Discerning God's Will by Andy Fleming
by Andy Fleming -- Seattle, Washington, USA
This is a vital question that may be more easily answered than is often thought possible. Notwithstanding specific occasions of divine guidance being given through the use of miraculous signs (i.e., Gideon in Judges 6, or the apostles in Acts 1), angelic messengers speaking on God’s behalf (i.e., Acts 1:10-11; Acts 10:22), or direct revelation through visions and dreams (i.e., Acts 16:9-10), the Scriptures also provide us with detailed instructions and examples about how to discern God’s will in our day-to-day lives. Although we might all prefer to experience the miraculous demonstrations already mentioned, God never promised such manifestations to be the normal Christian experience but instead encourages each one of us to engage him through spiritual means and attentiveness. James assures us that "if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you." (James 1:5)
The greatest obstacle to anyone understanding and accepting God’s will for their life is the unconscious (or even conscious) bias towards their own will and preferences. Paul explains how this works in 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. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." Paul provides us with two prerequisites to knowing God’s will: 1) we must be willing to offer ourselves completely, and; 2) our thinking processes cannot be based in worldly values and logic, but transformed through spiritual renewal. Jesus set us a perfect example when he prayed “yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) Therefore, we can only find God's will for our lives when we are willing to get completely out of the way and humbly accept whatever direction God might give us. This process not only promises to bring enlightenment to our minds, but will also be transformational to our hearts!
From the New Testament I can see at least four different avenues through which God gives us knowledge of his will.
1. The Scripture.
In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, we learn that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Part of this equipping is the understanding of God’s will, and here the Scriptures are our greatest source of clear instruction and guidance:
i. Teaching. Sometimes God’s will is defined specifically: i.e., “this is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved…” (1 Timothy 2:3-5), and, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
- ii. Rebuking and Correcting. Sometimes the Scripture corrects both attitudes and actions: i.e., “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)
- iii. Training in Righteousness. Hebrews 5:11-14 teaches that the constant use of the elementary truths of God's word prepares the mature in Christ to distinguish good from evil – in the same way that the constant use of milk prepares an infant for solid food. As we follow the complete set of life principles given to us in the New Testament, we will begin to see their application to specific situations in our lives that may not have a clear parallel among New Testament examples. For instance, we can know how to treat our employers or employees by applying the principles given to slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:5-9), and we can likewise make a firm decision not to use recreational drugs, even though their use is not specifically addressed in the Scripture, by applying principles about not giving over the control of our bodies to worldly impulses (1 Corinthians 6:12-14; Ephesians 5:18).
2. Prayer (and Fasting).
In John 15:7, Jesus told his disciples to “ask [the Father] whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (understanding, of course, that they must be in the vine — i.e., connected to him). John clarified this further in 1 John 5:14: ”This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” Therefore, another way of finding out God's will is committing our requests to prayer and seeing what happens – if our prayer is in accordance with God's will, it will happen; but if not, we will still know God's will by his negative reply. As already mentioned, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked his Father that the cup be taken from Him and God gave him a reply by allowing the soldiers to come – God’s will was done. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul prayed three times for the removal of the 'thorn in his flesh' but it remained – God’s will was done. If we specifically ask God for something while doubting that he will respond, we are “double-minded” and “should not expect or receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:6-8) From the example of both Paul and Jesus we see that praying for God’s will can sometimes be a process that may take a little time and seems to connect the three elements of Jesus’s admonition to ‘ask, seek, and knock’ – if the ‘door opening’ is, in fact, an opportunity or blessing, then there is a process of asking, seeking, and knocking, followed by receiving, finding, and the door opening. In Acts 13:1-3 the church leaders in Antioch added fasting to their prayers and were specifically guided by the Holy Spirit to send out Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey. God can put specific ideas and plans on our hearts through the Holy Spirit and we can see their divine origin in the blessing of God on their success.
In Romans 1:11-13, Paul shares with the Romans how he planned to come to them many times but was prevented from doing so. It is interesting to note that Paul wasn't frustrated, and continued to make plans even though things weren't materializing the way he had hoped. Paul believed what he wrote in Romans 8:28, " ... in all things God works for good of those who love him." We are given greater insight in Romans 15:20-23, where we see that though Paul's plans were postponed he was given what he desired most in his heart – to preach the gospel to as many as possible. God didn't want Paul to leave Macedonia until there was nowhere left for him to preach in that area. James 4:13-17 teaches us how we should always plan by starting with, "If it is the Lord 's will I shall… [do this or that]" and Proverbs 16:3 tells us, “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”
4. The Spirit in Others.
It is beyond the scope of this article to adequately represent the many proverbs in the Bible that speak about seeking advice. Two such proverbs are:
- “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers.” (Proverbs 11:14)
- “The wise prevail through great power, and those who have knowledge muster their strength. Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers.” (Proverbs 24:5-6)
Each member of the church has the potential to receive understanding from the Holy Spirit and we need to respect his ability to work through each person. 1 Corinthians 6:4 speaks of appointing ordinary Christians in the church as judges in disputes between members. Acts 15:33-40 says that Paul and Silas were commended by the brothers and sent on their way, as opposed to Barnabas and John Mark who just seemed to leave for home on Cyprus without commendation. In Acts 18:27, Apollos wanted to go to Achaia and was encouraged by the brothers to do so. 1 Corinthians 1:10 speaks of all the brothers being united in mind and thought and agreeing with each other. Therefore, we need to seriously consider the opinions and thoughts of other members of the church with regard to our own lives so that we can receive the benefits of the wisdom that God has given them. Remember: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil." (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)
Photo by Greg Rakozy, Spiral Jetty, United States, courtesy of www.unsplash.com; photos of disciples in prayer (men's prayer at Istanbul, Turkey, Continental International Leadership Conference, February 2016; women disciples praying at University of Birmingham, UK, May 2016) by Tammy Fleming