Often when Christian speak of "God's plan" they actually say, "God's will." The two phrases mean the same thing.
"I will instruct you..."
In my experience, prayer is always answered along the pathway of God's will. Few people disagree, but the challenge is knowing how to determine God's will. I have shared the thoughts below—particularly the four steps of George Müller—with others and have found them to work. They have helped me immensely as well.
Psalm 32: 8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.”
Proverbs 3:6: “In all you ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”
“The man who lives only for God’s will may depend upon it that God takes Him for his reckoning. This surrender will lead us deeper into the consciousness of our utter impotence, but also deeper into the fellowship and the likeness of the beloved Son, and make us partakers of all the blessedness and love that the Son has prepared for us. There is nothing that will bring us closer to God in union with Christ than loving and keeping and doing the will of God.” Murray, Andrew, Like Christ
“I seek at the beginning to get my heart in such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is.
Having done this, I do not leave the result to feeling or simple impression. If so, I make myself liable to great delusions.
I seek the will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also. If the Holy Spirit guides us at all, He will do it according to the Scriptures and never contrary to them.
Next I take into account providential circumstances. These often plainly indicate God’s will in connection with His Word and Spirit.
I ask God in prayer to reveal His will to me aright.
This calmness of mind, this having no will of my own in the matter, this only wishing to please my Heavenly Father in it, this only seeking His and not my honor in it, this state of heart, I say is the fullest assurance to me that my heart is not under a fleshly excitement, and that, if helped thus to go on, I shall know the will of God to the full.” Roger Steer, The Spiritual Secrets of George Müller (OMF Books: Robesonia, PA, 1987), pp 40, 41 (www.omf.org)
“Many children of God are so deeply exercised on the matter of guidance that it may be helpful to give a few suggestions as to knowing the way in which our Father would have us walk, and the work He would have us do. The importance of the subject cannot be exaggerated; so much of our power and peace consists in knowing where God would have us be, and in being just there.
The manna only falls where the cloudy pillar broods. If we are precisely where our heavenly Father would have us be, we can be perfectly sure He will provide food and raiment, and everything beside.
How much of our Christian work has been abortive because we have persisted in initiating it for ourselves, instead of ascertaining what God was doing and where He required of our presence? We dream bright dreams of success. We try to command it. We call to our aid all kinds of expedients, questionable or otherwise. At last we turn back, disheartened and ashamed, like children who are torn and scratched by the brambles, and soiled by the quagmire. None of this had come about if only we had been, from the first, under God’s unerring guidance. He might test us, but He could not allow us to mistake.
There are certain practical directions which we must attend in order that we may be led into the mind of the Lord.
I.—Our Motives Must be Pure.
“When thine eye is single, thy whole body is also full of light.” (Luke 11: 34) So long as there is some thought of personal advantage, some idea of acquiring the praise and commendation of men, some aim at self-aggrandizement, it will be simply impossible to find out God’s purpose concerning us.
II.—Our Will Must be Surrendered.
“My judgment is just; because I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” (John 5: 30) This was the secret which Jesus not only practiced, but taught. In one form or another He was constantly insisting on a surrendered will, as the key to perfect knowledge. “If any man will do His will, he shall know.”
It is for the lack of this subordination that we so often miss the guidance we seek. There is a secret controversy between our will and God’s. And we shall never be right till we have let Him take, and break, and make. Oh! Do seek for that. If you cannot give, let Him take. If you are not willing, confess that you are willing to be made willing.
III.—We Must Seek Information for our Mind.
It is of the greatest importance that we should feed our minds with facts, with reliable information, with the results of human experience, and (above all) with the teachings of the Word of God. Notice how full the Bible is of biography and history, so that there is hardly a single crisis in our lives that may not be matched from those wondrous pages. There is no book like the Bible for casting a light on the dark landings of human life.
We have no need or right to run hither and thither to ask our friends what we ought to do; but there is no harm in our taking pains to gather all reliable information, on which the flame of holy thought and consecrated purpose may feed and grow strong. For the most part God will speak in the results of deliberate consideration, weighing and balancing the pros and cons.
IV.—We Must be Much in Prayer for Guidance.
The Psalms are full of earnest pleadings for clear direction: “Show me Thy way, Oh Lord, lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies.” It is the law of our Father’s house that His children shall ask for what they want. “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.”
One good form of prayer at such a juncture is to ask that doors may be shut, that the way be closed, and that all enterprises which are not according to God’s will may be arrested at their very beginning. Put the matter absolutely into God’s hands from the outset, and He will not fail to shatter the project and defeat the aim which is not according to His holy will.
V.—We Must Wait for the Gradual Unfolding of God’s Plan in Providence.
God’s impressions within and His word without are always corroborated by His Providence around, and we should quietly wait until these three focus into one point.
Sometimes it looks as if we are bound to act. Everyone says we must do something; and, indeed, things seem to have reached so desperate a pitch that we must.. Behind are the Egyptians; right and left are inaccessible precipices; before is the sea. It is not easy at such times to stand still and see the salvation of God; but we must.
Sometimes men sigh for an angel to come to point them their way; that simply indicates that as yet the time has not come for them to move. If you do not know what you ought to do, stand still until you do. And when the time comes for action, circumstances, like glowworms, will sparkle along your path; and you will become so sure that you are right, when God’s three witnesses concur, that you could not be more sure though an angel beckoned you.
We often make a great mistake, thinking that God is not guiding us at all, because we cannot see far in front. But this is not His method. He only undertakes that the steps of a good man should be ordered by the Lord. Not next year, but tomorrow. Not the next mile, but the next yard. Not the whole pattern, but the next stitch in the canvas. If you expect more than this you will be disappointed.” Adapted from F B Meyer’s Secret of Guidance (Fleming H. Revell, 1896), pp 5-18
VI.—We Must Wait for God to Speak Clearly
"“Never trust your own judgment. When your common sense is most sure of the rightness of a certain course of action, it will be best to make assurance doubly sure by lifting up your soul to God, that it may dim with his No, or glisten with his Yes. When voices within or without would hasten you to decide on the strength of your own conclusions, then be careful to refer the whole matter form the lower court of your own judgment to the supreme tribunal of God’s. If there is any doubt or hesitation left after such reference, be sure that as yet the time has not come for you to understand all God’s will. Under such circumstances-wait. There the responsibility of the pause, and all it may involve, is on God; and dare still to wait…. If you trust God absolutely, it is for him to give you clear directions as to what you should do. And when the time for action arrives, he will have given you such unmistakable indications of his will that you will not be able to mistake them or err therein. ‘None of them that wait on him shall be ashamed.’ Before entering into any alliance-taking a partner in life, going into a business with another, yielding assent to any proposition which involves confederation with others-be sure to ask counsel at the mouth of the Lord. He will assuredly answer by an irresistible impulse-by the voice of a friend; by a circumstance strange and unexpected; by a passage of Scripture. He will choose his own messenger; but he will send a message.” F B. Meyer, Joshua, p. 118,119.
“There is a way out of all these difficulties to the fully surrendered soul. I would repeat fully surrendered, because, if there is any reserve of will upon any point, it becomes almost impossible to find out the mind of God in reference to that point; and therefore the first thing is to be sure that you really do purpose to obey the Lord in every respect.
Settle this point then, first of all, and let no suggestion of doubt turn you from a steadfast faith in regard to it, that Divine guidance has been promised, and that, if you seek it, you are sure to receive it.
There are four ways in which He reveals His will to us,—through the Scriptures, through providential circumstances, through the convictions of our own higher judgment, and through the inward impressions of the Holy Spirit on our minds. Where these four harmonize, it is safe to say that God speaks. For I lay it down as a foundation principle, which no one can gainsay, that of course the “voice” of His will shall always be in harmony with itself, no matter in how many different ways He may speak. The voices may be many, the message can be but one.
The Scriptures come first. If you are in doubt upon any subject, you must, first of all, consult the Bible about it, and see whether there is any law there to direct you. Until you have found and obeyed God’s will as it is there revealed, you must not ask nor expect a separate, direct, personal revelation.
If, however, upon searching the Bible you do not find any principles that will settle your especial point of difficulty, you must then seek guidance in the other ways mentioned; and God will surely voice Himself to you, either by a conviction of your judgment, or by providential circumstances, or by a clear inward impression. In all true guidance these four voices will, as I have said, necessarily harmonize, for God cannot say in one voice that which He contradicts in another.
The third test to which our impressions must be brought is that of providential circumstances. If a “leading” is of God, the way will always open for it. It is never a sign of a Divine leading when the Christian insists on opening his own way, and riding roughshod over all opposing things.
The fourth point I would make is this, that just as our impressions must be tested, as I have shown, by the other three voices, so these other voices must be tested by our inward impressions; and if we feel a “stop” in our minds about anything, we must wait until that is removed before acting.
It sometimes happens, however, that in spite of all our efforts to discover the truth, the divine sense of “oughtness” does not seem to come, and our doubts and perplexities continue unenlightened. Our friends differ from us, and would, we know, oppose our course. In such a case there is nothing to do but to wait until the light comes. But we must wait in faith and in an attitude of entire surrender, saying a continual “yes” to the will of our Lord, let it be what it may. If the suggestion is from Him, it will continue and strengthen; if it is not from Him, it will disappear, and we shall almost forget we ever had it. If it continues, if every time we are brought into communion with the Lord it seems to return, if it troubles us in our moments of prayer and disturbs all our peace, and if finally it conforms to the test of the divine harmony of which I have spoken, we may then feel sure it is from God, and we must yield to it, or suffer an unspeakable loss.” Adapted from Hannah Whitall Smith’s Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, (Fleming H. Revell: Old Tappan, NJ), pp 66-73
“Many who profess to be Christ’s followers have an anxious, troubled heart, because they are afraid to trust themselves with God. They do not make a complete surrender to Him; for they shrink from the consequences that such a surrender may involve. Unless they do make this surrender, they cannot find peace.... Worry is blind, and cannot discern the future; but Jesus sees the end from the beginning. In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. ‘No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.’ Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service of God supreme, will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.” Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, pp 480, 481
“Too many, in planning for a brilliant future, make an utter failure. Let God plan for you. As a little child, trust to the guidance of Him who will “keep the feet of His saints.” God never leads His children otherwise than they would choose to be led, if they could see the end from the beginning, and discern the glory of the purpose which they are fulfilling as
coworkers with Him.” Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, p 479
“Worry is blind, and cannot discern the future, but Jesus sees the end from the beginning. In every difficulty He has His way prepared to bring relief. Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us, of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service and honor of God supreme will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.” Ellen White, Desire of Ages, p 330
"All true obedience comes from the heart. It was heart work with Christ. And if we consent, He will so identify Himself with our thoughts and aims, so blend our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him we shall be but carrying out our own impulses. The will, refined and sanctified, will find its highest delight in doing His service. When we know God as it is our privilege to know Him, our life will be a life of continual obedience. Through an appreciation of the character of Christ, through communion with God, sin will become hateful to us. As Christ lived the law in humanity, so we may do if we will take hold of the Strong for strength. But we are not to place the responsibility of our duty upon others, and wait for them to tell us what to do. We cannot depend for counsel upon humanity. The Lord will teach us our duty just as willingly as He will teach somebody else. If we come to Him in faith, He will speak His mysteries to us personally. Our hearts will often burn within us as One draws nigh to commune with us as He did with Enoch. Those who decide to do nothing in any line that will displease God, will know, after presenting their case before Him, just what course to pursue. And they will receive not only wisdom, but strength. Power for obedience, for service, will be imparted to them, as Christ has promised. Whatever was given to Christ--the "all things" to supply the need of fallen men--was given to Him as the head and representative of humanity. And 'whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.'" 1 John 3:22. Ellen White, Desire of Ages, 668