“What is God’s will for my life?” Few questions have raised more speculation in Christian circles than this one. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit’s ministry involves giving direction. As we strive to devote our lives to God (Rom. 12:1), His Spirit enables and guides our spiritual progress.
Oftentimes, that guidance comes through a straightforward statement in Scripture. Consider, for instance, Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:
This is the will of God, your sanctification: … For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. (v. 3, 7)
What is God’s will? Based on this passage, it’s that we would be holy. Consequently, there are some questions pertaining to God’s will in our lives that we don’t need to ponder for very long at all. If any matter runs contrary to this broad principle of direction—namely, our personal holiness—then we can dismiss it as something other than God’s will.
But in our Christian experience, we know that it isn’t always as simple as finding clear answers by turning to a passage in Scripture. According to the biblical teaching, the Holy Spirit directs believers in both a general sense and on particular matters also. Through careful study of God’s Word, we may train ourselves to discern the will of God. (See Heb. 5:14.)
The Holy Spirit Directs Generally
We can locate the notion of God’s general direction for all believers in several New Testament statements. These texts offer broad parameters for defining and determining God’s will.
Take, for example, 1 Peter 2:15: “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” God would have us live not only holy lives but also good lives, the quality of which should silence those who would question our faith.
Similarly, Paul urges the Ephesians, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17). God’s will, we discover, can be understood. It’s not a quest whereby God plays hide and seek with us as we discover His divine purposes. He’s given us plain guidance on the pages of Scripture.
It is God’s will that His people
would be holy.
Or what about direction as it pertains to our struggle with sin? “Walk by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The Holy Spirit’s ministry is to guide us into victory over sin. By implication, is it God’s purpose for us to live a life defeated? Clearly not.
These are just a few of the many passages indicating the Holy Spirit’s straightforward direction for our lives. Some Christians measure their experience of the Spirit only in the miraculous encounters they may or may not have. While we don’t want to discount His miraculous work, we also don’t want to lose sight of His ordinary operations in it all. When it comes to discerning God’s will, we can begin with the plain instruction of His Word.
The Holy Spirit Directs Specifically
The Holy Spirit also provides specific direction as we seek to serve Christ. The book of Acts, which is a theological record of the early church’s expansion, underscores the Spirit’s role in revealing God’s will to specific people in particular detail.
Consider, for instance, Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch:
And [Philip] rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” (Acts 8:27–29)
A few chapters later, as the church at Antioch was gathered for worship, we read,
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2–4)
And finally, there is the account of Paul and his companions being denied access to preach in Asia:
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (Acts 16:6–7)
What do we make of these passages? In short, as these people pursued their ministries, God’s Spirit provided direct, unmistakable input into their lives. Of course, we recognize that these occasions in Acts are unique, for they took place during the church’s formative stages—the period of the apostles (Eph. 2:20). But this fact doesn’t negate the Spirit’s specific guidance in our lives today. When the Spirit prompts us to action in terms of a “still, small voice” convincing us of what to do, however, we should remember that that guidance will always concur with Scripture. The Spirit’s ministry will never prompt us toward action contrary to God’s Word.
God’s will can be understood. He’s given us plain guidance in Scripture.
When it comes to discerning the Spirit’s specific direction for our lives, there are two extremes to avoid. The first is an overeager desire to ascribe every supposed prompting or feeling to the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention. The second is a denial of all such activity, which reduces the Spirit’s guidance strictly to reason. In reality, the biblical perspective advocates for a daily walking by God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:16), humbly relying upon Him to illuminate our steps (Ps. 119:105).
Four Ways the Holy Spirit Guides Believers
With the biblical basis for understanding the Spirit’s work in mind, how can we know that we’re on the right track for discerning God’s will? Through what means does the Holy Spirit work to reveal God’s will for our lives? We may highlight four common possibilities.
First, God works through circumstances. The God who is in control of our lives is a God who can pave the way or block the path, as in Acts 16:6–7. He is equally as in control of our circumstances as He is able to prompt us by the Spirit. For this reason, it’s good for us to view the “closed doors” of our life circumstances in terms of God’s providential guidance.
Next, the Holy Spirit directs us as we heed wise counsel from mature Christians. Proverbs speaks to this matter: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice” (12:15). There’s perhaps no greater sign of pride and immaturity than to neglect godly advice. God works through counsel.
God directs His people also through the exposition of Scripture—not by the lifting of individual texts out of their context but by thoughtful interpretation. Cherry-picked texts stripped of their context can say anything and mean nothing. But through responsible, Spirit-guided study of the Bible, we can discern a framework for God’s will (Ps. 119:130). There’s a great safety that accompanies careful Bible reading.
Finally, there’s the peace which comes through prayer. As we discern God’s will, there is a place for affirmative counsel balanced with the ongoing exposition of Scripture. But prayer must underscore all of it. When a decision is made and a step taken, we must ask, “Is there a peace which rules in my heart?” (See Phil. 4:6–7.)
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). The question for us is clear: Are we doing the Father’s will, serving in the place of God’s appointing? By God’s grace, He has made the heart of His will plain by the Spirit. And there’s no joy, peace, or thrill greater than what we experience when we joyfully walk in God’s will.