Discernment and Decisions

After demonstrating that the practice of spiritual discernment is not primarily dealing with finding the will of God but is instead about identifying and understanding God’s truth, Tim Challies writes about the connection between discernment of God’s truth and understanding God’s will. In this 6th chapter of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment, Challies explains that “the will of God is founded upon and inseparable from what is true about God.” And since we have already seen that the practice of discerning the truth about God is sadly lacking in many Christian churches today, it should not come as a surprise that many Christians are confused about the nature of God’s will and how we as human creatures can discover and understand God’s will.

It is helpful if we understand, right from the beginning, that there are two distinctions to be made with respect to the will of God. The first category is what Challies calls “God’s will of decree.” This is the sovereign control that God exercises over all of his creation, which always comes to pass and cannot be thwarted or changed by the actions of desires of men. When we speak of this aspect of God’s will, we are speaking of something which is set in stone and unknowable to us beyond what God has chosen to reveal. In other words, this expression of God’s will is essentially hidden from us as mere creatures, and there is no way for us to discover it if God has not chosen to show it to us. This is what is spoken of in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God.”

On the other hand, we have what Challies calls “God’s will of command,” which is the part of his will that he has revealed to us and expects us to obey. This is also spoken of in Deut. 29:29, because the verse continues, “but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” In other words, the law of God, the scriptures, were given to us so that we might know the will of God in every area which the Bible addresses. Challies lists some helpful examples, such as:

  • It is God’s will that we be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:17-18).

  • It is God’s will that we be sanctified and that we continue to grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 4:3a).

  • We are to be thankful at all times and in all situations (1 Thess. 5:18).

These are not mere suggestions or arguable points, they are clear commands from God’s word by which we can know his will for ourselves and our lives. Discerning God’s truths in the Bible helps us to know his will for our lives and makes many of the decisions we face in life very easy to decide. For instance, we know that lying is sin and therefore we ought always to tell the truth. It is never God’s will for his people to lie. We also know that sexual immorality is sin, so we ought to glorify God in our body which belongs to him. It is never God’s will for his people to engage in impure conduct.

But obviously, these kinds of clear statements of scripture do not cover every question or decision that we must make, so Challies offers several principles to follow when trying to know and do the will of God. First, he says, “Where God’s commands are explicit, we must obey immediately, joyfully, and without question.” We should not be struggling with decisions about things which are clearly dealt with in the Bible, but instead we should simply obey what God has said. The only discernment that is involved here is in deciding what the Bible actually says. Then, Challies says, “Where the Bible contains no explicit guidance, God gives us freedom and responsibility to choose what we will do.” Of course, we do not choose flippantly or carelessly but based on what we know about God’s character, because, “Where the Bible contains no explicit command or guidance, God gives us wisdom and discernment to choose what we will do.” Here we must exercise discernment based on our understanding of the truth of God’s word to make decisions that will honor him and display wisdom that comes from the Lord. Finally, “When we have chosen what is moral and wise, we must trust the sovereign God to work all the details together for good.” Since we cannot possibly anticipate every eventuality of every decision, we must not become worried about the consequences which our outside of our control. Ultimately, we have confidence in God that he is working all things together for our good.

But how can we know that we have made the “right” decision? Challies says that we are using the wrong kind of language when we speak this way. “But when we are living in God’s will, obeying his will as it has been revealed to us, there are no right and wrong decisions. When we have ruled out what God has expressly forbidden, and when we have searched the Bible and prayed for wisdom, we are free to choose.” This seems to be a direct application of the words of Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.” Robert Alden says, “Trusting the Lord means becoming well acquainted with him through his Word, spending time in his presence in prayer, and seeking the counsel of others in the faith….Thus the more you study the Bible, the less chance you will find yourself going astray.”

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