Beginning With God

The Art of Discerning God's Will

Rick James

Lotsa Luck

In the book of Acts, toward the end of the first chapter, the disciples are hoping to replace Judas and put a full starting 12 on the field. That all seems normal enough until they literally roll dice to choose his successor: “They cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:26, New International Version). This is a little disturbing — like throwing a witch into a pond to see if she floats kind of disturbing. As a means of discerning God’s providence, casting lots was common enough in the Old Testament, but what’s odd is watching the disciples do it: “OK, boys — rock, paper, scissors for who goes to the Gentiles.”

That oddness? You’re supposed to feel that. Casting lots is out of place, and the story is situated here to show us exactly what changed and why. For recorded in Acts chapter 2, immediately following the casting lots incident, is Pentecost — the coming of the Holy Spirit. From this time forward, following the will of God will never be the same. And with the coming of the Spirit, there is a distinct change in the narrative of Acts: a clear shift from providence (like casting lots) and biblical principles as the means of discerning God’s will to the active presence of God leading His people. To see the practical import of this shift, we are going to turn to a rather unlikely place: traffic psychology.

Driving Right

Had you been driving the roads of Stockholm in 1967, you would have been tapping your steering wheel to the song “Hall dej Hoger, Svensson.” In English, this translates to “Let’s All Drive on the Right, Svensson.” Its popularity was due to the long-awaited change in Sweden from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right. “H-Day,” after the word hoger (Swedish for “right”), was scheduled for September 3, when the entire country would get up in the morning, get in their cars, and drive on what was, to them, the wrong side of the road. As the day came closer, prophecies of a traffic apocalypse multiplied: The New York Times reported, “What is going to happen here in September has cast many grotesque shadows all over Sweden.”

But what did happen on September 3 no one saw coming. The roads in Sweden got safer. And not just for a day or a week; it took a full year for accident rates to climb back to where they were before the switch. The unintended consequence of H-Day was a revolution in traffic design, shifting focus from driver safety to driver alertness. On H-Day, the roads in Sweden became safer because driving became more dangerous.1

Gathering data, highway engineers found evidence of this counterintuitive phenomenon everywhere: When dangerous curves were marked with warning signs and safety reflectors, people drove faster. The more stop signs on a given road, the more drivers accelerated between signs. The wider the roads, the more cars tried to pass one another. The traffic system had been designed for safety and had inadvertently produced recklessness. Now, decades later, Europeans are driving on the fruition of that research. Long straightaways are bent every mile or so to keep drivers engaged. Safety signs have been taken down, forcing drivers to draw visual cues from the road and not signage. Curbs have been removed to take away the perceived security they provide, and the Russian roulette of roundabouts has replaced the predictability of four-way stops. Traffic signs still have a place, convicting the lawless and setting a general framework, but in these European towns, drivers are alert, negotiating the real world. They are no longer following mindlessly the regulatory signage that had done the driving for them.

So, here, let me propose that God has been laying down stretches of highway in our lives with a view toward spiritual alertness, prayerful engagement, attentive listening, continued reliance and yielded submission. I’ll also propose that perhaps we’ve been viewing God’s will the way people used to view driving. I’m suggesting that the revolution in traffic safety is the revolution of Acts 2: discernment shifting from impersonal principles and providence (road signs) to active engagement with God and His Spirit.

This searching out of God’s will is a major aspect of New Testament wakefulness: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15–17, English Standard Version).

If you are tracking with me, the natural question that follows is “How?” How do we discern God’s leading? Scripture teaches a very unique approach, but in order to appreciate the genius of Scripture’s approach, we need to jump to another seemingly unrelated field: the science of memory.

Eyes, Ears and Nose

In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” Josh Foer turns his considerable writing talents to the subject of memory and how it is that we remember things. To that end, he begins his book quite memorably: “Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man, has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a globule of spittle on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane and delivered a karate kick to the groin of Pope Benedict XVI.”2

This is Josh Foer’s grocery list — or more specifically, this is how Josh remembers his grocery list: each graphic image jarring to mind some listed item. The mind is an amazing mechanism but notoriously bad at remembering names and dates and precise wording in general. This is no slight against the mind; it’s simply accustomed to taking in words like pistachios: consuming the concept and discarding the shell of syllables it came wrapped in. And so the way orators and actors and politicians have bolstered their memories over the past few thousand years is by soliciting the aid of their other senses. This is known as “elaborative encoding,” and it is to “remember multisensorily.”3

Oddly enough, there are professional mnemonists who compete each year at the World Memory Championship. Because our visual and spatial faculties are the strongest of our senses, these “mental athletes” (as they call themselves) employ a device called a memory palace. A memory palace is a mental landscape, someplace easily pictured (your kitchen, your street), that’s used to store the objects being memorized. Placed in the memory palace are sensory-rich representations of the objects; thus Foer’s memorable introduction: “Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man, has been implicated … ” World memory champion Ben Pridmore assigned a humorous, crude, scandalous, sentimental, animated, pungent image to every numeral when he memorized the first 50 thousand digits of the mathematical constant Pi. Memory is a matter of bringing to bear all of the input from all of the senses.

Here’s where I’m going with this: Scripture takes a multisensory approach to discerning God’s will — from miraculous visions to proverbial wisdom and everything in between. There’s an array of spiritual senses at our disposal, but the problem, as with our memory, is that we lean heavily on one sense and ignore the others. Younger Christians tend to fixate on the fantastical, ignoring wisdom, Scripture and godly counsel. Mature believers, having left behind the carefree days of choosing a career or mate on the basis of a cloud formation, tend to winnow their senses to the most concrete. But to be discerning of God’s will, we need our other senses, processing their input prayerfully in conversation with God. A reasonably thorough search of Scripture reveals at least the following means (or senses) for discerning God’s leading.

The Many Senses

Emotions. Like in every other area of life, emotions have an important voice; it’s just a really whiny voice. Amid a crowded room of pressing factors, emotions can throw a tantrum and manipulate other faculties of judgment. So, if emotions are to be invited into big-boy conversations, they need to behave, and that requires separating the little hellions. For example, the feeling that says, “I don’t know if I want to marry you,” could mean any of the following: I don’t know if I like your family; I was planning on graduate school; I don’t want kids; I simply don’t like you. When feelings are carefully handled and identified, we find God’s Spirit at work, gently persuading at the level of emotion.

Logic and Reasoning. Like eyesight, reasoning is our default sense, and we rely on it a thousand times a day: “Look, a piece of the sun is stuck on my windshield. No, wait, the sun is super hot and really far away; it must be a reflection.” There’s nothing freaky, mysterious or subjective here, and when it comes to discerning God’s will, this is a positive thing, not a negative one.

Wisdom. Wisdom is practical, applied knowledge. “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12, NIV). Wisdom operates upon our knowledge base of how life works, how God works (Scripture), how people work and how we work. But wisdom is like geometry in that knowing the theorems doesn’t solve the problem — you have to know which theorem applies.

So let’s just say I’m consistently unable to pay my bills. It’s a problem, but what principle applies? Is it a time to wait on God, a time to ask for a raise, a time to change jobs or a time to rethink my lifestyle? Is God telling me to budget, save, resign, repent, tithe, work, pray or trust? Or is this a spiritual attack? Wisdom discerns the right theorem.

Circumstances. Imagine I start playing the theme song to Sesame Street and then abruptly stop, “Sunny day, sweeping the… ” That familiar arrangement of notes should lead you to anticipate the notes that are coming. This is how the purposeful arrangement of circumstances functions in our lives.

How has God used me in the past? Why this string of related events? Why do I keep hearing the same advice? Why this opportunity at this time? These are the types of patterns we notice: patterns hinting of God’s involvement — notes on a page thoughtfully arranged, anticipating a general course and precluding many others.

Such careful observation is in contrast to seizing upon a singular event and taking it to be a “sign,” like, “This burn mark on my grilled cheese sandwich looks like the boot of Italy; God must be telling me to move there.” God’s prolonged involvement in our lives is not something Satan can easily duplicate. Anyone, on the other hand, can make a grilled cheese sandwich.

Wise Counsel. Proverbs 19:20 (ESV), along with many other Proverbs, implores us to “listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” Mature believers are trained detectives who have traced God’s purposes and pathways for a generation or two. When you lay before them the clues you’ve collected, they notice patterns — patterns they can see but maybe you haven’t.

There are lots of reasons we don’t seek out godly counsel. I know why I don’t. It’s the same reason I don’t stop for directions when I’m lost. My wife thinks it’s pride. She’s wrong. It’s just pure laziness.

Impressions. When I started writing today, I opened the Word program on my Mac. Immediately, the Word icon, a big blue W, began hopping up and down, exuberant to be picked over the other programs. I have rows of programs on my computer, but I notice Microsoft Word because it’s the one hopping up and down. Sometimes a sermon is like that; sometimes a verse of Scripture is like that; sometimes a scene in a movie is like that: God’s Spirit animates a word or a thought or an idea and says, “Pay attention! This phrase, this place, this person is significant.”

Scripture. As the Starbucks employee opened the cash register, I prayed, “Oh Lord, is it your will that I club the barista and steal that stack of twenties?” This didn’t happen at Starbucks today because stealing is addressed in Scripture and discernment is superfluous where God’s will is explicit.

However, it’s not only in the explicit statements of Scripture that God’s will is revealed. God’s Word brings us into contact with the person, the heart, the character of God, and that informs a whole lot of issues unaddressed in the Bible. For example, in my marriage, I’ve never once heard Katie say don’t bring a dead Billy goat into the house, but I’m pretty sure of how that would go down if I did.

The Mind. Dreams, divine visions and prophetic words are all quite exciting to read about in Scripture, so perhaps we could just leave them there. Because in real life, deciphering people’s private revelations and picking through the mystery stew of meaning is not exciting at all. Still, such things happen — at least, I believe they do — and they can be exceedingly meaningful and encouraging to people. The giving of dreams and visions demonstrates God’s ability to bypass our normal reasoning faculties and communicate directly to our minds, and it seems that certain cultures, situations and individuals may need this.

The everyman school of parenting would say don’t give your teen a Maserati for his 16th birthday. It would stunt the development of patience, perseverance and responsibility and would foster passivity, entitlement and immaturity. I think the same reasoning holds true for why God’s direct communication is more of an exception than a rule.

Convergence. How our spiritual senses all work together is pretty much how our physical senses all work together. There is, first, a predominant sense. In the physical world, that’s sight. I didn’t need to smell, touch or taste my way to work today. In the spiritual realm, a renewed mind, saturated in prayer and Scripture, is as all-purpose as a set of eyes.

The second principle is convergence. We experience the sensation of flavor mostly by smell, partly by taste and a little by sight. (Even professional wine tasters can’t tell red wine from white without looking.) And so, when we really need discernment in following God’s leading, we rely on a multisensory approach, looking for the overlap and alignment of our senses.

Prospecting for Patterns

Gerald Edelman, the founder of the Neurosciences Institute, states rather bluntly that “Brains operate ... not by logic but by pattern recognition.”4 So when we look at the stars, we see constellations; when we see random numbers, our minds sift them like lotto balls, looking for a meaningful sequence; and when a basketball player makes a few consecutive shots, our brain immediately wakes to the pattern that he’s on a hot streak.

Intelligence itself is pattern recognition: Some of us quite naturally intuit the patterns of logic, music, economics, math and mechanics while others recognize the patterns of communication, design, emotions, ideas and human behavior. Our quick recognition, intuitive understanding and insightful projections of certain patterns are where our particular geniuses lie. Author James Geary observes, “Our brains are always prospecting for pattern. The brain’s pattern recognition circuits take raw data from the senses, sort through it for apparent patterns, and use those patterns to determine a response. The brain is so fanatical about patterns,” says Geary, that “it will gladly generate patterns even where none exist.”5

Like all analytical thinking, discerning God’s activity involves this same “prospecting for pattern.” Though our specific question may not be answered in Scripture, we look for biblical principles and patterns to apply. We consider the patterns of how God has used us in the past. We consider the strategies or patterns that Satan has employed against us — patterns of temptation, weakness and sin (Ephesians 6:11; 2 Corinthians 2:11). We analyze the patterns of our circumstances and notice what’s out of sequence. We summon the patterns of our heart — its history of passions, desires and ambitions. This is not spooky — this is how God made our minds; this is how we think. And because God is active in our lives and circumstances, lo and behold, there are many patterns to be discovered: many traces of intelligent activity.

Because pattern recognition plays an important role in our spiritual lives, we need to get better at it: more prayerful, more discerning and less superstitious. When our earthly mind sees a correlation between our good works and how much God loves us, or when patterns seem to indicate that God is angry or disinterested, we submit such observation (and all observation) to the truth of Scripture, which tells us no such patterns exist for believers. When we continue in sin and experience no correlating repercussions, by faith in God’s Word, we believe a correlation exists. This is how we grow in discernment: the reforming and refining of our pattern recognition to the truth of God’s Word.

We have — nearly — covered our topic of discerning God’s will, but there are still two critical factors, and we need to touch on both.

A Need to Know

Some believe that the direct guidance given by the Spirit in the book of Acts is due to the uniqueness of the apostolic age — an age without a New Testament to guide it. But I think the reason is simpler (less theological, anyway). I think the early Christians received special leading and direction because they needed it. These men and women were actively proclaiming the gospel, aggressively pushing the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom. This requires real-time intelligence: who to speak to, what to say, how to say it and where to go next. Quite honestly, our days don’t require much of that — “Fries or onion rings, O Lord? Turn thine eyes to thy hungry servant.” There are warehouses of books written on God’s will and how better to hear God’s voice. But what if listening isn’t the problem? What if it’s a lack of involvement in the activities that require God to speak? It’s possible, you know. The book of Acts is a record of the church on mission; we have no record of first-century believers going about the daily grind, still being moved about like chess pieces.

Where Are We?

We have been all over the map, from roads in Sweden to memory palaces, but the inquiry into God’s leading and our being awake to it is utterly irrelevant apart from one thing: that we desire God’s will above all else and truly believe that His plan for us is better than our own aspirations. If not, our hearts can always find a way to subvert the process of discernment.

Personal bias can cause us to weigh certain factors more heavily than others, give significance to the insignificant, suppress evidence and create patterns that validate desires: “If the light turns red in the next five seconds, I’ll ask her out on a date.” There’s really no limit to the ways we can sabotage and slant our own investigations. Because the heart sees what it wants to find, there is a singular safeguard in the discernment process, and this is a heart that desires God’s will above anything and everything else. This alone frees the compass to point where God wills.

Now, if I’m discerning God’s leading correctly, you’re tired of reading, so we will stop our journey here.


1. Tom Vanderbilt, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do” (New York: Knopf, 2008), 176–210.
2. Josh Foer, “Moonwalking With Einstein” (New York: Penguin, 2011), 3.
3. Foer, 90–105.
4. James Geary, “I Is an Other” (New York: Harper, 2011), 34.
5. Geary, 32–34.


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