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How can I know God’s will? That generic question takes shape in a host of intimidating choices God’s people face.

What if we could just flip a coin, draw straws, or roll dice and do whatever the object indicated? Didn’t people in the Bible do something like that sometimes? But before we cast off all responsibility for making reasoned decisions, we should try to understand lot casting in Scripture and determine whether it serves as a pattern for our decision-making today. If it doesn’t, is there a better way?

The Question of Casting Lots

In Israel’s early years, God taught His people that “the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Prov. 16:33). He also equipped the high priest with instruments known as the Urim and Thummim (Ex. 28:30; 1 Sam. 14:41; 28:6; Ezra 2:63), something like two stones which were placed in a bag and, as one or the other was drawn out, answered simple “yes” or “no” questions. The casting of lots identified the sacrificial scapegoat (Lev. 16:8), the divisions of the land of Canaan (Josh. 18:6–8), and the tasks of the Levites and musicians (1 Chron. 24:31; 25:8). The practice carried over into the New Testament among both the Jewish religious leaders (Luke 1:9) and Christian disciples; Matthias was chosen by lot to replace the Apostle Judas (Acts 1:26). Conscientious lot casting was an appropriate way of discerning the Lord’s will in unique situations in which existing revelation provided insufficient insight.

So should such methods be used today? There are good reasons why John Piper says, “I think it’s a bad idea, almost always.”1

Lot Casting Has Always Been Unusual

The eighty Old Testament references to the lot represent just a tiny fraction of the decisions Scripture records. The overwhelming majority of decisions have always been made by the practice of wisdom. Godly people never cast lots to make decisions on the many matters about which God had already clearly revealed His will.

Lot Casting Preceded God’s Complete Revelation

With one scriptural exception (Acts 1:26), lot casting was one of the many ways by which God spoke to His people in time past before speaking through His Son (Heb. 1:1–2). And the example of replacing Judas was special—Apostles had to be chosen directly by Jesus.2 Later, God gave the church clear instructions for identifying (1 Tim. 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9) and appointing leaders (Acts 6:1–7). R.C. Sproul argues that by casting lots, “We’re asking God to give us direct, immediate revelation which He gave in sacred Scripture. But when the canon of Scripture was closed we don’t get that kind of supernatural revelation afforded to us today. . . . We’re called to live our lives and to make our decisions on the basis of the teaching of Scripture.”3

Lot Casting Was a Pre-Pentecost Phenomenon

In the Old Testament, the Spirit occasionally helped people fulfill hard callings (Ex. 28:30), make tough decisions, and see beyond their contemporaries (Dan. 5:11, 14). Isaiah prophesied of Christ that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). When Christ ascended into heaven, He poured out “the Spirit of wisdom” (Eph. 1:17) on all believers. Paul can say of Christians, “You yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge” (Rom. 15:14). Those with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) can know the things of God (1 Cor. 2:11) in a way superior to Old Testament believers (2 Peter 1:19).

If used at all, casting lots should be a last resort preceded by prayer and careful thought on a matter not clearly addressed by Scripture, in which any of multiple decisions would honor God. So if we shouldn’t rely on lot casting to make decisions, what can we do?

A Better Way

What follows are seven principles for knowing God’s will. None are as easy as casting lots. But taken together they can help make us able to decide well.

Don’t Pry into God’s Secret Will

The good news is we don’t have to know God’s secrets. Our concern should be His revealed will in which He has shown us how to obey Him (Deut. 29:29). How can this distinction help us? Knowing where you should work is important. But don’t look for a sign in the clouds. You just have to provide for yourself (Eph. 4:28) and others (1 Tim. 5:8) in a way that honors your gifts and opportunities, and the genuine interests of society. “God does not ask more of His child than He makes known as His will.”4

Internalize God’s Word

Instead of using Scripture the way my kids use the “selected answers” section in the back of their math books, we should use it as an exercise regimen that fortifies us to make good decisions. Scripture informs our minds, shapes our hearts, and gives us the experience necessary to make good choices. The normal way of discerning God’s will is by transforming our minds (Rom. 12:1–2; Eph. 5:17). Scripture isn’t like a horoscope for finding easy answers. It is nourishing food that strengthens us to walk the hard path God has prepared for us.

Listen to Godly Counselors

When the believing community matured, deacons could be chosen by a vote rather than by casting lots (Acts 6:1–6; 15:22). The church served as a multitude of counselors in which there is safety (Prov. 11:14). Unless you are a fool (Prov. 12:15), on weighty matters you will seek and carefully consider the input of wise people. Don’t invite others to tyrannize your conscience, but to provide insights that you have accidentally or purposefully missed.

Make Little Decisions Well

Big decisions will terrorize us if we aren’t habituated to wisely making small ones (Luke 16:10). And most of our decisions are mundane. Will I read the Bible and pray today? Will I binge-watch YouTube or get the sleep I need to meet tomorrow’s challenges? Before making a major decision about marriage, you will have made thousands of little decisions about friendship, commitment, and integrity. “A man whose will is set on doing God’s will, as far as he knows it, is alone in the proper state for receiving further Divine illumination.”5

Observe Providence

Because of God’s providence, some aspects of knowing and doing God’s will are contextualized. Didn’t get the scholarship you had hoped for? Some of your college options might need to be eliminated. No good church in the city of your job offer? You should probably turn it down. Providence won’t always tell us what to do, but it can be a factor. Paul was never certain where God would lead him, but he didn’t have to be. The Holy Spirit opened and closed doors (Acts 16:6). Still, we must resist allowing our burning desires or fears to make us misread providence.

Pray for Wisdom

God praised Solomon for seeking godly wisdom (1 Kings 3:5–14). Paul petitioned God to enlighten the eyes of understanding (Eph. 1:18). When we lack wisdom for a particular decision, we should “ask God, who gives generously to all” (James 1:5). Asking for wisdom is not demanding a wet or dry fleece. It is asking for more astute sensitivity to God’s revealed principles, a closer resonance with His heart, and a stronger commitment to His value system.

Trust God

God’s sovereignty assures believers that when we commit to doing His will and make decisions according to His Word, we cannot go wrong. Our decisions will not always be wise. But God will always weave our choices into His good will. God’s grace assures believers that He loves us and will never leave us, no matter our failures. This is why God can command His children not to worry about life’s most basic decisions (Matt. 6:25), and to repent when we fail to trust. Godly decision-making is not easy, but it is simple. Maintain a clear conscience and make decisions that seem to best honor God. Big decisions will, and should, feel weighty. After all, our choices matter. But the Holy Spirit gives us both the wisdom and courage to decide well. Believers are not of those who shrink back but who do God’s will (Heb. 10:36, 39). God’s elect children can make hard decisions trusting that they are as secure in Christ as Christ is in the Trinity.

This article is adapted from Stubborn Prophet, Faithful God.

1John Piper, “What Do You Think of Casting Lots to Determine God’s Will?” (Desiring God, March 23, 2009); https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-do-you-think-of-casting-lots-to-determine-gods-will.

2Kevin DeYoung, “Should Churches Select Elders by Casting Lots?” (The Gospel Coalition, February 11, 2011); https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/should-churches-select-elders-by-casting-lots/.

3R.C. Sproul, “Message 10, Ask R.C. Live” (July 2014); https://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/live-qa-events/ask-rc-live-july-2014/.

4Andrew Murray, God’s Will: Our Dwelling Place (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1991), p. 52.

5Murray, God’s Will, p. 40.