One of the most profound statements that Jesus Christ ever made was in the Garden of Gethsemane when death on the cross was immediately before Him. He prayed to His heavenly Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 12:42). Jesus determined to always do His Father’s will (Jn 6:38) and set an example for all who would follow Him. As followers of Jesus, we also should determine to do God’s will. Having no desire to do God’s will is the mark of an unbeliever (Rom 8:5-8). But herein lies the problem. Sometimes God’s will is difficult to determine. How do we discover God’s will in order to do it?
First and foremost, there are clear instructions or decrees in God’s Word revealing God’s clear will. This will of God is evidenced in His Law, commands, and exhortations. And to make it even more clear there are several places in Scripture where the phrase, “this is the will of God” is stated emphatically (Eph 5:17-18, 1 Thess 4:3, 5:18, 1 Pet 4:19). We call these commands the decreed will of God. From these
passages we can determine that being saved, being sexual pure, suffering for Christ, and
being thankful for all things, are some of the clear examples of God’s will for our lives.
Failing to obey these commands is evidence that we are clearly outside of God’s will.
But there are other times when knowing God’s will is not as clear. How should we proceed? What would be the process that one would take in order to determine God’s will concerning less clear & subjective decisions, like which job to take, or where to go, or who to date? Acts 11:1-18 serves as a great case study on divine guidance. In this particular passage the Apostle Peter explains how God’s will was made known to him, that he was to preach the Gospel to a family of Gentiles (Acts 10). God provided divine guidance to help Peter readjust his thinking to understand that salvation was not just for Jews but also for Gentiles. He explained to those who criticized him for preaching to Gentiles, the exact “order” in which God revealed His will to him (11:4). Looking closely at Peter’s explanation, we can discover six principles in determining God’s will.
First, Peter engaged in prayer (v. 5). Peter did not assume to know God’s perfect will, but humbly sought-after God. This must be the beginning point for every believer. We must have a desire to not only discover but obey God’s will. Why would God reveal His will to someone who has no desire to obey it? Prayer displays the hungry heart of a true believer desiring to hear clear directions from God.
Second, God gave Peter His word, in this case through a vision (v. 5b-10). This vision clearly explained the heart of God, changing Peter’s mind and gave him clarity as to God’s will. It should be noted that visions are not normative for today in the Church age, and we should not expect God to speak to us in visions. However, what is clear is the Word of God given to sufficiently and clearly guide God’s people. The Bible provides multitudes of both direct and indirect teaching that provides principles for living a life that honors and pleases the Lord.
Third, Peter recognized God’s providential workings (v. 11-12). Immediately following the vision, three men showed up at his doorstep confirming what God had said in the vision. Timing like that only proves that God rules this world so that nothing is accidental. When discerning the will of God, it is important to note how God is providentially working out details in our lives. We must remember that God is working “all things together for good” for those who love Him (Rom 8:28). It is this providential working of God that may confirm what we have already discovered in our prayer and bible study times in how God is leading.
Fourth, the details of Peter’s situation were confirmed by several other witnesses (v. 12). Confirmation by others is a valuable thing when we are talking about discerning the subjective will of God (not the decreed will of God as described above). It is important for believers to seek godly counsel. While thoughts and desires are often subjective, it is best if they can be wisely affirmed by godly counsel (Prov 12:15, 19:20).
Fifth, Peter saw that God prepared circumstances to fall into place, the ground had been tilled (v. 13-14). This is similar to the third principle, but should be noted again. If it is God’s will to do something, He will have provided the necessary things for it to happen. God’s purpose for your life will be accompanied with “open doors.” Caution must also be warned here as well. Difficulty is not always an indication that something is not God’s will. It is clear from Scripture that God’s will is not always accompanied with smooth roads.
Sixth, Peter saw the fruitfulness of his decisions (v. 15-16). God blessed His word and confirmed that Peter had discerned rightly. When we follow God’s will obediently we can expect God to bless. We must remember however, that what we deem as blessing and what God deems as blessing may be two different things. Furthermore, God doesn’t always promise that obeying Him will result in prosperity, but may indeed result in suffering.
The most important principles of this process are certainly the first two Christian disciplines of prayer and bible study. All of the other principles can be applied only after the follower of Christ has saturated his life with the Word of God (Colossians 3:16) and faithfully sought the Lord in prayer. And when a believer has devoted himself to living a life of full obedience to the clear decrees of God’s Word, then the Holy Spirit will have free reign to guide his heart (Prov 16:3, Ps 37:4).