Cultivating Discernment: LIVING in the Will of God


By: Jenni Walker

“Wherever you are, be all there.  LIVE to the hilt in every situation you believe to be the will of God.”  (Jim Elliot)

“I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.”  Psalm 40:8

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A few years ago, my sister Beth and I were sitting in her cozy condo living room taking prayer requests with our Bible study ladies.  One of the girls shared with the group that she felt from the Lord that she needed to look for a different job.  She loved her current job but felt God leading her to a place where she could minister more to unbelievers.  Yet, she did not know exactly what that would look like.  Trusting in God’s faithfulness, and prayerfully considering the decision with her husband, she put in her two-week notice and went through the process of applying at different places.

In all that we do, we are to live in the will of God.  But that is what is interesting in this example is that this friend felt very specifically that the next step was to quit her job, and the job God was calling her to would be found in taking that first step.  Yet, she did not know specifically where that step would lead her at the time.  She had to act in faith that God would make His will for this next season of life clear as she walked in obedience to His leading and guidance.

Other times we will have a sense of where God is leading us but not know exactly the actual steps to get there.  Several of my friends recently have expressed that they feel God calling them to the mission field.  It is stirring in their hearts, and they have a strong sense from the Lord about it.  One of them is taking a step of faith and going back to Haiti, where she has already done some short-term mission outreaches, for the entire summer.  She is going to use that time to seek the Lord about His will for her to stay there long-term.

Another friend told me over lunch just this month that both she and her husband have always had a heart for international missions, but very recently God has begun to impress on their hearts that He might be calling them to work together as missionaries long-term outside the country.  They do not know many of the specifics yet – the timing, which country, or which organization.  They are following the leading of the Lord by going on a short-term mission trip together this summer and seeking Him for His leading.

In each of these scenarios, my friends had a sense of a specific part of God’s will for their lives.  Did you know that you can be assured of the will of God?  Many Christians have a tendency to believe that whatever is happening in their lives must be the will of God, or that they can never truly know what His will is in a given situation so they must just live life and hope for the best.  Sort of a “whatever will be will be” mentality – but such a mentality is not one that actually promotes the will of God in our lives!

While it is so important to have a heart fully surrendered to the Lord, declaring that no matter what, you will follow Him even when life is hard, or things get stormy, or you are uncertain of the next step to take, it is also of great importance to realize that God does not want us to just stop there.  He has given us tools to provide assurance of what His will is!  But HOW do we know if we are in the will of God?  

* * *How Do We Know?* * *

Some of the women described that they felt “God leading them” in a certain direction or to take a specific step of faith.  For each of these godly women, they were experiencing something that the Bible often refers to as discernment.  God’s Word shows us clearly that an attitude of discernment is essential to help us LIVE daily in the will of God and to know if we are doing His will.  Psalm 119:33-34 says, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.  Give me understanding [discernment], that I may keep Your law and observe it with my whole heart.”  Cultivating godly discernment is essential to walking in God’s will.  So HOW do we grow in godly discernment in our walk with God?

“Wherever you are, be all there.  LIVE to the hilt in every situation you believe to be the will of God.”  (Jim Elliot)  This quote is from a written correspondence between missionary Jim Elliot and his then-fiancé, Elisabeth.  They were in the process of seeking if it truly was God’s will for them to get married as they both had specific things they felt God had called them to in their own lives.  Discernment of God’s will is not always cut and dry.  It requires seeking Him through His Word, thinking critically, reflecting, living intentionally, growing in spiritual sensitivity, learning to rely on the Holy Spirit, and even seeking wise counsel.  But it can be known and lived “to the hilt”!

There are two essential elements to discern the will of God in our everyday lives that we are going to focus on together today:

* * *1. Put It to the Test!* * *

The first element is to TEST ideas about how we should live according to the truth of Scripture.  Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by TESTING you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Life presents us with a myriad of choices, some large and some seemingly inconsequential.  Should I purchase the pink or the red t-shirt?  Should I volunteer at the homeless shelter or the local food bank?  Which college should I attend?  Should I stay at my current job or begin applying elsewhere?  Should I purchase a devotional book or just pick a book of the Bible to read?  Which church should I attend?  Should I buy that house or renew my apartment lease?  Should I watch less TV?  Is reading this magazine a good use of my time?  Should I go on a date with that guy?  How many children should I have?  When should my husband and I start having children?   How much money should I be saving each month?  Should I give a donation to that non-profit organization?

Christian authors and speakers Nancy Leigh Demoss and Mary A. Kassian wisely point out that “over the course of your lifetime you will be faced with a multitude of choices – some inconsequential, some good, some bad, some right, some wrong, some better, some best.  That’s why you need discernment.  That’s why you need the ongoing help of the Holy Spirit.  That’s why you need to wrestle with how to apply the Bible’s precepts to your life.” (p. 25, Interior Design: Ten Elements of Biblical Womanhood)

The friend from the women’s Bible study wisely put what she believed was God leading her to quit her job to the test.  She discussed it with her husband, she prayed for wisdom, and she sought godly counsel.  She practiced godly discernment!

My various friends seeking God about becoming international missionaries have all put their heart’s desires and what they believe to be the leading of the Holy Spirit to the test also.  They know that God calls all of His followers to obey His Great Commission and to “go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).  For some of us, this can happen right in our own communities!  (See parts 1 and 2 of recent posts about “Living Daily with an Eternal Perspective” for more insights and ideas about this!)  But God also calls us to have willing hearts, and for some of us, that means going to another country to spread the light and love and truth of the gospel!  This dear couple is beginning the intentional and prayerful process of testing if this is from the Lord and what the next steps are for them.  They have been prayerful and are putting together some action steps as they seek the Lord for guidance.

Living our lives in accordance with God’s Word (“sound doctrine” – see 1 Timothy 4:6) and cultivating a heart that desires to please the Lord will foster an attitude of spiritual discernment and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit in our lives.  What is a current or past situation in which you weighed several options and had to “test” or discern what was pleasing to the Lord?  How did you come to a conclusion?

* * *2. Learn to Love What God Loves!* * *

A second key element that helps us to grow in discerning the will of God is simply to learn, what Demoss and Kassian call, to “LOVE WHAT HE LOVES”!  We must cultivate a willing and obedient heart that is sensitive to the things of God.  The more we do so, the more naturally we will live to please God and love what He loves.

Jesus said in John 14:15, “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”  As we deepen our love for the Word of God, we will begin to love what God loves and to more naturally prioritize things according to His will.  Just as a tree bears fruit through a natural process, so it will be when we abide in Jesus.  Later in John 15:7-10, Jesus described this spiritual process to His disciples saying, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, so you will be My disciples.  As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”

How can you love what God loves in a practical way today?  How can you demonstrate the love of God toward your husband today?  Toward your children?  Toward other family members, friends, or coworkers?

In what ways can you show God today that your love for Him is prioritized above all else?  Perhaps you have been participating in gossip about a coworker and need to choose to “love what God loves” by praying for him or her and speaking only edifying words to and about that individual.  Maybe you need to put your cellular device or tablet to charge in the bedroom, intentionally leaving it there for the entire afternoon, and instead listen to a book on tape or worship music while you do dishes or fold laundry. Perhaps it is time to keep the television or Netflix turned off for the entirety of the evening while you and your family intentionally go for a walk, play a game, or read a story together.  How can you use your drive to work or to the store to “love what God loves”?  You can play praise and worship songs that your children will enjoy and have a sing-along with them, or listen to a Biblical podcast, or, if you are by yourself, spend time praying and quieting your heart before the Lord without the radio or cell phone.  The possibilities are endless!  As you draw near to God, and intentionally abide in Him, His Word will become alive to you and you will find yourself growing in your love of what He loves!

* * *Wherever You Are. . .* * *

Lastly, remember that no matter what season of life you are in right now, GOD is at work behind the scenes.  Romans 8:27 reminds us that the Holy Spirit “makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”  As we seek to grow in discernment of living in His will, we can also rest in the truth that HE is the One who is faithfully and lovingly at work in us (Philippians 2:13).  So live to the hilt, both in the big and the small things!  Because nothing is small with God.  He desires, and is honored in, every part of our hearts and lives.

I’d like to close with a story Elisabeth Elliot wrote about the beginning of her time in the jungles of Ecuador not long after her husband, Jim, had been killed.  In the following excerpt, Elisabeth Elliot recalls her time living in Ecuador with her young daughter, Valerie.  Elisabeth had recently been widowed, but she felt called by the Lord to go live among the Auca people in the jungles of South America.  As she writes, it is amazing to witness her wholehearted submission to the will of God in both the big and the little things: 

”All of us, I suppose, have at times felt strangely displaced, wondering how on earth we landed in a situation so far removed from that of our choosing. In 1958 I was living with Auca Indians in the Ecuadorian jungle. They had provided Valerie and me with a house—“a gift of place,” bless their dear hearts! It was identical to their own houses—without walls, floor, or furniture. My hammock was swung, as theirs were, between two of the six poles that held up the roof. Valerie, who was three, slept happily in a blanket on split bamboo. Often in the intervals between sleeping and fanning the fire I found myself musing in the wee hours—what am I doing here? How am I to glorify the Lord in such a place? Remember Psalm 16:5, “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.” I realized that He was preparing me for what He was preparing for me. “I go to prepare a place for you,” He told His disciples. Our heavenly Father knows how to place us where we may learn lessons impossible anywhere else. He has neither misplaced nor displaced us. He assigns and designs according to His inscrutable wisdom—always for our blessing and conformity to the image of Christ…I believe that in every time and place it is within our power to acquiesce in the will of God—and what peace it brings to do so.”  (Secret of Contentment article from “The Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter” – published in March/April 2000)

This brings us back to the heart of the quote by her late husband, Jim Elliot: “Wherever you are, be all there.  Live to the hilt in every situation you believe to be the will of God.”  It is a wholeheartedness, a heart that grows more and more in hunger to be conformed to the image of Christ, and that, above all else, asks in all circumstances of life, “How can I glorify God in such a place?”  Growing in godly discernment allows us to live day-by-day, choice-by-choice, moment-by-moment in, and for, the will of God.  And as Elisabeth Elliot so wisely and truly points out, “In every time and place it is within our power to acquiesce in the will of God—and what peace it brings to do so.”

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