For some time our messages have been focussed on the theme of ‘Serving in the Kingdom of Christ.’ I trust that by now many of us here may already be convinced, or at least challenged by what we have learned thus far, to start serving in the kingdom of Christ. But perhaps we would like to know how to begin: How can we know where we should serve, and how we should serve? Like the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus you need to ask, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6) And you need to prayerfully discern what God wants you to render in your service to Him.
I. The Consequences of Being Mistaken about God’s Will
Now, this question can also be applied by those who are already involved in to God some area of service. It may be possible that you have overstretched yourself into too many areas of service, some of which God never intended for you to be in. And it may also be possible that the present areas of service you are involved in are actually not what God wants you to do at all! God had actually wanted you to do something else all this while, but you had not paid enough attention to Him, and you just kept on doing what He had not willed for you to do.
This was precisely the kind of situation that Paul discovered himself to be in on the road to Damascus. As a zealous Jew and Pharisee, Paul had thought that God wanted him to persecute every follower of Jesus Christ, and to stop the Gospel of Christ from spreading. He was sincerely convinced that Jesus was not the true Messiah of the Jews, and that Christ’s followers were all God’s enemies. How shocked he must have been to discover that Jesus IS the true Messiah, and that he had all along been persecuting God’s people and trying to destroy God’s work!
This startling revelation from God to Paul that what he had been doing all this time was contrary to God’s will must have come as a really rude shock to him. How utterly distressed and dismayed he must have been to realize that what he thought was the will of God for him to do with all of his might turned out to be only his own mistaken thoughts, as he confessed before King Agrippa later on ‘I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.’ (Acts 26:9)
Many have made the same kind of mistake that Paul made. There are suicide bombers in the world today who believe that they are doing God’s will by blowing themselves up in a crowded place. In the same way, a Christian today may think that he is zealously doingwhat God wants him to do, when he is actually not! Like the apostle Paul, you may be doing only what you think you ought to do for God, and you have not paid careful attention to God to learn from Him what He really wants you to do, to serve Him.
This has actually happened before, even in the history of missions: David Livingstone thought that God wanted him to be a missionary to China and he prayed hard and prepared very well for this. But by the time he was ready to serve God in China, the doors of China had closed and were tightly shut. For a time he felt disappointed and frustrated that he could not fulfill his missionary calling. But all this while God had meant him to serve in Africa, and when Livingstone finally went on to serve God there, he did the greatest pioneering work any missionary has ever done in that continent! He discovered that missions in Africa was really his life work that God had planned for him to do all along!
Adoniram Judson is another example. He sincerely thought that God wanted him to serve as a missionary in India, as he had been captivated by the work of William Carey. And so he and his wife prepared themselves well and they set sail, thinking that they were destined to do missionary work in India. But lo and behold, when they reached India they were not allowed to do anything by the British East India Company, because they were Americans. What were they to do now? Disappointed and confused, they then sought William Carey for advice, and he suggested that they go instead to Burma, which is just next door to India. Through this God led Judson to do his life’s work of opening Burma up to the Gospel and giving the Burmese people the Bible in their own language.
Dearly beloved, the same thing may be true of some of us here. You have been trying to serve in a ministry or area of service in the kingdom of Christ which you thought was God’s will for you. But you are not able to do very much, and you do not seem to have much success. It may be that you are in the wrong area of service, and you need to discover exactly what God wants you to do. It may be something quite different from what you are doing now, but it is the work that God has prepared for you alone to accomplish for Him. And so you need to ask the same question that Paul asked of God on the road to Damascus – ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6)
For the apostle Paul, that question became a starting point: the start of a new and exciting life of discovering God’s specific will for him, and doing it well. From that point onward, he was more careful to ensure that everything he did was truly what the Lord wanted him to do. He did not want to make the same grievous mistake that he had made before.
And so, after Christ had spoken to him on the road to Damascus, Paul did exactly as he had been told – although he was made blind, Paul went immediately into the city of Damascus and patiently waited in a house, until God sent a man named Ananias to him, to remove his blindness and to instruct him in the way of salvation in Christ. And from that time onward, Paul began to learn exactly what God wanted him to do, including his mission to bear the Gospel message not only to his own people, but much more, to the Gentiles.
II. The Contentment of Having Accomplished God’s Will
And because he did this, by the time he reached the end of his life, he was able to look back and say, ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.’ (2 Timothy 4:7) Words like these can only come from a person who is fully convinced that he has done everything that God wanted him to do. What a stark contrast this is to the fallen and trembling figure that Paul was on the road to Damascus 30 years earlier, when he had just realized how he had all along been doing only what he thought God wanted him to do.
Dearly beloved, if you want to be able to look back on your own life one day and say confidently with Paul, ‘I have finished my course, I have fully done exactly what the Lord wanted me to do,’ you must learn how to discern the will of God for your life. Fulfilling your destiny and doing whatever God has planned for you to accomplish for Him with your life brings the greatest sense of satisfaction you can ever have! Someone has said: ‘the happiest people in the world are not those who are rich or those who are powerful and mighty or those who are famous. The happiest people in the world are those who are living right in the centre of God’s will.’
And so, whatever you do, whether it is in the realm of your service to God, or in your career, or in marriage, please make it a point always to discern carefully what is the will of God for you. Ask Him to show it to you in the words of Paul, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’
III. The Course of Discerning God’s Will
Now we come to the question of how you can discern God’s will for your life and service. What course of action can you take to discern if a certain area of service that is available to you now is really what God wants you to do? How can you know that it is truly God’s will, and not your own thoughts, to go into it? My answer to that would be that God usually makes it clear to you in several ways. And when you combine them all together, they become one big compelling signal from Him. When we want to know God’s will for our lives, we can find it through four things: the Commandments given in the Scriptures, the Circumstances arranged by God Himself, the Counsel of godly Brethren, and the Conviction of the Holy Spirit. The first of these is:
A. Commandments Given in the Scriptures
This can be seen in what Paul did soon after his conversion. According to Acts 9:18 he was baptized, and in v.20 we are told that he ‘preached Christ in the synagogues.’ What caused Paul to do these things? How did he know that this is what Christ wanted of him? Did Christ have to tell him to do them through another vision? No, because these things were already commanded by the Lord, even in the Old Testament Scriptures that Paul was familiar with as a Jew.
Baptism is mentioned in Ezekiel 36:25 ‘Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.’ The preaching of the Gospel is mentioned in Isaiah 40:9 ‘O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!’
Paul therefore understood the Scriptures well enough to know that he should be baptized and be preaching the good tidings concerning salvation in Jesus Christ. Now, at the time that Paul was converted, the New Testament was still in the process of being written. The writing of the New Testament made these commands even clearer: that those who are saved should be baptized, and ought to be proclaiming the gospel message (e.g. Acts 2:38, Mark 16:15). Therefore the very first thing we need to do to discern God’s will is to know all that God has already commanded us to do in the Scriptures.
To be able to discern what God’s specific will for our life is, we must first be sure that we are already striving to obey whatever God has commanded in the Scriptures. For how can we say that we are really sincere in wanting to do God’s specific will for us, if we do not take God’s revealed will for us seriously?
Moreover, whenever we make any decision, we need to ask whether any of the options in question would cause us to break any of God’s commandments. If there is an excellent opportunity for service in God’s Kingdom, but to do it we must do something unbiblical or unethical, then it clearly cannot be God’s will for us. Someone has put it this way, ‘It is never right to do wrong in order to do right.’
Now, coming back to Paul, we want to go on now to see that while he knew that he should be preaching Christ, because there is a Scriptural command to do so, he did not immediately know to whom God would specifically want him to bring the gospel. This is something quite specific, and it varies from person to person. You will not find any details like this written in the Scriptures. How then can we discern God’s specific will for us? One way to do this is by looking at our circumstances. This now is the second means you can use to discern God’s will for your life:
B. Circumstances Arranged by God
We can see this at work in the life of Paul. As an apostle, he was different from the rest of the apostles, because of the unique circumstances of his upbringing that made him most suited to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles! Although Paul was a Jew, unlike the rest of the apostles who were born in Israel, Paul was born in a place called Tarsus (Acts 21:39) which was on the south-eastern part of Asia Minor (Turkey).
Tarsus was a very developed city from ancient times that became strong through it good location as a port. It had already been in existence for a thousand years by the time of Paul, and had attained the status of a Metropolis, where people from different nations and cultures mingled and lived together. In about 100 BC Tarsus became a Roman city. And so by birth Paul was actually a Roman citizen. Growing up in Tarsus, he became very familiar with Greek and Roman manners, customs and languages. This, together with his strict Jewish upbringing, later made him most suitable to become God’s messenger of the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Throughout his missionary journeys to Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, his familiarity with all things Gentile, including Gentile culture, customs and language was a great help to his lifelong service as the Apostle of Christ to the Gentiles!
In the same way, you can discern what God’s specific will for you is by looking at your own circumstances: Where has God placed you? How has God led you and prepared you thus far? What talents, skills and abilities has He given you? What kind of service are you most suited for? What are the pros and cons of each choice or option?
God sometimes works in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform! He uses every little circumstance of your life to fit you and equip you in some way to fulfill your destiny! And so it makes perfectly good sense to study your life circumstances in order to learn where God is leading you, and what He wants you to do.
Actually this step in discerning God’s will is merely the outcome of applying the doctrine of God’s Providence. In Romans 8:28 Paul himself capsulized the teaching of Providence when he said, ‘And we know that all things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.’ In providence, God may even make use of our mistakes and failures to work for our good.
This can bring us some comfort in our decision making – it means that God’s plan will not be ruined just because you happen to make a wrong choice. If you are His child, nothing, not even your errors can stop Him from accomplishing His purposes for you. Take the case of Jonah – he unwisely chose to run away from doing God’s will. But in the end he still ended up doing it, although he could spared himself much unnecessary anguish and distress of being tossed overboard, almost drowning, and being swallowed by a big fish, if only he had done God’s will in the first place. Someone may then ask: ‘If God has already known and ordained all things regardless of whatever choice I make, does this mean that I can choose any way that I like, and God will somehow make everything turn out well?’ No, because God still holds you responsible to make the best choice, using all the means that He has provided to determine His will for your life.
Now, besides considering the Commandments of Scripture and the Circumstances that God has arranged for us, the next thing we must consider in discerning God’s will is to seek:
C. Counsel from Godly Brethren
Proverbs 12:15 tells us: ‘… he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise.’ And Proverbs 11:14 says, ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.’ We can see this at work in Paul’s life at the time when he and Barnabas were sent as the first missionaries of the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). The will of God for this missionary service was discerned not just by Paul alone, but by the church as a whole, as they were worshipping the Lord.
How should you apply this? If you are not sure if a particular course of action or direction is God’s will for you or not, what you should do is to share the matter with some brothers or sisters in Christ and ask for their advice. If you are convinced that the Lord wants you to do something, but every other mature Bible-believing brother and sister in Christ around you is not convinced of the same thing, then be very careful, as it may then not be the will of God after all. So if you are ever in a situation where you are earnestly convinced that the Lord wants you to take a new direction in life, do not announce it publicly yet, until you have shared it with at least 2 or 3 others whom you know are mature, godly Christians, whose lives are clearly guided by the Lord. You will not only receive confirmation from them, if it is really God’s will, but you will also stand to gain encouragement and prayer support. We go on now to the last thing that God uses to help us discern His will, and that is, the
D. Conviction of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is given to every beliver the moment that he is saved, and He indwells us. So when you decide on what the Lord wants you to do, look within you for the inward prompting or conviction of the Holy Spirit. Making the right choice will bring a sense of inner peaceand tranquility, but making the wrong choice will make you feel troubled and restless. This is how the Holy Spirit works within you.
The apostle Paul also experienced it and was led to do God’s will by it. 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 ‘Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother: but taking my leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia.’ The reverse situation is described in Acts 18:5 ‘And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ.’
Now, it must be admitted that feelings and moods can be rather subjective and sometimes it may be hard to distinguish if the inward peace or inward restlessness is from ourselves or from the Holy Spirit (That is why it is not first but last on the list) But one useful guideline is that genuine promptings or impressions from the Holy Spirit will persist and not pass away quickly. If over an extended period, the impression persists and refuses to go away (even after you have slept on it), and becomes stronger and stronger, then you have good reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding you in the right direction.
And when this impression is accompanied by all the other things we had considered earlier – the commandments of Scripture, the circumstances arranged by God, and the counsel of godly brethren – you can be confident that you now know the will of God for you. All that remains is to do it. And this is sometimes the hardest part of all – because of what it may cost you to do God’s will.
IV. The Cost of Doing God’s Will
Are you willing to deny self and bear whatever doing God’s will for you will cost you? When you have to choose between doing God’s will and doing your own self will, which will you choose? Dearly beloved, for many of us this is perhaps the more important question you need to ask this morning, rather than how you can know God’s will for your life. There is really no point in discerning God’s will, if you will not do it in the end. And so when you ask God the Damascus Road question, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ be sure that you are able at the same time to say with all your heart, ‘not My will but Thy will be done.’ (Luke 22:42).
As we come to the Lord’s table today, let us remember what it meant for our Lord Jesus Christ to say those words (‘Not my will, but Thy will be done’). Let us remember what it cost Him to do the Father’s will. And let us then ask Him for grace to help us bear whatever cost we must bear to do God’s will for us.
Acts 09:1-16 – Selected To Bear His Name