When You are Uncertain of His Will
November 19th, 2018
About 15 years ago my wife and I were sleeping when at about 3:00 am we heard a horrific car crash, and then continued to hear what sounded like one of those machines in the junkyard that crushes old cars. What in the world is going on, I thought? I went over to open the shades and saw a large car across the street, what looked like a big Ford Thunderbird, trying frantically to unhitch itself from the smaller car it had hit. I had Katie come over to the window to watch this strange scene unfold when she blurted out “Jon, that’s our car he hit! That’s our Nissan Altima”! She was right.
I told Katie to call the police and then barefoot and in boxers and a white t-shirt, I ran down the stairs of my apartment and out the front door just as the Thunderbird sped off and raced down the street. The car had hit my wife’s Altima so violently that all four tires were off the curb and literally sitting in the neighbor’s lawn on the other side of the road. I watched the car speed away figuring we would never see them again, when oddly enough that car turned into an apartment complex about a block down the road. With a surge of adrenaline, I decided to run after them. I’m not sure what I thought I would do when I finally reached them but at the time, it seemed like a good idea. So, I’m running down the street barefoot when suddenly, the driver gets out of the car and takes off running toward me at full sprint. I kid you not. As he is running he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can explain, I can explain” and runs past me to the police officer who has now pulled up to investigate. And I’ll never forget the next words out of his mouth. “Officer, let me explain. It’s complicated”. I never got a good explanation of what happened that night as the officer put the young man in the back of the squad car and off they went. But when our neighbor came out and asked us what happened, the young man’s words came to mind again. It’s complicated.
That’s the theme of this four-week series. Following Jesus is hard and sometimes the process of discerning and then obeying his will is…well… complicated. It’s one thing when you know he’s asking you to do something hard. It’s another when he’s asking you to be faithful in the everyday, normal events of life. But often the biggest challenge is learning to discern his will. How do you follow Jesus when the situation you are in feels like a complicated, tangled knot of desires, variables, and options? How do you follow Jesus when you are uncertain of his will? That’s our topic for this morning.
Turn with me to Acts 21. We’re nearing the finish line of our year-long study of the Book of Acts and this chapter is the final act of Paul’s life and ministry. The Apostle Paul is wrapping up his third missionary journey and is beginning the trip back from Corinth to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a dangerous place with a hostile Jewish presence but Paul feels compelled by the Spirit to go there to bring the offerings he has collected and to make one final attempt to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Jews. Paul writes,
· Acts 20:22-23 “22And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.”
Paul knows it will be dangerous but he is compelled or “bound” by the Spirit. He’s a man on a mission. Have you ever had that kind of conviction, when you really sensed God was leading you in a direction? I love the certainty of those moments. The other day my wife asked me to go to the grocery store to get some milk and eggs. I had my list of two items and I entered Kroger on a mission, I knew my objective. I had great conviction. Milk in back corner, eggs on back aisle. Get in, get out, boom! Let’s do this. Paul is a man on a mission. Milk, eggs, go to Jerusalem. In fact, we read….
· Acts 20:16, “Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem, if possible, by the day of Pentecost.”
But what often happens in the grocery store? We get distracted because across from the eggs is ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream to be exact. Then my phone lit up with a text that I also needed creamer for the coffee. Hmmm creamer? I wonder what flavor would be best? In fact, I wonder if we need more coffee? Let’s see, coffee is by the cereal aisle and, oh wow, they have Lucky Charms! That was my favorite cereal growing up and…Captain Crunch. And soon I’m wandering around in that vast wasteland in the middle of the store with distractions on every side.
If Paul had a direct flight he would have taken it, but instead he’s traveling at the mercy of others on merchant ships that need to stop and unload cargo and soon they need to land at a city called Tyre, the middle of the grocery store so to speak where we read,
· Acts 21:3-4, “We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. 4We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
They leave Tyre and then come to Caesarea where after they had been there a number of days a prophet comes up from Jerusalem, shares a difficult prophecy and we read,
· Acts 21:12, “12When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.”
Imagine if you are Paul. You thought you had peace with a decision to go to Jerusalem, but now on two separate occasions, other godly men and women and even your closest companions like Timothy and Luke say that going to Jerusalem is wrong and it brings you pause. Perhaps doubt creeps in. Things start to get complicated. Did I hear from God correctly? Why aren’t others confirming my direction?
A few years ago, my brother and sister-in-law felt compelled by the spirit to serve as missionaries in the Middle East and close family said they thought they were wrong complicating the decision. I remember making the decision to move to Texas and a well-meaning member of our church said they felt the decision was out of God’s will. People with good intentions can complicate hearing from God. When Jesus stated that he would have to suffer and die in Jerusalem it was Peter who said, “never Lord, this will never happen to you”. Jesus responded by saying, “you don’t have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns”. Now, Paul’s closest companions do the same. They don’t want to see Paul suffer and die. In fact, the Bible says they were so grieved at the thought of his trials in Jerusalem that they wept profusely. Let me restate our question for the day. How do you follow Jesus when you are uncertain of his will?
With the time remaining I want to offer a simple matrix for hearing God and discerning his will, and I want you to write these down so grab a pen and something to take notes.
The greatest skill for a disciple of Christ is to learn how to hear from God. I can’t emphasize that enough. If we are going to follow Jesus we need to know how to hear his voice.
· John 10:27 tells, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
God is always speaking and transmitting, but so are other voices. In fact, I would argue that primarily there are three signals being transmitted. First there is the true voice of the Holy Spirit. Second, there is the voice of your flesh and selfish nature. Finally, there is the voice of Satan, the enemy that wants to deceive us. We must learn how to tune our receiver to the right channel to listen for God’s voice and hearing from God begins with being still. Psalm 46:10 tells us, “Be still and know that I am God”.
When we still our hearts and find a quiet place, it will be easier to listen. How many here have ever heard of an anechoic chamber? An anechoic chamber is a room that is isolated from external sound through sound proofing and prevents the reflection of soundwaves on the inside of the chamber. They typically use fiberglass wedges on all walls, ceiling and floor and chambers are often encased in cement a meter or more thick as well as surrounded by other insulating materials. If you’ve ever been inside of one it can actually be very frightening. Why? Because it is so quiet. Silence. They say that you can only hear two things inside of a chamber. The beating of your heart which you hear as a low baritone sound inside your head and a high pitch sound that most say has to do with your nervous system. It’s amazing what you can hear when you are silent.
With this posture of silence before God, there are six questions I want you to ask in this order. Let’s say that together “in this order”. Sometimes you will just need the first or the first and second or first second and third, but as the decision grows increasingly complex, you may need all six.
1. What does the Word of God tell you?
This isn’t playing Russian Roulette with the Bible and hoping you get some mysterious clue into God’s will or cracking the Bible code as much as it is viewing the decision through the lens of truth. If it contradicts the Word of God, it’s not God’s will. I remember counseling a married couple one time that was trying to discern whether it was OK to use pornography in their marriage. I took them to the Word of God to show them that it was not the will of God. I remember talking to another individual who felt justified in leaving his wife and children to pursue a ministry calling that his family was against. I took him to the Word to show him the sin of that decision. In the same way, God’s Word can confirm decisions as well. OK? Begin with the Word of God to discern his will.
2. What does the Spirit of God tell you?
Have you prayed about the decision? Have you quieted your heart to hear from God? Have you spent any time alone to listen to God? Are there any impressions or thoughts that you have about the decision? Any gut level feelings about what is in front of you? What do you sense in your Spirit? Certainly, there is the danger of misinterpreting your thoughts for the Spirit’s thoughts but always ask this second question. The more intimate your relationship with God, the better. But oftentimes , we need the help of others. That brings us to the third question.
3. What do the People of God tell you?
There are three kinds of counselors that I seek. First, I seek out those who know me well and can help me understand myself. Patterns, tendencies, sins, struggles, whether this decision lines up. Second, I seek those who know the situation well and can give me insight into the factors, the other people involved, the bigger picture. Finally, I seek out those who know God well and will commit to pray and provide an objective godly perspective no matter what. Ideally, all these individuals are followers of Christ. But there are certainly times we can remain stuck and need to keep pressing forward. Three more questions.
4. What do the circumstances tell you?
When my wife and I were preparing to buy a house the early part of last year, we mapped out a few neighborhoods that were desirable. We found a realtor we trusted. We established a price point that we could afford. We had a date in mind we were praying to move in by and then we went on the hunt. Four months later and nothing. Each home we would pray about didn’t meet our criteria. Then in early April, I came across a home, right neighborhood, right price, right layout, right schools. There were 10 showings the first day and 3 offers made. Our realtor said, if you don’t put an offer in by midnight tonight, the house will be gone. I hate making snap decisions but when my wife and I gathered that evening we realized it was this fourth question that pushed us over the top. There are times when the circumstances help push us forward.
5. What does wisdom tell you?
Write out the pros and cons of each option and then ask, “Which of these factors are the most important?” Jot a few thoughts down on paper, look for the wise decision and then pull the trigger. If the first four questions don’t net an answer, maybe you just go with the wisest of the options.
6. What does your deepest desire tell you?
Notice this isn’t the first question on the list, it’s the 6th. But it is important when you find your way at an impasse. Our hearts can be fickle at times but by the time you move through questions #1-#5, this is an important one. What do you want? This can oftentimes be the defining factor in a decision. What’s your deepest desire. Here’s a little trick I use with my kids when they act like they can’t decide. Let’s take something silly like ice cream. Strawberry or chocolate? Don’t know? I just force their hand and see how they react. OK, strawberry. And either they are happy and accept it or say, “No, I want chocolate”. Sounds silly, but try it out even with larger decisions to get at your deepest desire.
This passage surrounding the will of God for Paul and the decision to go to Jerusalem has tripped up more than a few Bible scholars. Some believe that Paul was thick headed, wouldn’t take the advice of his friends, closed himself off to outside counsel and had some sort of martyr complex near the end of his life. I disagree. I happen to think Paul’s companions were led by their emotions rather than the Spirit. It’s always easy to second guess decisions. Maybe he should have waited a bit longer. Perhaps he should have had more dialogue around the issue. Maybe his friends let their emotions get the best of them. But at the end of the day, Paul had a decision to make and so he answered.
· Acts 21:13-14 “13Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done”
The Lord’s will be done. Sometimes, I think we have this view of God’s will that if we make one wrong move, it’s over. We are ruined. We can’t recover. That mentality can paralyze us. Even if Paul didn’t hear correctly from the Spirit, God in his sovereignty would have worked things out and taken him where he needed to go. The Lord’s will be done. For Paul, it was time to move forward and be obedient.
· 1 Corinthians 10:31 says it another way, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”.
The Lord’s will be done. I’m heading to Jerusalem. I’ll do it for the glory of God. He can redirect, but I’m stepping out. How do you follow Jesus when you are uncertain of his will? Well, it begins with being still and getting alone with God and then continues by asking the six questions I shared today and then, even when you are only 85% or 90% certain it means declaring, “The Lord’s will be done” and moving forward for his glory.
The greatest skill for a disciple of Christ is to learn how to hear from God. Are you uncertain of his will today? Are you struggling to find answers? Are you at an impasse and you aren’t sure whether to go right or left? God is speaking…are you listening? Have you stilled your heart? We are going to take a moment to be still and to listen and I want you to write on your next steps card that thing, that decision you feel uncertain about. Write it down. Write down the issue and if it’s a choice, write down the choices. OK, and then let’s be still and in a moment, Josh will ask you to come forward and present this request to God and then start the journey of discerning his will through the matrix I have given. Silence and then prayer.