How to discern the Will of God

Archbishop Seraphim
How to Discern the Will of God

People are often asking about how to discern God’s will. This is a very usual and natural question. However, even the question is not as simple as it may appear on the surface. Accompanying this concern about discerning God’s will is the ”why” question, which is : “Why do we want to discern the will of God ?” This question can be further refined : "Is it because we love Him and wish to be pleasing to Him ? Is it, perhaps, because we have some sort of selfish or self-centred motive ? Could it have anything to do with a hope to have power over someone else ?"

To begin with, anything having to do with the second or third sorts of motivation is not at all godly. Such motivations ought to be quickly dismissed. If the motivation is the first one, then this is the only good and godly motivation. However, it is necessary to understand this first motivation.

In the beginning of Creation, God said :

‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of Heaven, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that moves on the earth.’ So God made man; in the image of God He made him; male and female He made them. Then God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of Heaven, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb that sows seed on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. I also give every green plant as food for all the wild animals of the earth, for all the birds of Heaven, and for everything that creeps on the earth, in which is the breath of life.’ It was so. Then God saw everything He had made, and indeed, it was very good (1 Moses [Genesis] 1:26-31).

This means that human beings reflect Who God is, and that we were created to work in harmony with the Lord. In addition, we may notice that in the beginning there was nothing created to be carnivorous. In the beginning, the first human beings did not even have to think about what is God’s will. They simply knew in their hearts what is His will, and they did His will in everything, always, and every day. This was the case until the introduction of self-centred questions, and until our Fall from Grace. This Fall brought a cloud of forgetfulness, and many divisions, and much trouble. Because we forgot God and learned how to lie, we also forgot who we are, ourselves.

Nevertheless, as we pay attention to the way that the Lord God reveals Himself throughout the whole of the Old Covenant, we can see that He reveals Himself to be Love. Further, because of our historical selfish behaviours, we humans have required some clear indications of how to live in order to be pleasing to the Lord, and to be in harmony with Him and His will. This is clearly spelt out in the Ten Commandments (as they are usually called), and their introduction. These words are extremely important for us to keep in mind :

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart, from your whole soul, and from your whole power. So these words I command you today shall be in your heart and in your soul. You shall teach them to your sons, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up’ (5 Moses [Deuteronomy] 6:4-7).

All the Ten Commandments are rooted in and summed up by the exhortation that we love the Lord with every fibre of our being. The Commandments are not threats, but rather, clear guidelines about the foundation of being pleasing to the Lord.

Words such as these are repeated by our Saviour when he was tested by a lawyer, who asked Him :

‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said to him, '"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 22:36-40).

Our Saviour had earlier given a thorough summary of how this is lived out by those who love the Lord when He gave the Beatitudes, as reported in Matthew 5:1-12.

Our Saviour also elaborates on Who the Lord is, as He is speaks these well-known words :

‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved’ (John 3:16-17).

In his catholic epistle, the Apostle John writes very clearly to us that “God is love” :

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).

All this clarifies the foundation of our relationship with the Lord God, and it provides the foundation of the question, as well. Thus, having addressed the general context of the question about how to discern the will of God, we can now add a few particular comments.

There is nothing regarding discerning the will of God which does not include love. It cannot be otherwise.

If we are truly wishing to be pleasing to God, and to do His will, then we must first be very familiar with the Holy Scriptures. As Orthodox Christians have traditionally done, we should be reading the Holy Scriptures daily, and we should have a deep familiarity with the Psalms, in particular. If we do not see how the Lord has guided us constantly and consistently in the Scriptures throughout human history, we will not very well be able to understand His will now in particular and personal circumstances. A similar familiarity is very important with the writings of the Holy Fathers, with the Holy Canons, and with the lives of the Saints. All these inform our hearts. Whatever our Lord will be asking of us will be in harmony with all these elements. Our God is consistent. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and unto the ages” (Hebrews 13:8).

When we are asking the Lord to show us His will, it is important that it is with a clean heart that we undertake our attempt to listen to Him. We must recall that the signs of the Lord’s presence and activity are accompanied by such signs as “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are related closely to the experience of the Prophet Elias in a “still, small voice”, or “a sound of a gentle breeze” in 3 Kingdoms 19:12, in which the Lord said that He would be present. The difference in wording is the difference between Hebrew and Greek. Warmth is another element often experienced. In the Lord, life, unity and harmony are increased. On the contrary, if the leading is not from the Lord, then the signs are the contrary of all those listed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. If there is any other sort of leading, then we ought to avoid it. There is always fear when the tempter is active, as are disturbances, suspicions and divisions. Coldness is often experienced when the tempter is active, and there is the strong trend also towards disunity, disharmony, outright dissonance, conflict and death.

If we wish to discern the Lord’s will in order to do it, then we must love the Lord above all, know the signs of His presence and activity, and act only when there are clear signs of His presence and activity. Our Lord desires that we live, that we live in Him in eternity.