I spend a lot of time thinking about the future. More than I’d like to admit. Throughout high school and college, there has always been a pressing feeling of being in transit between life phases. This sense of forward movement always begs the question, “Where am I going?” I like to have a sense of long-term direction, even if the specific details of how I’ll get there are unclear. In some ways, this forward-thinking has served me well. It’s allowed me to tailor my present experiences towards preparation and learning for whatever is to come. But this tendency to dwell in the future has also hurt my ability to be present where God has placed me today.
These musings about the future are often tied to questions about God’s will. We talk about God’s will a lot in the contemporary church; the idea of “discernment” is thrown around often. What does it actually mean to discern the will of Jehovah?
I’ve long thought that discernment involved getting some “sign” from God about the right path or decision I should take. Whether for something large (like who I ought to date) or something small (like how I ought to use my free afternoon), I thought that He’d indicate a clear right choice by offering some kind of revelation.
This mindset isn’t uncommon. Think about how Christians toss around statements like “God was calling me to…” or “I just felt led to…” Or consider the prevailing notion of “the one” in Christian dating— that there is one divinely ordained individual who God wants you to marry and that dating is merely a matter of finding that person. Contemporary believers seem to uphold a view of God’s will for our lives is unrevealed, deterministic, and specific. This renders discernment a mysterious quest to find signs and confirmations of that will.
This mindset overlooks a really important distinction between God’s revealed will and his unrevealed will— a distinction which is essential to understanding the process of discernment.
God’s Revealed Will
God’s revealed will is everything he has shown us regarding how to live holy lives. It encompasses all scripture that demonstrates how we ought to walk. In Colossians 1:9-12, Paul writes about God’s revealed will, saying, “…We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father…”
Paul highlights four components of living a life worthy of the Lord: bearing fruit, growing in personal knowledge of God, being strengthened to endure with patience, and gratitude. Micah 6:8 is another great summary of God’s revealed will: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is God’s will for our lives. There is no guesswork involved in discerning this revealed will; it’s been freely given in His word.
God’s Unrevealed Will
When modern Christians mention God’s will, they’re usually not referring to these revealed commands for holiness. Usually, colloquial use of “God’s will” refers to His unrevealed will— the specifics of our individual futures, the details of the road ahead which we all long to know.
It is this discernment of God’s unrevealed will that can feel confusing, like a shot in the dark. Scripture isn’t a guidebook for every specific scenario we’ll face in our earthly lives; it doesn’t contain a list of jobs to apply to, names of people to date, or classes to take. When we have to make life-altering decisions and want individualized guidance, it can feel like Scripture is insufficient to discern a path forward.
While the Bible may not offer details of what our individual lives will hold, it does offer guiding principles for discernment. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This verse indicates the connection between God’s unrevealed and revealed wills. The two are not mutually exclusive. Following God’s revealed will is a necessary precursor to growing in discernment of His unrevealed will.
The first half of Romans 12:2 is a command to walk in God’s revealed will– to not conform to the world and instead seek transformation by the renewing of our minds. The command to not conform is a command to be holy, as holiness is the quality of being set apart. Becoming set apart requires transformation by the renewing of our minds— deep, inward change rooted in our knowledge of Scripture, which is God’s given revelation of Himself. When we study and prescribe to God’s revealed will, the Holy Spirit will renew our understanding of the world. This renewed mind will be the foundation for transformation into holiness.
The second half of Romans 12:2 pivots to a framework for discerning God’s unrevealed will. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Paul places this second. A commitment to living in God’s revealed commands for holiness must come before we can begin to discern His unrevealed will. As we walk in holiness, seeking to know and be more like Jesus, He will naturally guide us into opportunities and relationships which honor Him.
How does this work? I believe that it’s always within God’s ability to intervene and give us supernatural understanding of right decisions. But this kind of revelation is rare, and more often than not we are left to make choices out of our own free will. When we are walking in accordance with God’s revealed will, the Holy Spirit deepens our understanding of God’s character— who He is, what honors Him, what He desires for His people. From this foundation, we are guided by a few general principles for discernment in big decisions:
To sin or not to sin?
The Bible clearly shows that God cannot stand sin, evil, and immorality. Deuteronomy 32:4 says, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Sin stands in direct opposition to God’s character. If a decision requires a choice between something sinful and something not sinful, we know for sure that His will is for us to choose the latter. Romans 12:2 says that God’s will is always “what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Test and approve.
If a decision requires a choice between several good options and none of them are sinful, there isn’t always a “right choice.” Yes, God is omniscient and knows everything that will happen in our lives. But as I mentioned before, He has given us free will. In Romans 12:2, Paul says “that by testing” we can “discern what is the will of God.” My ESV study Bible says that the Greek word for testing is “dokimazo,” which means “finding out the worth of something by putting it to use or testing it in actual practice.”
This implies that sometimes, discernment requires taking a step of action before we know the details of where we’re going. By putting an option to the test by trying it, He is able to then redirect us if we’ve chosen wrongly or affirm that our step was right. Put simply, take a step of testing and immediately incline your ear to God. He’ll show you the way as you act.
So what does testing and approving actually look like? It might look like applying to a couple types of summer jobs and seeing which doors He opens rather than deciding on one beforehand. Perhaps it means trying a major and having to switch later on. It might mean going on a few dates with someone before determining that you should pursue a more intentional relationship with them.
To be honest, this framework of discernment is scary to me. It’s risky. As I wrote in my last post, one of my great struggles is a pervasive fear of making mistakes. I like the comfort of knowing what’s going to happen before I move; I often believe that mysteriously uncovering the “right decision” ought to precede any action, lest I do something wrong. Unfortunately, Paul’s idea of “test and approve” isn’t very conducive to maintaining a perfect track record. It naturally implies that sometimes we will make the wrong choice between several non-sinful options.
And that’s ok. Our prevailing hope is that God is sovereign regardless of how we test and discern. If our hearts are inclined to His voice during the process of testing and approving, He is faithful to either redirect us or affirm our choice. God speaks through the Holy Spirit, His word, other wise Christians; when we listen and submit our wills to Him, He will speak. James 1:5 says, “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.” Moreover, when we inevitably make mistakes, God is full of grace and mercy. Mistakes do have consequences—starting from scratch, breaking up, or rerouting are painful— but we can be sure that God will use such pain for our sanctification.
In the end, when we are faced with a choice between several non-sinful options, I think God cares more about our hearts than what we do. It is possible that there could be several different vocations you could thrive in. There could be several people you could date and have a God-honoring marriage with. This reality is freeing! We don’t need to be paralyzed by fear of messing up a “perfect” track record, because God does not force us into deterministic life formulas. And if our hearts have a posture of obedience and submission to His will, He will be near and will direct us.
As Scripture is filled with directives on following God’s revealed will and discerning His unrevealed will, it is also saturated with promises for the future. While we seek to live in God’s will, let us not forget that our ultimate promise is that of Christ Himself— who is far better than even the greatest future blessings we could have on earth.