Having worked with 20-year-olds for more than 15 years, and having been a 20-year-old myself in the not-too-distant past, I have noticed a recurring anxiety at times concerning the idea of calling and “discerning God’s will for my life.” Should I take this job? Should I move to this city? Should I become a teacher, physician, engineer, church planter, stay-at-home-mom, realtor and so on? Should I date this girl? Should I break up with this guy? Should I buy this house or rent that one? And the list goes on. These seemingly big decisions can cause analysis paralysis, angst, frustration and even depression. Managing the tension between the desire to obey God, other people’s expectations, our own desires and opportunities available to us, can get to be overwhelming. Does God address this tension in the Scriptures? Thankfully, yes! In fact, we’re instructed to discern God’s will in multiple places throughout the Bible.
HERE ARE A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES:
- “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” – Ephesians 5:15-17
- “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2
Let’s focus on the second verse for a moment. When Paul commands us to be transformed so we can discern the will of God, two questions should naturally occur to the reader:
- What, specifically, does Paul mean by, “the will of God?”
- And, how do we renew our minds in order to be transformed?
I’m going to take a crack at answering, or at least addressing, both of those questions and my hope is that you’re both encouraged and equipped as a result!
WHAT, SPECIFICALLY, DOES PAUL MEAN BY, “THE WILL OF GOD?”
Scholars refer to two different forms of the will of God in Scripture. One is God’s moral will, and the other is His will of decree. His will of decree is that which God orders and it happens absolutely as God determines. “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Boom. That simple. God decrees, and no one or nothing can thwart His purpose. But there is a second manifestation of God’s will – His moral will. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Clearly God’s desired intent is not always fully executed when it comes to His moral will. In that light, Romans 12:2 is clearly speaking of discerning God’s moral will. But we can be more specific than that. We find in Scripture that there are several categories of His moral will. What follows is a representative list:
- Directional Leadership // Most of the big life decisions I mentioned at the beginning of this post would fall into this category. “God, this relationship is going really well, is it ok to get married?” or, “God, do I take the offer in Phoenix or in Baltimore once I graduate?” And so on. God does provide leadership, but perhaps not always in the form we most desire. I’ll come back to this.
- Extrinsic Principles // These are the really clear commands in Scripture: don’t murder, or commit adultery, etc. There is no ambiguity here. We know if we are in God’s will or not thanks to extrinsic principles.
- Intrinsic Guidance // This category touches on the “gray areas: of life. “How many bananas should I buy this week?” or “Should I go to the bank first and then the post office? Or the other way around?” Wait, God cares about that? Yes, keep reading.
Why do I make these distinctions? Because we tend to focus a lot of emotional energy on directional leadership – what we tend to refer to as “God’s calling on my life,” but I would argue that the Scriptures only deal with directional leadership perhaps one percent of the time. There is certainly evidence that God is concerned with what we do with our lives (e.g.“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” – Acts 13:2), but I believe we stress this point a bit too much at times. Next, what about the extrinsic principles we see in Scripture? These help tremendously! But these principles still probably only account for an additional one to three percent of the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. I want to put forward to you that the overwhelming majority of what Paul meant when he exhorts us to, “discern God’s will” is in the area of intrinsic guidance. “But wait!,” you counter, “God is concerned about how many bananas I buy at HEB?” Yes, I believe He is.
THINK ABOUT IT: YOUR LIFE IS PREDOMINANTLY A COLLECTION OF MANY THOUSANDS OF SMALL DECISIONS MADE EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY AND THOSE SMALL DECISIONS HAVE A MASSIVE CUMULATIVE EFFECT ON WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE DO IN THIS LIFE.
And this idea moves us to address the second question:
HOW DO WE RENEW OUR MINDS IN ORDER TO BE TRANSFORMED?
We eat a lot of venison in our home. If you have ever eaten venison, you know that it can be a bit gamey. My wife, in an effort to make the meat more palatable, will put a mixture of Worcestershire (had to look up how to spell that word!) sauce, spices and other tangible expressions of the love of God into a plastic bag and seal up the steaks for a day or two. Why? Because the steaks need to marinate in those flavors until you can’t distinguish the meat from the flavor. Get my point? If you were to simply sprinkle some salt on the steak after it comes off the grill, you could just as easily wash or scrape off that salt and the meat would be unaffected. But after marinating, the meat has been transformed!
DISCERNING GOD’S WILL IS LIKE THAT.
When we carve out time to prayerfully study the Bible, pray and meditate on the nature of God, it is like we are taking our brains out of our skulls and sealing them up in the Worcestershire sauce of Heaven until God’s nature and His ways have soaked into us, utterly transforming us through the miraculous renewal that takes place in our minds! Over time, we come to possess an inner compass, animated by the Holy Spirit, that directs even the subtlest decisions. Buying bananas, while seemingly an inane task when it comes to the things of God, is important because it touches our finances, health and other areas. And the Bible speaks directly to those. But because we don’t sit cross-legged in HEB with our journals in hand trying to discern whether to buy eight or 12 bananas this grocery run, we need to be reprogrammed to where we can make these thousands of small decisions in alignment with God’s moral will on the fly.
I would like to suggest that this is predominantly what Paul meant that we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds to discern God’s will. It’s in the 97 percent of our life that we often don’t see as spiritual, but that God is very much concerned with, i.e. your subtle decisions in conversations, at work, in recreation and so on. Now, the bonus is that as we hide God’s Word in our hearts – as we marinate our minds in the Scriptures – we become equipped to discern God’s moral will when it comes to extrinsic principals (i.e. don’t look at a woman with lust in your heart), as well as His directional leadership. At times, God will speak a clear word to tell us where to go and what to do (e.g. Acts 16:9-10 and the Macedonian vision). I find that to be the exception, however, rather than the rule. Instead, I see that God has first and foremost, “called” us to Himself (Matthew 4:21, Matthew 9:9, Mark 7:14, Mark 8:1, Luke 6:13, Romans 1:6, Romans 8:30, 1 Corinthians 1:9). And then from that place of intimacy, He leads us in every area of life as the Holy Spirit breathes on His word in our heart (e.g. Acts 16:6-8 where Paul had a general call and operated broadly within that context).
HOW DO WE DISCERN THE WILL OF GOD?
We become so saturated in His Word that we become like a glove that is moved by His hand at work in our subconscious. We marinate our brain in the Scriptures, if you will. If you wait to do that until you’re facing a big decision, you’re missing out on the lion’s share of what it means to be a disciple and to live in loving obedience to Jesus Christ. But for the ones who have taken the time to study His Word for themselves and submitted themselves to God’s revealed will in the Scriptures, you know the peace and contentment that abides even in times of great stress when you don’t know what to do. You find that the “big” decisions have taken their rightful place in your soul next to the greater call to submit all of life to His leadership through His Word.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” – 1 Corinthians 10:31
One helpful resource to get started can be found here. If you have never read the whole Bible, now is a great time to start! The whole counsel of God is critical to renewing our minds to be able to discern God’s will.
May God bless you immensely as you study His Word and may you know His peace at every crossroad as a result!
By Mick Murray – Discipleship Night School Director