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Further In: December 2021

How do we discern God’s will?

Kayla Yiu December 1, 2021

Editor’s note: Each month, three staff members respond to an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s teachings. For this round, Amanda Crosby, Tim Rhodes, and John VandenOever discuss what it looks like to pursue God’s will.

In Christian circles, there’s often talk about God’s will but not always a lot of clarity. Do His plans for us include specifics like where we should live or which people to choose as friends? Or does God simply want us to mature in Christlikeness? And how do we proceed if He never confirms one way or the other? This month’s excerpt comes from Dr. Stanley’s book The Will of God:

Even when you are not clear about the choice to make—if for whatever reason He keeps His will concealed—you can take comfort in the fact “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). The Lord takes responsibility for directing you through the fog. As I often say, He will move heaven and earth to show you His will.

Art by Jonathan Todryk

John VandenOever: I think with every promise of God, there's tremendous hope, but most of us desire more specifics. We can know that God is carrying us and guiding us, but it still causes one to ask, “Okay, is this the right path?”

But “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10) is a wonderful biblical rule of thumb I feel can be applied at these times.

Tim Rhodes: I appreciate Dr. Stanley’s addressing the fact that sometimes choices are unclear. The term “God's will” is very loaded—we can feel as if something is wrong unless we have specific direction.

Kayla Yiu: It is really interesting that we expect/want such pinpointed directions from God. Do you think it’s because people in the Old Testament were given specific directions?

John: Perhaps. But we need to remember how unique those instances were. Today, we have far more to go on with the Holy Spirit and the direct teaching of Scripture.

Kayla: When we can’t figure out God’s will, we often think it’s our fault for not being able to hear Him. Why do you think that is?

John: In my experience, I “hear” Him differently than I hear others. I believe as Christians, we hear God confirm His Word, and we hear Him call or lead us in nudges. Maybe, You should talk to Him or You should help them.

Tim: Maybe we think it’s our fault because we assume that all direction and guidance should be clear and decisive.

We assume that all direction and guidance should be clear and decisive.

Amanda: I think many people picture how God directly spoke in the Bible, and now that He seems to do that less, it can be confusing and disheartening.

John: But it’s not always, “Thus saith the Lord.” His Word is written on our hearts. He changes our desire and our abilities, and we lean on Him in faith.

Kayla: In times of uncertainty, I’m quick to think, It must be something I’m doing or not doing. I never think God is just concealing His Will from me right now. But the truth is, if God wants me to know something, He'll make sure I know.

John: I was reading 1 Corinthians 16 today—the end of the letter where Paul usually has his greetings and plans. He was talking about his travel, and what he said he wanted doesn't match up with what he actually did (which we know from Scripture in other books). But he says there in 1 Corinthians 16:7, “if the Lord permits.” It's akin to “if the Lord allows” or “Lord willing” as we often say. 

Amanda: That's interesting, John. And comforting to see that even the people we hold up as heroes in the Bible dealt with the unknown.

John: By all means, we should make plans according to God’s general will, but we should also strive to remain adaptable. He'll close the door or move us on accordingly.

Kayla: That leads into my next question: If God “will move heaven and earth to show you His will,” as Dr. Stanley says, is it possible to miss what He has planned for us?

The truth is, if God wants me to know something, He'll make sure I know.

Amanda: If we're stubborn, we can miss it. But then I think of Jonah—and God essentially said, “Nope, you’re doing this even if I have to carry you there in a fish.”

John: It makes me think of 2 Chronicles 20:12: “Our God, will You not judge them? For we are powerless before this great multitude that is coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are on You.”

Tim: I have to believe that the word “show” is an important part what Dr. Stanley said—that even if God shows us His will, it still requires us to act on it.

John: Knowing God’s will begins with dependence, dying to self. Then, we can walk in His way. It's similar to Romans 12:2, actually—when we're transformed by the renewing of our minds, we understand God's will, good, pleasing and perfect.

Amanda: It's very comforting to know that even if we make mistakes, God will use it all for His purpose in some way. But more so that if we try to do His will, we’ll find it.

Tim: Growing up in the church, I certainly struggled with this when it came to choosing college and career paths, etc. I was discouraged that nothing stood out completely. I really had to rest in the fact that, with the wisdom gleaned from the Holy Spirit through reading Scripture, and by following my conscience, hopefully what I did decide to do would be His will.

Kayla: That makes sense. I think that's how God moves in us the majority of the time.

Amanda: I agree! He seems to want to show us more often rather than tell us.

Kayla: Tim, was there a time when you realized, Oh, this was God's will for me? Or saw some sort of confirmation?

Tim: Yes, I think there was confirmation, or at least a sense of peace that I was where I needed to be. Everything just felt right.

Kayla: Has anyone else experienced that after a time of uncertainty or “fog”?

Even if we make mistakes, God will use it all for His purpose in some way.

John: I was talking to a work colleague today, who was asking about my career, and it made me realize again just how much God has done to put me on my career path. Job to job, position to position, it's crazy what steps He’s taken and the nudges—and that’s just my job. I could deconstruct the rest of my life, too. I know only in part, but that long view is a real encouragement.

Kayla: There's so much patience required for the long view.

Tim: It’s weird looking back at how many things fell into place.

Amanda: That's how I feel about this job and moving to Atlanta! I felt so lost when I was job searching. But after I gave all control to God, everything aligned and it was like coming out of a fog.

Kayla: But then that makes me wonder, Is God’s will always traceable by goodness and peace? Or can it feel hard?

John: Or do you ever look back and doubt? Thinking you had messed up somewhere? Or wasted a certain period of time? What do you do then?

Amanda: We all have regrets and doubts, and it can be easy to get discouraged or feel guilty about past mistakes. But what’s more important is to know God will use it all. Nothing will be wasted.

Tim: I definitely have decisions I've made in the past where I still don’t know what the correct thing to do was. Nothing bad has necessarily happened, but I wonder if I could have handled things differently. I tend to torture myself by overanalyzing every move I make.

Kayla: I guess it comes back to that idea of confirmation—what have you experienced as confirmation of following God's will?

We all have regrets and doubts, but God will use it all. Nothing will be wasted.

Amanda: When I was choosing colleges, I had two favorites, and the one I attended was my backup. Well, God seemed to take the other two colleges off my plate. I looked back a lot in my years there and regretted not picking one of the other schools, and I wondered what it would have been like had I attended elsewhere. But now I can see all of the wonderful things I’ve experienced wouldn't have happened.

John: It comes down to recognizing our moment-by-moment need. When I sin or go off course in something—impatience, anger, unwisely borrowing money—I ask myself, What am I trying to do in my own strength versus waiting and seeking and praying? My fault is often in not praying enough. I’ll pray for two days on something and then make a decision. 

But I've been so encouraged lately by Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” Talk about assurance! If I need something, God will provide it (if it’s good for me).

Kayla: Lately I've been finding a lot of comfort from something C. Lawrence wrote in Double Take: Obedience

I decided to bring up our dilemma one day over tacos with my pastor, explaining the agony of discerning God’s will. Without looking up from his carne asada, he said, “Just do something. And if it’s wrong, repent and do something else.”

“That’s it?” I said.

“Yep. That’s it.”

It’s so freeing.

Tim: Man, I love it. That is an interesting thought—that even if we don't do God's will, it’s not the end of the world. It makes me think of the Martin Luther quote: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”

“Just do something. And if it’s wrong, repent and do something else.”

Kayla: Sometimes I wonder if God's sitting up there thinking, Whoa, I didn't intend for you guys to stress over this so much.

John: Yeah, honestly. I’m not wringing my hands over whether I should volunteer with my church to help the homeless, or give to the food bank, or help with Sunday School. I think our hang-ups with God’s will are usually brought on by more selfish stuff—whom to marry, whether to get a new car (not that those things aren't important). Or at least it feels that way now. But when I’m in the pickle, it’s not easy to say.

Kayla: So I think we've established that 1) we have some sort of responsibility to ponder and act on God's will, and 2) we can't know everything. So how do you personally balance those two things in your life when you're trying to figure out how to move forward?

I’ll admit I do a bit of the hand-wringing and fretting. But every time, I eventually come to this place where I'm exhausted by it and do what I think is best, with the knowledge I've gained following God for so many years. It's not ideal, but it works most of the time—because I know I'm taking things seriously, and also leaning on my trust in God.

Amanda: For me, it comes down to trying to remind myself of the truths of the Bible and asking that cliché, “What would Jesus do?” And I think if something doesn't stand out, we shouldn’t be paralyzed by the decision (though that is easy to do). I pray, wait a bit for an answer, and move based on what I think He’s drawing me toward.

If something doesn't stand out, we shouldn’t be paralyzed by the decision.

John: I think searching for God's specific will comes up in two major ways in my life: 1) when something's before me that I don't really want to do, and 2) when a challenging decision completely overwhelms me.

In the first situation, I probably need to do that thing, while every moment dependent on God. In the second situation, I probably need to take one small step and not think about the enormity of it all. But again, every moment dependent on God.

Tim: Yes! Trust that God brought me this far, and He’s not absent from this specific decision—even if I don't have the clarity I would like.

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