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How Do I Discern God’s Will for My Life?

If I had a nickel for every time that I thought this, I would be rich. There have been many situations where I wonder what the balance between my desires and God’s desires should be. “If only I knew God’s will for me, everything would be so much easier,” I’m tempted to think. However, the more I work through this idea, the more I realize that “trying to discern God’s will” is maybe not the right way to approach the problem.

The Problem with “God’s Will”

I think we all run into tricky business when we suppose to know the will of God. We have all of church history to prove that people can commit terrible things when they cover it up under the blanket statement of “this is God’s will.” God is way beyond our comprehension.

I like to reference this short movie clip from Kingdom of Heaven where one man announces, “God wills it!” and then the crowd descends into a cacophony of fervor. (I can imagine already the countless memes poking fun at this if you apply this to ordinary, banal decisions: “shall I have toast or pancakes for breakfast? “Toast! God wills it!”) The problem with “God’s will” is that it reduces the complexity of the situation into a singular point. It’s a solid conversation stopper because it’s basically an irrefutable opinion masked behind religious fervor.

And yet… what about the Old Testament? What do we do with all those stories of the Israelites conquering lands, slaughtering people, eradicating people groups with idol worship in the name of being singularly faithful to God? Isn’t that sort of of immovable faithfulness exactly the kind of faithfulness that God desires? Well, I think that leads to my next point…

There Is More Than One Way to Be Faithful

I think we are deluding ourselves whenever we adopt the mindset that “there is only 1 right answer.”

Micah 6:8 says “and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” All of those verbs, to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly, are all words that indicate a lifetime of action, not a singular choice.

Many of the stories of the Israelites incurring wrath from God for not completely eradicating a people group are preceded by their complete failure to obey God in their daily lives to begin with. Their disregard for his commands, even when God is merciful in delivering them, is sort of like the final straw that broke the camel’s back. God is much more desirous of a lifetime of propensity towards faithfulness rather than a singular choice.

Yet, we put false pressure on ourselves whenever we believe there is only one “right” answer in a decision. I would say there are few situations in life where one course of action is clearly faithful and the other is clearly against God’s will. (Forgiveness and reconciliation in place of vengeful retaliation may be one extreme example). We stress over which jobs to take, what schools to go to, which social events to choose in the midst of conflict. “One is more faithful than the other, I wish God would just let me know his will,” is the common refrain.

I believe God has a different mindset. I believe there are, in fact, many different ways to be faithful. When I allow myself to slowly absorb that truth, it frees me up from agonizing over a decision and instead, to focus on recognizing the possibility of engaging God in either outcome.

God Desires Partnership as Much as Obedience

Many of us are conditioned to strive for obedience. As Asian Americans, some of that is embedded in our culture.

But I think in addition to obedience, God also desires partnership. If God’s highest aim for mankind was for us was obedience, he would have created robots, not humans. God desires our freedom of choice. He desires for our free will. He delights in our partnership.

Fatherhood is one metaphor in particular has been helpful for me in understanding this concept. When a father interacts with his son in the early years of childhood, it’s natural for the son to relate to the father out of obedience and constant guidance. “Dad! What do you want me to do today? What are we eating for dinner?” The father might very well have specific, pre-conceived plans for his son. “Let’s work in the garden today.” Or, “you need to go to school.” He may even occasionally nudge his son towards obedience: “Son. Please eat your broccoli before you eat your dessert.”

But as the son gets older, the relationship changes. The father wants his son to grow up. A healthy father-son relationship no longer looks like commandments and obedience, but more friendship and partnership. The father may even want his son to take initiative and to express his own desires. “Dad! I want to take you out to the ball game. Dad! I just met the love of my life and I want to marry her. Dad! Let’s go fishing.”

I don’t think any human father would want his adult son to continue asking him what he should eat for dinner every day. So from that analogy, I think there is a way that a mature Christian doesn’t only look for opportunities to simply obey, but also opportunities to creatively express and engage with the desires God has given them to begin with.

Learning to Trust in the Process

It’s just as hard for me to write as it is to believe it: but maybe this whole process of “discerning God’s will” wasn’t meant to be easy.

On one hand, I do want to be open to God “commanding a will” for my life. Unfortunately, the parallel assumption to that posture is that until God “leads me otherwise,” I’ll keep trudging along the path I’m currently on. Passivity by itself is just another form of refusing to step out in faith.

On the other hand, I don’t want to overstate my own will for my life. As millennials, we are already far too entrenched in the culture of “making our own way” through passion, grit, and hard work. Too quickly adopting a mindset of “figuring out God’s mind” just leads to fanatical self-delusion.

So what’s left?

I assume there is probably good reason that God doesn’t want me to “know” the answer to my discernment right away. Prayer is not the toll that I pay God in order to extract an answer for my life—prayer is the practice of habitually bringing myself before God.

I mean, I wish I could discern God’s will. But even if I could, I know that the moment I got my answer, I would be off and away, back to chasing and striving, rather than contemplating and prayerfully beseeching.

The only alternative is not an appealing one: trust. Perhaps the object here is not to “discern” God’s will, but more so simply to trust in God’s will. Where that will comes from or how it materializes… I know not. It simply puts the emphasis on the process and not in the end result.

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