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Discerning God’s Will

One thing that’s been frustrating to me lately is the number of conversations I’ve had with people… a great number of people… about how they are figuring out what God wants for their lives. It’s been good because it has forced me to think more deeply about how we are to figure out what God wants for our lives. When we look at Scripture, the answer is pretty varied. First, here’s the frustrating way people try to discern God’s will.

People ask God to create situation A or B in their lives and figure out what God wants based upon what is brought up. If A comes up, then it must not be something God wants, but if B comes up, then it is the will of God. We’ll entitle this situation-based determining. It’s a way of figuring out what God wants that makes things indubitably clear. People then know exactly what God wants without having to hear his voice clearly or… arguably, let their emotions get in the way. There is some Scriptural precedent with situation-based determining. The two primary examples that come to mind are Gideon with the fleece, who laid it out on the ground at night and told God to leave it dry and the ground damp, then leave the fleece wet and the ground dry and in that way knew for sure that God was the one leading him into battle. The other is the disciples after the ascension of Jesus who cast lots to decide who God wanted to be the replacement for the 12th disciple and it fell to Matthias.

But this way of figuring out what God wants is potentially very destructive. I’ve watched it destroy people. A couple of factors contribute to the problem. One is that it forces people to put all their eggs in one basket. Whether something is God’s will comes down to a single situation and if that situation occurs just right, then the person determines that it is God’s will and lives as if that is true – confident because it is so clear. But the problem is that if they are wrong, then they have a ton of confidence that something is God’s will when it is not. They become confident that their own sin is what God wants. That’s messy. People choose this way of determining because it is easy then to see what God wants… or at least, to think one sees what God wants. People believe that if they ask God to show them their will this way that He just will. That’s a lie. God does not act in accordance with our will, but in accordance with his. When people use situations to determine God’s will, they frequently live their lives as a product of the circumstances around them, life circumstances determine actions. It prevents obedience to Jesus because they are assuming their circumstances show them what God wants instead of letting God show them what he wants. Sometimes we aren’t supposed to go through open doors. Sometimes closed doors are there so we can use the power of God to break them down and walk through.

The spiritual precedents noted previously are easily dealt with. Gideon already heard from God before he asked God to prove Himself. Presumably the apostles were led to determine God’s will before the casting of lots. More importantly for both is that lots and fleece are inanimate objects. They aren’t people. Situation-based determining almost always involves people. People ask God to make certain people to act in a certain way, and then from that determine his will. The problem is that people have free will. What if the people choose to act in a way that is different than what God wants? What if God allows people the freedom to act how they choose to and the situations come up not because God wants them, but because people acted in such a way as to cause them? God doesn’t mess with free will, but doesn’t seem to have a problem with manipulating moisture on the ground and with fleece nor ordaining the way that lots fall. When we ask God to create situations, we are often asking Him to manipulate free will and force people to act in a certain way. That’s an illegitimate request. It won’t be honored.

I believe that the best way to figure out God’s will is not as clear cut, but can be clear and is much safer than situation-based determining. We are to listen and hear from God directly. Circumstances of life are not something that we should use to decide what God wants. We are to use our relationship with God to determine what God wants. We are called to be conversational with the saving Lord of our lives. I think God wants us to know him so intimately, his voice so deeply that we hear what He wants. I think that situation-based determining, despite the nicety of its simplicity, is unhelpful, misleading, destructive, and unintentionally arrogant and sinful.

What’s Scripture tell us about this? Jesus, talking about himself metaphorically says, “…. My sheep know my voice.” If we are of Christ, then when He calls, as a shepherd calls His sheep, we will know his voice, able to distinguish it from all the other voices that are calling in our lives. We are able to distinguish His voice that we may follow the direction of the voice and arrive where God is already. It’s not some strange testing of God or making a nonconsensual deal with Him about how we’re going to evaluate just what He wants. As we cultivate this relationship and walk closely to the shepherd, His voice grows more loud and more clear.

Romans 12:2 tells us that in order to test and approve what God’s amazing will is for our lives, we must first be transformed by the renewing of our mind. It does not say we should tell God to coerce situation A or B, but that as we are perfected and transformed his will is more easily determined by us. Conformation to the world looks like determining what we should do based upon what happens around us. Transformation looks like living in God’s will regardless of life circumstances. One step is to become more like Christ in mind and then be given the capacity to test whether or not something is God’s will.

In our beautiful new testament stories of believers in Jesus Christ, we find many people being directly guided by God. Joseph was guided on his next move by dreams in which the angel of the Lord appeared to Him and told him which direction to go. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. God spoke to Cornelius in a dream about how he was to respond to Paul. God came to Paul and told him directly what to do. The Spirit simply wouldn’t let Paul and his friends enter Bithynia. Paul was compelled by God to enter Jerusalem and warned by the Spirit that things would be difficult wherever he went and preached the news of Jesus. It beautiful, clear, specific, and deeply relational.

As we consider and think about how some of the great followers of YHWH in the OT heard from God what their next move should be, what we don’t see is them telling God to do A if that’s what is His Will, but not to do B. At least not with people. Angels of the Lord were sent down to Abraham multiple times. God told him specifically what to do through dreams. Moses was spoken to through a burning bush and then communed in the very presence of YHWH himself. Isaac physically wrestled with God. Prophets had clear visions. David had those prophecies. Noah had specific directions. These people did not discern God’s will by fabricating rules about situations. They did not participate in situation-based determining, but listened to God and heard His voice. God speaks. God knows how to speak to us in ways that are clear and specific. God longs to speak to us directly, that we may have two way communication with Him – that we may have a real relationship with Him. We don’t have to concoct terms for discerning God’s will. Just listen patiently, pursue our question’s answer, and live by what we already know to be true. If we trust God to guide us, God will guide clearly, as clearly as a pillar of fire at night.

When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. – Jesus in John 16:13-14.

Categories: Miscellaneous
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