In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.
How do we decide, then?
There is one, and only one, passage in the New Testament that explicitly tells us how we will learn to discern the will of God:
I exhort you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God: present your bodies as a sacrifice—living, holy, acceptable to God—as your reasonable worship and do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, so that you may be able to discern what is will of God: what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2, my translation)
As I have argued in my exegesis of this text, Paul tells us here that the way we grow to know the will of God is by pursuing the transformation of our mind as we grow in holiness. This is harder work than learning to lean on our subjective senses of things, certainly, and it really does not offer us the kind of assurance about day-to-day decisions that so many of us are looking for. It fits with the rest of Scripture’s witness, though, and (as I will argue in a moment) is ultimately a liberating reality.
There are a number of other passages which confirm that the Christian way of making decisions is simpler than we have made it. On the one hand, we have the many examples outlined above. Most notably, the Jerusalem council simply reasoned from the Scriptures and made a decision—and this about an incredibly important decision for the health of the whole church. In his epistle, James rebuked his audience for presuming that their days were theirs to plan, but his counsel was not to look for a sense from God about their course of action. Instead, he enjoined them to simply make their plans humbly: “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15). Similarly, Paul would write of his own plans that he would visit the church at Rome if it was God’s will (Romans 1:15, 15:32).
From this completed picture, we learn a basic pattern for discerning the will of God. First, bow to what he reveals unambiguously. For us, this is both first and finally the Scriptures, where God has declared clearly what he wants us all to know, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thus know that God’s will for us is above all to know him and Jesus Christ, whom he sent into the world. This is what the Holy Spirit is doing above all: sanctifying us and bringing us into the knowledge of God. All his gifts to the body are given so that people will know and worship Jesus Christ the Risen Lord.
Second, if God should speak clearly and unambiguously to us, we should listen! I know one person who has claimed to hear God speaking directly to her about circumstances in her life—and as long as the things this person hears accord with Scripture, I would be far more inclined to grant that validity than any subjective sense, because it does accord with how God acted in the Bible! Any such revelation—whether an audible voice, a prophecy given in the church, or a dream or vision which has meaning clearly understood—must be judged against the final authority of Scripture. I would also suggest that, from my survey of Scripture, God usually speaks in that way not simply for the ordinary circumstances of our lives, but when he is accomplishing something specific to salvation history. To bring that down to earth: I think it far more likely that God would speak in that way for direction to the church than for direction to individuals (though I do not rule it out for the latter).
Third as we pursue holiness and live in close community with other believers, we will be able to come to wise decisions about the courses of action we ought to take. If the church at Jerusalem could come to a decision about a complex issue with massive implications for the future of the church in this way, we can make decisions in our own lives this way!
All of this highlights a reality that I find increasingly liberating. God does not mean for us to discover his plan for our lives and then live it out, but rather to discover it by living it out. It is not that he does not care about our jobs, or our families, or our homes, or any of a myriad other decisions we make day to day. Rather, it is first of all that he cares far more that we know and delight in him, and secondly that he is providentially orchestrating all those things to bring us closer to him.
As a result, I do not have to worry day by day whether I am doing the “right” thing. Most of the decisions in my life are morally neutral, and nearly all of the rest are obviously spelled out in Scripture. (For the remaining few, we have ethics classes at the seminary to think through incredibly complex and difficult issues for a reason.) For all those morally neutral decisions, Jaimie and I ask together, “What seems good to us? What will allow us to most effectively glorify God?” We pray for wisdom. We seek counsel from our friends and family, especially those who are believers. We invite input from our pastors and others with whom we are in fellowship at our church. If God spoke to us audibly, or clearly in a dream, we would listen! Above all, we continually seek to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” as Paul enjoins us in Romans, pursuing holiness.
In the end, we make the decision that seems best to us. The bigger the decision, the more time we will spend on all of those steps—but at no point do we worry about “having a peace” about the decision or look for a subjective sense of what to do. We trust that God is good, and in his providence works all things to good, and recognize that he has not revealed his will for our lives to us, but allows us the chance to grow in wisdom and make good decisions. This is incredibly freeing. More importantly, it is in accord with Scripture.
To quote my favorite book on this subject… just do something. Prayerfully, thoughtfully, in community, while pursuing holiness, yes—but just go do something.