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The vision of true success

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Acts 16:6-10

Someone has observed, “Change is good unless it happens.” Well, it has happened. Sociologists say that 90% of all the change in human history has occurred in the last hundred years.

Much has been good. Life expectancy has increased from 46 to 74 years for men, and 48 to 79 for women. Deaths from tuberculosis and pneumonia, once common, are now rare. And in the future, our clothes will electronically monitor our health; appliances will notify repairmen of problems before they occur; we will touch the television screen to order the clothes the actor is wearing.

The future fascinates us. But it frightens us as well.

Will we have to fight terrorism for the next generation? Will conflict in the Middle East ever end? Will your job be phased out? Will your health be good? Will your children turn out well? Your grandchildren?

Our graduates wonder what their future holds. Will you attend the right school? Choose the right major? Develop the right relationships? Will your dreams be fulfilled? What should your dreams be?

My greatest personal fear is that I will not fulfill God’s purpose for my life. You share that fear. The most common question I’m ever asked is this: how can I know the will of God? This was the subject of my first sermon, 26 years ago. I could preach on this nearly every week and never exhaust either the issue or God’s answers.

Where in your life do you most need to know God’s will this morning? Let’s find God’s answer to that question, together.

Does God have a will for your life? (6-8)

First let’s ask, does God have a specific will for your life? Does he really care what we do with our days, our decisions, our problems?

We know that God has a general will for our lives. He wants us to make Christ our Savior, to receive eternal life. He wants us to obey his word, to live by his truth. Not to earn his love, for we have it already, but because his word is the best way to live. Most of us know this already.

But does God’s will extend to the specific issues and decisions we face every day? Does he have a plan for this sermon? For your response to it? For the way you’ll spend the rest of this day? For your day tomorrow? Let’s see.

In verse 6 we find Paul traveling through Asia Minor, returning to the same region where he had established the churches of Galatia during his first missionary journey. But this time the Holy Spirit will not let him evangelize further in the area, or plant new churches; he is “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”

So in verse 7 Paul and his ministry team try to turn to the north and the east, to enter Bithynia on the northern coast of Turkey against the Black Sea, but “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” They have traveled more than 300 miles, most of it on foot, without having opportunity to do what God called them to do. Imagine their confusion.

So in verse 8 they go “down to Troas,” to the sea coast, to this port city ten miles from ancient Troy, where the Trojan War was fought. And here God speaks to them. Here God calls them west to Macedonia and Europe. Here God reveals his will, a plan which would change forever the course of human history, as we’ll see. He had a will for them back in Asia, in Mysia, Bithynia, and now in Troas.

God had a specific will for their lives. He has one for ours.

Jesus summarized his life this way: “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

God has a will for us, and it is “good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). He knows the plans he has for us—plans to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

He wants us to know his will for our lives: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:8); “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it'” (Isaiah 30:21); “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:17).

And God’s will is the best, most satisfying, most joyful way we can live: “Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9-12).

When we live in God’s will, we live as we were meant to live. The most important thing a believer can do is to discover and live in God’s daily will. The only things you and I do which will stand for eternity are those things we do in the will of God. The only things we do which give our lives joy and meaning are those things we do in the will of God.

So, how do we know God’s will?

How do we know God’s will? (9-10)

You and I are created by God in such a way that we experience life in three ways: the intuitive, the pragmatic, and the rational. We know some things to be true because they just feel right, they are true intuitively. Other things we know from pragmatic experience, whether we feel them or truly understand them. I don’t have feelings for a light switch, or understand its electrical wiring, but I know pragmatically that it works. And some things we know rationally and logically, as with math and finance.

God reveals his will to us in all three ways. Watch him do it with Paul.

First, the intuitive. Paul sees a vision, a man of Macedonia calling him to come west with the gospel. God spoke often through visions in the Scriptures: to Abraham, Jacob, Ezekiel, Saul of Tarsus, Peter, John on Patmos. He often speaks to our hearts directly. We simply feel his presence, we sense his direction, we are led intuitively by his Spirit.

Next, the intuitive is accompanied by the pragmatic. Closed doors across Asia, all the way to Troas. It is likely that synagogue rulers wouldn’t let Paul’s team use their synagogues, or city officials their assembly halls. People were closed to the gospel. Perhaps finances were an issue, or health. God often reveals his will through circumstances: results when we serve in certain ways, affirmation from people, finances available to us, open or closed doors.

And the intuitive and pragmatic must have the rational. In this case, before the New Testament, God spoke his word directly to Paul. Now he speaks rationally to us through the Scriptures.

God’s word guides us: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).

His word equips us to do God’s will: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

His word will never change: “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24-25). God will never contradict his word. So, seek his will through his word, and judge everything you sense intuitively or experience pragmatically by his revealed truth.

Now, what is the question you most need answered from God? Where do you most need to know his will?

Go directly to him. Make time to speak to him and to listen to him. He promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

First seek his will rationally in his word. Never contradict his revealed truth. If his word addresses your situation specifically, you don’t need to know more.

Ask him to speak to your spirit intuitively. To do this, confess anything wrong between you and your Father. Ask the Spirit to show you anything you must make right. Worship him; draw close so you can hear his “still small voice.” And listen.

Ask him to guide you pragmatically, through open and closed doors, circumstances and people and opportunities.

And be sure you are in his will today, before you seek his will for tomorrow. Paul had to stay in God’s will in Asia before he could get to Mysia, then in Mysia before Bithynia, then in Troas before he could go to Macedonia. He had to be in God’s will in Philippi before he could go to Thessalonica, or Athens, or Corinth, or Rome. God’s will is first and foremost about here and now, this day. No one in Scripture receives a five-year plan from God. The will of God is a flashlight in the dark, lighting the way from the stone in front of you to the next. And all the way home.

Conclusion

Now let’s apply God’s word to our church. Paul’s Troas experience was crucial to Christian history. From here the gospel would come to Macedonia and on to Europe and Rome, to the Western world. If Paul had turned east, Western history would have been written very differently.

God’s will for our lives is just as crucial for his church today.

We stand in these days before the threshold of the future. What we choose to do personally in response to God’s will for our church will determine our obedience to that will. Our congregation has determined overwhelmingly to enter into the largest capital project in our history. But we will only accomplish God’s vision by the sacrifice of God’s people.

It has forever been this way. God’s will always requires his people. God sent the flood, but he first called Noah to build the ark. God parted the Red Sea, but he first called Moses to raise his staff. God stopped the flooded Jordan River so the Israelites could enter the Promised Land, but he first called them to step into that water.

An elderly saint said it well: “Without God, I can do nothing. Without me, God will do nothing.”

Now God is calling us to step into the river of financial sacrifice.

We cannot accomplish a $35 million project without sacrifice. We must each pray about God’s will for us personally in this matter. We must expect him to ask us to make a sacrifice for his Kingdom and this vision he has entrusted to us. We must sacrifice for the next generation, as the previous generation sacrificed for us.

Will you pray individually and with your family about God’s will in this matter? Will you seek his direction regarding the sacrifice he wants you to make? Search the Scriptures; examine your life circumstances; seek the intuitive leading of his Spirit. And you will know what he would have you to do.

He wants us to know his will even more than we know it. And he stands ready to bless our obedience, for his will is always “good, acceptable, and perfect.” The will of the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Father of the universe is the safest and best place for each of us to be. Go there.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, made his commitment to God in these words: “What you will, when you will, how you will.” A friend of mine said it this way: “God’s will—nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”

Do you agree?