfishness as you are, and covered with the cares of this life. He invites you to withdraw your affections from the world and place them upon heavenly things. In order to know the will of God, you must study it, rather than follow your inclinations and the natural bent of your own mind. "What wilt Thou have me to do?' should be the earnest anxious inquiry of your heart."
Paul wrote in I Thessalonians 4:2-5 (RSV): "For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: That you abstain from unchastity, that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God."
Sanctification is the will of God for us. Does this mean that we are automatically sanctified because that is what God wants for us? No. It is God's desire that we be sanctified, but we have a choice in the matter. Only as we choose daily to follow Christ's teachings do we become sanctified. God wishes that each day we would put aside our love of self and choose to follow Him in loving obedience. The hope of God the Father is that we follow His instructions and allow the Holy Spirit to enter our lives and work within us to make us fit for resurrecting on the last day. This is what the will of God means. It is God's desire, God's hope, God's wish, God's preference, God's intention for us. But in each and every case, it is our choices that determine whether or not we fulfill God's hopes, desires, wishes, preferences for us.
God does not force us, enslave us, or cause us to bend our choices to His way if we do not wish to follow him. God does not say, "I am the boss and you will do what I wish." The actuating influence is not force from God, but love from man. Through love for God we make choices to follow Him.
The children of Israel forgot these lessons. When they chose to worship Baal, God allowed the Babylonians to take them into captivity. Certainly God played a role in that; but only after the children of Israel made certain choices. Recall the ministry of Jeremiah, how the priests and leaders chose paths inconsistent with God's teachings and how the people worshiped strange Gods. Those choices had consequences. Yet in spite of their foolish choices, God still promised to restore a remnant who would faithfully choose to follow God's way while in Babylonian captivity.
The choices we make today about following Christ are determining the state of our sanctification. Our choices are important to our eternal salvation. The choice to follow God's will is in our hands. On each of life's decisions, we ought to ask God to help us understand the outcomes of our options so we can see if they conform to God's desires and wishes for our lives. Pray for understanding and insight. Then pray for courage to make the right choice. Make this sort of prayer a habit. After making choices repeatedly for God's way, doing God's will will become a habit. Good choices will create habits that reshape our physical, spiritual, and emotional lives in God's image. That is God's will for us.
Testimonies, volume 4, page 561 says: "By study of the scriptures and earnest prayer seek to obtain clear conceptions of your duty, and then faithfully perform it. It is essential that you cultivate faithfulness in little things, and in so doing you will acquire habits of integrity in greater responsibilities. The little incidents of everyday life often pass without our notice, but it is these things that shape the character. Every event of life is great for good or for evil. The mind needs to be trained by daily tests, that it may acquire power to stand in any difficult position. In the days of trial and peril you will need to be fortified to stand firmly for the right, independent of every opposing influence."
Friends, our choices determine our response to God's love, our response to God's desires for us, our response to God's will. In all of our daily choices, we need to choose those actions and do them that will draw us closer to God the Father. God's will is that we have sanctification and eternal life. God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins. That wonderful gift was God's choice. The sacrificial gift of His life for our sins was Christ's choice. What is your choice? What will you do in response to God's will for you?
Dr. Richard W. Guldin is the associate head elder at the Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Seventh-day Adventist Church. For the past 15 years, he has supported local pastors with lay preaching in Louisiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania while working as a research forester and administrator with the United States Forest Service.