12141295_sRecently I was asked to consider teaching a seminary course on “Discerning God’s Will: Biblical Principles for Christian Decision Making.” Not yet sure what I should do. Having been in church-related work for almost thirty years now means I have taught on this subject many times. Discerning God’s will is in many ways a modern topic. Usually when folks are concerned about how to discover God’s will they are facing decisions like: Is this the person I should marry?” “What course of study should I do?” “Should I take this job?” “Should I emigrate to another country?” Most folks in biblical times didn’t need to struggle with such questions. For work, you would take up the family profession. For example, if your father was a farmer, you were a farmer. Marriages were arranged. And you normally didn’t move to another country unless you were driven out of your own by natural calamities or war. I doubt that there would have been a big market for a course on discerning God’s will in biblical times. And that may explain why there are no passages in the Bible that expound on a process for seeking God’s will.

In today’s world however, many of us have the luxury and the responsibility of a personal choice in many areas of life. And if we are serious about our faith, we want to live lives of obedience, making choices that are in line with God’s will. However we still have to come to terms with the fact that no bible passage teaches explicitly on the topic. We need to put together models for discerning God’s will that draw on biblical principles. Existing models range from highly rational ones that discourages one from any sort of direct leading from the Lord, models where all we need to do is apply biblical principles to the decisions we have to make — to models where we can hear clearly and concretely from the Holy Spirit all the time.

My own model incorporates elements of both. We need to apply biblical wisdom to the decisions we have to make. Indeed I would suggest that many decisions fall under this category. Yet there are also times when the still small voice guides us. I don’t think it is “either-or.” Any biblical model of discerning the mind of God must take seriously both the “wisdom” and the “prophetic” dimensions in decision-making. And there is always the need to take seriously the community when we seek the Lord. We all have blind spots and are more prone to substituting our voice for God’s voice than we realise. We are safer when we listen together with others.

In more recent times however, I have moved away from focusing on a method to discerning God’s will, to trusting in God Himself. Indeed through the years I have warned those that I teach that the goal of any decision making process is not to try to find a system that ensures you never make mistakes, but to rely on a God of grace who will guide you and teach you even when you make mistakes. I point folks to verses like Psalms 37:23-24:

The Lord grants success to the one
whose behavior he finds commendable.
Even if he trips, he will not fall headlong,
for the Lord holds his hand. (NET)

God’s will is not a tight rope where I walk alone, and where mistakes in discernment are fatal. If it were, I would live my life in fear, always searching for the perfect formula for discovering God’s will so I won’t make any mistakes. Instead I see life as a road. I walk this road holding my Father’s hand. He speaks to me and guides me. I grow in my ability to hear His voice. Sometimes I get it wrong but Abba has a firm hold on me so that I do not fall headlong. He helps me clean up my mess. He helps me learn from my mistakes so that I can better hear Him in future. I still have guidelines for discerning the mind of God in the decisions I have to make. But I have come to a point in my life where more and more, my ultimate trust is in my heavenly Father, and not in a method. In the words of Rose Mary Dougherty:

Sometimes, though, we forget what we have learned from love. We revert to asking ourselves like: “How can I be sure that I am doing God’s will? How do I know that what I discern is really what God wants and not just what I want? How can I be sure I will make the right decision?” We may then look for processes that will guarantee the rightness of our decisions.

There is no human process that can protect us from mistakes and failures. We will never really be sure of the right course of action. As long as we are human and dealing with other human beings, we will be subject to uncertainty and ambiguity in our motives. We can. However, open ourselves to God in the uncertainty, in the ambiguity, and allow the compulsion for rightness to be transformed into an openness to responsible love. (Group Spiritual Direction, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995, 30.)

I am not suggesting that we do not attempt to discern God’s will. (Lord, should I teach the course on discerning your will?) I am saying that my ultimate hope is not in any method of discerning His will or even in my conclusions of what that may be. My ultimate hope is in God Himself.