By Dr. Barry Thornton
In the timeless classic It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, tries to make sense of his topsy-turvy life and the fleeting purposes for living that he almost loses, due to regrets and missteps at a critical time in his life. Clarence, an angel trying to earn his wings, leads George through a series of scenes reflecting the possibilities if George had never been born. Clarence states: “You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.” As most of us know, on George’s road to discovery, he comes face-to-face with the shocking reality that his life did make a crucial difference in the lives of others. Clarence says, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
How Do We Discern?
All of us sense a deep desire to find peace in our life’s journey, rooted in an assurance that God’s will is being fulfilled in and through our lives. As Christians and as disciples who believe in the inspiration and definitive nature of God’s unchanging Word, discovering and knowing God’s general will for our lives is as close as the pages of Scripture itself. Loving God and others, forgiving others, sharing the good news with others, etc.—we know these directives are generally consistent for all Christians to fulfill in our lives.
The challenge is that we oftentimes can’t bring focus to how God’s general will for everyone translates to a specific calling for each individual. Even though we pray for guidance in our lives, we don’t have a Clarence to help us put our daily decisions into perspective, reflecting the providence of God. Although we sense God’s leading through his Holy Spirit running congruent to the Word of God, we are often left to wonder whether decisions we make are in complete harmony with the will of God.
We struggle with a variety of decisions, trying to harness our own desires or dreams. There is no book, chapter, and verse in these kinds of situations: What person to marry, whether to make a major purchase such as a car or house, whether to take a certain job, and the list goes on. It would be much easier if there were an addendum to Scripture that addresses such decisions! But there isn’t. So how do we discern God’s will through life’s conundrums that are particular to our individual lives?
First of all, there is a striking dynamic we must understand. God created us with free will and thus God allows for personal choices that are predicated upon an understanding of God’s general will. Therefore our individual callings are best understood retrospectively, after years of making decisions soaked in an understanding of God’s general will, prayer, and the Holy Spirit’s prodding.
Training our spiritual lives to respond to God’s specific prompting is what the apostle Paul alluded to in Romans 12:1, 2. He spelled out prerequisites to confirming a definitive, specific, and personal calling. Following these disciplines on a daily basis places us in parallel consensus with God. God has given us a great gift in the freedom of decision-making. If we dig into Romans 12:1, 2, we can discover how to put ourselves in the best position to respond to God’s general will and seek out his personal specifics for our lives.
Offering Our Bodies as a Living Sacrifice
“Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (v. 1).
The first step on our journey to align ourselves with God’s specific will for our lives is an all-in approach to our spiritual journey. Paul calls us to offer our bodies. Another way of saying this is “I’m laying my whole life on the line.” More than a subscription to spiritual exercises, I’m putting all that I am on a collision course with whatever he brings my way. Isaiah responded to God’s question, “Who will go for us?” by saying “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). His response to the general will of God was a sense of urgency to make himself personally compliant. He was all-in. In order for us to understand God’s specific will for our lives, the first step is always a burdened all-in to God’s general will.
Nonconformity to Societal Norms
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
In Jon Courson’s Application Commentary, he said that “conformity to this world is like a thermometer, fluctuating to the temperature of the culture. Paul’s admonition is more in line with a thermostat, changing the climate of the culture!” It is by changing our thoughts that we are transformed. It does not come by wishing, hoping, or commanding, but rather by renewing. The mind is the control center of your attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and actions. Paul said that God wants our minds because he knows the power of the mind and wants it for himself. He wants us to think his thoughts. As we do, our minds will be renewed.
In other words, part of the pathway to discovering God’s specific will for our lives requires nonconformity to the patterns of this world and looking at life through the eyes of a holy God and how he seeks to fulfill righteousness in our world. A scuba diver loves the water but breathes the air. He is able to function because he takes his environment with him. If he conforms to the environment around him, he will eventually die. God’s specific, revealed will for our lives begins from the inside out as we renew our minds and deny conformity to this world.
God’s Good, Pleasing, & Perfect Will
Paul concluded by saying, “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Paul called for an outward change in the character and conduct of believers, which is to correspond with our inward spiritual condition. The ability to test and prove what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God begins with having a renewed mind. To truly perceive life from God’s perspective, we must live it in his way. The end result will be a keen awareness of God’s specific calling in our lives.
It is a mistake to think about knowing God’s will as if it is somehow separated from our ongoing walk with the Lord. Knowing God’s will is really just a subset of knowing God. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5, 6). The more you pursue knowing God deeply, the more likely you are to end up exactly where God wants you to be.
Said another way, if you refuse to present your body as a living sacrifice, and if you insist on following the ways of the world, you are highly unlikely to know God’s specific will for your life. On the contrary, if you surrender your life to the general will of God, reject conformity to the ways of this world, and transform your thinking, your choices will more readily apply to God’s specific leading as you are brought along the road of life secured by the guardrails of God’s Word.
George Bailey ultimately understood that his life made a difference prospectively and retrospectively. We all grapple with the ultimate discovery of definitive answers that give meaning to our lives in Christ. The specific will of God for each of us, though elusive at times, is nonetheless within our grasp as we commit to being all-in, seek nonconformity to the world, and transform our thinking. “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10).
Dr. Barry Thornton is the Executive Director/Evangelist with Salt River Christian Men’s Fellowship, a church starting and sustaining organization.