Discerning God’s leading is often a challenge. How do you discern his will for you? We want to do his will but we also want clear guidance and direction as to what that is.
So how does one discern God’s leading? Below are seven responses by people who have faced that challenge just as you are. Enjoy!
“Ask yourself the hard questions.”
Amy Carmichael was the founder of the Dohnavur Fellowship in India. When people wrote to her suggesting that they might like to come and work in India, she would ask three questions:
1. Do you truly desire to live a crucified life?
2. Does the thought of hardness draw you or repel you?
3. Are you willing to do whatever helps most?
Amy established a wonderful home for children who otherwise would have been consigned to temple prostitution. Don’t make up your mind that you are going to Africa or to China or to India to do a specific kind of work. In my experience, virtually all missionaries are asked to do many things not in their job description.
When Jim Elliot was considering missions, he didn’t know where to go or what to do. But he did have two ideas. So he started corresponding with one missionary in India and another in Ecuador. In view of the information he received, he made a choice: Ecuador. But before deciding, he first did a lot of thinking and praying. It wasn’t a wild guess but an act of faith in the God who promises to guide.
Jim used to say, “you can’t steer a parked car.” It makes sense to move in the direction you believe God is leading, trusting him as a faithful shepherd to lead you in paths of righteousness.
Answer from Elisabeth Elliot, who worked with her husband Jim Elliot on translating the New Testament into the language of the Quichua Indians in Ecuador. Later, as a widow, she lived and worked among the Aucas.
“Consider the different ways that God leads different people.”
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusing and sometimes contradictory talk going out about the “missionary call.” Beware of the extremes! Some require you to have had your own mystical “call” or voice from God. I don’t deny this happens, but don’t let others over-spiritualize the process and force it on you as normative. Other Christians approach it from an overly rational, dry, mathematical model that gathers the facts, prays, and then makes a logical decision. What are some of the ways that God leads people into missions?
Path 1: A few people really will have some kind of personalized call, vision, powerful encounter, or voice from the Lord.
Path 2: Other friends tell me theirs is not a matter of a “personalized call” to missions. It’s more a matter of obedience to God. In some cases the wife saw that her primary call of God was to marry this man, knowing that he was (and therefore, they were) going into missions.
Path 3: Still others find that they end up in missions after a serious evaluation of prime factors: deep commitment and obedience to Christ, plus a personal assessment of interests, gifts, experience, and dreams, combined with a heart of compassion for the lost and the poor, and an opportunity to serve and to make a difference in the world. These all converge to form a path into missions.
Path 4: Some report that the prime factors leading them into missions were rather simple: a radical obedience to Christ that meant a willingness to do anything, go anywhere, pay any price, plus an identification of their gifts and others’ needs.
Answer from Bill Taylor, veteran missionary from Central America who also grew up on the mission field, and co-author of Send Me! Your Journey to the Nations. Here are excerpts from that book.
“Stay close to God and trust him to lead in unmistakable ways.”
When our sons were about three years old and just learning to express themselves in English, we spent countless hours trying to figure out what they wanted or what they were trying to tell us. In contrast, when I was a teenager and my father wanted the grass mowed before he came home from work that day, he never had a problem getting his expectations across to me.
Now, I could have turned to my older brother and said, “You know, I think Dad may want me to mow the grass today, but I’m just not sure. How can I be certain of Dad’s will on this matter?” But of course my brother would have thought I had gone nuts to ask such a thing.
Is our heavenly Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, any less able than my earthly dad to communicate his will in clear and unmistakable terms? I think not. If you have to puzzle over a feeling or seek help in interpreting a sign, then it most likely is not direction from God.
Those of us raised in the Church learned about God while we were young. Unfortunately, we often fail to know God. We must nurture a personal relationship with the Father in order hear his voice or even to understand the proper context of that which we do hear from his Word. If as a teenager I had rebelled against my father, I very well might be confused about what his will was for me. If I stayed out late each night, coming home only after Dad had gone to bed, and if then I got up after Dad had left for work, I would never be in a position to hear him ask me to mow the grass. If loud music was blaring in my ear, I could be in the same room with Dad and never hear his request.
Before I ask about knowing God’s will, I must ask how well I know God. Am I putting myself in a position to be in personal contact with him? Am I getting rid of those things in my life that keep me from hearing his voice? If I am walking close to God, I need not fear that he is unable to communicate with me in unmistakable ways of his choosing, and I will never have to ask if he is calling me to serve in a particular way or place. And there is nothing that can take away the joy of knowing that I am where he wants me to be, doing what he wants me to do.
Answer from Mark, who served with Pioneer Bible Translators in Zaire. Later he served as a professor at Nebraska Christian College.
“Ask God, explore options, and rest in him.”
Ask him. If he wants you in cross-cultural mission, he will let you know. If you’re ambivalent about it for any reason (fear, etc.) tell him that, too, and then trust him to deal with it. Our Lord is compassionate and will supply us with whatever attitudes he wants us to have. He doesn’t expect us to somehow create them on our own.
Do a little exploring. Read, visit nearby cross-cultural churches/ministries/areas, and get to know someone from another culture. I found myself teaching Bible classes among the Vietnamese to help a friend. Two years later I woke up and realized that this was cross-cultural mission. God had called me years before, but I was imagining something very different, something much scarier and more difficult.
Relax! God’s will is not some hidden riddle that we have to figure out by trying with all our might. he knows that, spiritually speaking, most of us couldn’t find our way out of a paper bag with a road map and a GPS system. He will bring you where he wants you. Just trust him. He will take you there.
Answer from Kari, a Missouri Synod Lutheran church planter who has served Vietnamese immigrants in St. Louis for fourteen years.
“Don’t wait for complete confirmation. Step out in faith.”
I thought that God would just let us know what to do, so I did not do anything about it for several months. I wondered, “What if I make the wrong choices?” Or “Is it just our own idea to go into missions? Maybe it was not God who asked us to go.” All kinds of doubts discouraged us almost daily. Both of us had a strong desire to go, but we did not share this with other believers for a long time.
I had a narrow view of missions and the way God directs his people. I was waiting for some clear signs, like Gideon with his fleece. Some teaching about God’s guidance would have been helpful for us at that time.
Still we felt that this vision was from God and we should pursue it no matter what the cost. Sari urged me to take a step of faith and start contacting mission agencies about possibilities, but I was hesitant. I was still afraid to make decisions. Finally, I took action and phoned a few mission organizations. Some of our contacts were very discouraging.
They only asked about our occupations and nothing about our faith or gifts. We were dismayed and astonished that the mission agencies were more interested in our occupations than our spiritual life. But one particular organization seemed more encouraging, especially when I mentioned our interest in Israel. They promised to find out more from the field in Israel and get back to us. Eventually, we got the green light to go. We were so excited about how God confirmed his calling, and we were finally ready to start!
We are thankful to God that we stepped out in faith and went, even though we did not know all the details. I think that I was almost like a puppet, just waiting for God to make me move and do everything for me. I learned that I had to take steps of faith and do my part. It is like driving a car: it can only be steered while it’s moving. It required obedience and an act of my will, sometimes overruling my feelings and emotions. The confirmation and guidance came only after I started to do my part with faith and God would do his!
Answer from Juhani and his wife Sari, from Finland.
Excerpted from the book Scaling the Wall: Overcoming Obstacles to Missions Involvement, by Kathy Hicks.
“Recognize the need. Realize that God has especially equipped you.”
When I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I began to pray and meditate. But I didn’t hear a voice, and I didn’t see a verse jump out of my Bible. I simply received a growing realization that God was leading me to be a missionary. I think some make too much out of the concept of special direction to be a missionary.
Guidance is seeing a need and realizing that God has especially equipped you to meet that need. You discover a growing desire in your heart. And as you pursue that desire, you find a peace that surpasses understanding. His direction is confirmed as he opens the door and you walk through it.
When you follow God unreservedly, you give up control. Whatever it costs, boldly do whatever God wants you to do. The bottom line is not where you’ll serve but if you’ll go when he directs. God doesn’t interview applicants for the position of missionary, he drafts them.
Answer from David, who served eleven years at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya with World Medical Mission. David serves as CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.
“Ask God to use you and watch him open doors.”
Guidance is very personal. At a Christian university, I began to learn about missions, and felt, like Paul, a strong desire to take the gospel where it had never been (Romans 15:20). Therefore, I asked God if I could become a missionary. While I didn’t feel supernatural guidance, the interest certainly must have come from God.
After asking if I could be a missionary, I felt no negative response. So I simply began heading that way, and God opened doors. Over the next four years, I obtained the appropriate education and practical ministry experience, and then I joined a mission.
Answer from David, director of mobilization with WEC International. David has been a missionary for twenty-five years as a field worker in West Africa and at the WEC USA headquarters.
“Let God take you through the process he has for you.”
The Bible teaches us that God is personal, that he created every one of us for a purpose, knows us, and wants the very best for us. Paul expresses it this way: “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:9-10).
The biblical writers also describe that although some people received very concrete and definite direction, such as the Apostle Paul did when he had a vision (Acts 16:9), most people didn’t. They had to ask God, trusting that he would guide them in his own way.
For example, one writer said: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). This is usually a process. Turn from evil (Proverbs 3:7) and do right away what we know God wants.
The better we come to know him, the more we will understand what pleases him. We will appreciate more and more his love for each individual and his longing for all peoples to know him, serve him, and enjoy his blessings. At the same time, we discover that he pushes us to grow in faith and will give us opportunities to obey him.
As we seek God’s will, it is helpful to analyze who we are: our abilities, our interests, our opportunities, the counsel of wise friends we respect, what gives us the greatest joy, and also the tug of our hearts. As we bring these resources before the Lord in prayer and get involved in serving him where we are, we can expect him to show us more and more clearly the next steps.
Editor’s Note: The Resources section of this website lists a number of articles on the topic of guidance. See Eight Ways to Know God’s Will, and Three Things to Do about It, by Paul Borthwick, adapted from How to Be a World Class Christian). While there is no formula for knowing God’s will, here are some of the things he uses to show you the big picture. See also Goer or Sender? Find Your Role in God’s Plan. Just as surely as God calls some to go, he calls others to stay. And what he desires most of all is your obedience.
Answer from Jack Voelkel, missionary-in-residence with the Urbana Student Mission Convention; originally published on the Urbana website. Previously, Jack served thirty years with Latin America Mission in Peru and Colombia. Find other answers and articles from Jack and others on the Urban a blog.