Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Knowing God's Will: Practical Steps to Discerning God's Will

Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
Psalm 119:105 

For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10 

When I first began this series I told you that there was no easy mathematical equation to discerning God's will, but that there were some practical helps. In keeping with that, I offer the following as a summary of the best ways that I know to find God's will for your life.
  1. Go to the Bible.* God's Word is a "light unto your path," and as such it helps you stay on the path He has laid out for you. God is not a God of confusion. He lights the way for His children. Most of the time when you need guidance you will find that the Bible has some to offer. But even in those instances when Scripture does not contain all the specific guidance you need, it is still of primary importance because it forms the boundaries within which the rest of your discernment process can safely take place. At times discerning God's will for your life can be very subjective. Knowing what Scripture has to say about your situation tells you very clearly what is in and what is out of bounds. In other words, Scripture acts as an anchor. As you move through the steps below, it ensures that you do not end up in major theological error.
  2. Know God. Like Scripture, knowing God acts as a sort of boundary maker. The better you know God the better you have a general idea what would be consistent with His character. In any given situation you can have some idea of what God might ask you to do and what God would never ask you to do. If you begin to think God is calling you to do something that is completely out of line with His revealed character, then you know you are on the wrong track. You need to start over. Plus, you have to remember that our Lord is infinitely more interested in having an intimate relationship with you than He is in giving you quick and easy answers. Often times He will allow you to go through difficult and uncertain times so He can teach you about Himself. Actively seeking to know Him just may prompt Him to reveal His will sooner. 
  3. Pay attention. You should prayerfully consider any situations or circumstances the Lord might be using to reveal His will to you. Pay special attention to open and closed doors (opportunities) in your life. Seek the advice of wiser, older Christians and weigh that advice against both Scripture and what you feel the Lord leading you to do.
  4. Pray! Throughout this whole process you should be praying and asking God to show you His will. Pray with an expectant heart. Remember that James says any man who asks God for something with a doubting heart should "not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:7). Too many of us pray like James's double-minded man. Expect your Father in heaven to answer your pleas for guidance. Wait in silent anticipation after you pray in order to give the Holy Spirit inside of you a chance to reveal God's will to you. Very often He will do so.
You may be disappointed to find that, even after you have done all of this, there still may be some measure of uncertainty regarding what God is calling you to do. Remember that God works on His own timetable, not yours. And rarely does He give His children a detailed outline of the next 10 years of their lives. Normally, you can expect to receive enough light for the next step. This means that you must obey the will you know. Why would God show you new levels of His will until you obey what He has already revealed? As you step out on faith to obey the Lord continue to pray and check your heart for any impure or selfish motives. Pay attention to any closed doors you may run into. And note whether your step of faith is met with the peace that passes understanding that is promised to God's children or not. If you sense something is wrong in any of these areas, you may be on the wrong path.

If you look at the two Scriptures quoted above you'll notice that as a Christian you have every reason to feel a strong sense of destiny. God has a definite plan and path for your life. He has prepared good works in advance for you to do and He has placed them in the path that He laid out before you. The only questions are: Will you choose to walk in His path for your life? and Will you ask for His help in finding that path? I pray that you will.
For further reading...

*I am indebted to J.I. Packer's wonderful book Knowing God for some of my thoughts on discerning God's will. Specifically chapter twenty entitled "Thou Our Guide" helped to shape my thinking on going first to God's Word to seek His guidance.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Knowing God's Will: A Peace that Passes Understanding

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.
Isaiah 26:3

We are slowly working through the question, "How do I know God's will for my life?" We have talked generally about the fact that discerning God's will begins with laying a firm foundation of knowing Scripture, knowing God, and practicing the skill/spiritual gift of listening prayer. Currently we are looking at some of the more practical guidance God sometimes uses to reveal His will to us. Namely, we have looked at how He uses open and closed doors and advice from wise counselors. This week we turn to consider a sign that helps confirm that we have in fact heard God's will correctly.

All throughout Scripture we find that whenever and however God reveals His will to His people they always know what He is telling them. Nowhere in Scripture do we find stories of believers doubting what God has commanded them to do. I believe that God works the same way today. Though He may make us wait for weeks on end before He reveals His will, once He has told us what to do we know in our hearts what He has commanded. We are often like Gideon however, who, though he never doubted what God asked him to do, did doubt the sanity of God's plan and His ability to accomplish it. So too with us, it is often the case that we know God's will in our hearts but our minds are slow to trust and obey this knowledge.

When you are caught in this cycle of knowing but not trusting, one sure sign that your heart has in fact rightly discerned God's will is that the more you pray about it and surrender yourself to obey it, the more at peace with it you will be. Consider the verse above. It says that God keeps in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him. The verse makes clear that "staying" your mind on God means to trust Him. Looking at other translations of the Bible we see that this trust is steadfast in nature, for other translations render this verse as saying that God keeps in perfect peace he whose mind is "steadfast." So we know that when our mind is steadfastly trusting God that He will keep us in perfect peace, but what does that have to do with discerning God's will?

When you know God's will and you fix your heart and mind on doing that which He has told you to do then you are really fixing your heart and mind on God Himself in steadfast trust, thus the peace of God will follow close behind. If you have a wrong idea about what God has called you to do and you fix your heart and mind on that, then your mind is not fixed on God but on some other plan and the peace of God will not attend it.

Simply put, peace often acts as a confirmation that we are on the right track in responding to what we believe God's revealed will to be. This confirmation is made even more certain when there is no logical reason for us to be filled with such peace. Philippians 4:7 describes God's peace as passing all understanding. So when you have peace that passes all understanding it should be clear that you received it from God. For example, consider a missionary who feels called to minister in a dangerous area. Though they have a healthy concern for their own wellfare, those who are truly called will minister in that area while filled with an inexpressible peace. For Christians the most dangerous situation that is in God's will holds more peace than the most comfortable station outside of it.

Consider now the biblical example of Gideon which we have already looked at in recent weeks. Scripture records that Gideon lacked faith initially. He asked God for several proofs before he chose to trust. He knew in his heart what God's will was but his mind was unwilling to trust and obey that will. One can understand why Gideon struggled though. Scripture records that the Midianite army God sent him to fight consisted of 135,000 soldiers. Once Gideon chose to obey God, he had 32,000. He was outnumbered by more than 4 to 1. Then the Lord pared Gideon's army down to 10,000 which meant he was outnumbered by more than 13 to 1. Finally God removes even more men from Gideon's army until Gideon has only 300 men left. Amazingly God is sending Gideon into battle outnumbered by 450 to 1! Knowing that Gideon would be scared the Lord gives him one last encouraging proof that it is in fact His will for him to fight (see Judges 7:9-14). After that last encouragement we don't find Gideon wringing his hands and worrying about what He should do, because he is finally convinced that this is God's will and that God will give him the victory. Notice Gideon's boldness as he heads to the battle lines.
"When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he bowed down and worshipped. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, 'Get up! The LORD has given the Midianite camp into your hands.' Dividing the three hundred men into three companies, he placed trumpets and empty jars in the hands of all of them, with torches inside." (Judges 7:15-16) 

In spite of overwhelming odds and a battle plan that must have seemed ridiculous, we see Gideon (who up to this point has been really lacking in both courage and faith) now fully convinced of God's will and moving to the battle line with great peace and courage. His mind was fixed on God, and God was keeping Him in perfect peace. This same peace works as a confirmation in our lives as well. This doesn't mean that obeying God's will should be easy for you or even that you will have no fear. It simply means that you will be filled with a peace concerning it that passes your understanding.

For further reading...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Knowing God's Will: Good Advice Goes a Long Way

Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who take advice.
Proverbs 13:10

Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.
Proverbs 19:20

When we are seeking to know God's will and having a hard time hearing it straight from His lips, He sometimes gives us help from more commonplace sources. Last week we talked about open and closed doors and how a change in circumstances may help point us towards God's will for our future. This week we consider what Scripture has to say about asking other people for advice.

It turns out that Scripture puts a lot of credence in seeking counsel from multiple sources before making plans. Proverbs speaks most powerfully to this fact, not only in the passages above but also in passages like Proverbs 12:15, 15:22, & 20:18. I felt the passages above, however, to be especially meaningful to our topic. Look at Proverbs 13:10, "Where there is strife, there is pride, but wisdom is found in those who seek advice." When you are faced with a major life decision, there is usually someone trying to give you advice. You can tune this out or even get angry at them for trying to tell you what to do. (Many of us respond this way when our parents give us advice- no matter how old we are.) But these responses spring from a heart of pride, and, as the verse says, they lead to strife in your relationship. Instead you should humble yourself under the advice of wise counselors and carefully consider what they say.
Now, there are two very important qualifications that you need to consider when accepting advice from other people on what God's will for your life is. First, nowhere does the Bible assume that all advice is equal. Check out Proverbs 9 where Wisdom is personified as a woman trying to lead the people toward understanding and long life while Folly, also personified as a woman, tries to lead them to death. So too there are wise counselors and foolish ones. The advice you are given is only as sound as the judgment of the person from whom you receive it. (For a classic Biblical example of this, check out how Rehoboam's poor choice of advisors led to the Kingdom of Israel being split in two - I Kings 12 and II Chronicles 10.) So choose carefully who you listen to. Have a discerning ear. Seek out the instruction of wise men and women who know the Lord well, who know you well, and who have had a chance to see His work in your life. This gives them some perspective on what He might be up to in your life now.
Second, don't follow other people's advice blindly, no matter how wise they are. Scripture never suggests that you should blindly follow other people's advice instead of doing the hard work of seeking to know God's will on your own. Consider what it is that they have to say. Take it to the Lord in prayer, but don't assume that they speak for God. At the end of the day discerning God's will for your situation is between you and your Father in heaven. The advice of others is one factor to consider, but it is not everything. Avoid the temptation to take the easy way out and have someone else tell you what the right answer is. To do so is cowardly and it robs you of new depths in your relationship with God.

So the next time you are having trouble figuring out what you should do, remember to humble yourself under the advice of wiser men and women. They may just be able to shed some light on your situation, and as Proverbs 19:20 says, "at the end you will be counted among the wise."

For further reading...
  • Proverbs 12:15, 15:22, & 20:18: See what else Proverbs has to say about seeking wise counsel.
  • Proverbs 9: What a wonderful allegory for our world> People either chose to listen to Maiden Wisdom or to Mistress Folly. 
  • I Kings 12: Consider Rehoboam's folly and its repercussions. 
  • Galatians 2:1-10: Doesn't Paul serve as an example of seeking wise counsel when he visits with the elders in Jerusalem?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Knowing God's Will: Open and Closed Doors

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew. 
Judges 6:36-40

Who among us hasn't been like Gideon? Who hasn't asked God to work through a Magic 8 Ball we had lying next to our bed or asked Him to send a total stranger to tell us what to do or, my personal favorite, who hasn't blindly opened their Bible and stabbed at a verse to see if it would reveal God's will for their situation? How has that worked out for you? If you are like me, it hasn't worked too well. There may have been times when God showed us extra grace by stooping to our level and playing our childish game; but all in all these aren't what I would call tried and true methods for discerning God's will.

Ironically enough, when we do these things we really aren't behaving that differently from Gideon or from the people of Israel in the Old Testament. This may sound crazy but the Israelites actually had a special set of dice that they called lots. They sometimes cast these lots (or threw the dice) to discern God's will in specific situations. (See the further reading at the end of this post for Scripture references.) So why don't we throw dice in the church anymore? And why don't the methods I mentioned above work better? It is interesting to note that the Bible does not record anyone "fleecing" (asking for signs like Gideon did) or "casting lots" after the day of Pentecost. (That's the day that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to all of His followers.) It would seem that once God's people had the Holy Spirit living inside of them these other methods of discerning God's will became outdated and obsolete. But sometimes we just need some direction from the Lord that is more concrete. 

Thankfully our God is good and does sometimes use real world, concrete signs to help reveal His will to His children. Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at some of these ways that God helps us. This week we consider open and closed doors, but first a disclaimer. Generally speaking, none of these signs in and of itself definitively reveals God's will for your life with 100% certainty. When several signs point in the same direction, you can gain a sense of God's probable leading. But only when these signs are taken together with much prayer and listening for God's voice, can they really give a believer strong confidence in what God is leading them to do. All of that to say, these are not the end all in knowing God's will for your life. They are helpful, but they should always be considered carefully and with much prayer.

Open and Closed Doors:
The rationale here is that God will make it possible for you to do His will and perhaps even impossible to avoid it. There are times when God legitimately uses this method of revealing/confirming His will to His children. However, I think out of all of the ways that God helps us, this one is the easiest to misread. Sometimes an open door is just an open door. Sometimes God is testing to you to see if you will have the faith to walk away from an opportunity. And although He does sometime stop us from form doing things (see Acts 16:6-10), nowhere in the Bible does it say that God will always prevent you from missing His will. So you need to be careful when weighing open or closed doors as signs of God's will for your life. 

Here are some helpful hints for using this method of discernment. First, an open door is most convincing when you sense God is calling you to do something that is legitimately out of your grasp. Although you sense it His will for you to do it, you are incapable of obeying because some obstacle or closed door prevents you from it. If after you surrender to His leading the closed door suddenly opens, then you may be correctly understanding what He is calling you to do. For example, say that you sense God is calling you to attend a certain college but the college has already rejected your application and didn't even put you on the wait-list. Yet, you can't shake the feeling that God wants you there, so you surrender to attending that college if He will make it possible. Maybe you even take a step of faith and contact the admissions department and ask them to reconsider your application. If within a few weeks you are accepted to that school, then it would certainly seem to be a confirmation that you are on the right track.

I am less convinced when you are looking at a number of options and one door opens before the others. For example, say that you have applied to three colleges and you ask God to reveal His will. One of the three colleges calls you and tells you that you have been accepted. They even offer you a scholarship. This very well may mean that it is God's will for you to go to this school, but it is just as likely that it means the college had a lower number of applicants this year and they are trying to scoop you up before the other colleges take you. Thus, an open door can be a powerful tool that God uses to either reveal or confirm His will for you. But in order to know for sure if this open door is in fact God showing you His will or if it is merely circumstantial, you must turn to prayer. 

Closed doors can be a little harder to read. But certainly anytime you believe you are taking steps of faith toward what God has for you and a door gets shut in your face, it is a good time to reconsider what you think God is telling you. It may be that you are headed in the wrong direction or it may be that God is teaching you perseverance. Again prayer and listening for His guidance will clarify the matter.

For further reading this week...