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No secret plan: Why you don’t have to ‘find’ God’s will for your life

A large strand of contemporary evangelical theology—what I call the "new evangelical theology"—emphasizes the need to "find God's will for your life." This challenge turns out to be a terrific source of anxiety for the students I encounter. They're young, which means they have a lot of life ahead of them and a lot of big decisions to make. When they hear about the importance of "finding God's will for your life," they conclude that it's not enough to learn how to make good decisions about what career to pursue or whom to marry. On top of all that, you have to figure out whether this is exactly the decision God has in mind for you. And how do you figure that out?

The will of God is an important biblical concept, but it turns out that what my evangelical students are trying to find is something different. The commandments and promises of God, in which he tells us what he wants us to do and believe, are easy to find: they're right there in the Bible. But that's not what my students are looking for. They have something else in mind when they refer to "God's will," though it's not easy to say what. And it's certainly not easy to find. Given all the effort it takes to find it, it must be awfully easy to miss.

And that's where the anxieties come in. The way my students talk about it, God's will is out there waiting to be found, like the one person they're convinced God has picked for them to marry. But how do you know where to look? And how do you know when you've found it? (The "how do you know?" questions, with their accompanying anxieties, are a sign that something's gone wrong.) What happens if you mistake the will of God and don't marry "the one" that God has chosen for you? (Do you wonder why evangelical Christians have as high a divorce rate as everyone else?) Or what happens if you only get God's "second best" will for your life? (Do you wonder why "disappointment with God" is so common among evangelicals?) A whole boatload of anxieties is tied up with this notion of "finding God's will."