How can I know God’s will? That generic question takes shape with a host of specific questions God’s people face. How long should I live with my parents? Where should I go to college? Should I go to college? Should I change jobs? Should I marry? If so, who? Should I have children? If so, when, and how many? Should I stay where I live or move somewhere else? How can I best care for aging parents? Dozens of other questions make us wonder whether we will do the right thing.
What if we could just flip a coin, or draw straws, or roll a die and do whatever the object indicated? Could it be so simple? After all, people in Scripture seemed to determine God’s will using such methods. Even the heathen sailors said to each other, “‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah” (Jon. 1:7, English Standard Version). There you go! Knowing God’s will is as easy as the flick of the wrist!
But before we cast off all responsibility for making hard, reasoned decisions we should try to understand casting lots in Scripture and determine whether it serves as a pattern for our decision making today. If it doesn’t, is there a better way?
The Question of Casting Lots
The sailors manning Jonah’s getaway boat were desperate to know God’s will. They felt sure that the supernatural storm that threatened the ship was a divine penalty against someone on board. They just didn’t know who. If they knew they might implore the guilty party to make restitution to his god. Perhaps the voyage could be saved. So the sailors cast lots. No one knows exactly what that meant. They might have each drawn sticks out of someone’s hand, having determined that the one who drew the short stick was guilty. Maybe they threw a die; the person with the lowest number lost. Perhaps, as with the biblical Urim and Thummim (see 1 Sam. 28:6 and Ezra 2:63), they placed two stones in a bag, one indicating yes, the other no. Whichever stone each man drew from the bag answered the question, “Is this storm your fault?” Either by common superstition or because they were coming to believe that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33) the sailors were sure they had found their answer.1 Jonah quickly confirmed the lot. “I know that this great tempest is because of me” (Jon. 1:12).
This example of casting lots is one of many in Scripture. In the Old Testament the casting of lots identified the sacrificial scapegoat (Lev. 16:8), the divisions of the land of Canaan (Josh. 18:6–8), and the tasks of the Levites (1 Chron. 24:31) and musicians, to name just a few examples. The practice carried over into the New Testament not only among the Jewish religious leaders (Luke 1:9) but also among believers in Jesus. Matthias was chosen by lot over Joseph to replace Judas as an apostle (Acts 1:26). Lot casting, when done by those trusting in the Lord for results, was an appropriate way of discerning the Lord’s will in unique situations in which existing revelation provided insufficient insight.
This raises the question, “Should such methods be used today?” There are good reasons why John Piper says, “I think it’s a bad idea, almost always.”2
Lot Casting Has Always Been Unusual
The eighty Old Testament references to the lot represent only a tiny fraction of the decisions Scripture records. The overwhelming majority of decisions have always been made by the practice of wisdom. Godly people never cast lots to make decisions on the many matters about which God had already clearly revealed his will.
Lot Casting Was in Lieu of God’s Complete Revelation
With one exception (Acts 1:26), every biblical instance of casting lots comes before God spoke to his people by his Son Jesus. Lot casting was one of the “various ways” in which God spoke to his people in time past. In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1–2). The example of casting lots to replace Judas was a special case. The apostles were “a unique group that had to be chosen directly by the Lord . . . So when the apostles needed one and only one replacement for Judas, and they had two to choose from, it made sense that lots would determine the selection.”3 After choosing Matthias by lot God gave the church specific instructions for identifying (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9) and appointing leaders (Acts 6:1–7). R. C. Sproul argued that by casting lots “we’re asking God to give us direct, immediate revelation which he gave in sacred Scripture. But when the canon of Scripture was closed we don’t get that kind of supernatural revelation afforded to us today. . . . We’re called to live our lives and to make our decisions on the basis of the teaching of Scripture.”4
Lot Casting Was a Pre-Pentecost Phenomenon
In the Old Testament the Lord occasionally poured out the “Spirit of wisdom” upon people to fulfill hard callings (Ex. 28:3), make tough decisions (Deut. 34:9), and see beyond their contemporaries (Dan. 5:11, 14). Isaiah prophesied of the Christ that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom, and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). When Christ ascended into heaven he poured out “the Spirit of wisdom” (Eph. 1:17) on all believers. Paul can say of Christians, “You also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Rom. 15:14). Those with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) can know the things of God (v. 11) in a way superior to Old Testament believers.
Casting lots should be a last resort preceded by prayer and careful thought on a matter not clearly addressed by Scripture in which any of multiple decisions would honor God. If we can’t rely on lot casting to make decisions, what can we do?
A Better Way
What follows are seven principles for knowing God’s will. None are as simple as casting lots. But taken together they can help make us able to decide well.
Don’t Pry into God’s Secret Will
God doesn’t reveal the entire counsel of his will according to which he works everything (Eph. 1:11). The good news is, you don’t have to know God’s secret will. You need to be concerned about God’s revealed will, the will of his commands, which he has shown “to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). Knowing God’s will doesn’t require breaking a code or seeing beyond time and space. You don’t need to worry about who God has determined you will marry. If you lack the gift of singleness (1 Cor. 7:7–9) you just have to marry in the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39) with a commitment to fulfill your unique marital obligations (Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19). You don’t need to see the name of your future employer written in the clouds; you just have to provide for yourself (Eph. 4:28) and others (1 Tim. 5:8) in a way that honors your gifts and opportunities, and the genuine interests of society. “God does not ask more of His child than He makes known as His will.”5
Internalize God’s Word
Instead of using Scripture as a reference book for finding answers to our specific questions—who should I marry?, for example—we should use it as an exercise regimen that fortifies us to make good decisions. Scripture informs our minds. It shapes our hearts. It gives us the experience necessary to make decisions that we’ve never faced before. Piper reminds us that “the normal way . . . for discerning the will of God is . . . ‘being transformed in the renewal of your mind that you may be able to prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect’” (Rom. 12:1–2; cf. Eph. 5:17).6 Scripture isn’t like a horoscope used to find easy answers. It is nourishing food that strengthens us to walk the hard path God has prepared for us.
Listen to Godly Counselors
When the Christian community came to greater maturity deacons could be chosen by a vote of the church rather than by casting lots (Acts 6:1–6; 15:22). The believers served as a multitude of counselors in which there is safety (Prov. 11:14). Because the believers at Rome were “full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” they were “able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14). “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (Prov. 12:15). Unless you are a fool, on weighty matters you will seek and carefully consider the input of people who love you and who love God. By asking for counsel we aren’t inviting others to tyrannize our consciences but to provide insights that we have accidentally or purposefully missed.
Make Little Decisions Well
Jesus taught this important principle: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10). Big decisions will terrorize us if we aren’t habituated to wisely make small ones. And most of our decisions are not on the level of who should I marry?. They are more like, will I read the Bible and pray today? Will I do my own homework instead of copying from my friend? Will I binge watch YouTube late into the night or get the sleep I need to meet tomorrow’s challenges? Before making a major decision about marriage you will have made thousands of little decisions about friendship, commitment, and integrity. “A man whose will is set on doing God’s will, as far as he knows it, is alone in the proper state for receiving further Divine Illumination.”7
The habit of good decision making requires prizing faithfulness over fulfillment. A selfish pursuit of God’s will only as it pertains to our personal happiness can “infect and enfeeble” our Christianity.8 Ironically, faithfulness usually leads to fulfillment.9
If you aren’t a trust fund kid and didn’t get the academic scholarship you had hoped for, providence might be steering you away from a $200,000 Columbia University education. That’s okay. If you get a dream-job offer in a city that doesn’t have a church in which you could be rooted in the gospel, you should probably turn down the job. Because of God’s unique providential dealings with each of his creatures, some aspects of knowing and doing God’s will are contextualized. Providence won’t always tell us what to do. But it can be a factor. Paul was never certain where God would lead him. But he didn’t have to be. The Holy Spirit opened and closed doors (Acts 16:6). Still, we need to be careful not to misread opened and closed doors. “If God opens the door for you to do something you know is good or necessary, be thankful for the opportunity. But . . . don’t assume that the relative ease or difficulty of a new situation is God’s way of telling you to do one thing or another.”10 Providence must not be hijacked by our burning desires.
Pray for Wisdom
God praised Solomon for seeking godly wisdom (1 Kings 3:5–14). Paul petitioned God to enlighten the eyes of understanding (Eph. 1:18). When we lack wisdom for a particular decision, we should “ask of God, who gives generously to all” (James 1:5). Asking for wisdom is not demanding a wet or dry fleece or a sign in the heavens. It is asking for more astute sensitivity to God’s revealed principles, a closer resonance with his heart, and a stronger commitment to God’s value system. True wisdom, the kind we need to decide well, is a delight in “knowing and loving and doing the Father’s will.” Praying for wisdom means praying “for a great hunger for the will of God” which is satisfied only by doing that will (John 4:32, 34).11
God’s sovereignty assures believers that when we commit to doing his will and make decisions according to his Word, we cannot go wrong. This isn’t to say that our decisions will always be wise. But God will always harmonize our choices with his good will. God’s grace assures believers that he loves us and will never leave us. He unites us with Christ to empower us to do his will. This is why God can command his children not to worry about even the most basic decisions of life (Matt. 6:25) and to repent when we fail to trust.
Godly decision making is not easy, but it is simple. Maintain a clear conscience and make the decision that that seems to best honor God. Don’t worry if big decisions feel scary. If we realize that our choices matter we should expect to not be able to make big decisions lightly. But “God doesn’t take risks, so we can.”12 The Holy Spirit gives us both the wisdom and the courage to make godly decisions. The Spirit helps believers to say, “We are not of those who shrink back” (Heb. 10:39). Because we believe we can do the will of God (v. 36). God’s elect children can make hard decisions trusting God that they are as secure in Christ as Christ is in the Trinity.
1. What questions do you have about God’s will for your life?
2. Summarize the Scripture’s use of lot casting.
3. Why is lot casting usually not appropriate today?
4. How much of God’s will do you need to know?
5. How should believers internalize God’s Word in order to be fortified to decide well?
6. What role do godly counselors play in your decision making?
7. Describe both a right and wrong way of using providence to make decisions.……………………………………………..
1 Brent A. Strawn suggests that the sailors’ casting of lots is evidence of their developing piety and as their way of “participating in the larger theological point of the book of Jonah with regard to the nations.” “Jonah’s Sailors and Their Lot Casting: A Rhetorical-Critical Observation,” Biblica 91 (2010): 74.
2 John Piper, “What Do You Think of Casting Lots to Determine God’s Will?” Desiring God, March 23, 2009, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-do-you-think-of-casting-lots-to-determine-gods-will.
3 Kevin DeYoung, “Should Churches Select Elders by Casting Lots?” The Gospel Coalition, February 11, 2011, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/should-churches-select-elders-by-casting-lots/.
4 R. C. Sproul, “Message 10, Ask R. C. Live,” July 2014, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/live-qa-events/ask-rc-live-july-2014/.
5 Andrew Murray, God’s Will: Our Dwelling Place (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1991), 52.
6 Piper, “What Do You Think.”
7 Murray, God’s Will, 40.
8 Murray, God’s Will, 32. Ironically, “Most of us would be more fulfilled if we didn’t fixate on fulfilment quite so much.” Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 76.
9 DeYoung, Just Do Something, 30.
10 DeYoung, Just Do Something, 76.
11 Murray, God’s Will, 17, 29.
12 DeYoung, Just Do Something, 39.……………………………………………..
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.