Ease of circumstances does not confirm divine calling.  Not necessarily.

In seeking God in prayer for ten years about whether or not I should pursue doctoral studies in the United Kingdom, I found myself indeterminately waiting for the seemingly impossible circumstances to dramatically change, thereby signifying that I was indeed on the right path.  In the recent weeks before the move to England, I embraced the sobering reality that an un-obstacled course was not assigned to me.

During seven years of college ministry work, one of the most consistent concerns students would express was that of discerning God’s specific will for their lives.  What should I major in?  Who should I date?  Should my girlfriend and I pursue marriage?  Am I called to do mission work?  Should I drop out of school to chase my dream?

When you are 20 years old, these questions are freighted with such gravitas.  For an emerging adult from a middle, upper-middle, or upper class background in the Western world, the options can seem so vast (what a luxury!), and narrowing in on one particular path—relationally or vocationally—can seem so limiting.  As Christians, we are anxious to make the right decision.  And a definitive choice at age 20 feels as if we are hurling ourselves irreversibly into one specific trajectory which will be nearly impossible to alter should we discover mid-flight that we were wrong.

One of the ways we tend to interpret God’s will for us is by favorable circumstances.  “Open doors” we often call them.  When everything falls tidily into place, our eyebrows are raised and the impulse is to assume that God is revealing His will for the immediate course of our lives.

But throughout Scripture, following the divine will often requires muscling through a heap of formidable circumstances that intensify in difficulty the more faithfully His saints march onward.  If the Creator-God is in conflict with His wayward creation, then it serves to reason that following His call will often position us in uncomfortable tension with the circumstances and vicissitudes of life.

Paul makes this comment on “open doors” that has intrigued me for years—”…a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor 16.9).  A path crawling with adversaries does not sound like a very wide open path.  Abounding adversity does not attend what we normally think of today as an open door.

In 2 Cor 2, Paul writes again about an open door.  This time, the circumstances all seem favorable, but he does not avail himself of the opportunity before him—”even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest…” (vv. 12-13).  In spite of what clearly seemed to be God’s opening of a path before his feet, other concerns compelled Paul to turn away from the opportune moment.

From these two texts where Paul uses the metaphor of an open door, we can make these conclusions: 1] “open doors” do not necessarily indicate God’s direction.   And 2] ease of circumstances does not necessarily clarify the path down which we are to trod.

Abram was called by God to leave his country and kindred for another life in another land.  But when he got to that land, he realized it was not only flowing with milk and honey, but also with hordes of Canaanites.  And soon after Abram spied those lovely hills and plains (and Canaanites), a famine hit, sending him off to Egypt (Gen 12.1-10).

Canaanites and a famine: welcome to your lovely new home, Abram.

When God called Moses to deliver Israel out of Egypt centuries later, the message to the Hebrew elders was that God would rescue them and bring them into that good land once again.  But God refused false advertising, describing the land not only as flowing with milk and honey, but also as crawling with Canaanites still (and “the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” to boot—Ex 3.17).  And following the divine will in the wilderness was so hard that the rescued Israelites on occasion regretted their rescue.

Ease of circumstances does not necessary confirm God’s call.  It may actually be the evidence that we have missed a turn (the foxes have holes, and the birds have nests, but Jesus lacked a pillow to offer those following at His side).

Now, it must be acknowledged that God certainly does make the path strikingly clear and even easy at times—the psalmists rejoice over those moments.  But I think we have to keep in mind this phrase from the Sermon on the Mount: “the way is hard…” (Mt 7.14).

The way is hard.

I taught on the Sermon on the Mount throughout the summer, and I was haunted by this phrase in Jesus’ teaching on the two ways, one broad (and easy), the other narrow (and hard).  In recent months I found myself quite frustrated with God for not making the circumstances easier for my family and me as we set our faces toward England for a costly move and a costly degree program.  But I kept reading that phrase over the summer—”the way is hard…”.

I don’t think I am writing this post to justify my move, or to valiantly declare that I have followed God faithfully. I think I am writing to sort through some lessons.  And here they are again: ease of circumstances does not necessarily confirm God’s call, and “open doors” are not always indicators of God’s direction.

So counterintuitive….

8 thoughts on “Thoughts On Discerning God’s Will for Your Life

  1. Thanks for giving me something to reflect on, Andy. I have been dealing with some of the same questions myself the past couple of months as I began my first full-time job in NYC…a city I never thought I wanted to be in, so far from the home and people I love.

    I don’t think my journey here could be considered anything other than Providential (a phone call with a job offer that I never even applied for, doing work that is challenging, interesting, and fun), but I came almost hoping that I would hate it and be able to return to Birmingham saying, “Oh well, at least I tried.” Instead God has made it clear that he intends me to be here for a while. He gave me a great church with a new group of friends who encourage me in my spiritual growth, a great apartment (small, to be sure, but nice!), and work experience that I can already tell will be invaluable to whatever I do in the future.

    The city has been an adjustment, but Jesus didn’t call us to a comfortable walk.

    Continuing to pray for blessings on you and your family,
    Janie

  2. Discerning God’s will is my main mortification. Not sure which way to go most of the time. Thank you for sharing this!

    Blessings to you and yours.

  3. …and an un-obstacled path ought to give us pause. The ‘broad’ way, is a thoroughfare designed to be a quick and easy drive.

  4. Good word, and very applicable to where I’m at right now…starting a ministry in Fargo, ND and struggling through a whole load of things. Such a great reminder that God often takes us through, not over, the battle so that we can praise him for his keeping us safe until the end.

  5. Thanks for your willingness to be open with your own circumstances in wrestling with this issue.

    I work with college students as well, and in doing so, I think many students have the belief that if we do not somehow make the right decisions, we will destroy God’s plan and ruin our own lives. Its important to point students to Scripture to recognize the things you bring up in your post, as well as the fact that God is sovereign. This phrase (God is sovereign) tends to pop into my head in times of decision-making. I do not say it off-handedly, but rather, do so in a way that leads me to trust in the fact that regardless of the choice I make (and its consequences), God is and will use it, willing and working in me for His pleasure and my sanctification.

    I appreciate your words and the way in which it leads us to practically consider and apply the things we read in God’s Word and know in our minds.

  6. Very true. As is the opposite. “I am suffering, therefore I must be in the will of God” is also not a true statement. An open door nor suffering and difficulties are telling of us following a calling, but only the Word of God.

  7. Andy,

    So good to find out the timing for PhD study worked out for you. I’ve just finished up and would love to chat with you some as you move forward. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog post about the move to England and your first weeks there. Of course, I’ve identified with it all. And I’ve missed being in Scotland and the UK. Our time in Edinburgh was just brilliant! Please email me if you can. God’s blessings upon you!

    Trey

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