Discerning the Will of God
"How can I discover God's will for my life?" "How can I be sure of God's guidance in my decisions?" "God, what do you want me to do?" Practically all believers have asked questions like these, especially at critical decision points in their lives.
We shape and order our existence by the hundreds of decisions we make each day, and most of these are so trivial that we make them almost automatically. For many of us, the question of God's will hardly enters into our decisions apart from those unusual times when we realize that a specific choice could affect the rest of our lives. Because the consequences of a wrong choice at a point like this could be disastrous, we suddenly break out of our usual habits and begin to pursue and sometimes agonize over God's mind on the matter.
Is there a better approach? In this booklet we will look at God's will as a way of life and not as an emergency support system. We will get a perspective on our role and God's role in the realization of His best for our lives and we will look at the prerequisites and principles of making decisions in a way that will be pleasing to God and fulfilling for us.
The Priority of God's Will
Imagine the tragedy of waking up at the end of a self-centered and meaningless life. At the brink of death you reflect upon the years of wasted time and wonder how you allowed yourself to minimize the things you knew were important by becoming a slave of routine. Our years on this planet are brief, and none of us want to waste them. But unless we regularly acknowledge God and His desires, our lives will count for little.
Because He created us and redeemed us, God doubly owns us. We therefore have an obligation to fulfill His will as His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and His children (1 John 3:1). Like Jesus, our spiritual food (see John 4:34) should be to do the will of Him who has called us "out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9; see Matthew 7:21).
We not only have an obligation to God but also to ourselves to discern and fulfill His will for our lives. Positively, it is only by making this a top priority that we will find the joy and satisfaction of an ultimately meaningful existence on this earth. Negatively, it is only in this way that we will avoid the undesirable and sometimes devastating consequences of pursuing our own will while rejecting God's. The initial pleasures of sin do not outlast the guilt, double binds, and disillusionment that are its final product. God loves us and desires what is best for us; He is also omniscient and knows what is best for us. Since His will for our lives is "good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2), it is in our own best interest to affirm His desires even when they are contrary to our own.
A third reason for making God's will a priority in our lives is our obligation to others. We cannot choose in a vacuum--the decisions we make will inevitably affect others, sometimes in ways we could never imagine. God has entrusted each of us with the stewardship of a unique sphere of influence. In the decisions we make and in our resulting life-styles, we are called to be faithful ambassadors of Christ to the believers and unbelievers we touch (2 Corinthians 5:16-20).
The Practice of God's Will
All too often, God's will is seen in terms of a program that has been laid out before us. When it is viewed this way, the emphasis falls on developing a technique that will help us discover the details of that program as we move from one important decision to another. Should I marry this person? Should I accept this job offer? Should I move to this city?
It is far better to see the will of God as a process rather than a program. Viewed this way, the emphasis falls on developing an intimate relationship with God and not on following some all-purpose technique. Who we are should take priority over what we do.
The Bible concentrates on our need to cultivate intimacy with God but says little about methods of determining His will. It is not a how-to-do-it manual but rather a guidebook on who-to-know. God will not be manipulated by impatient demands and magical formulas. Instead, our paths will be illuminated by our growing and trusting relationship with Him.
"The steps of a man are established by the Lord; and He delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be hurled headlong; because the Lord is the One who holds his hand" (Psalm 37:23-24).
"Nevertheless I am continually with You; You have taken hold of my right hand. With Your counsel You will guide me, and afterward receive me to glory" (Psalm 73:23-24).
The biblical model of knowing God's will centers on a relationship, but we must be careful to use the right earthly analogy. In some relationships we simply want to be told what to do or we want to get approval for our predetermined plans. A better analogy is that of the joint decisions reached by a married couple who enjoy an intimate relationship of mutual concern, respect, and trust. In this case, both are involved in the decisions that are reached, and it is sometimes impossible to distinguish the parts each played in the process. Similarly, the will of God is a divine/human process, not solely divine or solely human. When we consciously acknowledge His presence and depend upon Him in the course of making decisions, the choices that are made are both ours and His. God's will, then, is not an end but a means of knowing Him better and becoming more like Christ.
A Subtle Voice
Because God honors our choices and desires our unforced love, He does not overpower or coerce us. "God never burglarizes the human will. He may long to come in and help, but he will never cross the picket line of our unwillingness" (James Jauncey). He speaks to us in a subtle voice, and we may be unable to hear Him when there are too many distractions in our lives. Just as we would have trouble carrying on a telephone conversation in a room full of blaring music and chattering people, in the same way the clamoring voices of selfish desires, lack of submission, pride, independence, and unforgiveness prevent us from being receptive to the quiet voice of God.
"Does God guide? Yes, I believe that he does. Most times, I believe, he guides in subtle ways, by feeding ideas into our minds, speaking through a nagging sensation of dissatisfaction, inspiring us to choose better than we otherwise would have done, bringing to the surface hidden dangers of temptation, and perhaps by rearranging certain circumstances. . . . God's guidance will supply real help, but in ways that will not overwhelm my freedom."--Philip Yancey
A Way of Life
God's will is a way to be and a way to behave. He does not unfold His plan before us like a blueprint and expect us to do nothing until we see it. His will for us is a dependent walk in which we invite Him to participate in all of our activities.
We make thousands of decisions each day, most of them unconscious (which shoe to put on first, when to look out the window), and it would be impossible, not to say foolish, to seek God's counsel on each of these decisions. But there are still a number of decisions that are significant enough to capture our attention in the course of each day. A deliberate acknowledgment of the presence of God during these times will carry us far in making God's will a way of life rather than a crisis experience. The fabric of our lives is woven out of the threads of such minor choices, so it is wise to form the habit of being conscious of God while making them. This habit of taking God seriously in small decisions will make major decisions less traumatic.
Prerequisites for Guidance
We have seen that the whole matter of God's will centers around a relationship rather than a program or a technique. The character and quality of this relationship, then, is the key to how sensitive and responsive we will be to His guidance. The five C's of conversion, commitment, confession, concern, and compliance are prerequisites to guidance, because they are facets of our relationship with God.
Our relationship with God begins when we become His children by trusting in Jesus. "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). Until this happens, we do not know God, we cannot please Him (Romans 8:8), and we cannot understand or do His will.
After becoming a child of God, each Christian must come to the point where he places himself on the altar before God in an act of total commitment. "I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1). Without this declaration of God's complete ownership, our relationship with Him will be compromising and mediocre.
Since a living sacrifice tends to crawl off the altar, this initial act of commitment can only be worked out in our lives as it becomes an ongoing process of daily submission to His will. This involves a gradual movement from a worldly to a biblical mind-set as our relationship with God continues to deepen: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2).
This all-out commitment and humble dependence upon God is the basis for what the wisdom literature of the Old Testament calls "the fear of the Lord." When a person pursues this kind of relationship with Him, discernment and direction are natural byproducts.
"Who is the man who fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way he should choose" (Psalm 25:12).
"The secret of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He will make them know His covenant" (Psalm 25:14).
Our fellowship with God is hindered by unconfessed sin. Before the Lord we must openly acknowledge any known sins in our lives (1 John 1:9) and ask Him to illuminate areas we have overlooked (Psalm 139:23-24) so that we will continue to walk in the light. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:6-7).
An obvious yet sometimes overlooked prerequisite to guidance is a genuine concern on our part to know God's desires for our lives. We must decidedly want to know His will (John 7:17). At the time of His greatest trial, our Lord cried out, "yet not as I will, but as You will," and again, "Your will be done" (Matthew 26:39, 42). An attitude of indifference will inhibit our knowledge of God's will. "So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is" (Ephesians 5:17). Are we merely curious, or do we really want to know what God wants for us?
There is little point in pursuing God's will if we are not willing to comply with it. This begins with obedience in the things He has already made known to us. How can we expect more light if we have not responded to the light we have been given? God's guidance ceases when it is unaccompanied by our acceptance. Therefore, if we are serious about knowing and doing the will of the Lord, we should examine our lives to see if we are disobeying in areas He has already made clear.
Second, we must be willing to comply not only with what God has already shown us, but also with whatever He will show us. An attitude of availability in advance is crucial, because it is the true measure of the degree to which we really trust God as a person. God's will for us is "good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2), but just as the serpent deceived the woman in the garden into thinking otherwise, we too will be tempted to think otherwise. Our natural tendency is to believe that our own plans are in our best interest, and that anything else is a threat to our happiness. This is why so many people limit their availability to God through multiple choice prayers. Instead of giving Him the whole deck, they offer up a small hand of cards (with one or two sticking out prominently) and tell Him, "Pick a card--any card." This is like the woman who threw a stick in the air to tell her which way to go when she reached a crossroads. After throwing it several times, she was asked why. She quickly replied, "Every time I throw it, the stick points to the road to the left, and I want to take the road to the right--it looks smoother." So she kept throwing it until it pointed in the desired direction.
When we hold back from giving God an unqualified yes to whatever He may choose for us in the future, we are really questioning whether His character is loving and good. We somehow get the idea that we must make a choice between the misery of God's will or the happiness of our own. As Paul Little wrote, "So many of us see God as a kind of celestial Scrooge who peers over the balcony of heaven trying to find anybody who is enjoying life. And when he spots a happy person, he yells, 'Now cut that out!' That concept of God should make us shudder because it's blasphemous!"
God is not some cosmic kill-joy who delights in taking advantage of people who are foolish enough to submit their wills to His. The one who loved us enough to sacrifice His Son to save us when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8-10) is certainly worthy of our trust now that we are His children. "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). We don't need to "surrender to God's will" as though we were resigning ourselves to a somber and joyless existence. Instead, we can say with David, "I delight to do Your will, O my God" (Psalm 40:8), knowing that He loves us enough to desire a destiny for us that is beyond our highest hopes.
God is causing "all things to work together for good" (Romans 8:28) in the lives of His children, even though the things that happen sometimes do not seem best at the moment (e.g., Joseph and Job). C. S. Lewis used the illustration of a dog whose leash got hopelessly wrapped around a pole. As the dog pulled to get free, the owner found it necessary to move it in precisely the opposite direction to liberate it from the pole. We are often like that dog, but our heavenly Master loves us and knows what is best for us. The path of our ultimate liberation will sometimes be painful, but we can delight in His will, knowing the glorious destiny that lies ahead of us.
Principles for Guidance
The set of principles that follows can assist us in the process of making tough decisions, but remember that they are not step-by-step formulas.
Communication: What Do the Scriptures Say?
If we want to know and experience God's direction, we must communicate with Him through prayer and Scripture. Many Christians are concerned about knowing the will of God, but how many spend even five minutes a day asking God for His wisdom and direction? Prayer should envelop the whole process of guidance.
Communication with God also involves a regular time of reading the Bible with an open heart and mind to hear God's Word for our lives. The Bible is the central revelation for all believers, and its precepts and principles clearly give us the answers to most questions about the will of God in decision-making situations.
The Scriptures were provided not only to teach us the way of salvation, but also to guide us in the way we should live after becoming God's children. "Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). God designed His Word to equip us to accomplish "every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17), that is, to fulfill His purposes for our lives. God clearly reveals His moral will in the positive and negative commands of the Bible, and these precepts by themselves can guide us through the majority of the decisions we will ever make. In addition, the Bible offers a multitude of general principles that can be effectively applied to very specific circumstances.
There is no need for us to seek guidance in areas that have been expressly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. A believer does not need to wrestle, for example, over whether to marry an unbeliever, since the answer is already in the Bible. We can be sure that God will never lead us to do anything that is contrary to His Word.
Since the Bible is our primary source of guidance, we owe it to ourselves to become so familiar with its contents that its precepts and principles become ingrained in our patterns of thought. This process of renewing our minds with the Word takes time and effort, but there is no other way to "prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). If we do not program our minds on a daily basis with Scripture, we will find our minds programmed by default with the temporal value system of the world, and our lives will soon reflect those values. Inner renewal is the prerequisite to outer transformation.
As we seek to renew our minds with the commandments and counsel of God's revealed Word, we must approach it with a resolve to do whatever it says, even if it goes against our wishes. Content without conviction will do us little good, because it is always possible to distort the Scriptures to match the shape of selfish desires. We will avoid self-deception only to the extent that we are willing and open to respond to God's light.
While the Bible is our primary guide to what God wants us to be and to do, our Lord has providentially seen fit to supplement the Scriptures in a number of personal ways. There are several secondary factors that can be useful in discerning God's direction in specific situations, and the first of these is conscience.
Conscience: How Does this Decision Affect My Love for God and Others?
This is the ethical dimension of decision making; an option may appear to be sound on the intellectual level, but it may be unsound on the moral level. We cannot avoid the matrix of personal relationships in the decisions we make. Paul stressed the importance of living with a clear conscience: "I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men (Acts 24:16; also see Acts 23:1; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 1:3). God has implanted within us an intuitive sense of right and wrong. As we grow in Him, our conscience becomes more sensitive, more attuned to His desires. When we reject the input of our conscience, the proper response is to confess it (1 John 1:9), not to cover it. A failure to respond in this way will place us under a burden of guilt and take the joy out of our lives. Even worse, we can sear our conscience (1 Timothy 4:2) and become callused by repeatedly rejecting its warnings.
"My will, and not Thine be done," turned paradise into a desert. "Not my will, but Thine be done," turned the desert into paradise, and made Gethsemane the gate of heaven.—Pressense.
Common Sense: Does This Decision Reflect Good Judgment?
A Christian may be committed to the Lord, willing to comply with wherever God leads him, communicating with Him in prayer and in the Word, and enjoying a clear conscience. Even so, he still may not know which option to choose in a specific situation. It is within this framework that common sense should play an important role in the choices we make (outside this framework, common sense may simply feed the me-first mentality).
God was not erratic or capricious in the way He designed the universe, and He is not haphazard in His design for the lives of His children. He gave us minds and He wants us to use them to evaluate the consequences of our actions. The Scriptures tell us to "think so as to have sound judgment" (Romans 8:3). We should be level-headed and not rash in the way we evaluate our gifts and opportunities. Paul, for example, stayed where there were open doors (Ephesus) and left when his life was threatened. However, common sense has its limitations and it should never be our only criterion for discerning God's guidance. There are times when He leads people do things that are contrary to our concept of good judgment. We are often too nearsighted to see the goal He has in mind. Because we see such a small part of the puzzle, we should always be willing to submit our thoughts and plans to His. "The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps" (Proverbs 16:9). "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9).
Circumstances: How Does My State of Affairs Relate to this Decision?
God, who "works all things after the counsel of His will" (Ephesians 1:11), is in sovereign control of the circumstances of our lives. He causes "all things to work together for good" to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). Notice the word "together." In isolation, some of the things that happen to us may not seem so beneficial, but God uses them in combination for our good. Similarly, He does not allow our circumstances and temptations to overwhelm us without offering us the grace to endure (2 Corinthians 10:13).
Because of His providential care and involvement in the details of our lives, we should be sensitive to the situations in which we find ourselves. Factors like finances, aptitude, education, experience, family, spiritual gifts, and occupation all play a part in God's direction. For instance, if a Christian who is considering a job possibility realizes that her ability, education, and experience do not at all match the qualifications, she should be very hesitant to take another step even if the job opens up.
God often works by opening and closing doors as we come to them, but we should be careful not to make this our primary means of guidance. Just because a door is open does not mean that we should go through it. The "throwing out the fleece" approach is rarely valid. It is easy to misread circumstances and interpret them in ways that flatter our preconceived plans. This is like the farmer who wanted to be an evangelist. When he saw a cloud formation that looked like "PC," he took it to mean "Preach Christ" and left his farm, never thinking that it could also have been interpreted as "Plant Corn."
When David Livingstone was asked if he didn't fear that going into Africa was too difficult and too dangerous, he answered, "I am immortal until the will of God for me is accomplished."
Livingstone also said, "I had rather be in the heart of Africa in the will of God than on the throne of England out of the will of God."
A place of safety outside God's will is too risky a place for any child of God to contemplate.--Sam Higginbottom
If it were in the will of God, I'd plant an oak tree today, even if Christ were coming tomorrow.--Martin Luther
Counsel: What Do Wise and Godly Friends Say about this Decision?
"Where there is no guidance, the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory" (Proverbs 11:14). "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel" (Proverbs 12:15). "Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed" (Proverbs 15:22). The Bible is full of examples of people who profited by heeding wise counsel and of people who suffered by ignoring it. We are called to exercise wisdom in "teaching and admonishing one another" (Colossians 3:16), and wise counsel involves both.
If a decision has significant implications, we should not limit ourselves to our own judgment, but we should also seek the perspective of mature and godly people who have wisdom and experience. Good counsel is both instructive and corrective, and requires frankness, not flattery.
Remember, however, that the counsel available in the precepts and principles of Scripture must always be the first and foremost influence in the choices we make. Even the wisest of people are finite and biased, and we must avoid the pitfall of uncritically accepting the advice we receive as if it were a word from the Lord. Ultimately, we alone are responsible for the decisions we make.
Compulsion: What Are My Own Desires?
In Romans 8:14 Paul wrote that "all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." In Philippians 2:13, he said that "it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." One of the ways God works in us is to give us the desire to do the things that are pleasing to Him. A compelling desire to move in a specific direction or a burden to minister to certain people may be coming directly from God as a means of guidance. But we should bear in mind that God never gives us desires that are contrary to the commandments and counsel of His Word. Burdens and desires can be a significant input in our decisions as long as they are evaluated in the larger context of communication (prayer and Scripture), conscience, common sense, circumstances, and counsel. Otherwise, we may become victims of desires and inclinations that are not from God.
Contentment and Confirmation: Do I Have a Sense of Peace and Assurance about this Decision?
Philippians 4:6-7 tells us that we are to turn our anxieties into peace by offering our problems and needs up to the Lord. God wants us to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts (Colossians 3:15). If a decision gives us a sense of doubt, distress, or confusion, something is wrong because it is not accompanied by the peace of God. Paul, for example, had an open door for ministry in Troas, but because he had no rest in his spirit, he went instead to Macedonia (2 Corinthians 2:12-13).
By itself, peace is a supplemental, not a sufficient principle of guidance. But if a particular option passes the test of the other principles and fails to provide peace, the wisest course of action is to wait on the Lord (if the decision can be deferred) and allow Him to provide further input. The option may be right, but the timing may be wrong.
Poor Conceptions of God's Will
1. I must pray about each decision I make.
Some decisions follow logically from others, and do not need to be prayed about. If you decide to go to college, you do not need to ask God whether you should attend classes and do the required work. Many other decisions, like what clothes to wear and how to behave in different social situations, are matters of common sense.
2. God's will is often contrary to human reason.
While it is true that God's thoughts are much higher than our own, this does not mean that His will for our lives is erratic and peculiar. He gave us a rational capacity and wants us to use our minds in the decisions we make. It is our responsibility to submit our thinking to the truths of Scripture and the illumination of the Spirit so that we will have "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16). God may direct a believer to do something that does not seem to make the best sense, but this is exceptional, not normative.
3. To submit to God's will, I must give up my happiness.
God is not a majestic monster who wants to make us miserable. His will for us is in fact the only pathway to freedom, fulfillment, and joy (Psalm 37:4; John 15:11). He loves us and offers an abundant life to those who walk in His ways (John 10:10).
4. If I follow God's will, my problems are over.
A quick reading of the book of Acts makes it clear that an abundant life does not mean a trouble-free life. Obedience to God prevents and corrects many problems, but does not exempt a believer from trials and temptations. Nor is the abundant life the American dream; an obedient Christian may or may not be successful in the eyes of men. God's standard of success is different from that of the world, and we cannot serve both.
5. If I stray too far from God's will, He won't be able to use me again.
God does not exempt us from the consequences and scars of sin, but this does not mean that He puts us on the shelf. When we acknowledge our sins He forgives and cleanses us (Psalm 51:1-13; 1 John 1:9) so that we can be used again in His service. Some of the heroes of Hebrews 11 were also great sinners.
6. If I commit my life to God, He will want me to go to seminary.
God's best for a person is not always career ministry. For some it is, but most Christians are called to glorify Him in the context of "secular" employment. It would be just as wrong for them to go into professional ministry as it would be for those who are called into this form of ministry to leave it. There is no such thing as a part-time Christian, and we can honor Him in whatever context we are placed (1 Corinthians 10:31).
7. I must have special confirmation before making important decisions.
If we observe the prerequisites and principles of guidance discussed in the earlier Reflections in this series, we can be confident that God will not reward our openness and obedience by clouding the choices. We may not always have the subjective confirmation of peace about decisions that cannot be postponed, but this need not freeze us in our tracks. As we walk in fellowship with God, we can make the necessary decisions freeze us in our tracks. As we walk in fellowship with God, we can make the necessary decisions without anxiety.
8. God wants me to respond to every need.
God can lead us by bringing us into direct contact with certain needs, but not every cry for help is a call from God. We can assume more burdens than we can carry and spread ourselves so thin that we become ineffective. We must be careful not to let the good become the enemy of the best. It is better to do a few things well than to multiply mediocrity.
In Practicing His Presence, Frank Laubach describes the transformation that occurred in his life when he committed himself to God's will for his life: "As for me, I never lived, I was half dead, I was a rotting tree, until I reached the place where I wholly, with utter honesty, resolved and then re-resolved that I would find God's will and I would do that will though every fiber in me said no, and I would win the battle in my thoughts. It was as though some deep artesian well had been struck in my soul of souls and strength came forth. . . . You and I shall soon blow away from our bodies. Money, praise, poverty, opposition, these make no difference, for they will all alike be forgotten in a thousand years, but this spirit which comes to a mind set upon continuous surrender, this spirit is timeless life."
"With perfect consistency of mind, help me to receive all manner of events. For we know not what to ask, and we cannot ask for one event rather than another without presumption. We cannot desire a specific action without presuming to be a judge, and assuming responsibility for what in your wisdom you may hide from me. O Lord, I know only one thing, and that is that it is good to follow you and wicked to offend you. Beyond this, I do not know what is good for me, whether health or sickness, riches or poverty, or anything else in this world. This knowledge surpasses both the wisdom of men and of angels. It lies hidden in the secrets of your providence, which I adore, and will not dare to pry open." (Pascal, Pensees)
Related Topics: Spiritual Life