When a young candidate for ministry asked a seasoned elder in our church how to discern the will of God for her life, the elder smiled and said, “Shucks, we all do what we want to do and then call it God’s will.” I laughed along with the rest of the preachers in the room. We laughed because it resonated with our experience, but none of us would have said it out loud. We would have searched for a more spiritual response, one that offered words of wisdom for the young neophyte.
This conversation happened years ago. With each passing year, I’ve become more and more convinced that the elder’s response wasn’t a reductionist view of God’s will; on the contrary, it was a golden, tidbit of wisdom. I’ve come to believe the best way to discern God’s will for our lives is to pay attention to the true desires of our own heart and then pursue those desires with all the passion and gratitude we can muster.
The psalmist says it like this, “Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps. 37:3–4) The key to discerning God’s will is to trust, dwell, and delight in God; do this and your heart’s desire will become a trustworthy guide—a compass that will help you discover God’s great desire for your life.
If you find yourself in the same spot as my young friend, asking, “What is God’s will for my life?” Here are three things you can do to help bring clarity and confidence to your decisions about the future.
Trust God with your whole heart and do good. Learning to trust and follow the desires of your heart starts with trusting God more than you trust yourself. Proverbs 19:2 says, “Desire without knowledge is not good; how much more will hasty feet miss the way.” The danger of making life decisions on the whims of your heart, without engaging knowledge, is the simple fact that our hearts are easily deceived; and sometimes, they are flat–out deceptive. When we make trusting and knowing God our number one priority, God will help us distinguish between our pseudo passions, (the desires rooted in lust, greed, and selfish ambition) and our real passions, (the desires rooted in our true selves, those God-given desires for the things of life that make us fully human.) A good guide for making life decisions when you’re not sure if you can trust your heart is to follow John Wesley’s three simple rules: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
Dwell in the boundaries of God’s land. Sometimes people forget how big God is and fail to grasp how vast are the boundaries of God’s kingdom. It is a mammoth mistake to shrink God’s kingdom to church property, church business, and Christian ministry. When Christians live in a “church-centric” bubble they are prone to forget the boundaries of God’s land includes all of life—every eco-system on the globe, every person on the planet, and every social sphere in society. If you are trying to discern God’s will for your life, it is good to remember, you are free to dream as big as your heart desires. The sky is the limit. There are a gazillion ways for you to join God in God’s redemptive mission of reconciliation. Jesus had a vision for creation. He saw a time looming in the future, when his followers would live in community, loving God, loving their neighbors, and loving the planet in such whimsical ways that the realities of God’s kingdom would actually become the realities of earth. Anywhere you live, everywhere you go, whatever you put your hands to doing, you are in a position to express God’s will and help Jesus fulfill his mission and vision.
Delight in the Lord. If you are perplexed about a vocational decision or trying to discern what to do next with your life, push the pause button and remember—God is more interested in your relationship with God than what you do for God. Guard your heart, don’t let the values of this world—the values of expediency, up-ward mobility, fame, fortune, and the like—be the measures with which you base your decisions. Instead, delight in God. Drink deep from streams of joy and find time to soak in God’s presence every day. Sing loud. Laugh often. Look intently for the signs of God’s presence everywhere you go, most especially in the people you meet along the way. When you delight in God, the joy of the Lord will become your strength; and like Jesus, the joy that is set before you, will help you navigate difficult decisions and endure the most challenging circumstances. (See Hebrews 12:2.) Your desires will be grounded in your true self and reveal the person God created you to be.
In Galatians 5:16, Saint Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” These three instructions from Psalm thirty–seven provide an excellent picture of what it looks like to walk in the Spirit: trust God wholeheartedly; stretch the boundaries of your life to include all of God’s kingdom; delight in God every day.
“If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me”
“The compassionate life,” says Henri Nouwen, “is the life of downward mobility . . . the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless—toward all who ask for compassion.” Jesus invites the rich young ruler—and all others who read this red-letter story—to free themselves from the talons of consumer-driven idolatry and to follow him on the descending way of compassion. It is good to remember this invitation is in response to the rich man’s question: “What must I do to gain eternal life?”
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Anthony de Mello, author of The Song of the Bird, tells a parable called Searching in the Wrong Place:
A neighbor found Nasruddin on hands and knees.
“What are you searching for, Mullah?”
Both men got on their knees to search. After a while the neighbor said, “Where did you lose it?”
“Good Lord! Then why are you searching here?”
“Because it’s brighter here.”
Some would say: “If you want to Experience God, look around and see where God is moving—the place where the light is brightest—and join God there.” Perhaps it would be better to embrace the shadows in our own souls, observe where darkness is looming in our neighborhoods, and then take the light of Christ into the darkness.
“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice.”
Following Jesus presents us with the same dilemma E.B. White wrote about: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” The art of Christian discipleship is learning to serve the world and savor the world simultaneously. Follow Jesus today and he’ll show you how.
“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “When Christ calls a [man or woman] he bids them come and die.” It’s not the best pick–up line . . . “come and die” . . . but it is the great proposal Jesus offers. He invites us to trade our self–suffocating narcissism for a life defined by self–sacrificing love and grace. Following Jesus and learning the ways of his upside–down kingdom, (where the first are last, the poor are favored, the weak are strong, and the oppressed are set free) is a life worth living for; and Bonhoeffer knew first hand, it was a life worth dying for.
“Come, follow me . . .”
Jesus didn’t invite people to join religious institutions, he invited us to follow him! To go where he is going—into the heart of God’s kingdom—and to learn from him how to be our truest selves while helping other’s experience the goodness of God’s heart.
Some Christians believe secular culture is hostile to Christianity. Gregory Boyle, author of Barking to the Choir, disagrees. Boyle says, “Our culture is hostile only to the inauthentic living of the gospel. It sniffs out hypocrisy everywhere and knows when Christians aren’t taking seriously, what Jesus took seriously.”
“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
Luke 19: 5-7
Jesus invited himself to Zack’s house for a dinner party. He asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water. He borrowed Peter’s boat as a platform for teaching. The women, who followed Jesus, invested financially in his mission and an unnamed person lent Jesus his colt for the Palm Sunday parade. Jesus believes in us and invites us to share our gifts and talents to help him express the kingdom of heaven on earth. Asking people to share their gifts and their resources acknowledges they have something of worth to bring to the party of life. Simply asking will affirm their dignity; if they share their gifts it will make for a better party!
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Jesus invites people to share their stories—as well as their deepest aspirations and wildest dreams—by asking questions. He asks the paralytic, “Do you want to get well?” He asks a blind man named Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” He asks the men on the road to Emmaus, “What are you talking about as you travel along?” He asks the woman at the well, “Where is your husband?” And the woman caught in adultery, he asks, “Where are your accusers?” The right question, asked in the right way, will create a protected space for people to explore their hopes and dreams.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14
In this familiar Red Letter story, Jesus takes children who are being shunned by his disciples and places them on his lap; instantly he moves them from the margin to center stage. Jesus blesses the children and lifts them up as an example of kingdom values, saying for all to hear, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Jesus always has his eye focused on people who are invisible. He sees those who live in the shadows of injustice and shines his light of compassion and grace on them. He uses his hands to lift them out of obscurity and he uses his voice to acknowledge their dignity.
“Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
Jesus never said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, affirm the dignity of others,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant when he said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” The parable of the good shepherd is a Red Letter story that magnifies the value of every individual. The hero in the story leaves the ninety-nine and seeks the one who has wandered away. In God’s family of compassion, no one is to be left out! No one is to be left behind! Everyone has equal and inherent value... including you!
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.