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Discerning God’s Will

May 3, 2012

In our Old Testament Survey course yesterday, we talked a little about discerning God’s will. We observed God’s specific commands to David, and we enviously said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got such specific directions?” It’s a common desire.

This conversation reminded me of something my college teacher mentioned. He said that, every year, some freshman would decide that it was ‘God’s will’ that a particular girl (of the boy’s choosing) should date and marry him. Unfortunately (and predictably), the girl disagreed most of the time. (Can you say uncomfortable and a little sketchy?)

Yes, discerning God’s will accurately is an important topic, and one with which many Christians struggle, so I thought it might be worth investigating for a few minutes here.

We’ll start with a quote from a commentary on Galatians by Scot McKnight. He sums up the issue (and the perplexities):

“How do we discern God’s will in our lives? …I am of the view that God’s will encompasses a broad range of options for a Christian, but I think that for some people God’s will may involve a specific vocation. I recently met a man who thought God’s will for his life was working with teen-age drug addicts through an ocean entertainment sailing business. That seemed quite specific to me – in fact, I was quite surprised that he could know so much about God’s will! Others do not find God’s will for them so specifically. We dare not impose any one model on all Christians. For some, God’s will is not so specifically defined: living obediently as a spouse, serving in various capacities in the local church, and striving for justice in the local community through various opportunities. For others it may simply be being a Christian in a large corporation while enveloping such a vocation with an obedient, God-fearing life at home and church. For still others, it may be something specific, like teaching health to Haitian refugees”

Well, that introduces the issue, sort of, but it doesn’t tell us how to discern God’s will.

Concerning that, McKnight writes, “I believe there are three dimensions to discerning God’s will. (1) We need an inner conviction that such a pursuit is what God wants for us. (2) We need the wisdom of our church leaders and elders. (3) We need the feedback and evaluation of experts who observe us in the ministries to which we think we have been called.”

Also, John Stott, in his book The Contemporary Christian, suggests that Christians seeking to know God’s will should “yield, pray, talk (to others in the Christian community), think and wait.” (And, of course, he explains those ideas more fully in his book.)

And, Gary Friesen, in his book Decision Making and the Will of God, argues against a specific will of God for each person for all aspects of life. The Christian, in his estimation, is granted a range of choices within God’s will and (as I understand his position) is only able to discern God’s specific will for that choice in hindsight.

But let’s take a look at a passage in the Bible that addresses this topic, Romans 12:1-2, and see what it says.

There, Paul writes: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

I believe this is a helpful text, as it both underscores some presuppositions that the Christian should share and prescribes a methodology by which the believer can discern God’s perfect will.

Let’s look at the presuppositions first. Here are the three that leap out to me:

  • There is a good, acceptable, and perfect will of God for the believers.
  • That perfect will of God can be discerned and proven.
  • The discernment of God’s perfect will is desirable and necessary.

Now let’s look at the methodology:

  • First, believers must ‘present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.’ Holy lives, lives marked by the confession and renunciation of sin, by an active, wholehearted love for God, and by acts of loving service for God and man, are a prerequisite necessity for the discernment of His perfect will. Holy living must be an ongoing pursuit and reality in the believers’ lives. This can only be realized in the life of a regenerate person who is walking in fellowship with the Lord.
  • Second, believers must refuse to be conformed to the lusts and desires of this world. This requires both an awareness and a determination to eschew those enticements to sin (in commission and omission) with which the ungodly world schema and its ruler bombard believers.
  • Third, believers must be transformed by the renewing of their minds. This is accomplished as believers learn God’s Word and hide it in their hearts. As they do this, the Holy Spirit washes and renews their minds, causing them to exchange the ungodly world and life view from which they were delivered for the godly world and life view that conforms with the Creator’s.
  • Fourth, then, they must test and prove what is His perfect will. The logic of this text reveals that it is only at this point, after the first three steps have been enacted, will be believers be able to test and prove His perfect will. And yet, still, the step of testing and proving remains. This step involves thoughtful, prayerful consideration of His character and ways and then a godly evaluation of all the data. Then, and only then, can the believers be certain of their ability to know His perfect, complete will.

But how would this look in the everyday ‘real-world’ life of the believer? Hmmm… maybe like this…

Trevor (yep, just a made-up name) is a second year college student, and he is trying to discern God’s will concerning his major. Should he be a history major? A business major? A Bible major?

Let’s apply the methodology. Trevor takes stock of his spiritual life and realizes there are areas of significant weakness. He has been indulging in some ‘minor’ sins and hasn’t really been walking consistently with the Lord. He repents and determines to stop doing the naughty things, and he re-establishes his oft-neglected Quiet Time (daily Bible reading, Scripture memory, and prayer). After more thought, he realizes he also has been neglecting the needs of others, so he begins investing some time doing outreach ministries through the campus fellowship at his college. This includes some evangelism and some service projects. As he does all this, he realizes that his thinking, overall, has become a little materialistic, and he decides to memorize some passages from the Bible that address the topic. As he does, he finds that the things that seemed important to him only a few months ago (i.e. that fancy new laptop and car) seem less important.

Then, a funny thing happens, while Trevor is doing a service project with his campus fellowship, he helps out at a local hospice. He finds that the work he is doing there really feels good. He is helping to meet the needs of others (as he performs some basic nursing) and he even has some exciting chances to share the Gospel. And he starts to wonder, what about becoming a nurse?

He wonders where that idea came from. He hadn’t ever considered nursing as a career option. But as he gives it more thought, he starts to wonder whether it might be a leading from the Lord. As he mulls this over, he begins to pray about it, discussing it with other believers and talking over the idea with his parents. His folks and friends all confirm that, yep, they can really see how nursing is a perfect ‘fit’ for Trevor. It brings out the very best in Trevor.

Gradually, Trevor becomes certain that pursuing a degree in nursing is God’s perfect will for him.

Okay, so I think that’s how it would look in ‘real-life.’ But as I look back over this process, I ask myself, is this method infallible? The answer is clearly no. There is a certain degree of fallibility introduced by the deceitfulness of the believer’s heart. We still battle the sin nature, and a believer can inadvertently manipulate the process to get the answer he or she wants. Still, the process itself permits the believer to zero in on God’s perfect will, with greater and greater specificity and confidence.

And, here is two more final observations…

First, did you notice that Paul’s words are addressed to the believers as a whole? This text can and should certainly be applied individually, but might there not be an equally important corporate application? We believers do not live in isolation. We are called to live in community, and we are all part of the Body of Christ. Perhaps we are to recognize that, as we seek, together, to lives godly, separated lives, we can discern His perfect will.

Second, did it strike you that, if you were truly renouncing sin, loving and serving God wholeheartedly, and absorbing God’s Word faithfully, you wouldn’t really need to wonder what His perfect will was? It seems to me that, if I am truly doing all of those things faithfully, I’ll be so busy pursuing His purposes, I won’t need to wonder what His will. I’ll already be doing it. Do you agree?

Well, I guess I’ll leave it there. Let’s discern and do!



  • 8 Things Kids Should Know About Hell. Scriptural teachings about hell are sometimes neglected, but they shouldn’t be. Christ spoke a great deal about the reality of hell and its horrors. This article suggests eight starting points for discussions with kids (and adults) concerning hell. What are your thoughts concerning the duration of hell? Do you agree with the author that the duration of hell’s punishment is not Scripturally clear? Read the article at:
  • John Piper Longs for Stott’s Ambition. In this article, Piper pays homage to the late John Stott, expressing admiration for his determination to remain engaged and relevant in his later years. Piper’s comments are a good reminder that we must sometimes say ‘no’ to the good things in order to say ‘yes’ to the best. Read it at:


  • U.S. Ranked 5th Most Religious Country. This short article summarizes a new survey conducted by the University of Chicago. The survey is interesting in its content, but the findings may be a bit misleading in that respondents in only 30 countries were interviewed. My favorite part of this article was the tongue-in-cheek conclusion: “If you’re looking for fertile soil to plan a church, target senior citizens in Israel.” Read the article at:

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