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How can I discern the will of God?

will of God

Most people say from time to time, “I’d like to know God’s will for me in regard to this particular situation.” Is such knowledge possible? We should first ask, “Does God want us to know His will?” The answer is “yes!” In the most basic sense, that’s why He has given us His Word, the Bible. Furthermore, obedience hinges on knowledge. How can we obey Him if we don’t know what He wants us to do?

Paul taught that we can discern the will of God: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9, emphasis added; cf. Colossians 4:12). Elsewhere, Paul commands his readers to understand God’s will: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is” (Ephesians 5:17). And we are “to test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2). Seeking to know God’s will is a good pursuit.

Below are some general principles we can use in seeking to discover the particulars of God’s will. (The content has been adapted from various sources, particularly Charles Stanley’s The Will of God: Understanding and Pursuing His Ultimate Plan for Your Life, Howard Books, 2019.)

1. The Comprehensive Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16–17; Psalm 119:105; Isaiah 8:20). The Bible reveals God’s general will for us and His will regarding certain specific matters (such as loving others, speaking truth, maintaining sexual purity, etc.). In any given situation, we should first determine if the Bible addresses the issue either specifically or in principle. If so, we have God’s will in the matter. This is a “screen out” criterion because God will never lead us to do something that contradicts His Word.

2. Complete Consecration (Psalm 37:3–4; John 7:17; Romans 12:1–2; 2 Corinthians 8:5). God calls us to full commitment to Him. If we are only looking for guidance in one area, disregarding God’s will in the rest of our lives, we are missing the point. God’s will involves more than just what type of employment to pursue or which car to buy; it covers holiness and consecration in every area of life.

3. Commitment in Advance to Do God’s Will (Luke 22:42; Psalm 40:8; Hebrews 10:7–9; John 4:34; 5:30). When seeking God’s will, we must be willing to do His will when we discover what it is—even if we don’t particularly like it. Of course, we have our inclinations and preferences. But we need to be willing to set aside preference in favor of God’s perfect (and thus best) choice. Nineteenth-century evangelist George Müller had this testimony of how he sought God’s will: “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 trouble with people is just here. 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 but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is” (Answers to Prayer: from George Müller’s Narratives, compiled by A.E.C. Brooks, Lector House, 2020). Do we begrudgingly deign to do His will, more fully desire to do His will, or genuinely delight to do His will?

4. Call upon the Lord (Pray) (Matthew 6:10; Luke 6:12–13; James 1:5). To know God’s will, we should ask Him for wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). The asking needs to be done in faith, with no doubting (James 1:6).

5. Circumstances (Acts 15:36–41; 1 Corinthians 16:9; Philippians 1:12–13). God often sovereignly arranges circumstances to align in such a way that they point us a certain direction. God works in us; He also works around us (see Acts 16:6–10). Circumstances can be misinterpreted, so caution is advised and prayer is needed, but events can indeed help confirm and guide us in God’s will.

6. Counsel (Proverbs 7:24; 15:22; 24:6; 28:26; Acts 13:2–3; 15:1–41). Godly counsel from mature Christians can be invaluable in discovering God’s will. A wise counselor, knowing the counselee and the details of the situation, will provide perspective. The advice will be based on solid biblical truth and tailored to the individual.

7. Common Sense (Proverbs 23:19; Titus 2:11–12). Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Common sense is something everyone needs, few have, and none think they lack.” Common sense plays a part in much of what we do. We should not trust intuition or native sagacity to the exclusion of other things, but neither should we ignore our God-given ability to analyze and reason. God often works through ordinary means. There are times when God’s will may be contrary to common sense—feeding the 5,000 with a boy’s lunch did not make sense to the disciples—but most of the time taking a reasoned, sensible approach is befitting godliness.

8. Consider the Leading of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:7–13; Romans 8:27; 1 John 2:20). The Holy Spirit leads children of God seeking to walk in His will. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:14). The Holy Spirit can lead in a particular direction over days, years, or even decades to prepare us for His purposes (see Romans 8:28–30; Hebrews 11). He has also gifted each believer in a specific way (1 Peter 4:10). One’s giftedness could be another indicator for or against a specific course of action.

9. Contentment (Philippians 4:6–7; Colossians 3:15–17). Generally speaking, if we don’t have peace about something, we shouldn’t do it. This doesn’t mean we won’t have any concerns, but we will have a confidence that we are moving in the direction of God’s choosing and a sense of peace that we undertake the path at God’s direction. “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (Romans 14:22).

10. Gospel Consciousness and Overall Consequences (1 Corinthians 3:12–15; 9:19–23; Philippians 2:3–4; Colossians 3:17, 23–24). Paul looked at “the big picture” in discovering the will of God for himself. He evaluated situations and decisions in terms of how they would impact the proclamation and ministry of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). And he gives us this principle: “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Considering the situation in light of God’s character and His overarching plan can provide clarity. Will this decision honor God, or will it grieve His heart?

11. Stewardship Considerations (Luke 19:11–26; 1 Corinthians 4:1–2; 2 Timothy 2:4). We are stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. This includes our time, talents, treasures, health, and spiritual gifting. And we must discern proper priorities: the good is often the enemy of the best. Will this course of action enhance our effectiveness for the Lord or lessen it?

12. Do God’s Will as You Discover It (Psalm 143:10; Mark 3:35; John 13:17; Philippians 2:12–13; James 4:13–17). God doesn’t show us His will as an academic exercise or to satisfy our curiosity. He shows us His will so that we may do it. James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Conclusion and Summary. God wants us to know His will. The details of His plan become apparent as we study His Word and follow Him. The twelve principles listed above should help the process.

Late Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe, in his With the Word Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1991), pointed to the importance of motive in discovering the will of God: “When you seek to edify others and glorify the Lord, you will know what to do.” (See 1 Corinthians 10:31; 14:26; Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 3:17; and Hebrews 10:24–25.) In any situation, obey what you already know to be God’s will for your life.

Finally, don’t seek God’s will to the detriment of seeking Him. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We know that God’s ultimate will for us is that we would be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28–30). We long to honor God, but, even more, we long to know God. We trust that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

Hebrews 13:20–21 provides a prayer and a challenge: “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

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This page last updated: April 12, 2023