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Can one determine the will of God through prayer?

How does God communicate with humanity?

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A personal note:

The author of this essay is an Agnostic, and thus is uncertain whether a personal God actually exists. Assuming that a deity or deities exist, the author is also unclear whether God actually communicates with believers.

God, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), seems to have gradually lessened his contact with humans. This occurred in stages over the centuries between creation and the first or second century CE, when the Bible was completed. God is described as strolling with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Later, he appeared in the distance as a pillar of smoke or flame. Then he stopped contacting the ancient Hebrews directly, except on special occasions. Finally, God's messages were only conveyed indirectly through prophets.

The author prayed regularly during his childhood and early adolescence, but never felt that he had heard a response of any sort. So, this essay cannot be based on first-hand experience. It will have to describe what others have reported as a result of their prayer life.

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People's reports on how God communicates with them:

The author has seen a number of communication methods by which believers believe that God has respond to their need to know his will. They were described on the Internet, in religious books, in E-mails, and during personal conversations:

bullet Some "actually claim to hear a literal voice." 1 Many teleministers report that they were talking to God or that God spoke to them. But it is not clear whether they are referring to an actual voice or whether they were talking symbolically.

bullet Others do not experience an actual voice, but look for an idea which suddenly pops into their consciousness. They believe that this idea was injected into their mind by God.

bullet Some pray about a problem, and ask God for an answer. Then, they do what is sometimes called a "lucky dip." They open a Bible, and randomly pick a page, chapter, and verse. They then read it, and attempt to interpret the text as a response to their quandary.

bullet Plain Truth Ministries described an incident in which a youth was trying to determine which college he should attend. He entered his academic interests into the Google search engine, and trusted that God would make influence the search engine to make certain that the college he should attend would be the first listing on the first page of hits. 2

bullet A woman in a disintegrating marriage was trying to decide whether to work harder on her marriage, or separate from her husband. She saw an airline billboard which said "Fly Away." She interpreted it as a sign from God that she was to separate.

bullet Some believers actually ask God to provide a sign from nature: a cloud of a specific shape or a certain timing of a shooting star. Gideon in the Bible asked God for a sign from nature.

bullet Some use a divination technique (e.g. laying out Tarot cards, casting runes, reading tea leaves). The Bible has a mixed message concerning this route to determine the will of God:

bullet Genesis 44:5 discusses a silver drinking cup that Joseph used as a divination tool.

bullet Numbers 27:21 and 1 Samuel 28:6 discuss the Urim and Thummim which were two objects that might have been flat stones, that the high priest used as a divination tool.

bullet Daniel 5:11 discusses how Daniel the prophet was employed for many years in Babylon as the chief occultist to the king. He was supervisor "of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers".

However Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:26-26; 19:31; 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Isaiah 8:19 and Malachai 3:5 condemn various techniques of divination.


bullet Some seek the will of God through visions or dreams. Dream in interpretation is mentioned in many books of the Bible, concerning Daniel, Jacob, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar, etc.

bullet Some seek a theophany -- a direct encounter with God, as Moses experienced on Mount Sinai or Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6.

bullet Some seek the opinion of their religious leaders, and accept their ruling.

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Dangers of using these methods to assess the will of God:

One cannot be certain that any of the above methods of assessing the will of God are reliable. We suggest caution:

bullet Is it the voice of God or a hallucination?

bullet Can an idea that pops into your consciousness be from God, or from the person's own hunch, or -- as some Christians believe -- from an evil spirit.

bullet Can a "lucky dip" be a simple coincidence?

bullet Does God really rearrange the results of a Google search as a method of communicating with humans?

bullet Could a "fly away" billboard be simply an advertising program of an airline; could it be a message from God to another person?

bullet Could the shape of a cloud or timing of a shooting star be a mere coincidence?

bullet Do any divinatory techniques really work?

bullet Do visions contain any rational content? Do dreams have meaning?

bullet Might a theophany be a hallucination?

bullet

Seeking a religious leader's opinion might not be particularly useful. There are over 1,000 Christian denominations and para-church organizations in the U.S. alone. They teach a wide range of sometimes conflicting beliefs about the afterlife, apologetics, creation vs. evolution, divorce, eschatology, female ordination, Hell, predestination, the rapture, the book of revelation, salvation, sanctification, eternal security, approaches to war, and many other topics.

One person's truth may be  a second person's heresy. The second person's truth might be the first person's heresy. Neal Griffin writes:

"This is the "zombie" mind-set that led the followers of Jim Jones to the cyanide tub. This is the same mentality that characterized the Branch Davidians. It is a blind willingness to place one's faith in the hands of another. We, in the final moment, will be judged on an individual basis. Justification is a very individual matter. Judgment will be based on the deeds that we have done, and not on the conduct of some cult, movement, institution, or organization." 3

An essay on Plain Truth Ministries' web site comments:

"Methods some Christians use to determine God's will are highly subjective -- arising from the individual's own perception and experience. Such messages are subject to personal interpretation. ....And ironically, in many cases, these perceived messages from God seem to affirm what the individual wanted to do in the first place." 2

Ultimately, faith groups generally base their beliefs on four factors:

  1. What the Scriptures say, as interpreted by the groups' theologians,
  2. What traditions says: the teachings of the faith group and the traditional beliefs of the religion to which it belongs,
  3. People's personal experiences, and
  4. The findings of science.

More conservative faith groups tend to emphasize criteria 1 and 2; more liberal/progressive groups tend to emphasize 3 and 4. This means that agreement is probably impossible.

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Using reason to determine the will of God:

Rather than looking for a magical solution to assess God's will, some Christian web sites suggest that one use reason and study:

bullet Author Bruce Waltke writes: "The New Testament gives no command to 'find God's will,' nor can you find instructions on how to go about finding God's will. There isn't a magic formula offered Christians that will open some mysterious door of wonder, allowing us to get a glimpse of the mind of the Almighty." 4

bullet Plain Truth Ministries suggests: "God expects and directs...[believers] to think, research and seek counsel in order to make wise decisions."
bullet The Word in Life study Bible states: "God has clearly and objectively told us what He wants throughout the Bible. For example, the Ten Commandments give straightforward instructions to guide our behavior in numerous areas of life. Likewise, one of the New Testament letters to the Thessalonians says plainly, 'This is the will of God.' (1 Thessalonians 4:3)." 5

bullet Author George Mueller suggest that one use reason and biblical study to reach a tentative conclusion. If one's mind is at peace with the decision after a number of petitions to God, then he accepts the decision. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- often use this method. Mueller writes: "Through prayer, the study of the Word and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge. If my mind is at peace and continues so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. I have found this method always effective in trivial or important decisions." 6

Unfortunately, reason, prayer to God, and other techniques do not seem to help individuals and faith groups determine the truth on many dozens of different topics. If there were a technique that worked, then all Christian faith groups would converge on a single truth. Roman Catholics, fundamentalists, mainline Protestants, liberal and progressive Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, etc. would all teach the same beliefs. There is no sign of this happening, so it may be that there is no mechanism by which the truth can be determined.

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Related essays:

bullet Divination, magic & occultic activity in the Bible.
bullet A pilot study to determine if people can assess the will of God through prayer.

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The Amazon online bookstore searched for "will of God" and found these books:

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References used:

  1. "Plain Truth Ministries Update" 'God spoke to me!'," mailing list, 2004-OCT-04.
  2. Monte Wolverton, "In Search of God's Will," Plain Truth Ministries, 2004-SEP/OCT, at: http://www.ptm.org/
  3. Neal Griffin, "Can ordinary Christians determine the will of God?," Truth & Freedom Ministry, Inc., (1993), at: http://www.theexaminer.org/
  4. Bruce Waltke, "Finding the Will of God,"
  5. "Word in Life study Bible" , Logos Library System, Thomas Nelson, Inc., (1997). Online at: http://www.fortclark.org/
  6. Quoted in: R. Dwight Hill, "Seven guidelines in helping you determine the will of God," Berean Publishers, New Zealand. It was online at: http://www.bereanpublishers.co.nz/ This appears to be offline.

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Copyright © 2004 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2004-OCT-05
Latest update: 2010-DEC-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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