As a minister, I am frequently asked questions about God. By far the most common question is this, “How do I discern God’s will?” This is a difficult question to answer, frequently made more difficult by the plethora of options, outcomes, pitfalls and promises that the world sprinkles into our lives. As always, the Lord Himself blesses us with answers and instructions in His precious word: the Bible. For this month’s Messenger letter, I’d like to take a journey through a few Scriptures and try to highlight how they assist in answering the question, “How do I discern God’s will?”
Firstly, we need to actually want to know God’s will. It seems like an obvious point, but many people are simply seeking reassurance that the Lord has, in some way, affirmed choices and decisions they have already made. It’s not surprising to discover that the Bible challenges this type of behaviour most emphatically. King David demonstrates a very different approach in Psalm 25:
(Psalm 25 ESVUK)
Look at some of the key words in David’s prayer: ‘make’, ‘teach’(x2), ‘lead’, ‘wait’. David, a man after the Lord’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), comes before Him in utter humility. David’s own plans get no mention. Rather, David’s only desire is to apprehend the ways, path and truth of his God. The starting point of discerning God’s will is to to realise the comparative unimportance of our own will.
What a hard lesson this is to learn. We have great capacity to dream, to desire, to aspire. However, this aspect of our being needs to be ‘tuned in’ to the plans of our loving Father, through prayer, fellowship, worship and Bible study. It’s quite possible to be so disconnected from God, that our dreams become a ‘Kingdom-free Zone’.
Promise and Proviso…
The Lord makes a clear promise to give us instructions for our lives. In Psalm 35, this promise is accompanied by an equally clear proviso.
8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.
(Psalm 35 ESVUK)
The proviso is noteworthy and quite encouraging. Horses and mules are two of the most controlled and steered creatures on our planet. Bit and bridle give very effective guidance that leave the animal in no doubt as to the path it should tread. Bit and bridle work well where no understanding is required. If the sum of the task is, ‘walk this way’, a yank on a rein is sufficient. What a joy that the Lord doesn’t view us as horses or mules! His desire is that we should fundamentally understand and approve of His will, and that we then allow this understanding and approval to be the primary influence of our actions. Our engagement with this process is delightfully described by Paul in Romans 12:
2 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.
(Romans 12 NIV)
Prayer, fellowship, worship and Bible study are frequently used by the Holy Spirit to transform and renew our minds. This means that we not only discern, but approve the Lord’s will. Thank You, Lord, for Your Holy Spirit, Who guides us into all truth (John 16:12). Thank You, Lord, for Your Holy Spirit, Who shares with us, ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16)
The Scriptures also contain words of warning. The Lord is holy and different to us in His thinking. For example, when Samuel is asked to anoint Saul as king (1 Samuel 9) we told of Saul that, ‘from his shoulders upwards he was taller than any of his people’ (verse 2b). In 1 Samuel 16, when Samuel is asked to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king, he spots the tall Eliab. Samuel immediately assumes that he has fathomed the Lord’s will and it’s as simple as, ‘The Lord always chooses a tall person to be king of Israel’! This prompts the Lord to intervene and say to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (verse 7a). Even the great prophet Samuel had capacity to misunderstand way the Lord thinks.
The Bible reiterates the need for caution in discernment of God’s will on numerous occasions. One of the most famous is found towards the end of Isaiah:
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
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 ESVUK)
Such warnings serve to underline the importance of David’s approach to the Lord. We find ourselves, again, at Psalm 25. For David, patience is combined with his humility as another essential component of discernment. Samuel wanted to push forwards and get his Divine job done as soon as he arrived at Jesse’s home and, in so doing, nearly got it all wrong. David was prepared to, ‘wait all the day long’ (verse 5) to receive a morsel of truth and teaching.
As a church and as individuals we must be: certain of our desire to go after God’s will; joyful in His promises of success for the faithful; and careful not to prematurely assume we know just what the Lord’s doing. May the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth.