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Practical Guideposts for Discerning the Lord's Will

(By Rob McLeod)

If you have fellowshipped with other believers for any length of time you will likely have heard certain ones tell you that the Lord is directing them into a new life calling or ministry opportunity. Perhaps you have made these statements yourself. Sometimes the directions that brothers in the Lord embark upon are unexpected and appear to come out of left field. How can we be certain that a new calling has arisen out of the Lord’s heart and not simply out of our own desires? It is my heart that the following discussion will shed some light on the general process of discerning the Lord’s direction. What is presented here is not a formula or a recipe that will look exactly the same when assessing life’s options. Nevertheless the instruction provided here is rooted in Scripture and thereby can serve as guideposts for determining the Lord’s heart in important matters of life.

First things first: the perceived physical, mental, financial, or spiritual capacity to take on a new opportunity is not the sole (or even primary) litmus test for determining the validity of a decision. We must truly see that just because you ‘can’ do something does not necessarily mean that you ‘should’ do something. Contrary to much of our natural thinking, ability does not equal calling. Scripture is replete with examples of men who, at first glance, were woefully inadequate for the callings that God had directed them into. Natural confidence, bravado, creativity and strong oratory skills were not the Lord’s criteria when selecting men to carry out His will. “He [the Lord] does not delight in the strength of the horse; he takes no pleasure in the legs [strength] of a man. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His mercy.” (Psalm 147:10-11)

Guidepost #1: The Lord’s calling for you may not be your natural preference.

This point may be difficult to receive since from birth we are inclined simply to do what we prefer to do. Our culture also continually reinforces the motto to “follow your heart.” The Lord’s work proceeds in a different manner. We must be able to distinguish between our natural preferences and the Spirit’s will. A fundamental fact is that our flesh and the Lord’s spirit are in direct opposition to one another (Romans 8:5-8; Galatians 5:16-17). In our fleshly pursuits we can never please God. What we prefer must become aligned with the heart of God. All natural abilities and preferences must be submitted to His will otherwise they are unsuitable for His Kingdom work and will, in reality, be working against the building of His church. It is not our responsibility to ‘find out all of the ways that we can help God out.’ It may sound a bit juvenile to word things this way but, sadly, much of what believers do in an attempt to build the church life is merely their preferred ministry or service. That is, many believers commit themselves to what they naturally like to do and feel adequate enough to carry out. Let’s consider a practical example: Meet ‘John Doe.’ John has been a believer for several years now and truly desires to be engaged more within the work of the Lord. He is a gifted public speaker, frequently gives presentations as a part of his employment, and (naturally) doesn’t shun the spotlight. Given his comfortability with public speaking he (naturally) assumes that his calling is to be publicly involved in evangelism or preaching. However, unbeknownst to John is that the Lord wants to do a deeper work in him as well as the lost. To accomplish this, the Lord desires that for now John serve more behind the scenes in the body life. This does not mean that John is not to share the truth with others. But the Lord, knowing all things, wants John to witness one-on-one at his workplace where the message of the Gospel is highly needed. It turns out that he is the only believer employed there. Having John share at his workplace will serve to teach John both humility and faith. Humility, in that when he faces opposition for speaking for Christ, he will learn how to deal out of a heart of love with people that he sees on a daily basis. And faith—since John also loves his job, he will daily need to commit his job security to the Lord when asked by Him to share with others. This time of training in humility and faith would not be John’s (natural) choice but, of course, the Lord “has done all things well.” (Mark 7:37) 

Guidepost #2: Counsel has been asked of the Lord.

Adhering to this guidepost seems like a Christianity 101 ‘no brainer’ but you may be surprised as to how often we mess this up. Asking counsel of the Lord does not consist of merely informing the Lord as to your plans. We must have open hands, in prayer, when seeking the Lord. George Muller once wrote that to properly discern the Lord’s direction one must get his “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.”

In John 14:14 Jesus says, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” Perhaps we do not understand what asking “in My name” truly implies. It does not imply that our petitions will be fulfilled merely by ending our prayers with “in Jesus’ name.” To ask something in Jesus’ name is to pray in accordance to the Lord’s heart, not ours. Matthew 6:10 instructs us to pray “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When our heart is aligned to Christ’s will He can fulfill whatever He desires through us. James 4:3 says that “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

No matter how much visible ‘evidence’ we have to proceed in a particular direction, we must genuinely pray and seek the Lord’s heart. In the book of Joshua we read how the nation of Israel was to utterly destroy the adulterous nations that then inhabited the land of Canaan. This land was to be the inheritance of the 12 tribes of Israel, subject to them clearing the land of the physically and spiritually hostile nations. They were to make no covenants of peace with these nations due to their extreme wickedness. We read in Joshua 9 that the inhabitants of Gibeon, in an effort to preserve their lives, concocted a plan to make a peace deal with Israel. They feigned to be a peace-seeking people from a faraway land. To accomplish this they sent a delegation of their people in tattered clothing, equipped with worn out supplies and moldy food. The leaders of Israel, including faithful Joshua, failed to seek counsel of the Lord when asked to make a covenant with the ungodly people of Gibeon. Joshua 9:14-15 records, “Then the men of Israel took some of their provisions; but they did not ask counsel of the Lord. So Joshua made peace with them…” Joshua failed to seek the Lord’s counsel by placing undo priority on the physical ‘evidence’ brought to him. It turned out that the people of Gibeon lived nearby in the land. They should have been destroyed but now the covenant of peace had to be kept. Israel now risked the temptation of intermarriage with this neighbouring nation and the all-to-frequent idol worship that followed such close relationships.

Guidepost #3: Place yourself under God-ordained authority and receive Godly counsel from the brothers.

Given our natural drive for independence this guidepost often appears undesirable. Our tendency towards thinking we know best hampers us from seeking input from others. We must rise above this and pursue input from the authorities in our lives. Authority ordained by God comes in many forms: for example, our parents, employer, government, and local church leadership have various opportunities to speak into our lives and all roles are appointed by the Lord. Here we will limit ourselves to considering the role of our church family in assisting our decision making process. 

We should not fall into the trap of being self-proclaimed prophets having no accountability. We should not set out on a new course without receiving input from the brothers in our local church. Yes, there may be the rare occurrence where there is truly no other brother to seek out for advice but by and large the Lord will place other believers in our lives that are more than capable of giving us a true and timely word. Generally speaking, there should be an ‘amen’ from the leading, godly brothers in our local church. Godly men are those men who will share with you what the Lord has showed them. These brothers do not merely exist to rubber stamp your preferred plans. There are numerous incidents in Scripture where Godly direction has been provided via the counsel of the brothers. Let’s consider two occurrences, both from the life of Paul, as recorded in Acts.

(i) Paul and Barnabas are sent out by the leading brothers in the church at Antioch.

Acts 13:1-3 “Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away.” We see in this account that sincere brotherly fellowship and serious prayer enabled the brothers to perceive the direction of the Holy Spirit. This was a Spirit-led, corporate church endorsement for the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul. This decision was not made by subtle manipulation or personal agendas.

(ii) Paul and Silas are sent out by the leading brothers in the church at Antioch.

Paul and Barnabas eventually returned to Antioch and resumed fellowship with the assembly there. In Acts 15:36-41 we read that after some time Paul was burdened to visit the saints that were won to Christ in their initial work together. Barnabas was determined to again bring with them a younger believer, Mark, to assist them in the work. Paul strongly disagreed with this choice given Mark’s sudden departure early in their first missionary journey together. We read in Acts 15:39 that “The contention became so sharp that they [Paul and Barnabas] parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyrpus.” The ‘amen’ from the brothers seemed to be in support of Paul because we then read in verses 40-41 that “Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren, to the grace of God. And he [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” It seems that the brethren in Antioch agreed with Paul’s decision and gave him and Silas their blessing prior to departure. It is interesting to note that Scripture records very little about the ministry of Barnabas and Mark from this point forward. Men, it is no small thing to go against the consensus of other godly brothers. If brothers that you have fellowshipped with provide you with a caution it is to be taken seriously. 

Guidepost #4: Long term fruit: A work of the Lord will build up the local church life.

Using this guidepost to determine the Lord’s direction will, by necessity, take time. Rest assured, however, that all genuine leading of the Lord is ultimately used to build His church. We read in the latter part of 1 Corinthians 14:26, “Let all things be done for edification [that is, building up].” We see in farming that most fruit comes to maturity long after the season of planting. In the early stages of plant development it is difficult, to the untrained eye, to determine if what is growing is a weed or a useful plant. However, if guideposts 1-3 are violated we can be assured that the seeding process has gone awry. In this case we will likely not obtain good fruit down the line. If the initial direction taken by an individual is not initially grounded in the fruit of the spirit (for example, love, humility, self-control, and teachability) we can be certain that, if no correction occurs, the long term fruit will also be of poor quality. 

If people are genuinely touched by the Lord they will desire to be built into the fellowship of the church life. They will desire to be led by the Spirit within the corporate body somewhere. I Corinthians 10:17 remarks “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread [that is, Christ].” So-called moves of the Spirit that are factious are largely built upon tangential issues, poor exegesis of Scripture, and personal agendas. Instead of building the local assembly they will be cancerous and will tear down the body.

Guidepost #5: Current life circumstances can provide useful cautions.

Perhaps a practical example will provide clarity. Suppose you are offered a new position within your company. It is a position that you are qualified for, given your job experience and past training. The pay increase is attractive as money for your family is tight, at least from your perspective. On the one hand, it almost seems to be a no-brainer of a decision. However, one practical caution in your spirit is that the new position will require a significantly higher time commitment at work. You will likely have to bring work home on a frequent basis and you foresee long nights ahead. “Our children are young,” your wife also reminds you, and so this makes you take a lengthier pause. The thought that this job would be perfectly suited for a single man, or for an older man with grown children, lingers in your mind. Brothers, this could be a practical caution from the Lord in your spirit that is confirmed by your wife. We only have so much physical capacity. Yes, the Lord can grant us strength for any situation but we must first be assured that He desires us to be in the ‘situation’ at all. Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is sometimes used in an unjustified manner by believers to take on any new opportunity. Remember that Philippians 4:13 is preceded by Philippians 4:11-12 which state, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” The Lord often reminds me to ‘know my limits.’ We have an infinite God but we are finite beings currently restricted to time, space, and bodies that tire easily. As long as cautions like these remain in our mind we should not make a hasty decision. 

Guidepost #6: Go with His peace.

Admittedly, this final guidepost is the most subjective of the six that I am presenting here. Nevertheless this guidepost works in conjunction with, not opposition to, the other five. Consider Colossians 3:15, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” I want to focus on the first part of this verse. We must recognize that much of our walk is to be led by the Holy Spirit on a moment by moment basis. For example, what we say in a given conversation or what we let our mind dwell upon are typically near-instantaneous decisions that must be governed by the Spirit. Have you ever had the Lord nudge you in your spirit to say something, or not to say something, in the moment? This is a very subjective walk that we are discussing here and it is a walk that must be completely conducted in submission to the peace of His Spirit, not ours. Consider again the phrase from Colossians 3:15, “Let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” The word “rule” means to arbitrate, umpire, or preside. It is the peace of God that we must possess on a moment by moment basis before proceeding in any direction, no matter how small. A note of caution here: we must not confuse His peace with simply an emotion or some sort of mystical experience. Although the Lord’s peace can evoke a positive emotion in us, His peace is much more than this. The Lord’s peace provides us with the settled awareness of His will even if our natural feelings and inclinations are in opposition. This moment by moment walk in the Spirit is a learned process as we grow in maturity with Him and our minds are transformed (Romans 12:1-2). If we do not have the peace of God to proceed with something we must take pause in our direction, or possibly cease entirely. Recall that true peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Proceeding in a direction or a decision where we do not discern the Lord’s peace is an unhealthy choice for our walk and the building of His kingdom. 

This article provides a sobering word but a needed one. Dear brothers, let us truly know the mind of the Lord using the guideposts He has so graciously supplied to us through His speaking, His written Word, prayer, the counsel of other brothers, life circumstances, and His moment by moment peace. We need to be good stewards of His resources so that one day, on that day, we may hear “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)