I have had four separate conversations this week all circling around the same essential issue: knowing God’s will in some matter or other. In each one, the person I was talking to thought it was a good idea to discern God’s will by doing one (or more) of the following:
- Leaving something entirely within their control undone on purpose so that God could make up the gap and they could discern his will that way
- Claiming that God would call them into something, without really defining what that calling looks like in practice and how they know God is calling at all
- Waiting upon God, but being unclear how long they should wait and what, exactly, they were waiting for him to do
Over the years, I have heard various forms of these things. We frequently hear of people ‘laying out a fleece’ in a bid to discern God’s will, seemingly forgetting that Gideon – who had been told in no uncertain terms what God wanted him to do already and having been visited by him on several occassions prior to this – was not acting in faith at all, but seemed to be trying to get out of what God clearly wanted him to do. Apparently visitation and utterly clear commands of the Lord delivered directly were not quite enough for him to be certain what God wanted him to do. Undettered by the Lord answering him the first time, he asks for a second sign; just to make sure, of course. I’m not convinced Gideon is a good guide for seeking to discern the Lord’s will, if I’m being honest.
So how do we address this? How do we discern God’s will for us? Let me suggest a simple three step means of figuring it out:
- Read your Bible
- Look at your circumstances
- Do what you want
Now, it’s important we take these three steps in order. If we get them back to front, we’ll run into problems. If I determine what I want to do first, then go and check my Bible after I’ve made up my mind, I am that much more likely to find support for whatever I want to do in there. Not because it is right or wrong, but because my mind has been made up already and so I’m looking to justify my decision rather than faithfully obey Christ. So, we need to get these things in the right order of priority.
So, first, read your Bible. The only way to know whether a course of action is right or wrong – that is, a matter of sin that would offend God – is to open up the scriptures. So, the first question we want to ask is this: is this a matter of sin? And we determine that by reading our Bible. So, for example, if you feel the Lord calling you to be a hitman, you might open up your Bible and discover Exodus 20:13. As you read it, you have no further need to run through the other questions because the Bible makes it clear that murdering people is sinful. The Lord, despite whatever deeply held desires you may have to do it (indeed, we’ve all had them, haven’t we? Those days when you could gladly off somebody who has really ticked us off. Don’t deny it, other bits of the Bible essentially say it is so!) But it turns out, this bit of the Bible tells us such desires are sinful and not to be pursued or indulged. So, we put our dreams away, we mortify those desires and we conclude it was wrong to even countenance doing that job, no matter how good the pay.
But let’s say you read your Bible and there is nothing telling you there is anything sinful about this decision. You can do or not do it to the glory of God without sin. What now? Reading my Bible doesn’t tell me specifically what I should do, just that either choice is legitimate. So, here we look at our circumstances. What is actually possible in the real world? We may be faced with a choice, but can I realistically do it? Maybe the opportunity requires you to pump in some money you simply don’t have and you don’t know anyone or anywhere you might get it. It wouldn’t be wrong to do it, but you don’t have access to the money and so circumstance dictates it is not something for you (at least, not right now). Or maybe you need to go abroad but, for some reason *cough* covid *cough* all transport is grounded and you can’t leave the country (fyi, in case you’re worried, those aren’t covid coughs, you won’t catch anything reading this I am told). It wouldn’t be wrong to go, but circumstances dictate that you can’t go. So, for now, despite the BIble saying it is fine to go, real world circumstances determine you can’t.
It could be that you have certain responsibilities where you are right now that wouldn’t be right to drop. The actual opportunity before you isn’t a matter of right or wrong, but perhaps what you are leaving behind might be. Reading your Bible first to see if it is wrong and then determining that your circumstances dictate – at least for now – this isn’t something to pursue because it would be wrong to leave what you have already committed to and have responsibility for wouldn’t be right. Step 3 isn’t necessary because having done step 1 and step 2, you have a clear answer as to how to proceed. So, once you’ve read your Bible, you need to look at your circumstances and ask, what is actually possible?
So, let’s say step 1 and 2 have been done. You’ve read your Bible and none of the choices on offer are sinful. You’ve then looked at your circumstances and several options on the table are possible. What do you do now? Step 3: do what you want! If the Bible says it’s fine and the option is available to you, do what you most want to do. Just make a choice and crack on. A simple three step formula to discern God’s will and make decisions.
Some will say, but it isn’t that simple? Well, I beg to differ. It really is that simple. It is that simple because we believe in a sovereign God. A God who controls all things. A God who is sovereign over the Word that he has given us, is sovereign over our circumstances and is sovereign even over our affections (that is, what we most want to do). There is nothing outside of his control.
That means, when I read his Word, I can be sure he has expressed himself clearly enough for me to do his will. He has told me what is right and what is wrong. So, I can be certain, if the Bible says don’t do it, then I definitely shouldn’t do it. If it doesn’t comment, then I am at liberty to do the thing.
It means, when I look at my circumstances, I can be sure that it is the Lord who has already set them. I know, because God is sovereign, that I can’t actually act outside of his ultimate will. I may disobey what he says in the Bible, but even my sin is folded into his plans as he chooses not to intervene to stop me doing it when we all know he could, just as he could have acted to stop Jesus being crucified in that gross act of sin if he wanted too. It means God can stop anything from happening that he pleases, and so if my circumstances make a decision possible, the Lord is not choosing to stop it. It is, in an ultimate sense then, part of his will.
It also means, when I look at my affections, God is sovereign over those too. If I am a believer in Jesus, the Holy Spirit within me will be working to effect godly affections. If God can harden the heart of Pharaoh (cf. Exodus 9:12) and he can cause people’s minds to change (cf. Romans 15:30-31), then he can surely change our affections too. If God is sovereign even over our thoughts and desires, if we trust God (and thus read his Word and reckon what we want to do is not sinful) we can do what we want. The same sovereign God, who is sovereign over our circumstances, is sovereign over our hearts, mind and will too. That is what Paul talks about in Romans 12:2. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can know God’s will. We engage our minds by reading the scriptures, looking into them to know God’s will, and as the Word renews our minds, it also impacts on our will. In other words, the sovereign God who tells us his will in the scriptures is also sovereign over our will, desires and affections. We can trust him, by his Holy Spirit, to give us godly desires. And when we have read scripture, and worked out what is possible, we can ultimately then do what we most want to do.
Rather than hamstring ourselves with signs, mystical things and pseudo-spiritual sounding ideas to discerning God’s will, maybe try this. Read your bible, look at what is actually possible, then trust your sovereign God and do what you want.