Discerning God’s Will

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.  Romans 1:13

In A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah, J.I. Packer suggests there are four factors that ordinarily ought to be taken into account when trying to discern God’s will about one’s proper place or task. The four factors are: the biblical, the pneumatic, the body, and the opportunity.

“The biblical factor is basic, in the sense that God never leads us to transgress any scriptural boundaries, and if we think we are being so led we need someone with a Bible in his hand to tell us we are deluded.”[1] The Bible tells us in general terms what is and is not worth doing, what sorts of actions God encourages and what sorts he forbids. In so doing, God says to us, in effect, within these limits, in pursuit of these goals, in observance of these priorities, you will find both the nature and the place of your ministry.

The second factor is pneumatic, meaning both the God-given desires of the spiritually renewed heart, in addition to any particular nudges the Holy Spirit may give, or any special burdens he may lay on our heart(s) over and above the general desires of a disciple pursuing the imitation of Messiah. Packer reminds us that this area is one of frequent self-deception, where mistakes are often made. The classic reference to this kind of guidance is Acts 16:6-8 where Paul is prevented from taking the Gospel into Asia, and then responds to the vision of the Macedonian man.

Packer warns us, “Christians vary, in this as in every previous age, as to how much or how little of this nudging they experience (and no sure reason can be given for the variance, save God’s good pleasure); but it would be perverse either for those who know more of it to treat as unspiritual those who confessedly know less of it, or for those who know less of it to treat as self-deceived those who claim to know more of it…. We may not ourselves often be guided by this kind of inner nudge—few of us, I think, are; but to discourage Christians from being open to it, as has sometimes been done, is radically Spirit-quenching.”[2]

Third comes the body factor: that is, the discipline of submitting such leading as we believe ourselves to have received to a cross-section of the Body of Christ in its local presence. Because there is such a danger of self-deception in the realm of the pneumatic, this is a sensible precaution and biblical guideline consistent with Proverb 15:22 (and 11:14), “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”

The fourth and final factor is that of opportunity. If none of the previous three factors eliminate a particular goal we are pondering then we are left with the fact that we serve the God of providence, and if He is truly calling us to a particular place or task than He will overrule our situation so we might find ourselves able to pursue His leading. If, on the other hand, circumstances make such a move impossible, the right conclusion is that while God indeed has a plan for us, it is not in what or where we originally thought. As we see in Nehemiah’s life as well in St. Paul’s, the final confirmation that God had ordained a particular task or journey was that in quite unpredictable ways the opportunities were provided.

Let us then expect any goal that is God inspired to be consistent with His revelation in scripture, persistent in its nudging our spirit, blessed by others in His body, and made possible through evidence of divine intervention.

Reflect: When God calls me, he makes it possible for me to move in the direction he is leading.


[1] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness : Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1995). 55.

[2] Ibid, 55-56.

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