Discernment and Peace


“I don’t have peace” may be four of the most frustrating, painful, and beautiful words you can say in the context of discerning God’s will for your life.

I used to think that God’s will was a mystical revelation, some rare gift of direction given by God to the truly devout. I’ve come to learn that discernment is often far less complicated. For example, Paul writes, “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 12:2). We surrender to the Lord and are changed, enabled to discern his will (see more on these verses here). We know from Scripture that God’s will is our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Simply by pursuing sanctification and by avoiding sin, by mortifying sinfulness and setting our eyes on things above (Colossians 3:1-17), we are pursuing the will of God. Furthermore, God promises wisdom for all who ask in faith (James 1:5-8), further enabling us to discern our steps. In many ways, obedience to God’s will is very clear: act in accord with his character. As John writes, “Whoever says he abides in [Jesus Christ] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). There is peace in walking with the Lord.

Peace is difficult to describe, however. Perhaps this difficulty explains why Paul wrote that God’s peace “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). As we walk in step with the Lord, prayerfully surrendering our anxieties to him, he gives peace to “guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). This peace is given in the midst of anxieties, meaning that peace isn’t necessarily the result of God removing obstacles or threats or concerns. Rather, I think this means that as we follow the Lord in faith, we have assurance that we are where he wants us to be. In the difficulties of the Christian life, amidst persecution from without and doubts from within, God’s peace assures us we are walking rightly, protecting us from falling to the fears and threats which would lead us away from obedience.

And while we may not be able to easily describe a sense of peace, we know when his peace is absent. In such moments, though all external factors may support our pursuit of an opportunity, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit holds us back. God makes his will known in a manner that, though inaudible, is more clear than any other voice. His peace transcends our circumstances and our understanding to show us the way we should go, and we dare not disregard his guidance. In such moments, though we may not understand why, we know we cannot in good conscience move forward.

The choices before us, in these moments, are not between the good and the bad but between the good and the best. In such instances, the next step can be far from clear. So we pray, we seek counsel, we evaluate the pros and cons, and we begin to plan our next steps, often considering our desires and our opportunities in light of the word of God. All around us may appear to support our desired decision. Yet, even after all this, we may still lack peace.

We often try to justify our desires at this point. Some try to write off the absence of peace as simply fear of failure or fear of the future. We tell ourselves that we’re just uneasy about taking a new step, assuming the lack of peace to be nerves. And we do need to distinguish between fear of following the Lord and absence of peace from the Lord. But, if the Lord is withholding peace, we won’t be able to write off these convictions for long. Others may reason that our desires align with biblical models and that the opportunities presented to us must be God-honoring or else he wouldn’t allow them to come before us. But we are in great danger so long as we play this game. The existence of an opportunity and the desire to pursue that opportunity are insufficient on their own to justify the pursuit of the opportunity. Temptation, after all, thrives with just these two ingredients (see James 1:13-15 and Genesis 3). The truth is that all good gifts are from the Father of lights, and his provision for us is assured on the basis of his provision of our greatest need in Christ (see James 1:16-18 and Romans 8:31-39). If he withholds peace from us, convicting us that we ought not follow a certain path, we must trust that he has good reason for his direction.

Such experiences test our faith. As we struggle to reconcile what we see with what God seems to be saying, we must face the difficult questions that arise. Do we really believe God has our best interests in mind? Do we trust his plan to be better than our own, his thoughts and ways to be higher than ours? Is he enough for us even if he doesn’t grant our requests? In theory, we affirm the truths of Scripture. Surely God is good. Surely God is sufficient for us. Surely we will not be put to shame for trusting him. In the midst of testing, however, our limited perspective can lead us to doubt God’s goodness. When we find ourselves in a position where we have no choice but to walk by faith and not by sight, we learn how reliant we have become on our sight and on our understanding (2 Corinthians 5:7 and Proverbs 3:5-7).

When peace is absent, you face a question: whom do you serve? Do you heed the persuasive voice of your heart, your mind, your friends, your family, or your culture? Or do you heed the still, small voice reminding you of Jesus’s words:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Luke 9:23

In these moments, we must remember and trust that God is working for our good (Romans 8:28). He is sanctifying us, humbling us, teaching us patience (see more on that here). He is making us more like his Son. In such moments, we can cast our cares upon him, comforted in his care for us (1 Peter 5:7). We can preach truth to ourselves with the psalmist who cried, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 27:14). And we can reevaluate our intentions and refocus upon the main objective, seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness in faith in God’s provision (Matthew 6:33).

Sometimes God teaches lessons we’d rather not have to learn. Sometimes he withholds peace, leaving us confused and curious as to why he’d say no to the best we can see. And the reality is that we may never receive answers to our questions. And I think that’s a good thing. When we have answers to our questions, reasons why he does what he does, we can be tempted to trust more in our understanding and less in his wisdom. Were God to explain his every action to our curious minds, we would arguably have little need for faith. But our faith grows strong in the furnace of testing, and endurance is forged in our faithful obedience (James 1:2-4). And the world sees in us a hope and a joy and a love that surpasses any earthly gain as we die to ourselves to live for him. So trust in the Lord, hope in the Lord, and wait for the Lord. Indeed,

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
Hebrews 12:11

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Huge thanks to Maci for her editing work on this post.


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