Knowing God’s will is something we all struggle with. But I think we too often approach the problem from the wrong end. We want to know the final will of God—or at least the will of God far enough down that we know a major route to take. We want to know if God wants us to be history majors or theology majors. We want to know the big picture of God’s will. Is it God’s will for me to spend my life as a pastor? Is it God’s will for me to spend my life in business? Is it God’s will for me to marry and raise a family? However, we get so wrapped up thinking of these questions as being so important we forget to discern God’s will in the moment by moment. Far more important than these is knowing God’s will now, here, where I stand, in the situation I currently face. I need to know if obedience requires me to go right or left, hand out or withhold, speak or remain silent.
I have over the last couple months developed a practice which I now look forward to each week. I take Monday morning as a special quiet time with God. I get up, do whatever correspondence from the night before needs done, check some quick news, then shower, dress and get away to a quiet place. I take my bible and good Christian devotional books and nothing else—no phone, no computer. During that time (usually about two hours) only God is permitted to speak with me. He can speak directly to my heart, through his Word, or through the writings of good Christian authors. I allow no interruptions, even from myself. This gives God a chance to speak to issues and allows me to get my focus back where it belongs as I start each week.
Yesterday was my special time with God. After some prayer, I was reading the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This left me a strong impression about the moment by moment will of God. Allow me to explain. Why was Jesus at the well? Was he there because he expected to meet this woman and minister to her? No. The passage tells us that, while his disciples went into the town to purchase food (John 4:8), Jesus sat by the well because he was tired from the journey (John 4:6). Jesus was not there for a known appointment. He was not there because he knew someone in need was coming. Jesus sat there resting, because he was tired. Likely he assumed, because it was not the early morning hour when people would usually come to the well, that he would not be disturbed and could find some quiet rest. That is his situation. While there a woman came to him and he took the opportunity to speak with her. At the end of the conversation (which I’ll speak about another time), Jesus spoke to his disciples, who had returned, telling them that the conversation with the woman was the Father’s will and as such was his assigned work (John 4:34).
This means Jesus was simply looking for a time of peace and rest, but recognized in the moment that God had another plan. He saw a need and responded to it. How did he know this was God’s will? Nothing in the passage says exactly, but there is a way for us to know. Jesus knew it was God’s will for two reasons: God had given him the opportunity to help this woman, and the ability to help her. Since God had allowed this woman into his presence and since he had the ability to help her, he knew exactly what God wanted him to do. God’s will was obvious. All he had to do was accept it as such, and obey.
In the same way, we might know moment by moment God’s specific will for us. Often, we find ourselves in situations and wonder if God would have us help. Should we give money to this person? Should we feed that person? Learning from Jesus’ experience with this woman can help us understand exactly what God would have us do.
We see two criteria in knowing God’s will for us to help or not: opportunity and ability. By opportunity I mean the place where we are currently standing or our proximity to the person in need. I see you in need, because I see you. I do not have to wonder if you exist somewhere. Neither do I need to find you. For example, a person walks up to you with his or her hand out asking for change. The only question to ask is “Should I help this person?” It would be silly, in such a situation, to ask, “God is there someone, somewhere you want me to help?” There is a person standing in front of you—the opportunity to help someone is there. This is also a very different question from whether God wants us to seek out and help those we have never met. Does God want me to seek out the poor and help them? This is a question of calling, not one of God’s will for this moment. The only thing to discern, at the moment, is whether God has placed this person in your path to give you the opportunity to help. This is known by the second criteria.
The second criteria for knowing God’s will is ability. Has God given you the ability to help this person? If we look back at our example of the individual coming asking for our pocket change, we have the opportunity to help (the person is in our presence), but do we have the ability? In other words, do we have what they need? Do we have any change to give them? There are three parts to this answer. The first part is whether I have any change, whatsoever. If I have no change (many people carry no change or cash, but only credit cards), and have no reasonable way to get some, then can I help them? If I am just unable to help them (for whatever reason) then it must not be God’s will for me to do so. Had he wanted us to help them, he would have given the ability along with the opportunity. I mentioned there were three parts to this answer of ability. While I may not have what the individual needs upon my person, I may be able to secure it for them. Let’s look back at the person asking for change. Suppose I have no change, but have a $20 bill. Perhaps I can step into a store, make change and give some to the person asking. Here I have the opportunity and the ability. We have not addressed whether this means I must do so yet. That will come later. However, we must admit we could help them. The third part of this answer is a bit more finely tuned. Imagine I am walking in downtown San Antonio (where I currently live) and a person asks me for a quarter. Suppose all the money I have on me is one quarter. I have the opportunity and the ability to help. However, what if this happens while I am running to my car to put my last quarter in the meter to keep it from getting ticketed, booted or towed. Do I really have the ability to help that person? No. I don’t.
So, when discovering the answer to the second question (Do I have the ability to help?), we must know if we can reasonably help that person. Yes, there may be times when we should go way beyond reasonable means to help one in need. However, this is an example of going beyond one’s duty. Such actions are praise worthy and bring much blessing, but they are not morally obligatory (that is what makes them praise worthy).
I know it is God’s will for me to help another person when he gives me the opportunity to help and the ability (within reason) to help. If these coincide, then I must help. It is his will for me to do so. Jesus had the opportunity to help this woman at the well, and the ability to do so. He interpreted this as meaning doing so was the will and work of the Father.
Before I end, allow me to show how this works through an illustration that happened to me within an hour of my quiet time. After I had my time, I drove over to check the church building. I wasn’t planning to, but we have a refugee group using our building for worship on Sunday afternoons, and I wanted to go make sure everything had been secured properly. When I arrived, I found a homeless man sleeping on our front porch trying to stay out of the rain. I had an opportunity to help him, but did not yet know how much help I had the ability to offer. I brought him into the church to have coffee and talk. He told me he was a veteran. Two weeks ago, I had met with a group who help homeless veterans. They have shelter in place for them and get them into the system to for permanent housing. So, I knew I had the ability to help, but still needed to know the reasonable way to do so. If I called the organization, they would send a driver to come and fetch the man. However, part of the reason I almost didn’t come to the church was because I was going to visit a friend on the East Side of town. It would have been quicker to take the southern route around downtown from my house, but since I needed to check the church I decided to go the other way. Well, this meant that on the way to visit that friend, I would be passing right by the organization this man needed. Obviously, God had set up a divine appointment for me to drive this man to the very place where he could get exactly what he needed. I had the opportunity and the reasonable ability to help this man. It was God’s will for me to do so. There was not need to do anything else, but obey and thank God for allowing me to serve him by serving this homeless man.
I don’t share this story to brag, or make you think I am somehow “holier than thou.” I share it to show that more often than not, the will of God in a situation is very obvious. We may wish it was less obvious because we do not want to help. But if God has given you the opportunity to help, and the reasonable ability to do so, how can refusal not be disobedience?
Now, some will say, “Yes, but what about…” and list all kinds of situations. One commonly asked is, “Well, what if the person asks for money, and they plan to use it for drugs? Or alcohol?” Actually, this is answered already. I said that you must have the opportunity and ability to help. If you know the person plans to do that with the money, then giving it would not be helping, but hurting. However, this is more often an excuse not to help than an actual reason. How do you know what the person will actually do once they are out of your sight? You can make assumptions. But you can assume wrong. Years ago, when I lived in Ashland, Montana, an Indian man I knew, met me outside the grocery store and asked for $20. I was just leaving and had to get somewhere. It looked like he was about to walk in the store, so it was reasonable for me to assume he was getting food with the money. I pulled out a $20 bill and handed it to him (I had opportunity and ability). He thanked me, turned on his heels and ran across the street into a local bar. How did I respond? I simply prayed, “What I gave him was given to you God. He is responsible for how he chooses to use what is yours.” I went on about my day. I made a reasonable inference, and it was wrong. I gave it no more thought. Had I not been in a hurry, I probably would have taken him in the store and bought him food, but because of my schedule I did not have the opportunity.
If I know the person is going to harm themselves with what they request, then I would not give it. But often we use this as an excuse to refuse help. I’ve met homeless people who do not smoke, drink or do drugs. Yet, people look at them and assume any money they give will go into a bottle or a needle. Why? Because this assumption gets them off the hook to help. If you think they will drink up the help you give, can you help another way? Have you considered other ways to help, or simply refuse without any further thought because of how the person looks to you? If you do that, then you are deciding if the person is worth helping. It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t do that with you, when you needed salvation.
 This desire to know what God’s will is for our whole future is often misguided. When we struggle with this, we are often doing so because of fear. We fear spending the next twenty years doing something only to discover we have missed God’s will and will not be blessed. We fear that if this happens too late in life we will find our lives have been wasted and we will never be able to return and do the will of God. Doing this, we fear, means going our whole life without the full blessings of God. When we realize this, it is easy to see this desire to “know God’s will” is really a desire to know the future (What career or life direction will God bless in the future?). It is little different from a Christian version of going to a psychic for career advice. God can and will make his calling for your life known. There is no need to struggle with it.
 I use the term Indian here, instead of Native American, because the former is the term this man himself would have used. The latter term is an innovation seldom used on the reservations, in my experience. They referred to themselves as “Indians.”