The Path of Discernment — Knowing What God Wants You to Do

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One of the key tensions in the lives of people of faith has to do with how they make decisions. To what extent do we look to God for guidance in the decisions we are making? To what extent do we simply rely on our own knowledge and understanding? To what degree do we expect guidance from God, and how does this guidance come?

The archetypal image of divine guidance comes from the story of the Babylonian king Belshazzar, recorded in Daniel 5. One day at a party in his palace, a large human hand appeared, and wrote a message on the wall. This was understood to be God giving a message, which Daniel later translates for the king.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could get messages from God like that? Who of us hasn’t struggled with a question or decision, and wished that God would just TELL US — maybe by writing a message on the wall, or in the sky.

In my book, Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind, I devote an entire chapter to this issue. I have seen how for many people of faith, this lack of confidence about God’s calling and direction gets in the way of much of our service.

In the book I talk about the disconnect many people feel between their own desires and dreams and what they believe God wants or expects from them. I believe that the key to reconciling this tension — seeking of divine guidance vs exercising our own understanding and judgment — is to acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. For the believer who is filled with the Spirit, seeking God’s guidance is not a matter of trying to read the tea leaves of life’s circumstances, or trying to discern an audible, external voice … rather it’s about tuning into the deep knowing that comes from the Spirit of God within your own conscious awareness.

George Muller on God’s Guidance

On my recent travels I’ve been re-reading the biography of George Muller, the German immigrant pastor in England who started and ran a number of orphanages during the 1800s. Muller was a man of deep piety and great faith. He ran these orphanages on the principle of prayer and faith. He published news of his doings, and reports of how God helped him and answered prayers, but he never charged any money — relying exclusively on donations from people — and never specifically asked for donations, even in the most dire need.

He had to make lots of decisions, and relied on divine guidance to make them, since he was also relying to divine resources to pay for the ongoing work of feeding and caring for the children in his orphanages. The fruits of his life work are almost unimaginable. Over the course of his life, in addition to pastoring a church, he oversaw the care of 10,024 orphans, and established 117 schools which offered Christian education to more than 120,000 children. I encourage you to read anything by or about Muller.

Muller was often asked, since he was so outspoken about his commitment to only do the things that he felt God clearly wanted him to do, how did he go about discerning that? How could he know what God’s will is?

Here is how Muller describes his process:

  1. I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually a little away to the knowledge of what his will is.
  2. Having done this, I do not leave the results to feeling or simple impressions. If so, I make myself libel to great delusions.
  3. I seek the will of the Spirit of God through, or in connection with, the Word of God. The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions also.
  4. Next I take into account providential circumstances. These plainly indicate God’s will in connection with his Word and Spirit.
  5. I ask God in prayer to reveal his will to me aright.
  6. Thus through prayer to God, the study of the Word and reflection, I come to a deliberate judgment according to the best of my ability and knowledge, and if my mind is at peace, and continues to be so after two or three more petitions, I proceed accordingly. In trivial matters and in transactions involving most important issues, I have found this method always effective.

It’s interesting and instructive to look at these steps. They seem at first to be contradictory. For example, in his second point he says he doesn’t leave the results to “feeling or simple impressions,” but it becomes clear in his last two points that he is,  indeed, relying on the feelings or impressions of what he senses God wants him to do.

I think the key is to recognize that he doesn’t rely on feelings or impressions alone, and especially not in the short term.

Relying on feelings or impressions is what I would consider to be his sense of “inner knowing,” or prompting from the Holy Spirit within. Even though this is a significant part of how he made decisions, Muller’s process qualifies this aspect of guidance, looking for checks and balances to be sure that he was actually tuning into Divine guidance within, rather than the desires of his own ego. Those qualifiers were:

  • an effort get to place of no personal preference either way, thus (hopefully) limiting the desires or fears of the ego (#1)
  • seeking input and clarity from the Bible, believing that internal guidance would not contradict the guidance given there (#3)
  • checking to see if his internal feelings and impressions align with how events were unfolding, — “taking into account providential circumstances” — but not jumping to conclusions about guidance based on those circumstances either (#4)
  • (maybe most important) seeing how all these factors come into alignment over time, rather than trusting his instincts or internal sense in a single moment in time (#6)

How about you? How do you seek to know what God wants from you?

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Community Builder

This is a very helpful article - Thanks. I often pray for that deep sense of knowing, which gives me confidence and peace to move forward and to stay in that path. It's not an easy thing - I find encouragement knowing that God wants us to know him and to know his will. He doesn't play hide-and-seek games, rather he longs to reveal more of himself to hearts that seek him. 

Community Builder

Your very last question -- How do you seek to know what God wants from you? -- is quite different from the heading on this piece -- Knowing what God wants you to do -- and yet the answer is the same.

God wants our obedience. God longs to have us depend on Him for all that we need, want, are.

Several years ago, after a long and varied career in communication and journalism, I took six months off to discern God's will in my life. To ask God: "What's next?" Through that intimate time of devotions, I learned to 'let go'; that it didn't really matter that I had to find out what God has in mind for me. God has it all figured out.

It took time but I did develop that mindset of 'letting go'. Depending on God. I developed this image in my mind of a bicycle built for two. I'm sitting on the back; God is up front.  And each day -- I still do this -- I ask God: "Where to today? Who will I meet? How can I be used by you?" And each day His answer is the same: "Never mind; just keep peddling."

God steers and directs my life and I'm along for the ride.  But this isn't a passive ride. If you stop peddling a bike, you fall off.

So, I do my work. I facilitate a pile of breakfast meetings where I expose Christian business leaders to biblical principles that apply to leadership.

Matthew 6 regularly comes to mind. "Why worry about life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear." Since God oversees Creation, he cares even more about me.

So, what does God require from me? Obedience. Being open to God's leading every day.  There is, therefore, no need to worry about anything.

Here's my rule of thumb: "Only worry about the things over which you have control. Then fix them. Anything that isn't under your control is in God's hands. Let Him worry about that."

Community Builder

Interesting.  It took me a long time to find my way because my gifts didn't fit into the conventional ways of serving God in the CRC, where if you're not called to be a pastor, sing in the choir, or teach Sunday School it's easy to wonder if you can serve at all. Eventually, through my gift of writing, my experience with mental illness and bilingualism I found my niche, but it was a slow process.  

And before I ended up as Regional Advocate, and translator of sermon power points, I was baking desserts for Community Supper.  Now it seems that the denomination, or at least the Canadian branch of it, may find further use for my writing and translation skills.  

In the process I have sought God's guidance, though not as precisely as Rev. Muller, and He used my abilities and interests to guide me.  So for those seeking God's guidance about their vocational choices I'd say that He will use who you are and your skills and interests to direct you.  He made you the way you are, so He's not going to try to force you into some career or calling you have neither ability or interest for.  God doesn't waste his time creating people to like certain things and then forcing a square peg into a round hole.  Life might do that to you, but God won't.

Community Builder

I just finished reading the latest issue of Word Alive, the magazine of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and in it there is a devotion that should interest everyone seeking to know God's will for their lives.  I recommend it, but I can't provide a link.  Maybe somebody can find it?