Among the more common questions ministers hear from churchgoers is: How do I find God's will for my life — or at least for this current dilemma I'm in?
When people are facing a possible career change, or considering marriage (or divorce), or weighing whether to enter the ministry, they want clear, divine direction.
They don't want to goof up.
I understand. I feel the same way during my own major transitions.
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Unfortunately, I don't have a sure-fire formula for discerning God's will.
That said, after 35 years of trying to hear from heaven, and of trying to help others hear, I've picked up a few principles that work more often than not. They're not perfect, but they'll improve your chances of receiving a clear message:
Until God notifies you to the contrary, assume you're already in his will. If he isn't giving you instructions, it may well be that where you are now is where you're supposed to be. Not everyone is called to accomplish some great new feat. As the sightless poet John Milton put it, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
Realize that God usually wants you to know his will. Many people labor under a strange assumption that God's will is a secret he's hiding from them.
When you want your kid to cut the grass, you don't refuse to tell her what you want and demand she guess it on her own, do you? No, you tell her straight up.
Similarly God will usually tell you what he wants — if you want to know. Ask. Then listen a while.
Surrender your own will. This is easier said than done. (Believe me.) But it's much easier to figure out God's desires when we lay aside ours.
My dad used to tell about the preacher who was visited by the hiring committee from a church twice the size of the one where he currently worked. The committee said they wanted him as their church's pastor, at double his present salary.
As soon as the visitors left, the preacher rushed to tell his wife, "You start packing while I go pray about whether it's God's will."
Our ambitions can interfere with our ability to discern God's voice. Remember, he knows more about every situation than we do. Follow his direction, wherever it leads.
Consider God's nature. It's a given that God won't call you to do something that's two-faced, mean-spirited, illegal or immoral. He's not going to direct you to cheat on your wife or steal from the gullible or abandon your kids. If you hear a voice telling you to do such things it ain't his.
Refuse to delude yourself. If it's been your pattern to get disillusioned six months into every new job and resign in a huff, and if you're currently six months into your latest job and find you're disgusted with it, and you think the Lord's telling you to quit, well, that's probably not God. That's your old pathology asserting itself. Stop lying to yourself.
Listen to smart people who love you. There's wisdom in many counselors, Solomon (or somebody) said. If you're lucky, you may have mentors who possess more experience and common sense than you — and who care about you enough to level with you. Ask what they think. Others may see your calling before you see it.
Consider the circumstances. If you think the Lord's calling you to be a doctor, let's say, and suddenly you start acing all your science classes, which used to be terribly hard for you, and the dean of the medical school offers you a scholarship you didn't apply for — pay attention to that. If you think you're called to be a doctor, but you've already got a 1.5 grade point average and then you proceed to fail chemistry three straight semesters, pay attention to that, too.
Listen to your gut. Occasionally, the outward circumstances aren't favorable, but, weirdly, you just — as preachers say — "know that you know that you know" it's what you're meant to do. Way down in your soul, you have what the Bible calls "a peace that surpasses understanding." That can be an excellent, although never foolproof, sign.
Take your time. We tend to think it's now or never. Really, many choices can be deferred. If you've done all the other things I've suggested and you still don't have clarity, then wait. You may have the right message, but the timing's wrong. Take a few deep breaths. Take a vacation. When God's ready, he's perfectly capable of opening a door and pushing you through it.
Don't fret over failure. If you do try something and fail, so what? You won't be the first person who made a mistake. At least you tried, and I think God gives us credit for that. Plus, he's a God of second chances. And 10th chances. Shake the dust off, learn from your error, and vow you'll do better next time.