Discern God’s Will In 3 (Not Always Easy) Steps
On average we make 35,000 decisions every day. It’s one of the reasons it is so hard to decide between Jimmy Johns and Chipotle – we get tired of so many choices.
Followers of Jesus are instructed to be faithful in each of those decisions. (Jesus has high standards.)
Some choices are easy. Should I punch my neighbor for not mowing their yard this week? Should I steal a Snickers from the gas station because I don’t have any cash? Should I flip off the guy in front of me that didn’t use his blinker?
God is clear about those things, even if it is not always easy to listen. The problem is that many of our choices are not so easy.
Should I stay in my current job or pursue a new one? Should I confront a friend about the pain they caused me or simply work to forgive them? Should I volunteer for the school’s PTA or lead a Small Group with church?
A great deal of life is lived in the gray – the “hmmmm, I’m not sure” zone. There are no bible verses that provide easy answers to these questions.
It is in that gray that we are called to discern God’s will, which is a theologically cute way of saying that we are called to figure out what in the world we are supposed to do because the Bible doesn’t really say.
We are not talking about matters where one option is sin and the other is not. We are not talking about insignificant matters like should I take the interstate or the back roads. Here we are talking about meaningful life decisions where we are wrestling among several significant options. What choice should we make?
Ruth Haley Barton (Pursuing God’s Will Together) provides a good framework for approaching these types of decisions in our lives.
Get ready. Get set. Go!
Discerning God’s will is not a switch that can be turned off and on. It is a muscle that is developed slowly and intentionally over time.
Romans 12:1-2, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. THEN (and only THEN!) you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We get ready to discern God’s will by learning to recognize God’s voice through His Word and developing ears to hear what God sounds like through prayer. But it takes time and practice. There are no shortcuts. Understanding what God is up to in our world flows from spending time with God and God’s people day-to-day. Discernment begins when we acknowledge the fact that we lack the wisdom we need and that without divine guidance, the best we can do is stumble around in the dark.
Getting ready is a lifestyle of spiritual habits. Getting set is moving towards the options that are available to us with any given choice. It is moving towards making a decision.
We begin by clearly identifying all the options that we have. We gather the data and do our best to understand the various directions that we could go.
Once we have laid out all of our options, we begin to examine our own heart and come to an understanding of which option we genuinely prefer if we prefer one. It is important that we admit if we are attached to a particular choice more than others.
And here comes the hard part . . . once we have identified our preference we choose to set it aside. We may get it back, but we set our preference aside in what Barton calls “holy indifference.” We say to God what Jesus said, “not my will, but yours be done.” We say, “God, when I am truly honest with myself, X is what I want . . . but because I love you and trust you know my good better than I do, I willingly lay my preference aside and want to hear what you have to say.”
Such indifference requires patience.
Folks in a hurry with busyness are seldom effective at hearing God. They refuse to “be still.” For them efficiency is more important than holiness.
In fact, many (if not most) people will choose what they want or what is easiest/cheapest/quickest/most comfortable and then say that it was God’s will when they haven’t actually listened to God at all. Warning signs for this hollow godliness are when a choice is made quickly, without significant prayer, without prayerful consultation with close believing friends, or when decisions consistently lead to increasing comfort rather than bolder sacrifice.
Jesus’ prayers in the garden prior to his arrest are a perfect model for us. Jesus knew his options: flee and hide, exhibit his power and destroy his enemies, or surrender and die. Jesus knew which options he preferred – the not dying options. But Jesus said to his dad, “not my will, but yours be done.” God’s will was that Jesus would let himself be killed, but then obliterate death by his death . . . and resurrection.
It is important to point out that there is a clear difference between being decisive and discerning. We might be good at making decisions that make us successful or lead to positive outcomes. We might be good at keeping things moving and getting things done. And those skills are likely very marketable in our world, but they are not necessarily godly discernment. Godly discernment is far more concerned with holiness and faithfulness than efficiency and productivity.
Discerning and hearing what God desires of us is very important, but it is not the end of the process. We must act! We must choose to pursue the option God has laid out for us. This often takes significant trust in God’s goodness, especially when the choice is far beyond our comfort and desires.
Sometimes we wonder whether we are really hearing from God. We can gain confidence in making the decision we believe God is encouraging by remembering these simple rules.
1. God will never ask us to do something that contradicts what God has already said in scripture (e.g., God will never tell us that we don’t need to love our enemy or that we don’t need to forgive someone who has wronged us)
2. God has given us the church (other followers of Jesus) to help us discern God’s will. We should have close believers pray about significant decisions with us and because we are listening to the same God we should expect our sisters and brothers in Christ to hear the same things as us. (Don’t rely on the advice of friends that don’t have fervent prayer lives – you will get their opinion and not what they heard from God.)
3. If you are satisfied that you have followed 1. and 2., then trust your gut. Trust your sense of God’s Spirit in you. Go for it!
“If Christ is alive he desires to lead his church. If Christ desires to lead his church, his will should be sought. If his will can be sought, it can be discerned; and if it can be discerned, it deserves to be obeyed. This is nothing more than the basic Christian life.” – Paul Anderson