For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
“What is God’s will for me in my life?”
Such a question, or a permutation thereof, is on the minds, hearts, and tongues of many sincere Christians. They, as we all, live in a world full of choices. When confronted with all sorts of options, especially about major life decisions like where to pursue education and of what type, where to live, whom to marry and when, when and of what kind of family they should have, and so on, many become afraid that the decision made is not God’s will and that God actually had a better alternative in mind.
It is good to want to seek the Lord’s will in all that is done (Colossians 3:17). We can find examples in the Old Testament of people who sought YHWH’s counsel about specific situations and received specific answers (e.g. 1 Samuel 9:1-21, 23:1-13). It would be easy to see such examples and therefore feel that God has a specific plan for each one of us in terms of our specific decisions and we therefore must pray very hard and often so as to ascertain that specific will.
Yet we do well to notice a distinct difference in communication between then and now: men like David and the prophets received direct and specific answers. God has specifically communicated to us in His Son through the Word found in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3, Jude 1:3); His communication today is manifest in more subtle ways. If a particular path is absolutely not the Lord’s will, a person will be forbidden it, like Paul going into the hinterland of Anatolia (Acts 16:6-7), or warned off of it, or hindered from it in some way. If a particular life choice is a transgression of God’s will, we can know that in advance because it will be in violation of a command of God as revealed in Scripture (1 John 3:4).
In truth God is not playing games with His people in terms of understanding His will; He is not watching from heaven expecting people to guess which path He has in mind for them and laugh when they choose wrongly. The will of God for us is the same will He had for the Thessalonians: our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3)!
In context Paul is reminding and exhorting the Christians of Thessalonica to continue to pursue the way of Christ and to do so more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). He warns them specifically about the danger of porneia, translated as “fornication” in the ASV, “sexual immorality” or just “immorality” in other translations, and best understood as “sexually deviant behavior.” Porneia literally means “that which involves a porne,” and a porne is a prostitute; in the ancient Greek and Roman world it was commonplace for men to cavort with prostitutes and female companions. Such behavior is entirely contrary to the practice of holiness; in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul explains why theologically, and here in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 he does so in terms of using the body in holy, clean, and honorable ways, and to not wrong a fellow Christian in these ways by committing adultery with them or with their spouses.
This specific exhortation is no less relevant to life in 21st century America: we live in a land saturated with sexual sin and we all do well to give attention to our sanctification, possessing our own vessel in sanctification and honor, and not in lustful passions (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5). Yet the general principle of God’s will as our sanctification also has much to commend it in terms of the life decisions we make.
God has given everyone gifts or talents; some have more than others, some are quite general and some quite specific, yet all have value (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). God expects believers to use those gifts and talents to advance His purposes to His glory and honor, illustrated in Matthew 25:14-30; Peter exhorts Christians to use their gifts to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace (1 Peter 4:10-11). Therefore, God wills for us to live holy lives, which is the definition of sanctification, and He expects us to use all He gives us to His glory and honor, serving one another.
So will God speak to us in a dream and tell us exactly where we should go, whom we should marry, what we should do in our lives, and so on? By no means; God did not provide that specific level of counsel for most everyone even in Biblical times. Instead, God expects for us to make those decisions unto our sanctification and so as to glorify His name. Should a person live in place X or place Y? It is better to consider where sanctification and God’s glory can best be pursued, and ascertain how to live a sanctified life and glorify God while living in place X or Y. Should a person pick career path X or Y? It is better to ascertain where the person’s skills reside so as to best honor and glorify God in their career, how they can pursue sanctification while working in that career, and how they can reflect God in that career. Should a man marry woman X or woman Y, or should a woman marry man X or man Y? It is better to ascertain which person will pursue sanctification themselves and help their spouse pursue sanctification and whether the person wants to glorify and honor God in their life, marriage, and family. In every such circumstance the questions we should ask are not about whether x or y is God’s will, but how we could best pursue sanctification and glorify God in x or y situation. If we can perceive one situation to allow us to pursue sanctification and God’s glory more effectively than another, our decision has been made easier. If we can perceive that we can pursue sanctification and God’s glory in multiple situations, then we should pray for God’s wisdom and make a decision (James 1:5), always knowing that it is better to focus on how to pursue sanctification and God’s glory in our situation than it is to wonder if our situation is the best decision we could make. In the end, pursuing sanctification and God’s glory is always the best decision.
God’s will is for our sanctification. He wants us to live holy lives glorifying Him in all we do. We are called upon to make decisions in light of those imperatives. We will stand before God on the judgment day for those decisions, but God’s concern will be much more about whether and how we pursued sanctification and His glory in our circumstances than the process by which we found ourselves in those circumstances (Romans 14:12). Let us pursue holiness and God’s glory in all of our decisions, and trust that our decisions go well when sanctification and God’s glory are at their center!
Ethan R. Longhenry