Trusting God with your life is one thing; submitting to his will is another. First of all, how can we know his will? And what if it’s different from our own? Adolescents—even those who’ve been lifelong followers of Jesus—are asking such questions often. They need to hear that submitting to God isn’t an act of weakness; instead, it strengthens us to become the people God intends us to be.
The great 19th-century Scottish author and pastor George McDonald wrote:
The kingdom of heaven is not come even when God’s will is our law: it is come when God’s will is our will. While God’s will is our law, we are but a kind of noble slaves; when his will is our will, we are free children” (From David Elginbrod).
God’s will is often a mystery, and often in competition with a menu of choices and inclinations and desires that are hard to sort out. The key to his will, says Jesus, is to “remain” or “abide” in him. He spells it out in John 15:
…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!”
As we abide in him, like a dying branch grafted into a life-giving vine, we not only find his life coursing through us, but his desires become our desires.
The movie Inception features dreams within dreams, with layers upon layers of reality. The “dreamers” in the movie have one experience inside a dream, while outside the dream another reality is occurring. (For a snippet from the film that sets the stage for this dream-within-a-dream idea, go here).
Likewise, we experience everyday life here on earth, but there’s another deeper level of reality. God is there, behind the scenes, orchestrating a much bigger story—and our lives are part of it, though we can’t always see it clearly.
By reading Scripture, young people can see amazing, powerful ways that God worked long ago. For the most part, though, that’s not what our experience is like. It can be tempting to look at amazing biblical events and think: That doesn’t match up with how I’ve experienced in life. I don’t hear directly from God or see miracles. What gives?
In the story of Esther, we step into a world that’s a lot like our experience. Esther and Mordecai don’t experience any miracles or hear any booming voices from heaven. In fact, God isn’t directly mentioned in the entire book! These are just two human beings trying to seek out God’s will and faithfully play their part in his big story.
Esther and Mordecai are part of a community of Jews who were living in a pagan land (Persia). Esther knows she’ll be risking her life if she takes action (Esther 4:11), but Mordecai thinks God may be at work behind the scenes with a plan to move through Esther in a powerfully redemptive way (Esther 4:14). After prayer and fasting, Esther takes action. Ultimately, her life is spared, as are the lives of the Jewish people; Haman and his family are executed for his treachery.
Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said,
What can be seen on earth indicates neither the total absence, nor the manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a hidden God. Everything bears this stamp.”
And Paul, in I Corinthians 13:12, says:
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”
In this life, we can’t fully see or comprehend the true reality going on behind the scenes—but it’s there. At times God may seem somewhat hidden to us, but he’s real! Like Esther and Mordecai, we do our best to seek God and follow his will as we play our part in his big story.
In Acts, the Apostle Paul faces a choice between freedom and lengthy imprisonment. Paul, a Roman citizen, knows how the system works. So why in the world does he appeal to Caesar rather than get himself freed? Something happens during Paul’s imprisonment that gives us a clue:
That night the Lord appeared to Paul and said,
Be encouraged, Paul. Just as you have been a witness to me here in Jerusalem, you must preach the Good News in Rome as well” (Acts 23:11).
A study of the gospels and Acts reveals many parallels between Paul’s and Jesus’ trials:
- They’re both passed on from the Jewish High Council to the Roman government (Matthew 26-27 and Acts 23-25).
- There’s a Jewish plot to kill both Jesus (Matthew 26:4) and Paul (Acts 23:12).
- Both have strange conversations before a Roman authority—Jesus with Pilate (John 18) and Paul before king Agrippa (Acts 25-26).
- This is Luke’s way of demonstrating Paul’s discipleship—Paul is honored to share in Christ-like suffering.
There’s one more key similarity between Paul and Jesus: both submitting to God’s will.
Jesus knew he was going to suffer terribly on the cross, but he submitted his will to God the Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed:
Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42).
Similarly, Paul had an opportunity “get out of jail free” but he didn’t take it. Jesus had told Paul he’d take the gospel to Rome, so Paul did what it would take to get there. Paul put his self-preservation instinct aside and chose instead to submit himself to God’s will.
Submit means “to give over or yield to the power or authority of another.” That’s not easy, especially for young people yearning for independence and freedom. But knowing that God’s will is perfect—and that he has only the best in store for us—allows Jesus followers to follow his lead and submit to the Father.
Jesus died on the cross because it was the only way to save humanity. All people have broken God’s law. Jesus, who lived a perfect life, was willing to die in our place, breaking the curse of sin and death.
Jesus denied himself and took up his cross. He know what was happening on Maundy Thursday but still took time to pray about it. Jesus tells his Father, “Not what I will, but what you will.” This is a picture of what denying self means. Jesus is showing us what doing God’s will means—he had a choice of giving in to the extreme emotions he was feeling, or doing what his Father asked him to do.
Living out God’s will doesn’t come naturally. It requires continuous “re-attachment” to Jesus, remaining in him as he remains in us (John 17). But in Christ not only do we have an example, we also have the gift of his presence within us to help us.