How I Learned to Canoe

“Can't you find out God's will for you life and stick to it?” After four degrees in a variety of disciplines, five different full-time jobs, and at least two career changes this is probably a valid question to ask me. Is it right that my constantly changing career path is an indication that I have found it difficult to know the will of God for my life? The answer is both yes and no!

Questioning the Tradition

I was brought up in a fairly typical evangelical church where the importance of "being at the centre of God's will" was stressed. It was important to know that the major decisions of life such as career, marriage, calling a minister for the church, etc. were in line with God's will. There was a "right" career, a "right" marriage partner and a "right" minister. Our responsibility was to work out which one was the "right" one! And if we didn't, we could end up doing God's second best.

The issue of knowing God's will was especially important if you wanted to be a missionary. For that you had to know, in a very specific way, that it was God's will - since being a missionary in Africa, was far more important than being a plumber in Glasgow!

This kind of teaching left me unsatisfied feeling and with lots of questions: When was it important to know that you were at the centre of God's will? Was it true that one false move left you with God's second best? How, apart from having a peaceful-cotton-wool-type-feeling in your tummy, or a “quiver in the liver”, would you ever know that any particular decision was God's will?

It has taken me many years to find an alternative that is both consistent and Biblical! There are three key stages which have contributed to the process.


While studying I led a small Christian Union for a couple of years. We had great potential for evangelism, but were limited by our numbers. I decided to organise a joint mission with two other nearby college CU's. We would plan the whole thing together, organise joint pre-mission events, share publicity and speakers, etc.

As you can imagine, it was a major undertaking with the budget running into thousands and many hours of effort needed, but in the end there were very few obvious results. I began to question. Was it the right thing to have done? Was the mission what God wanted, or was it just the result of my own compulsion to organise big events?

I couldn't be sure, but I wanted to know that in future I would only do God’s will, not my own. So I prayed that from now on, with anything new, God would do the initiating. In practice this relied on being prompted by an "outside" source.

It was amazing how things worked out. It seemed that God was faithful in answering my prayer. I left surveying to study law after I was offered unsought sponsorship from my placement firm. Ruth, my wife-to-be, asked me out on our first date! I went on to teach law after a Head of Department at the local polytechnic suggested that I apply for a teaching position.

This seemed to be the answer on guidance, sitting back and letting God get on with everything, but some friends suggested that by operating this way I was being irresponsible. I put all the onus onto God, meaning I could blame him if anything went wrong! There was also an issue of consistency. In some things I would "wait for God to move", but in other things I would take the initiative myself because the decision was “obvious.” Finally, I had the problem of knowing whether someone's "suggestion" was really "from God."

I still did not have the right answer.

Brazillian Discovery

Bizarrely, my attitude was changed by a book I found on the shelves of a missionary in Brazil, "Decision Making and the Will of God: An Alternative Approach.” By Gary Friesen (See book reviews at rear)

Friesen suggests that God's will can be understood in three ways: first, His sovereign will; secondly His moral will; thirdly, His personal will for your life. When people talk about being at the centre of God's will or finding God's will for a specific decision, they are talking about God's personal will. But, according to Friesen, if you look at the Bible you will fail to find any basis for thinking of God's will in this sense, he says that when Scripture talks about God's will it is either referring to His sovereign or moral will.

His basic point is that our responsibility is to make wise decisions that fall within the moral will of God. It's as simple as that. So when it comes to applying for a new job, we need to make sure our decision is wise according to Biblical principles and also that it is in line with what the Bible says about how we are to live. He says the Bible does not tell us to ask whether the new job is God's specific will for my life!

I devoured Friesen's book. And his wisdom-based alternative appeared to make so much sense.

To the ends of the Earth

After four years of teaching law, during which time I had gained promotion, Ruth and I left Scotland and headed for Regent College, a Bible college in Vancouver, Canada.

There was no special revelation from God, and no external event suggesting that we should go to Regent. We couldn't say it was God's specific will for our lives. We simply wanted to more effectively serve God. We had a sense that God had something in store for us - but didn't know what that was. In preparation for that we felt that we should get some theological education and training.

Over time I realised that there was something missing in Friesen's scheme. Surely our (living and dynamic) relationship with God should effect how we make decisions? God's presence in our lives must have a bearing on the decisions we take. It felt like what was missing was God!

My decisions of God's directions?

The challenge for me was bring together my original notion of letting God make the first move, and Friesen's scheme of wise decision making. But how? Paul Stevens, one of the lecturers at Regent provided a great explanation:

"God does not have a wonderful plan for your life! . . . God has something much better than a wonderful plan for your life, he has a wonderful purpose. The difference between a plan and purpose, is like the difference between following a route on a road map and canoeing down a fast flowing river."

When you follow a road map, you need to follow every turn precisely, one wrong turn and you’re lost, you may even have to start all over again. There is no room for error. By contrast, when you’re canoeing down a fast river, the current of the river carries you, but you if you want to reach your destination, you’ve got to canoe with skill and with wisdom, through the rocks and the rapids, following all the twists and turns that the river takes.

The flowing river is a picture of God's activity as he works out his purposes for our lives, and we need to be attentive to what God is doing in our lives. The canoeing is a picture of our activity - living and making decisions with Biblical wisdom and according to the gifts and abilities that God has given us.

Both of these elements need to be held together. After the failure of the CU mission I think I threw away my paddle, sat in the canoe and hoped that the river would take me where I was supposed to go. I needed to do some wise canoeing. But on the other hand, we cannot canoe wisely without considering the flow of the river.

I can't say that God has dictated each of the career choices that I made, but as I reflect on all that has happened, the flow of God's purpose in my life is clearly evident. The river has taken many different turns. There have been rocks to avoid and rapids to get past. But I know that the purpose of God has been flowing in my life (see Rom 8:28-29).

Working Models

Finally some guidelines about decision making in relation to work:

 *Get God's will in perspective. If you are willing, God is able to use you in whatever job you are doing. Remember that God is more concerned with how you are living and working, than with where you are living and working! How will your decision affect your ability to serve God in your work?

 *Think about the passions and desires that God has given you and how God has "wired" you. What are the things that motivate you? What do you find real pleasure in doing? You may have the heart of a craftsman, or a teacher, or an entrepreneur, or a carer. Being able to truly express who we are in our job is far more important than the salary or status associated with the job we are doing, or thinking about doing.

 *Stand back and prayerfully reflect on what God has been doing in your life. Often the experiences of the past can help us make decisions about the future. What has God been teaching you? What has God been showing you? Where has the flow of God's purposes in your life led you so far? Then ask how your work fits in to God's purpose in your life.

 *Be aware of the gifts and abilities that God has given you, and think through how you can effectively use them to glorify Him. Remember that you are a steward of your gifts and abilities.

 *Be open to what God wants to do in your life and be prepared to take some risks. Knowing that we are loved by God simply because of His grace and not our achievements or productivity should release us from simply going along with the accepted flow of our workplace culture.

Article by Mark McConnell - first published in Workwise magazine by LICC and UCCF