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Thursday 18 April 2024

How to Discern God’s Will


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What do we really mean when we ask, “How do we discern the Spirit’s voice in our lives?” or “What is God’s will for my life?” I think when we ask this we are usually asking one of three questions? Either, “What does God want me to do?” Or “What does God have in store for my life?” or “What is God saying to me now?” I think this is what we are really asking, and these are valid questions. Part of the problem though is that Christians can ask these questions with some wrong assumptions. I think a lot of Christian’s genuinely believe that God is going to tell each and every person what his plan for their life is, like he did for Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Paul, and other biblical figures. Many Christians think he is going to come in a dream, or a prophecy, or a flash of a fiery chariot from the sky and hand you his commissioning papers for your life, or tell you who to marry, where to apply for a job, and what car to buy. Some people think, we need to listen for that still small voice of the Holy Spirit whispering in our heart before we make an important life decision or even some mundane decisions. The problem is that these are wrong assumptions about how God is going to answer a valid question: ‘what is God’s will for my life?’

This is a question many people ask at many points in their life, so let’s see if we can build a biblical framework for how to go about seeking God’s will. Let’s see what the Bible says.

Seeking God’s Will in the Old Testament

Let’s begin by looking at how people sought God’s will in the Old Testament. This is a good place to start because a lot of Christians don’t realize we need to distinguish between God’s work in the Old covenant, and his work in the new. So how did God speak to people in the Old Testament? 1 Samuel 28:6-7 tells us of three ways and I will add one a little later, “6 He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her. “There is one in Endor,” they said.”

What is happening here is that God is refusing to speak to Saul through his usual means, so Saul goes to a witch, but the take away is this passage mentions three ways God speaks:

  1. Dreams – we know what this is about, God spoke to Joseph, Jacob and Solomon through dreams. Joseph’s dreams are famous, and have made it into Broadway plays. Solomon’s are just as famous. God did come in dreams, but only rarely. In fact, there was about 12 years between when Joseph had his first dreams, and then in prison interpreted the baker and cupbearers’ dreams, and another two years for Pharaoh’s. So even Joseph is not recorded as always having these dreams. 
  2. Urim and Thummin – This sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, “You must consult the Urim Frodo”. The Urim was used with the Thummim, and a priestly vestment, and the priest would consult God, and withdraw one of the stones. This seems to be one of the most common ways God answered the question, “What shall I do?” For example in situations where David is deciding to go into battle (like in 1 Samuel 30:7-10). Before he goes to battle in 1 Samuel 30, he seeks the Lord’s answer to the questions, should he go, or should he not. It’s likely that in this situation he is actually seeking God through the Urim and Thummim.

This practice was similar to casting lots (cf. Prov. 16:33), something which the disciples did to choose the twelfth apostle (Acts 1), before they received the Holy Spirit.

  1. Prophets – These guys are famous, starting with Moses we get heaps of prophets until Malachi. Most of the role of these guys was to address kings, leaders of Israel, including important priests, and other prophets, and sometimes the entire nation as one. There are a few exceptions, like where both Elisha and Elijah ministered to poor women who were foreigners to Israel. But nowhere in the Old Testament do we see prophets holding worship services and just dishing out to all of God’s people his personal plan for their lives, or answers to who they should marry, and whether or not they should go to Uni, or start their own business. We just don’t see this.

Also, these prophets could not drum up God’s word in themselves. Peter tells us no prophecy was ever produced by the will of men (2 Pet. 1:21). Some only had God come a couple of times with a message, like Amos, and Jonah, some prophesied multiple times across most of their life, like Moses and Jeremiah.

  1. Theophany’s/Visions – I said I add would another way, and that is Theophany’s, or direct visitations of God. This is probably the most famous way. We see it with God visiting Isaiah and of course the famous burning bush visit with Moses, and many others. These visitations often involved angels or even the Angel of the Lord.

God came to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5) and said these very famous words, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5) Here God comes to Jeremiah and tells him what his plan for his life is, God did the same for Moses, Joseph, Isaiah and others in the Old Testament. But never does the Old Testament teach us that God came to every single person to tell them what his plan for their life was.

I hear some people thinking. What about through his word. Remember they did not have personal Bibles in those times. Though what Scriptures did exist, in the temple or the palace, God certainly spoke through.

How the New Testament Believer Should Discern God’s Will

God still speaks in much the same way now, as he did in the Old Testament, in fact in some ways he has increased his supernatural work,  

“17 ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

God has increased his supernatural work through the presence of his Holy Spirit in every believer. We should be seeing dreams, and visions, and prophecies in the New Testament church, and people certainly do. I do not deny that God can and does speak to people still today. But we need to ask ourselves this question? Does this mean that when it comes to making big decisions in life that we should always wait on God for a dream, a vision, a prophecy, or a direct visitation from God himself? Or try to discern the Spirit’s voice in our heads or hearts?

No, because God does not promise to reveal his secret will for our lives to all of us. He actually sets out a very different method for seeking his will and making decisions for our lives. He tells us in Roman’s 12:2, “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.” The world tells us to follow our hearts, songs tell us to follow our hearts, love stories tell us to follow our hearts. Many parts of this world will tell us to look internally to discern God’s will for us, or what God is saying to us. But the Bible contradicts this.

We are told, “be transformed.” We don’t discern God’s will for our lives by chasing after dreams, prophecies and visions, otherwise you will never act. Nor do we seek his will by trying to sense it like some kind of Jedi Knight, the feelings of our heart are more often than not deceptive rather than helpful (Jer. 17:9). The voices we hear in our head should not be examined to see if they are our voice, a demon’s voice or the Holy Spirit’s voice. That is not how we discern the will of God, or the leading of the Spirit. No we do it by having our mind renewed and transformed. How do we do this? By reading God’s word and saturating our minds with his truth.

If you do this “you will know his will.” This means when the Bible says that we discern ‘the will of God,’ or “discern the leading of the Spirit”, we are discerning what he says in his word that we can do, and can’t do, what we should do, and what we shouldn’t do. All that is good, acceptable, and perfect for us to do is revealed in Scripture. In other words, we are discerning God’s revealed will, what he has written for us is, in his grace and mercy. In this we have a massive advantage over Old Testament saints because they didn’t all have Bible’s, and most of the prophets walking around Israel were false prophets, which is the same today, but we have God’s word to help.

We are not promised to know God’s specific will for our lives, but we are given his revealed will and this helps us to act according to the will of God. Here are examples of how the Bible says this:

1 Thessalonians 4:1-5,

“4 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;…”

You see here how Paul is outlining the will of God for us so that we don’t have to try and work it out. This is how the Holy Spirit guides us.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-21,

“16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.”

Here Paul is saying clearly what God’s will for us is: rejoice, always. He does not deny God can speak through prophetic utterances, but he simply says test them. And how do you test them? Well, do they line up with God’s revealed will in his word? If not you are being deceived. If yes then perhaps God has spoken to you.

1 Peter 2:13-17,

“13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

What is God’s will here? That we do good and so silence the talk of foolish people who seek to criticize the Church and Christians.

So, if you want to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice then what do you need to do? Not look within, you simply need to pick up a Bible, read it in context and listen. This is a prominent and important teaching in the Bible. This is also actually taught in the Proverbs 3:5-8 where Solomon says,

“5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”

Solomon is saying the same thing here as Peter and Paul.

“Trust the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” is equal to “be not wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” To discern God’s will, to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice, we need to recognize that we are fallen people, with fallen thinking, and that our understanding is not perfect. So, we must lean into God, and trust him to guide us. If you do this and “…in all your ways acknowledge him…he will make straight your paths”. In all that we do we have to get to know God and we will know which way to go. How do we do this? We read his word, pray for his Spirit to fill us, and we ask for wisdom which he promises to give.

And when we do this “8 It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” It will be freeing. Have you ever felt the physical effects of not knowing what to do? Rather than living in fear, of not knowing what to do or what to decide, we can take what God has told us in his word and apply it to our lives and make decisions based on how we know he would have us act. And we also know that he gives us freedom, within the guidelines of his words, to make our own decisions. You don’t need to try and discern the guiding of the Spirit in some force-like way. You simply need to read God’s word, prayer regularly, seek godly counsel and make wise decisions. Whenever we read God’s word, we hear the Spirit speaking to us, “and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, (Eph. 6:17). God’s word has great power to transform us,

“11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:11-12).

As I said above, seeking guidance from wise counsellors is important too. Don’t forget this. Proverbs 11:14, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in abundance of counsellors there is safety.” 

What does this all look like? Let’s get really practical:

Seeking the Spirit’s leading on marriage? Look at what the Bible says about marriage: do not be unequally yoked, men you need to provide, etc, etc.

Seeking the Spirit’s leading on your profession? Look at what the Bible says: whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.

Seeking the Spirit’s leading on friends? Look at what the Bibles says: don’t be in the company of fools.

Seeking the Spirit’s voice on where to go to Church? Look at what the Bible says: engage in a church that teaches God’s word, where they love one another, and seek to be a light to the world.

Seeking the Spirit’s voice on how to use your money? Look at that the Bible says: be generous, give, and be a good steward. 

God wants us to use our mind, a mind that we have worked hard to fill with the knowledge of him, and he wants our hearts to desire what he would desire, and then he wants us to act. If he decides to come to you in a more specific and supernatural way then that is completely at his choosing. But considering what the people went through who God came to in the Bible, you may not want to crave that too much.

Led by the Spirit?

What the Bible says about being led by the Spirit is often misunderstood by many Christians as well. They see this and they think, “Aha, this is where I need to work out what the Spirit’s voice is saying to me.” Pastors who teach this are incredibly irresponsible and having grown up in Pentecostal churches one of the flaws I saw in that denomination[1] (all denominations are imperfect) is that a lot of mentally unwell, or mentally fragile people were incredibly attracted to that theology of seeking God’s voice because it affirmed their highly subjective way of living their lives and following God. To this day I believe that charismatic Baptists, Pentecostals, and others which teach people to “listen for the still small voice of the Spirit” are doing incredible damage, but especially to mentally ill people.

Being led by the Spirit is about having your desires prompting you to live righteously, not sinfully. Paul is clear about this. For instance in Romans 8 he says this,

“12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:12-17).

There is nothing in here about having to try and hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Paul simply means that the Spirit prompts us to live righteously and the flesh prompts us to sin, follow the leading of the Spirit to do what is right, not the flesh. The Spirit prompts us to cry out in praise to God, calling him father, we do not need to try and listen for its voice.

As clear as this in in Romans, Paul makes it even more clear in Galatians,

“16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:16-26).

Again, there is nothing here about listening for the still quiet voice of God to be led by the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit’s leading is righteous living, the fruit of the flesh is sin. If you want to be led by the Spirit read God’s word, and do no override your conscience to sin. You hear the Spirit’s voice in his word and you following his leading by feeding the righteous impulses of the Spirit in your life.

So, we now have a framework of how to discern God’s will in our lives: read his word, pray, seek wise counsel and recognize that your thinking is flawed and therefore it is good to seek wise counsel from others. And whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.   

[1] I am not picking on them, every denomination has its issues.

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