One of the questions I receive often is, “how can I know God’s will in my life?” Perhaps you have pondered that question yourself; I know I have.
Initially, when I hear that question I usually think of It in a broad and general sense: God’s will is pretty clear, to worship and glorify God and make disciples of all nations—or, as my church has verbalized it: “to pursue maturity by making disciples.”
But what I think is on people’s minds when they ask that question is what specifically and particularly does God want me to do to fulfill that general will? We know God’s will in this broad sense, but is there a specific thing he wants me to do?
God’s particular will for my specific context is not as easy to answer. The reason is because we, unlike God, do not have omniscience. Omniscience is one of those incommunicable attributes that is unique to Him. So while God knows every minute detail of our lives, down to the very hairs on our head, we do not. Thus, our limited perspective about the future erodes certainty concerning particular decisions in the present.
Allow Me To Illustrate
For example, I made the decision at the age of twenty-seven to take a pastoral position in a church in South Carolina, and cease serving as an associate in a church in Tennessee.
Or take the minister I had served with in Tennessee who had three adopted boys. He and his wife gained custody of them when they were just newborns, and their first three children were already grown and out of the house at the time. They could have moved into the second half of their lives and enjoyed the empty-nester phase. However, they chose to take on three newborn babies, and start the rearing children phase all over again.
A minister I worked with in my early twenties was a gentleman who was in the business world before taking the call to pastor a church. He had a good job, lots of benefits, and had room to move up in the company. However, in his early 30’s he chose to let go of it all and pursue full time ministry. It involved a pay decrease, hours of seminary preparation, and no doubt a good bit of sacrifice.
In the three examples above the following questions might be asked: Was this the will of God in each situation? Was the right decision made? What if in each situation a different decision was chosen and if so would that mean that the person in question was out of God’s will?
These cases address the heart of the issue. How do we discern and decide what God’s will is in our particular circumstances?
Should Paul Have Gone To Jerusalem?
There is a narrative in the book of Acts that I believe offers some very helpful principles for guiding us through these seemingly difficult questions. It involves the Apostle Paul and his particular decision to travel to Jerusalem, despite numerous voices advising him not to do so. I want to observe a few interesting points that develop in light of this story and then offer five suggestions when it comes to discerning God’s particular will in our lives today.
The passage under consideration is Acts 21:1-16. Paul is on route to Jerusalem. In the previous pericope we are told that Paul was eager to get there before Pentecost (see 20:16). When Paul arrives at Tyre and shares with the disciples where he is headed the disciples “were telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem (21:4).” In fact, this is what the elders in Ephesus days prior were communicating (20:37-38), and the same was said to Paul in Ptolemais in 21:12. Everyone it seemed was urging Paul to not go to Jerusalem.
But why? The text makes it clear—Paul would face extreme suffering if he went. The Holy Spirit himself told Paul that this would happen . In Acts 20:23 Paul tells the Ephesian elders, “the holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Later on this testimony was verified by the prophet Agabus, “thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘this is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles (Acts 21:11).’”
Paul on the other hand seemed confident and determined to go to Jerusalem. Despite the knowledge that he would experience suffering in Jerusalem he was resolved to go. When Paul was first converted on the road to Damascus the Lord Jesus himself explained to Ananias that “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and children of Israel *Acts 9:15).” During his third missionary journey it is evident that Paul has made up his mind concerning Jerusalem, “Paul resolved in the spirit to…go to Jerusalem (Acts 19:21).” And the inevitable suffering he would face was no deterrent for him, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:13).”
Why Did Paul Go To Jerusalem?
Why was Jerusalem so important to Paul? 2 reasons: First, during Paul’s travels he not only encouraged and admonished the various churches he had planted, he also was collecting money to take back as a relief effort for the church in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-9 for details about this collection). The second reason was that Jerusalem was the last stop before he would head toward Rome. Paul’s travel to Rome was really his ultimate desire. But why Rome? Because Paul’s ultimate desire and purpose in life was to take the Gospel to the Gentile world. And because Rome in Paul’s day was the apex of the Gentile mission it would fulfill his life endeavor to preach the Gospel there. Paul summarizes this ida in Romans 15:19-20, “so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation.”
So, Paul was determined to go to Jerusalem and ultimately Rome. However, all of his friends were begging him not to go because of the possibility that he may be hurt, arrested, or worse, killed. This leads us to one more peculiar observation in the text. In Acts 21:4 we have an unusual statement recorded by Luke: “And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” This is peculiar because it seems at first glance that Luke is making the Holy Spirit contradict himself. The reason is because the Holy Spirit has already made it abundantly clear that Paul must go to Jerusalem. Or has He?
Did The Holy Spirit Communicate Different Things?
It is not always clear in Greek when the word translated “Spirit” is referring to the Holy Spirit or ones human spirit (that is, when the adjective “holy” is not in front of the word “spirit.”). In our English translations this is distinguished when the word spirit has a capital “S” or lowercase “s.” It is context that must be the deciding factor in these cases. With this in mind consider the following verses:
Now after these events Paul resolved in the spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”(Acts 19:21)
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there (Acts 20:22)
except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me (Acts 20:23)
“Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
Perhaps what we have in these texts is Paul’s human spirit resolved to go to Jerusalem because of his deep desire to take the Gospel eventually to those in Rome, while at the same time The Holy Spirit clearly communicating to Paul that IF he does go he will face extreme difficulty when he arrives. But what then do we do with the seemingly contradictory verse in 21:4? Let’s remind ourselves— “And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
The best way to reconcile this verse with what we know of the others is to conclude that the phrase “Through the Spirit” does in fact refer to the Holy Spirit. But perhaps it is Luke’s way of saying something like, “through what the Holy Spirit had made clear about what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem…” The phrase “ They were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” refers to the response these disciples had in light of what the Holy Spirit had revealed about Paul’s trials that lay ahead of him. In other words, throughout these narratives the Holy Spirit ONLY reveals WHAT would happen if Paul was to go to Jerusalem, but he never reveals to Paul, or anyone else for that matter, that Paul MUST GO to Jerusalem. Stott says it well, “perhaps Luke’s statement is a condensed way of saying that the warning was divine while the urging was human (Stott John, Acts).” This is why there is division on whether or not Paul should go. Paul is resolved in his spirit to go because he has a gut wrenching purpose fueling him. His friends are all begging him not to go because they have a deep love for their mentor of the faith and fear they will lose him. Both parties are having to make decisions based on their convictions.
Lessons to Learn from this Passage about discerning the Will of God
What then can we take away from this passage about discerning God’s particular will for our lives? Let me offer five:
Obeying the Will of the Lord is usually not easy.
It was plain to Paul that if he were to go to Jerusalem he would face very troublesome times. Nevertheless, Paul chose to go because he had resolved in his spirit that he needed to do it. When we are faced with multiple choices regarding something we feel God is calling us to do, we shouldn’t simply default to the easiest option. In fact, more times than not, the road less traveled is the one in which we are to take. Paul himself seemed to lean this way in general:
strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.(Acts 14:22)
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,(2 Timothy 3:12)
When seeking to discern the will of God we need to ask: what will bring the most glory to Christ and what will further the mission of the Gospel?
Paul had resolved to go to Jerusalem because it was the path that would lead him to carry his mission to the Gentile world. For Paul the Gospel was the map that pointed him to his proper destination. It wasn’t about ease, comfort, or what would bring him the most satisfaction personally. Paul had one thing in mind when it came to deciding where to go and what choice to make—what will bring the Gospel to the most amount of people? The answer to that question guided his decision.
When you have determined what God’s will is resolve to obey it no matter what the cost.
On his way to Jerusalem every stop Paul would make his friends all would say the same thing—“don’t go!.” Can you imagine the pressure? You get a glimpse of it while Paul is in Ptolemais: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? (Acts 21:13).” Can you sense the emotional struggle Paul had as they begged him not to go? And yet, Paul was resolved! He knew no matter what that God was calling him to go to Jerusalem. We too, must seek this kind of resolve. Of course much council should be sought after, we must bathe our decision in prayer, but at some point we must get off the fence, and determine to do what God is calling us to do.
If you are counseling someone who is seeking advice about what they should do show compassion, care, and concern. However, afterward leave the consequences and results to the will of the Lord.
This is what the disciples at Ptolemais eventually decided to do. “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done (Acts 21:14).”
Trust God’s sovereign Will as you seek to obey it.
When Paul finally reaches Jerusalem the prophecy of the Holy Spirit came to pass just as He had said. Paul is met with an angry mob, is beaten, and arrested. I’m sure that it must have ran through his mind, “did I make the right choice?” And as we seek to wisely make decisions about where God is leading us we too will face moments of doubt and trouble. It is here that we find the Lord’s words to Paul just as relevant to us today: “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome (Acts 23:11).” In the middle of that Cell the Lord verified that Paul was on the right track. I think as we seek to follow God’s particular will for our lives we also can hear the Lord say to us, “take courage.”
God’s will is to Love Him and tell others to do the same. But how that will play out in each of our individual lives is going to take some good discernment and wisdom. I find it fascinating that a few years later, in one of the letters written, while in Rome under house arrest, Paul gives the church at Ephesus two statements, that had to come, in part, from his experience getting there:
try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord…Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:10, 15-17).”