The major part of my professional and vocational life right now is the teaching I do online. This teaching includes a number of subjects from basic Bible survey courses to graduate courses in practical ministry. Whatever the level of learning among my students, there is one question I am asked more frequently than any other: “How can I know the will of God for my life?” For some this is very general, but for others it may have to do with their specific calling into vocational ministry. Here are some thoughts I have on discerning the will of God.
Our first and most consistent guide to God’s will is of course God’s word. The Bible is our primary source for knowing what God has revealed to humanity. What is more, God will never contradict himself, so anything which is contrary to the Scripture cannot and will not be God’s will for us. Of course, my assumption and belief is that the Bible is God’s word and authoritative for the life of the believer. If one does not accept such authority from Scripture, then this guide will be meaningless. However, for the believer, our faith in the written word of God must lead us to trust his guidance there.
A second way to determine God’s will is to ask a different question: What is God doing in the world and how do I participate in it? This is the question which led me to initially work in Haiti. Many things since have confirmed my choice, but by looking at Haiti seeing what God was doing and how I could participate in it has been the major determinant in how I perceived God’s will for me.
A third way we can discern God’s will is what I call the “open door guidance.” If God wants you to move in a certain direction, he will open doors for you towards that goal. However, this cannot be blind movement. We must also ask, “who is opening this door?” “Should I walk through this door, at this time?” Open doors can be helpful but they are also like the signs Gideon sought: they can be ambiguous and unreliable.
One of the fourth ways to discern God’s will is to practice humility and calmness. As I write this my own heart wants to say, “What do you mean, ‘humility and calmness? This decision is disrupting my whole life! How can I be humble and calm?” Marva Dawn (2000) claims, “God’s purposes will fulfilled whether you participate or not, but perhaps this is exactly why you are in the position you are in” (p. 171). By cultivating the humility that God does not need me, yet God still calls me, we are more likely to understand his calling and our free choice in the process. What is more, we are more likely to sense the moving of God in calmness (Be still and know that I am God), than if we are constantly worried, anxious, or excited. This attitude points to a willingness to be patient in the meantime. As we wait for God’s leading to become clear, we can avoid panic and through patience and prayer we can wait on God/
Finally, one of the most often neglected means for discerning God’s will is within the counsel of the faith community. The Christian life is distinctly communal and when we try to determine God’s will in isolation from others, then we are missing the most important element, next to the Bible, in determining God’s will and purpose. Sometimes it is because the saints know us better than we know ourselves. Sometimes it is because they want what is best for us and can perceive this “best” when we cannot. At other times, the questions and input offered by the community help us think and act more clearly in decisive moments.
So, we should seek to know God’s will through all these methods. But above all, we need to follow God in obedience and joy.