Discerning God’s Will

Discerning God’s Will

The Rev. Jeff Morlock

Director of Vocational Discernment

When considering decisions about vocation or the person we will marry, Christians are often told to “seek God’s will.” We are encouraged to look for ways in which God may be directing us regarding which school to attend or which house to purchase. Sadly, this quest to discern God’s will regarding the details of our lives has become a source of anxiety and even paralysis for many believers, who fear displeasing the Lord.

An important question, then, is “How can we know if the Lord has willed something or not?” Martin Luther taught about God’s will in two ways, distinguishing His “hidden will” from His “revealed will.” God’s hidden will refers to His sovereignty and reign over all things. Nothing happens that is outside of God’s perfect plan. But it is hidden because we cannot know for sure that something is God’s will until it comes to pass.

“…for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose…’”

– Isaiah 46:9b–10

For Luther, God’s hidden or secret will is contrasted with His revealed will.

“God does many things which He does not show in His word, and He wills many things which he does not in His Word show us that He wills … At present, however, we must keep in view His Word and leave alone His inscrutable will; for it is by His Word, and not by His inscrutable will, that we must be guided.”1

From the Scriptures, we know that it is God’s will for us to love our neighbors, act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8). We know that it is God’s will that we have no other gods before him, that we do not murder, steal, kill, cheat, lie, slander, or covet.

In twenty-first century Christianity, the work of “discovering God’s will” for one’s life typically involves intense prayer and reflection, as the baptized look inside themselves for a feeling or insight that confirms the “right” decision. Or they look to events and signs that God may be using to help them find the “right” direction. But feelings can be deceptive, and interpreting signs can be tricky.

Of course, this is not to say that we should not pay attention to feelings or to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Rather, if one is to have certainty and assurance regarding God’s will, then Scripture must be our guide. The Holy Spirit speaks to us a word that comes from outside ourselves, proclaimed in sermons and studied in community with others. The Holy Spirit speaks through an external word, often from the lips of fellow disciples.

Discernment is not like trying to hit the small center circle on a distant dart board. It is listening for God’s external word while walking by faith and in freedom, knowing that God is always at work for our good, for His glory, and for the upbuilding of His kingdom. As a quilter, my wife has taught me that, while the tangled, seemingly random threads on the back side of an old-fashioned quilt may seem to be without pattern or purpose, the front side always tells a beautiful story. The God of the Gospel weaves together our contingent choices and even our trials and sufferings into an intricate, purposeful tapestry of grace.

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:19–20a).

God’s great “Yes” to us in Christ guarantees that our decisions cannot thwart God’s purposes. Even our worst blunders can never prevent God from accomplishing what He wants to achieve. Therefore, in discernment, by all means pray, “Thy will be done.” Listen, seek, pay attention, be open. And walk in faith, knowing that God will work out His purpose.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

– Proverbs 3:5–6

  1. Martin Luther, “The Bondage of the Will,” in LW 33:139.