A Christian’s natural desire is to do the will of God. Even as a “new born” Christian I felt this overwhelming desire; but I struggled to understand how we were to discover what God's specific will should be for each of our lives. How, for example, does a missionary discover his calling to be a missionary? Or a pastor his calling to be a pastor? And as for me... what would God have me do, and how will I know? Figuring that this was something God would show me as time went on, I simply determined to live my life according to the manner in which God has shown us that we ought to live; according to His Word, the Bible. As time went on I discovered that this, in fact, was just about the whole answer to my question! How do we know God's will? God's will is for us to live according to His Word. If we do that, everything else will seem to fall into place.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
As we read the remainder of Romans 12, Paul tells us that we each have our different gifts, or God-given abilities. He then describes to us in brief what the Christian life ought to look like. The point is this; that living “the Christian life” is the will of God... to love our neighbour, to give to the poor, to encourage those who feel dejected, to comfort those who are going through trials, to share the gospel... When we do all of these various things we are doing God's will.
In the Old Testament there were prophets and they typically received the Word of God directly and passed His instructions on to others; particularly the kings of Israel. But when the fullness of God's revelation came and all of the 66 books of the Bible were complete, such prophets essentially disappeared. This is because God has given His Spirit to all who believe, and the fullness of His Word to live by. If we think that it might have been better for us in a time when prophets received the direct Word of God and would pass it on to us, I think we make a mistake. Back then, if a man claimed to be a prophet, how would we know that he genuinely was one? The answer given by Scripture is essentially that what the prophet said shouldn't contradict the Scriptures that they did have, and that they should watch to see whether the prophet's words would come to pass. But now, with the completed Scriptures in our hands, we don't need prophets any more, of whom we would have to verify against the Scriptures anyway. We have no “middle man”. We all stand personally accountable to God for what we do in this life, and we cannot say “But the prophet told me...” Jesus said, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12:48) We are held accountable for our obedience to Christ's Word, given in the Bible. If we live in obedience to the Bible, then we can rest assured that we have done all that God has asked of us. How this affects our lives will differ for each person, so that some will have been missionaries, some pastors, and some may have simply been a spiritual role model for their children. But all will have been "good and faithful servants."
So what can we say about those more specific questions like “Should I be a missionary?” or “Should I start an orphanage?” How God “enlists us” for the various ministries we find ourselves in is always going to be different for each person. But I think that, usually, we simply look for opportunities. Opportunities to share the gospel, give to the poor, build one another up, and so on. God brings opportunities into our lives all the time. Doing His will is recognising those opportunities and taking advantage of them. I remember the story of one Seminary professor who was asked how he was called to be a Seminary professor. It was simply this... “I wanted to learn more about the Bible so I went to Seminary. While I was at Seminary, I guess I just made friends with the right people, did well enough in my studies, and the opportunity came up to get into more academic roles. One thing led to another, and 'here I am.'” All that he had done was follow his own God-given desires, all of which fulfilled “the Christian life” that the Bible tells us to live. Doing God's will is really about making yourself available for God to use; “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice” as we read above. So many times I have found myself essentially doing ministry that I never planned; I simply saw opportunities and did what was in my heart to do.
Finally, if it is God's calling, He will confirm your feelings about a particular ministry opportunity to you. Confirmation usually comes from God's Word, or from fellow Christians; though God can use any means He likes. A certain Scottish man, living in Australia, had been desiring to travel back to Scotland and start a Church there. With this desire on his mind, he was reading his Bible one day and read this: “Then the LORD said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.'” (Genesis 31:3) For him, this was confirmation of what he already desired to do. Obviously, this verse doesn't instruct us all to return to our native land and start a Church. But this man had already felt this desire to minister to the Scottish. Sometimes I will go to Church and someone will say something which confirms what I had already been thinking. Usually when we begin some ministry there is no doubt that it is God's will. If there is doubt, then wait... God always makes our calling clear to us, one way or another.
It takes wisdom and experience to discern the will of God, which is why the passage cited above says that “by testing you may discern the will of God.” We will often get it wrong, and sometimes we will even take something to be confirmation of God’s will when it isn't. But a sure thing is to align all that we do to the Word of God – every deed and every motivation should be thoroughly grounded in the character of Christ, which we come to know through our Bible, for it is the revelation of Christ. As we grow in our understanding of God’s Word, so does our understanding of Christ grow; and so naturally our discernment of God’s will improves.
Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother. (Mark 3:35)