It would seem that some believers are virtual atheists. They keep God in some spiritual compartment of their lives while they carry on with their day to day business as though God isn’t there. Decisions like — “Should I stay or should I emigrate? Should I marry? Should I marry this person? Should I serve God in the marketplace or in a church related vocation?” — are taken with them firmly in the driver’s seat and often with decision making processes no different from friends who are not believers.
But there are those who are serious about their faith. They believe that if God is not Lord of all He is not Lord at all. They are serious about seeking God’s mind about the key decisions of their lives. But they are not quite sure as to how one gets to know God’s will.
I have a whole seminar on this topic but I often disappoint folks when I start by saying that the bible does not prescribe a formula for knowing God’s will. Life would be so much easier if some part of Holy Writ were to give us five steps to discern God’s will. But there is no such passage in the Bible. And I suspect that making things easy is not God’s number 1 priority for us. Which is not to say that the bible is completely silent on the matter.
A good starting point to reflect on how we can discern God’s mind is Romans 12:1-8:
“Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment, as God has distributed to each of you a measure of faith. For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.
And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.”
I see at least three principles for discerning God’s mind in this passage.
1. To discern God’s mind we must first be surrendered to God.
In this passage Paul exhorts believers to give themselves to God as living sacrifices, the only response possible in view of God’s overwhelming love for us. If we were to come before the Lord and say: “Lord you show me your will first then I decide whether I will follow” we shouldn’t be surprised that heaven is silent.
But if we come before the Lord saying with our mouths and our hearts, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” we will be in a position where we are able to hear Him. I suspect that for some of us, it’s not so much getting to know God’s will. It’s surrendering to what we already know.
2. To discern God’s mind we need to have a renewed mind.
Indeed v.2 gives us the specific promise that with a renewed mind we will be able to “test and approve what is the will of God.” This seems to be a fundamental principle for discerning God’s will — we need to have minds that have been transformed by God’s truth.
Unfortunately few today are willing to put in the hard work needed to master God’s word and to let God’s word master them. Many do not read the bible at all or treat the bible like a phone directory, turning to it only when we need an answer to some pressing question. Others truly love the study of God’s word. They have an impressive mastery of the content of Scriptures, but they have never let the Word tutor their hearts.
And there are those who believe that the Lord speaks to them in direct and dramatic ways — through dreams, visions, prophecies, signs, direct words, etc. I believe that God can speak to us in a variety of ways.
But how do we know whether a word one has received is from the Lord, our own flesh or from some malevolent spirit? We still need a basis for testing. We still need minds renewed by the Scriptures.
It would seem that the no one need for God’s people is to acquire the renewed minds needed to discern the mind of God. This is hard work but God’s long term goal is our transformation. Which may explain why He refuses to be an oracle who is consulted at His people’s convenience.
3. To discern God’s mind we need the help of the Christian community.
Paul envisages the normal Christian life as one lived in intimate community with other believers, as “members who belong to one another.” In the body of Christ there are people with different gifts who will be able to help us discern God’s mind — teachers whose ministry will be foremost in helping our minds to be renewed by God’s word; prophets whom God may use to give us a timely application of God’s word for a specific decision we need to make; exhorters whom God can use to build up our faith and courage to do what we know we should do; and leaders who help give guidance and direction to the community.
Therefore, one should not be seeking God’s mind in isolation. Seeking God’s mind presupposes a normal Christian life where we are in communities of people who know God and who know us. Unfortunately, the pace and structure of modern life mean many Christians live out their faith alone. And many churches are structured in such a way that there is little room for real community. Fellowship is superficial and programmes take precedence over relationships. And we wonder why our people struggle to discern God’s mind or give up trying.
Maybe we have been asking the wrong questions. Maybe the real question is not “how can I discern God’s mind.” Maybe the prior question is, “how do we help the church be more of what it should be.” If brothers and sisters continue to function as autonomous beings, biblically illiterate, and alone, no technique of discerning God’s mind is going to mean much.
Of course we need to continue to struggle with how we can discern God’s mind. But it would seem that a more fundamental concern is how we can return God’s people to the Lordship of Christ, the transforming study of the Word, and to authentic community. Now that, for sure, is God’s will.