This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: As long as what I decide to do is morally right, is that enough?
A: Because “the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7), it is not enough for us simply to do morally right actions. God also wants the attitudes of our hearts to be right before him: Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. (Prov. 21:2) In some cases, an action can be right and the results can be morally good, but a person’s attitude might be wrong.
Q: What do the results of our actions have to do with discerning God’s will?
A: Some passages in Scripture encourage us to take thought for the results of our actions. For example, Paul was persuaded that the unclean foods in the Old Testament were no longer unclean for Christians to eat (“Nothing is unclean in itself,” Rom. 14:14), and therefore the action of eating pork was not morally wrong in itself. But it could bring a wrongful result, and in those cases it should not be done:
For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. (Rom 14:15-16; see also 1 Cor. 8:13; 10:24)
In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul concluded a long section of advice with a general requirement for them to consider the results of their actions: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Q: What is the primary source to know God’s will?
A: Our first source of information about any ethical decision should be the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is our only source of inerrant and absolutely authoritative ethical guidance.
Q: Do my abilities play a role in knowing God’s will?
A: It is important to understand oneself and one’s specific role in the situation at hand. Paul encourages such sober self-reflection:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Rom. 12:3)
A person should honestly ponder his or her own skills, interests, desires, and sense of life calling from God in deciding whether to take a specific action or not.
God also wants the attitudes of our hearts to be right before him.
Q: Does God use other people to tell me his will?
A: Christians can get helpful advice from other people regarding an ethical decision. Personal friends as well as spiritual leaders such as pastors can give useful advice. Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome (whom he had not yet met!) that they were able, in general, to give one another wise advice:
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Rom. 15:14)
The Greek word translated as “able to instruct” is noutheteō, “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct.” In a similar way, we read in the Old Testament, “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14).
Q: What is God telling me when my circumstances change?
A: A correct evaluation will require wisdom to discern whether the circumstances indicate something of God’s purposes for us, and this requires prayer for God to give us discernment to understand the circumstances correctly. But there are several examples of circumstantial guidance in Scripture.
We should take changed circumstances into consideration, but changed circumstances are only one factor in a decision-making process, and we need to pray for wisdom from God in understanding how to evaluate these circumstances.
Q: How do I know that what my heart desires is God’s will?
A: In general, Christian believers have become “obedient from the heart” to God’s teachings (Rom. 6:17), and I have found again and again that, for Christians who are walking in obedience to the Lord, staying in fellowship with him, and maintaining regular prayer and Bible reading, their heart desires should be a large factor in discerning God’s will in particular situations. (But let me be clear that a person’s heart desires are not the only factor to take into account for the other sources of information discussed in this entire section must also be considered.)
Q: Isn’t it misleading to follow your conscience or heart because they’re subjective?
A: We must recognize that we can also be misled regarding the more objective factors in guidance. We can be misled by misunderstanding the teaching of Scripture, by wrongly evaluating ourselves and our abilities, or by depending on wrong information about a situation. We can be misled by wrongfully interpreting past experience. And certainly we can be misled by sermons (which we can also apply wrongly) and by advice from others. Books and articles can mislead us as well, and sometimes the historical tradition of the church has made mistakes.
This article is adapted from What the Bible Says about How to Know God’s Will by Wayne Grudem.
Popular Articles in This Series
We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep. No such reason exists.
We should be asking ourselves if we act like family members of the church and whether or not our participation in the church strengthens or weakens it.
Mental illness is an old problem; as old as the fall. Although God made everything very good, when sin entered, humanity—together with the rest of the creation—came under the divine curse.
What does the Bible really teach about abortion and the sanctity of human life?