Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 11, 2010

How Do You Know It’s God’s Will? Why Evangelicals Need To Learn How To Discern

There are a lot of catch phrases thrown around in evangelical circles. This is particularly true when it comes to the area of discernment. We say “God called me to do this,” or “we have peace about it,” or “God opened the door.” Sometimes people will come up to us and say that something like “God told me to tell you . . .”

While I am convinced that God does guide us and direct us, I am less convinced that evangelicals have been given the appropriate tools of discernment. One of the reasons for this is because evangelical pastors are not trained in the area of spiritual discernment. In Catholic seminaries, courses on spiritual discernment are core requirements along with biblical studies. In the context of Protestant seminaries, one of the only schools that offer a course on this subject in North America (at least as of a few years ago) is Regent College.

Gordon Smith, my professor of spiritual theology at Regent, suggests that there are some problems with the tools evangelicals used for discerning God’s will. The two main theories of discernment that we have is the “open door- closed door” theory, and the “I had peace about it theory.” Both are not particularly helpful. The “open door – closed door” theory says that God leads us by opening up some doors and closing others. The problem with this theory is that we usually have more than one door open, and the challenge is to decide which one to go through.

The “I had peace about it” theory is not entirely inaccurate. God does say he will lead his people in peace. He commissions his disciples in John 20:19-23 to go out with shalom, and in Matthew 6 he tells his people not to be anxious about anything. The problem is that we can have peace about something for the wrong reason. We can have peace about a decision because it gets us off the hook for something, because it means we are going to make lots of money, or because it makes us feel important.

Ignatius of Loyola talks in his “Spiritual Exercises” about the necessity to discern between a true and a false sense of consolation. One of the ways we can test whether the peace we have is from God is to look at the temptation account of Jesus. When Jesus was in the desert he was confronted and tempted with false means of obtaining peace. He was offered money (bread), power (to be given all the kingdoms of the world), and honor (to jump off the cliff and spectacularly prove himself). So when we are making decisions about where to go in life we need to discern our motives. Are we being motivated by money, honor, or power, or are we being motivated by love for God and others?

A helpful exercise for those of you who are trying to make an important decision right now is to look at your options and evaluate what motivates you to go one way or the other. Ask God to help you discern what is guiding your choices. One thing I will say is that it is usually a bit messy. We often have mixed motives. When I was trying to discern whether to start working as a pastor after my Masters degree or whether to go on to a Ph.D. I had some mixed motives. On the one hand I had peace about stopping my education because it meant that I could start earning money and could be off the hook with the hard journey of education. But what I realized is that my main motive for doing a Ph.D was for the purpose of honor. It was not something that I felt gifted for or excited about. What really motivated me was the prestige of being a professor. What I discovered through the process of discernment was that pastoral ministry is where I am gifted and where I feel a true sense of purpose and joy.


  1. As a graduate from a Jesuit high school and university, I really appreciate your input from Ignatius. Interestingly, when I was in school and studying (and by that I mean VERY lightly learning about) the spiritual exercises, it really didn’t mean much to me as I was not yet a Christian and hadn’t concerned myself with figuring out what God wants from me and which direction he’s leading me.

    But as I grow in my Christian faith, I have all too often asked myself and others for that matter, how do I know if God is calling to me or giving me direction or whether it’s my own desires/wants/thoughts that are posing as God. You’re right, discernment can be a messy thing. But you at least offer some assistance as we learn to listen to God through the example of Jesus in the desert. And it really is a matter of learning to listen.

    Thank you for posting this topic. You were right in that I too hear people talk about how God is leading us in certain directions. But as a baby Christian, I want to learn to listen to God better and this helps me understand a bit better.

  2. This also has implications in our postmodern culture where we have very little if any ability to define “truth.” If we do not as Christians define how to understand God’s will, but rather allow it to fall in the p.c. category of opinion, it becomes really difficult to hold one another accountable to truth. Sometimes “I felt a peace about it” seems to be used as a trump card of sorts to allow for lots of things that may or may not be scriptural.
    Additionally, I’ve noticed in my own life that this undefined “Christianese” language allows for a lot of apathy in truly struggling to discern God’s will. A good reminder Phil.

  3. Thanks Julie,

    I appreciate your comments about how we need to be accountable when we evoke God’s name and God’s will. When we attach God’s name so flippantly to our decisions we are in effect taking God’s name in vain.

    I also think it is helpful that you talk about making sure our decisions are in line with scripture. I pointed to the temptation text as a way of understanding what is not in line with God’s will. In effect I defined discernment negatively – as in what we should not be doing. But there is also a lot of things in scripture that obviously guide what sort of things we should be pursuing.

  4. Your article is very thought provoking. Discernment is such a valuable skill to have and so few of us really have it. Trying to weigh and measure aspects of a decision or an opportunity mostly leaves us like weather vanes, blowing one direction or the other depending on which aspect of the decision we focus on. I do not claim to have a special gift in this area. Perhaps a special need, though! Discernment is a skill I want to develop. But a skill I realize must be continually hewed out of the mayhem of changing circumstances. God gives discernment. I may even develope discernment through life’s trials and God’s grace. However, I seriously doubt there is a recipe for or such a thing as unquestionable discernment. We are afterall just people. We make mistakes.

  5. Thanks Mary,

    Welcome to the Blog! I think you make a good point when you say, “I doubt there is a recipe for or such a thing as unquestionable discernment.” I think it is true that discernment is a challenging thing and that we need to be open to being corrected. I talk a bit about this in my article, ‘Hope, Presumption and Despair.’ Sometimes I think as Christians we are too presumptuous in our claims about what God is doing. Maybe one of the things we helps us is having other people help us in our decision making. When we have other people involved with our decisions it keeps us accountable and can give us a broader perspective on things.

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