Ed Underwood leads Church of the Open Door in Southern California. His blog, edunderwood.com, focuses on radical faith and radical hope in Jesus Christ. He is passionate about authentic leadership, community, discipleship and practical Bible teaching. “My mission,” he says, “is to help you walk with Jesus with more passion, live for Him with greater confidence and give your life away to Him and others with extraordinary joy.” Ed has written three books: When God Breaks Your Heart: Choosing Hope in the Midst of Faith-Shattering Circumstances, Reborn to Be Wild: Reviving Our Radical Pursuit of Jesus and the recently released The Trail: A Tale about Discovering God’s Will.
KW: Based on your many years of leadership and discipleship, what have you learned about God’s will?
EU: I’ve learned that discerning God’s will has everything to do with relationship with God and nothing to do with formulas or performance. The one constant in the lives of those who live with confidence that they are in God’s will and also experience Him showing up in their lives in tangible ways is that they qualify as those Jesus would call His friends in John 15:5; they are deeply in love with Him and trust Him enough to do what He says. They are people who get it—that the largest blessing of being in Christ is a deep and abiding friendship with the Son of God.
KW: How did you discern the 8 principles for finding God’s will that you present in The Trail?
EU: I’ve been teaching expositionally for over 30 years. By expositional I mean going through the books of the Bible verse-by-verse. As I’ve been studying through these books I noticed a pattern. Often a verse that I thought I was familiar with, even a verse that I had memorized and used in discipleship, was actually a verse or a passage teaching us how to determine God’s will for our lives. One prime example would be Romans 12:1-2, those believers who respond to God’s mercy by giving Him their lives will know His good and perfect will.
As the pattern developed I set aside a folder in my files marked “God’s Will.” Eventually I was able to categorize these verses and passages under eight principles. From that folder I developed a series on how to discover God’s will. I’ve taught the principles for years, in churches, at conferences, and in Bible Schools, Colleges, and Universities. It’s one of those series that people respond to dramatically and positively. I get responses like, “I never understood how to discover God’s will before.” So, I wrote a book presenting the eight principles, but decided to write a different book that stories the principles. Hence, The Trail.
KW: What’s the biggest misconception people have about God’s will?
EU: The biggest and most damaging misconception people have about God’s will is that discerning it is possible through some formula that they must get right. This saddens me because I’ve seen so many sincere believers over the years make some of the most ill-advised decisions because they have fallen victim to formula-Christianity. That is, some weirdo has taught them, “If you do this, then God will tell you exactly what to do.”
KW: Along those lines, are there common ways as Christians we miscommunicate when teaching others about God’s will and divine guidance?
EU: Apart from the formula-Christianity I just talked about, the second most common mistake comes from performance-driven Christianity. This is the teaching that if you perform for Jesus, then He has to help you in whatever way you demand. It isn’t about a sovereign and loving God guiding you and caring for you, it’s about you being good enough so that God has to do what you want Him to do. And, since Jesus refuses to be tamed, these people inevitably throw up their hands and conclude that God doesn’t guide His people.
KW: In what ways do we often get God’s will wrong?
EU: One way that we’re all susceptible to is to manipulate our thinking so that we conclude that what we want is God’s will. One example I’ve seen over the years is people moving to a new place. They are absolutely certain that it’s God’s will for them to move to a better climate, a less-expensive area, or to their dream geographical location. But, when we consider what God says about our lives and especially what the Bible teaches about community and the guidance that He provides through discipleship and spiritually mature people speaking into our lives, they have totally missed the way God could guide them. It could very well be that God wants them to move, but when they leave community out of it, they are living unprotected by one of God’s primary provisions for us as believers.
KW: Why did you decide to write the book as an allegory?
EU: The primary reason is the power of story. I know that in my own life I remember stories far better than principles. This story thing must be special because it’s the way the Lord Jesus chose to teach. You never read of Jesus saying, “Okay, disciples. Sit down and I’m going to teach you the three reasons you should read the Old Testament.” Story is life, and Christianity is life.
The other reason is that it intrigued me. I have been messing around with writing fiction for years. I had about six chapters of fiction finished on a book I was writing for young men based upon my experiences as a wildland firefighter.
Finally, I’ve often led a group of Christians on the same trek Sam takes the couple on in The Trail. It’s provided some awesome opportunities for mentoring because up there, in the high country, because they’ve been dependent upon me in ways that have given me access to their lives. I’ve just seen the Spirit work of there because, as Sam says repeatedly in the book, “The high country humbles a person.”
KW: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone struggling to find God’s will?
EU: Begin with deepening your relationship with God. Those believers who are intimate with Christ are the ones who will recognize His guidance when it comes. And, with my view of spiritual maturity, this will have everything to do with not only knowing God’s Word but also living in community. One of the constant threads of advice in the Scripture when it comes to discovering God’s will is to relate deeply not only to Christ, but also to His people.
KW: What is your hope for those who would read this book?
EU: My primary hope is that the reader would begin to live expectantly. By that I mean that they would anticipate the God of the universe showing up in their lives in ways that the Scriptures tell us to expect Him to guide. A secondary hope would be that this little book would protect readers from the dangers and disappointments of formula Christianity. And, of course as it is with all of my books, I’m praying that this allegory will draw readers into deeper relationship with our Lord Jesus.