“What’s God’s will/plan/direction for my life?” That’s certainly a question that many college students have, and so being involved in campus ministry you frequently get into discussions about how to best discern God’s will and purpose for our lives. And while everyone has heard such standard counsel as “pray for wisdom and discernment”, even dedicated Christ-followers can sometimes get confused about how to recognize exactly when God is speaking to them, and what He might be saying. It’s certainly a question I’ve had on numerous occasions in my own life, and so I want to reflect on this theme a little further, looking into Scripture for answers, borrowing from the wisdom of some other ministry leaders who I’ve heard speak on this topic, and thinking about my own experiences.
The first place to go, naturally enough, to know the Will of God, is the Word of God. As Psalm 119:105 proclaims “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” But even as we search the Word of God for clarity and counsel in the decision-making process, or to better understand God’s Will, we can become confused because there is such a multitude of information there. Scriptural interpretation can be done poorly too—many people have been led astray over the years as a result of the common error known as eisegesis and the related problem of “prooftexting.” Exegesis involves the process of drawing out significance and meaning from a Biblical text. Ideally the text should speak for itself, regardless of whether the conclusions drawn may be difficult or challenging in their implications for us as Christians. A few corollary rules of thumb that help with exegesis are to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture. Thus we should never look at verses in isolation, but seek to understand them in their proper context, and in relation to other verses or passages in the Bible. The great father of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther had a clear criterion for his approach to Biblical exegesis—“what promotes Christ.” He also said that “all Scripture is interpreted by its relationship to the gospel.” The problem with eisegesis is that it involves several potential errors. An individual takes a single verse or a handful of verses in isolation, and attempts to build a theology, or make conclusions based on those verses alone. They don’t use reference to other parts of Scripture, including the full teachings of Christ in the Gospels which would form a necessary part of the interpretive process following Luther’s rubric. “Prooftexting” could be understood as a form of eisegesis in which someone approaches the Biblical text with strong, pre-formed ideas or opinions that they then seek to justify by selectively citing certain verses. Prooftexting has been used historically to make it appear as though even such evils as slavery were “Biblically” supported, so we can well imagine the danger of such an exegetical strategy. Luther’s call to use Jesus as the focal point for all Scriptural interpretation is a timeless truth that was echoed much later by the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which stated– “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
And the Bible itself makes this claim, if not explicitly, then certainly implicitly, in 1 John 4:1-3. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” John’s guidelines here are startlingly simple. The discernment of spirits, and by extension we could add, the interpretation of Scripture, comes down to the question of whether Christ is promoted, honored, and exemplified in the process. These verses from 1 John are timely reminders too that there are a lot of deceptive spirits abroad in the world. Satan likes nothing better than to get Christians to constantly second-guess God’s will and purpose for their lives. And sometimes the source of second-guessing and doubt can be none other than our fellow Christians. An example of this, as well as how to put the principles of 1 John 4:1-3 into action can be found in Acts 21:1-14. In this passage, we find Paul on his way to Jerusalem. He stops for a period of a week at Tyre, staying with believers. Acts 14:4 then notes how “They told Paul through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.” Then, when Paul came to Caesarea, a certain Agabus came to visit him. He was known to have the gift of prophecy (Acts 11:27-28), and he delivered a dire prediction in Acts 21:11—“When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his own hands and feet, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.” Given that within just a few weeks Paul had received two separate warnings from believers, supposedly speaking with the influence of the Holy Spirit to not go to Jerusalem, what do we make of his response in verses 13 and 14? “Then Paul answered, “What do you mean by weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Clearly, it seems, the Holy Spirit is also speaking to Paul, and sharing with him a message reminiscent of Paul’s own exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7-8 (“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God”). Interestingly too, it seems that these other believers ultimately respect Paul’s decision, and thereby the power of the Holy Spirit to guide him in the correct paths. Verse 14 states: “So when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, “The will of the Lord be done.”
This is a fascinating passage on so many different levels. But perhaps the central question is whether the Holy Spirit was in fact also speaking to Agabus and those Christians in Tyre just as it was to Paul? We cannot answer with 100% certainty, for God alone knows who truly has heard the voice of the Spirit. But it does appear that perhaps the other believers and Agabus received an incomplete message from the Spirit. On the one hand their concerns were completely justified—Paul was indeed arrested in Jerusalem when he entered the Temple, and could have easily been beaten to death by an angry Jewish mob had the Roman authorities not intervened. And yet Paul was fully aware of this risk, and accepted it willingly as part of his calling as an apostle of Christ. Indeed, at the outset of Paul’s conversion, the disciple Ananias is given an insight into what will be the nature of this former Christian persecutor’s new ministry—“But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul lists in great detail the extensive sufferings he has faced for the sake of the Gospel. Given this context, he would probably be suspicious of any spirit which told him to avoid spreading the Gospel out of regards for his own personal safety! Paul’s Christ-centered discernment allows him to not take the easy way out, and so even when fellow believers are trying to dissuade him, he remains faithful to a difficult calling.
I’ve heard several ministers teach on the subject of listening to God’s calling for your life, and the spiritual discernment process which that entails. The pastor at my home church, First Baptist Montgomery, Jay Wolf, takes a multi-pronged approach to this question. His five keys to unlocking God’s Will at any given point in one’s life involve prayer, Scripture, wise counselors, reason, and what he calls “sanctified imagination”, or the ability to envision a future situation or scenario through the eyes of faith. Jay emphasizes that God-honoring decisions need to be taken carefully, and in light of all these different sources of truth and wisdom. A variation of the muli-faceted approach which has four, rather than five pillars is something I learned about in seminary known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” The 20th century Methodist theologian and philosopher Albert Cook Outler coined the term, in reference to the method of theological reflection that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had employed. Outler theorized that Wesley used four main spiritual or theological norms—Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Of these four however, Scripture held primacy. One’s God-given reason, the rich legacy of the universal church tradition, and personal spiritual life experiences could all be factored in, and could even help in the interpretation of Scripture, but ultimately God’s Word alone could offer the definitive source for ascertaining the Divine Will and theological truth. Another perspective on this question comes from Brian Carlucci, a pastor on staff at Cornerstone Church in Boulder. He came to speak to our ministry a few months ago, and addressed this very topic of discerning God’s Will in our lives. In his talk, Brian countered a common idea that God is calling us to choose one specific thing over another, or is providing only one “right” path out of several possible ones. While cautioning that discerning God’s plan should always be done with the aid of Scripture and prayer, Brian nonetheless expressed that, at least from his own personal experience, God usually doesn’t give him specific instructions or guidelines about what to do. Rather, God repeats the promises that we hear from Him throughout Scripture—promises that He loves us, wants us to trust Him, and that we should do everything in faith. So from Brian’s perspective, it’s almost more of a case of making sure that we honor God in our decision-making process, whatever our final decision is, rather than waiting for a very explicit and step-by-step plan from Him about what to do.
Thinking about my own life, I can see how I’ve taken somewhat of a blended approach to spiritual discernment, borrowing from the influence of spiritual mentors, as well as my own personal experience of how God speaks to me. I think back to one of the biggest decisions I’ve ever made—regarding my choice to not pursue the career path of a history professor and instead enter into full-time ministry. Even though I had heard God’s possible calling for a ministerial vocation as early as the year I began graduate school, the decision-making process still proved to be lengthy and challenging. I was immersed in a history PhD program at the University of Virginia, which I had received a scholarship to attend. And while I increasingly sensed that I might not be happy in the long-run as a college professor, I also felt that I didn’t want to quit a program I had started, and worked very hard to be in a position to qualify for. When I visited with Jay Wolf at FBC Montgomery, he gave me some great counsel. I halfway expected him to make a push for me to leave grad school and attend seminary once I told him I was sensing a possible calling into ministry. But instead, he urged me to take my time in the decision-making process, and yet in the meantime be very intentional about two things. I needed to stay rooted in the Bible, for through the Word of God is His will so often most clearly revealed. Jay also encouraged me to get involved in ministry up in Charlottesville, and thus discern through some hands-on service whether or not this was indeed something that God was calling me to. I know that I benefitted tremendously from becoming involved with Campus Crusade at UVA, and I have no doubt that this early experience in campus ministry helped solidify for me the desire to go into full-time vocational ministry. In a similar fashion, later, while in seminary at Baylor, I got involved working with college and graduate students both on campus, and through my local church, First Baptist Waco. This was a process which helped confirm for me that post-seminary I really wanted to find a ministry where I could serve college students. So in my own life, in addition to Scripture, prayer, wise counsel, reason, and my “sanctified imagination”, I have found that real-life experience is a very powerful tool and aid in arriving at decisions. Sometimes it may even be necessary to go ahead and take a few steps in a new direction to ascertain whether or not that may be the long-term path that would be most honoring to God. But I certainly continue to appreciate the primacy of Scripture as the best single guide for our life, practice, and decision-making as Christians.
The bottom line however is that discerning God’s will for your life, and seeking to make God-honoring decisions is always a challenging proposition. In part this is because there is no single “laundry list” approach, where if we just make sure to “check off” all of the different categories, we know that we are living in God’s will, or have made the right decision. Every situation is unique to that individual, and in many cases the implications of a decision won’t be fully known or understood until months or even years later. So perhaps it was very wise of John to not attempt to give us a lengthy list of qualifying factors when it comes to testing spirits. The simple criterion of determining whether an impulse, idea, decision, or major life change reflects and promotes Christ is the most complete and perfect guideline we could ever ask for. When we try to make things more complicated, we run the risk of entering into what some people have termed the “paralysis of analysis.” The worst thing sometimes can be to entertain every diverse possibility until one is dizzy from the confusion of it all, and thus cannot make a firm decision and move forward. Sowing such seeds of confusion is one of Satan’s primary strategies of attack against believers. The antidote to this and our greatest aid in the whole process of discerning God’s will and making spiritual decisions is to simply ensure that we are closely walking with Jesus in a personal relationship every day. There is no secret code to unlock in order to understand the Divine will, and God does not have a hidden agenda that we can uncover only through a laborious process or spiritual checklist. If we are faithful to spend time regularly walking with the Lord, and when we truly know and trust Him, it’s completely unreasonable to imagine that He won’t in time give us the necessary wisdom to make good decisions. Of course we will make mistakes, and have regrets, and for each individual there are particular decisions which are gut-wrenchingly difficult to make. But thanks be to God we know that because our steps are ordered and our life is ultimately in the hands of our Creator, we don’t have to rely on a foolproof methodology or decision-making checklist to be able to live squarely within the will of the Lord for our lives!! As Psalm 37:23-24 so succinctly and perfectly phrases it: “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholds him with His hand.”