Our lives are often guided by the questions we ask. Great inventors are driven by the impulse to build a better world. Explorers ask what lies beyond the edges of their map. Great philosophers question and question until they find a satisfactory answer. The curiosity of children leads them to wonder “why?” without end.
A question that has dominated my own life is, “How do I know what God’s will is?”
I’ve asked this question—in varying forms—to well over 100 different people now, including parents, teachers, pastors, professors, friends, and others. Most of the time, people do their best to answer in some form. “Search the Scriptures” said one person; “God’s will is whatever you want it to be,” said another. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that other people’s answers to this question won’t satisfy my wrestling. This is a question that I must reckon with myself.
At the risk of boring you with my self-reflections and amateur psychoanalysis, I want to share two memories that have shaped my thinking about discerning God’s will.
The first is how, as a young child, I interpreted the story of Jacob in Genesis 32:22-32. This is when Jacob stays awake all night wrestling with a man—or as many commentators and Bible editors put it, when Jacob wrestled with God. In my young mind, within the grand scope of history, I was named after a guy who was known for wrestling with God. The emphasis of the story in Genesis, of course, is that Jacob physically wrestled with God; but the double meaning of that word in English was not lost on my young mind. It was clear to me that Jacob also wrestled spiritually with the Divine. For whatever reason, that interpretation stuck with me and helped form my own self-identity as Jacob.
A second experience that shaped my thinking on struggling to discern God’s will was the selection of my confirmation verse. As a young confirmand in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I settled on Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” This has been a proverb near and dear to my heart ever since, and a text that is regularly on my mind as a standard to which I should better conform my life.
Memories and Discernment
I share these recollections to highlight two points. First, all theological reflection arises out of the real lives of God’s people. Our faith, relationship with God, interpretation of Scripture, religious traditions, and worship—all of these facets of who we are (and more) are born out of our experiences. Without delving too deeply into the Wesleyan quadrilateral, experience influences (and at times can overwhelm) our perception of scripture, tradition, and reason. Awareness of our experiences (and how we interpret them) is thus necessary for fruitful theological reflection.
Second, I firmly believe that God speaks to us through our experiences and histories. While we may struggle to discern the meaning of the present or the direction of the future, the past has already been written; its interpretation may be contested, but there are times when clear touchstones emerge for us to latch onto.
For example, my family struggled to find a church home following a move to Michigan during my middle school years. After much consternation and searching, we began attending a non-denominational church located 20 miles away from our home. At the time, the reasons behind this decision did not make this transition seem providential. In retrospect, however, this decision was definitely used by God to lead all of us. Looking back, God was definitely present in that choice—as he is in all the decisions we make.
As I’ve wrestled with the question of discerning God’s will, four thinkers have been particularly helpful for me. First was Kevin DeYoung and his book Just Do Something, given to me by a youth pastor who saw my wrestling with post-high school plans and decided I needed to stop looking for writing in the sky. In college, I discovered the insights of Frederick Buechner, best summarized in his statement that, “Vocation is where our great gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.” In college I also encountered the theologically rich insights of Gilbert Meilaender, whose The Freedom of the Christian outlines a view of a grace-filled approach to human vocation. In recent years, I’ve also learned from the perspective of Mark Batterson, whose Wild Goose Chase has reminded me that God’s plans for our lives may involve a tinge of the unexpected.
Thinking alongside these authors—and alongside voices from history such as Augustine, Luther, and Erasmus—has helped shape my view of calling and vocation. Perhaps most importantly for my soul, it has brought the comfort of knowing that I am not alone as I struggle to discern God’s will for my life.
Principles for Discernment
When it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives, then, what can we say? I postulate some basic principles:
- God’s will for our lives will never stand outside the parameters for ethical human behavior outlined in Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Christian church.
- All people possess a general calling to, in the words of the prophet Micah, “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly.”
- All Christians are called to fulfill the Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all” of Jesus’ commands.
- Individuals are called to live and work in the space where their great desires and where the world’s great hunger meet.
- In line with the examples of Scripture and history, precise and specific calls from God are few and far between today.
- God communicates his providential callings through a variety of means, including desires, doors, dreams, people, promptings, and pain.
We each have individual journeys through life, and each must discern God’s will for our own lives (and the lives of our families). As we do this deciding and living, principles like these can help guide our thoughts and actions.
What If We Mess Up?
It’s not enough to simply think that these are the guidelines for discerning God’s will—we must also see these principles in action. This is where the rubber really meets the road.
For what happens when we search the Scriptures, pray and fast, talk to those people God’s put in your life, and carefully reflect over a choice—only to have things later go south to our great detriment? What if we are given a choice and make the wrong decision? Or worse yet, we feel like God is leading us in the wrong direction?
I’ve been there, and it’s discombobulating. I once took a job after much reflection and prayer, a job that seemed like the right fit in terms of career path, vocational calling, and opportunity. Yet things didn’t work out. Workplace politics intruded, emotion overwhelmed reason, and personal preferences overruled civility and decorum. Eventually, I had to remove myself from the situation.
Though the situation was uncomfortable, the fallout was even worse. The questions came thick and fast. Why would God let this happen to me? Why would he let me make this choice? Did I misinterpret the signs? Did I miss something? Had I fallen outside of his favor?
What To Do When You’re Struggling
I don’t have the answers to the preceding queries, in part because those are real questions that I’m still contemplating. But I do have some preliminary thoughts, five things that have helped make some sense of when I’ve struggled to discern what God has been doing in my life.
- Express your feelings. Think and reflect until you make sense of them yourself. Talk with a trusted confidant. When you’re comfortable, speak with others who have been or will be affected by the decision at hand.
- Take a 30,000-foot view. Ask yourself, “What could I learn here?” Look for the opportunities that the situation presents.
- Recognize God’s providence where evident. Look to past instances where God has been present and guided you into good things. Don’t simply accept the good and reject the bad; take a holistic view of life.
- (Re)learn to trust. Talk with God. Recognize that discerning his will doesn’t mean choosing the path in life that’s easiest to travel—it means walking the path that leads to the best destination.
- Keep walking. Don’t give up on life, and don’t give up on God. Remember, he hasn’t given up on you.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 1
This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.