When God Is (Still) Not Being Clear – Finding God’s Will Part 2
My previous post outlined some important principles about seeking God’s will and particularly the way we can engage with scripture to do so. It also promised that in this post, I would outline a really practical way of discerning God’s will when you simply have to make a decision. It is a process that I find really powerful and has served me well on a number of occasions, ever since an old mentor of mine first introduced me to it some 20 years ago.
It was my first big God’s-Will-For-The-Direction-Of-My-Life decision. In the previous 12 months I had taken a gap year and was in Queensland living in an intentional community, studying toward a Diploma in theology. I had absolutely loved my year away. The year before, I had been struggling through the first year of a Commerce Degree and largely hating every minute of it. But the last 12 months had been like a light turning on in my faith – the bible was coming alive, and so many questions that I hadn’t even realised were rumbling around in my soul had bubbled up and demanded my attention. Added to that, I had spent a year living in close community with 30 or so people – young adults like me, families and retired missionaries – all bundled together in a small outback town in Queensland, missional engaged in the local community, sharing a common purse, and growing in our discipleship.
And that’s where the decision came in. I’d promised my parents that this was only going to be a year and then return to my Commerce degree – but a high school had contacted the community, looking for a chaplain to come and work at the school. Staying in Queensland meant that I could continue to study theology, dive into chaplaincy and youth work in a school setting and continue living in intentional community. These were three really big ticks that made staying in Queensland look amazing, while returning to Melbourne and studying ‘worldly’ stuff like accounting, economics and legal studies looked nothing short of a life-sentence.
At first I thought the decision would be easy – what could look more like God’s will than staying in Queensland to do this kind of work. But my parents came down hard. They spoke of honouring my original commitments, finishing what I started, and stated in no uncertain terms that they wanted me to come home – to do otherwise would be disobedient.
As I described in my previous post, I put time aside to seek God’s will. I spent time in silence. I went for walks. I prayed and prayed beseeching God to speak and make his will clear. I read all those classic prophetic calling texts and tried to apply them to my life. In the end, as I sat in my mentors lounge room, cup of tea in hand, voicing my confusion, all I could say was that I had nothing. Zip. Goose egg. No idea what God wanted me to do, or which way I should go.
God’s “Yes” and God’s “No”.
The advice my mentor gave me was the outline of a process that I have used many times since. But she began by saying something that I have often mused over many years down the track. She said, “I often find that God’s “No” is louder than his “Yes”.’
I don’t know if that is necessarily a true theological statement – but it is something you may want to consider. I know that at a conscience level, it is much easier to discern when I’ve done something wrong compared to something right. I also find this perspective interesting when you consider an curious ‘God’s Will’ text from Acts 16:6-10. It reads:
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
It’s always a bit dicey to make large scale theological claims out the experiences recorded in Acts. So I will simply observe that Paul (and his companions) on his secondary missionary journey seems to be charging around the place and in this passage receives two “no’s” and one “yes”. He tried to get into the province of Asia, but was kept from doing so. He then tried to enter Bithynia, but was also not allowed. Undaunted, they kept moving and in the process received a vision of what to do next.
She began by saying something that I have often mused over many years down the track. She said, “I often find that God’s “No” is louder than his “Yes”.’
If we are to take this passage as at least indicative of “A way” that Paul went about discernment – he seems to be fairly proactive in moving ahead, while at the same time keeping at least one ear attuned to the Spirit and receiving guidance in both the form of “No’ and “Yes”
Make sure you have done the basics …
Returning to my mentor, she then checked in that I had done the basics:
- Actively sought God’s will in prayer and Scripture
- Sought out conversation and advice from wise and Godly people
- Carefully identified the options available to you with their pros and cons
All the way through she listened carefully, and was particularly attentive to me list of options making sure that I had considered everything and evaluated each appropriately. It was the next thing she said that I found particularly insightful …
Listen to your Heart and your Head
My mentor then proceeded to ask what my brain was telling me to do. At the time, my brain was telling me to go back to Melbourne because my Uni course was something I had previously discerned as a good and right thing to do. It was also a safer option, and one that honoured my parents who were (and remain) and important voice in my life. My heart, on the other hand longed to continue my present experience and remain in Queensland.
Over the years, I have found discerning the difference between head and heart to be really important – especially because we tend to be more oriented to one and so the other’s voice tends to get shouted down. As I reflect on these two decision makers in my life, I observe that:
- Usually, my brain chooses the conservative and risk-averse option. As such, it is vital that you can identify the logical option which represents a good safe bet.
- Year heart will tell you what you long for and what you hope for. It tends to select the things that appeal to you, even if they are not logical. Make sure you can identify these options as well.
Now you have to choose
Having discerned the difference between what might be a good idea and what you long for, it is time to make a choice.
Just as my mentor stubbornly refused to make the decision for me, I’m afraid that I can’t help you to choose which one to pick. But choose you must, for the next step will not work unless you have only one thing in mind.
For some of you reading this, your heart has been making your choices for you for far too long and it is time to give you head a chance to choose. For others, it is the opposite. But read on, because this decision may not be as hard as you think.
A Period of Discernment
Once you’ve made your choice, here’s what you do – enter into a fixed period of active discernment based on the decision you have made, at the conclusion of which you lock in your decision and make it a reality, or discard that option and choose another one. Here is how you do this:
- Decide how long you need for this period of discernment. Usually you need at least a week, and normally longer for big decisions.
- Internally commit yourself to the choice you have made (Literally say to God and yourself, “For this decision, I choose …”). You have to commit to only one option here so that you can test that one option for your period of discernment. This is where your period of discernment differs from the previous period or identifying and weighing up options – now there is only one option, and unless something happens, it will become a reality at the end of your discernment period.
- Begin to make active plans and commitments towards making this decision WITHOUT actually locking it in as an unavoidable outcome.
- Tell a select group of friends and mentors that you are discerning this particular prospect for your future and invite their feedback. This is different to seeking advice about a range of options. Now you are informing them of the one thing you will otherwise be doing unless it becomes very clear that it is the wrong or dumb thing to do
- If appropriate, send off an application form to test the waters.
- If the choice has implications for your calendar, begin to block in those dates.
- Basically do whatever you can to make it feel more and more real without actually locking yourself into it.
- All the way through, be checking in with your heart and your head and keep your discernment radar finely tuned. An important thing to observe here is that if you encounter difficulty, it may not necessarily be a “No”. If you think through many of the great “God’s Will” moments in Scripture, they were filled with turmoil and difficulty – take Israel’s Exodus from Egypt as an example.
- At the conclusion of your period of discernment check in one last time with those you have invited into your discernment process and let them know of your final decision – and then go and make it happen
Melbourne or Queensland?
For those of you still wondering what decision I made, I decided that it was my heart that had taken me to Queensland in the first place, so now it was time to listen to my head again. I decided to enter into a active period of discernment with returning to Melbourne as my choice.
If you encounter difficulty, it may not necessarily be a “No”.
My heart hated the idea. I really wasn’t thrilled at the prospect – but I certainly didn’t feel like I was being disobedient by orienting myself southwards. In fact, most of the opposition I encountered was largely emotional. As I began to explore options for moving back home, I didn’t encounter any visions, or have any ‘out-of-the-blue’ moments of confirmation. Slowly I took steps toward Melbourne, identifying a date of departure, investigating the price of bus tickets and luggage limits, contacting Monash Uni to see what my enrolment options were, and checking in with my old Church and the local high school about ministry opportunities.
In and amongst all of this, I continued to spend time in prayer, but the nature of this prayer had changed dramatically. From, “God, what do you want me to do?”, it became, “God, in a month, I am going to be on a bus riding back to Melbourne. If you think this is a bad idea, then you’d better make it REALLY obvious, because up to now I haven’t been able to discern a single word from You. If you have been speaking to me before and I’ve missed it, I’m sorry. But if I’m going to hear you, I’m afraid you will simply have to communicate with me a different way.”
Slowly I began to develop a growing confidence that I was heading in the right direction, and in the end I wound up with the best of both worlds. I moved back to Melbourne, but instead of moving home, I lived in a (tiny) intentional community with a previous principal of the college I had been attending in Queensland (and his family). I returned to Uni, but only on a part time basis so that I could complete my Diploma in Theology. I also took up an internship at my old church, working in the youth ministry which had an active presence in the local high school. So there I was, living in intentional community, involved in ministry, studying theology … just a little further south than I had originally imagined.
Where to from here?
If you are in period of decision making, and you are wondering what God’s will might be for your future, then maybe this process might be helpful for you, as it has been helpful for me:
- Make sure you do the basics
- Ask your head and your heart
- Choose the one thing
- Enter a period of active discernment
Its this last stage that I find truly liberating. To go into a period of discernment where now there is only one thing to test; to test it by actively moving towards that option without locking yourself in; to gauge a select group’s response to this one option; and to inform God of your decision while still actively listen for His No – these are all things I can tangibly do – and maybe you can too.
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