How Do You Discern God’s Will?…
As a pastor one of the questions I receive most often is “what is God’s will for…”? This question is most often applied in personal situations and in the context of church life. How many of us have asked questions like:
- What is God’s will for my life as it pertains to what school I will attend?
- What is God’s will for my life as it pertains to what job I will take?
- What is God’s will as it pertains to which mission trip I should take?
- What is God’s will for our business as we make this big decision?
- What is God’s will for our church as we head into the future?
The list could go on and on. So, how do you know if you are “doing God’s will?” Well, I think that we will be challenged in our conventional view of “discerning God’s will” when we take a quick look at the way Scripture talks about God’s will. Too often “God’s will” is primarily talked about in the context of secret personal plans or mystical church direction. But in the Bible we see a different context in which the language of God’s will is applied.
In Matthew 6:9-10 Jesus urges the church to pray that God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Basically this is a cry to God that he would enable his people’s lives to be conformed to His revealed will in Scripture (Romans 2:18). A prayer that God’s people would live God glorifying lives. Obviously in heaven everyone does as God desires, there is not even the slightest taint of sin.
Shortly after, in Matthew 6:25-34 (specifically in verse 33) we are instructed to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. God’s kingdom and righteousness are revealed in Jesus Christ. We are to seek the king and be obedient to his revealed commands. God’s will, even in the Old Testament was for people to know his son Jesus (Acts 22:14; Hebrews 1:1-2). Again, Jesus is the center of God’s revealed will.
In summary, the will of God is for mankind to know Christ and to grow in holiness. This is laid out plainly in 1st Thessalonians:
- “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
- “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Now, where in these verses do you see clear instruction on making everyday decisions or even big decisions? Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that God never speaks in any way outside of Scripture. We see in the Bible that he speaks through a donkey, in dreams, visions, audibly, etc. But this is not God’s normative pattern of communication.
When I hear someone using a one-time miraculous biblical event as normative pattern for how God speaks today I become very cautious concerning their understanding of how to apply the Bible. Therefore, let me encourage you to read Scripture not to hear God’s voice “behind” the text or “through” it, it is more sound to understand that the text itself is God’s voice. The Bible will guide you in your decision making, but ultimately it is up to you to make decisions. The problem comes when we think that it is our job to figure out what God’s “secret will” is instead of his revealed will. I think pastor Kevin DeYoung said it well in his book Just Do Something:
“Conventional understanding of God’s will defines it as a specific pathway we should follow into the future. God knows what this pathway is, and he has laid it out for us to follow. Our responsibility is to discover this pathway – God’s plan for our lives. We must discover which of the many pathways we could follow is the one we should follow, the one God has planned for us. If and when we make the right choice, we will receive his favor, fulfill our divine destiny and succeed in life…If we choose rightly, we will experience his blessing and achieve success and happiness. If we choose wrongly, we may lose our way, miss God’s will for our lives, and remain lost forever in an incomprehensible maze.” (25-26)
This mindset leads us to expect God to reveal to us something not already revealed in Scripture, so then we struggle with how to read “the signs”. So, when it comes to making decisions, we look for: open doors, fuzzy feelings, impressions, dreams and visions, hearing voices, and a mystical sense of peace. Most often, this view of God’s will leads to confusion, paralysis, overconfidence, and blindness. Even worse, it can close us off from listening to others. When it comes to making decisions do so prayerfully, with wisdom, but also within the context of the local congregation. This is true of personal decisions but also of big decisions that effect the life of an organization.
Don’t become paralyzed or over spiritualize wisdom decisions. Sure, God gives us guidance through his Spirit and his word, but when it comes down to it: just do something. God isn’t a magic 8-ball. God’s will is not a corn maze, tightrope, or bull’s eye. God has given us his word, wisdom, discernment, and the church body to help us make the little and big decisions in life. It always worries me when someone proclaims “God told me..”, sure God leads us, but let us be clear that Jesus Christ and the cannon of Scripture are the only things God has really “told us”. There is no new revelation.
If you would like to study more on the topic of God’s will I encourage you to read Kevin DeYoung’s book Just Do Something. In fact, God told me he wants you to read this book. No, in all seriousness, I write this post as a pastor seeking to guide God’s people with his word. This is a very important issue that we far too often get wrong, but the Bible is very clear.