Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Will of God: Discernment

Matthew 21:28-32 (children)
Romans 12:1-21 (message)

There is so much in this passage, and our focus is on introducing one theme – the Will of God – and exploring in general terms how we might discern it in our own lives:
NIV Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Ravens vs Steelers ... the “will of God”? From the very beginning, God designed human beings, the universe, and history, to be open to possibility, to participate in shaping the future by our choices and actions. At the same time, we are given the promise that all of history, and all of creation, are headed toward the great day in which all God’s purposes for the world and history are realized in redemption and judgment. So, we are given this great mystery – open to possibility, destined for God’s purposes.

Of all the themes in salvation history, in Christian theology explained and applied in declaration and argument, in the text of the letter to the Romans up to this point, this final theme of possibility and purpose is what Paul has spent the last three chapters describing in Israel’s history. Out of all of that, he urges God’s people to choose the possibility of God’s purpose. The forces at work in the world conform us to its own mold, not to the purpose of God. Sometimes, we feel that knowing God’s purpose is impossible, never mind actually living God’s purpose. Because the world will one day be wrapped up in the purpose of God, we can have confidence that among the possibilities open to us is living in the will of God today:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will.

On the practical level, this can be a real bear. When you have two good options, which one do you choose? Both represent an advancement of your career, both are good for your personal life, both provide well for your needs – wouldn’t it be wonderful if more folks were faced with this kind of career dilemma? So, perhaps it is not about a career decision but a simpler decision – what’s for dinner? What movie do I see? I’ve got two choices, or more ... and they are both “good”.

It’s the Goldilocks dilemma. She could have sat at any of the three chairs, but she tested each one and found the one that was “just right”. She could have eaten any one of the bowls of porridge, but she tested all three and found one that was “just right”. She could have slept in any of the beds, but she tested all three and found one that was “just right”.

Because of the “destiny” language in Scripture, we sometimes obsess like Goldilocks over the most mundane details of life. Then, we can end up not paying enough attention to the truly important things. Or, we can take the Goldilocks obsession to heights of worry over big decisions – if we make the “wrong” choice, will the rest of our life be derailed? How can I be absolutely sure that I chose the right person to share my life with? How can I know for certain that this is the right house or apartment for me and my family? How can I be confident in my job choice? After all, on some of these decisions, there may be forgiveness but there is no “do over”.

We are often presented with the opposite scenario. Instead of two good options to pick between, we are faced with two sub-par possibilities, two less than good things. If God’s will is “good, pleasing, and perfect”, then what shall we choose?

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, film setting (YouTube clip starts at 2:15) “lesser of two weevils”.

We treat knowing God’s will as a major secret, a difficult endeavor. We imagine it as purely abstract, predetermined, commanded, and detailed. The word itself has a broader meaning. The word used here for “will” is a word that means “will” in terms of “delight” and “desire” as well as “chosen” and “commanded”. So, if I am cooking dinner one evening, I have in my mind a list of Robin’s favorite meals. I know what will delight her. I don’t have to call her and ask what she wants for dinner. I have learned what delights her because she delights me, because my delight is in her.

Knowing God’s will is a whole lot simpler than we imagine. God wants us to know it. If we want to know it, God will reveal it. That “want to” is something we could describe as “love” or “delight”. “Their delight is in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:2). “Your will (delight) be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

NIV Psalm 25:14 The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.

NRS James 1:5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

NIV Jeremiah 9:23-24 This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight (thelema-will)," declares the LORD.

The first step in knowing the will of God is to take Delight in God. The second step is to Discern. Discernment involves process and practice and perfection.

My story: Headed towards mission work in communist Russia? PROCESS

The word for “discernment” (see Marva Dawn, p 49) is also translated as “test and approve”. It is a word used for an experimental process and for the work of metalsmiths who refine gold in fire (1 Peter 1:7). Like delighting in God, it is part of a renewed mind, a changed way of thinking, and a changed way of thinking about our feelings. Discernment is hands-on. Discernment involves wrong turns, and learning from them. Discernment is PRACTICE.

The two weevils raise the question of God’s will as “good, pleasing, and perfect”. Years ago in a pastor’s journal I read a cartoon in which a church board member stands up and declares, “Our bylaws specifically state that the will of God can only be overruled by a two-thirds majority vote”. When we deal with a world of open possibility, we deal with a world that includes evil and imperfection. We’ll address this in more detail in one of the upcoming messages in this series. For now, though, I remind us, first, that this world of open possibility is also a world destined for God’s purpose. And, I jump from the use of the word “good” here in Romans 12:2 to another use of the same word in Romans 8:28: “God is able to make all things work together for good, to those who are called according to his purpose.” (Dawn, p 58.)

This verse doesn’t tell us that everything that happens to us is good. It tells us that everything is NOT good, but that God remains sovereign even in a world full of evil. And, the word “perfect” here embraces this messy process of good triumphing over evil. It is a perfection over time, a perfection of the “end”, a perfection of a mature cheese or wise, a perfection that is the climax of a process, of our practice, and of God’s promise. PERFECTION.

Delight and Discern – two elements of the renewed mind. But it is nothing if we do not DO the will of God, if we do not practice what delights our Lord. In Romans 2:18, Paul, speaking of his own experience, condemns all those who know the will of God, who discern what is best, but do not do it.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-- his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Practical implications:
Stop obsessing over “knowing” and focus instead on “delighting”. Yes, the “renewed mind” means that discerning God’s will is an objective process. The first step in that process is a mind-change in terms of what delights us. Practice delight in God through praise, through gratitude, through wonder. Let that be the base of the discernment work.

Where you know you have “overruled the will of God”, choosing evil rather than good in your life, repent.

Commit yourself to life in Christian community, where together you can discern the will of God. Get into a Sunday School class or a small group. Romans 12 is not addressed to Christians alone, but to Christians in a community – many members, one body. We need to maximize the potential of the body for all of us to know God’s delight for our lives.

Paul’s appeal is made on the basis of all he has been declaring in this letter, that is, “by the mercies of God.” Immerse yourself in the gospel by reading and learning the Scripture.

Dawn, Marva. 1992. Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Stoessel, Horace E. 1963. “Notes on Romans 12:1-2.” Interpretation, 17:2, pp 161-175. Electronic version, ATLAS collection, ebscohost.

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