In the course of our lives, we are often faced with the choice of how to proceed, which path to walk down, and not just to walk down, but how to know that this path corresponds to God’s will for us. And how can we know the will of God? How do we know that we’re making the right choice? Several pastors of the Russian Church offer their advice:
Archpriest Igor Shumilov:
How to know the will of God? Primarily through Holy Scripture, continually training yourself in reading it, and studying patristic commentaries and teachings. It’s also necessary to pray a lot and to ask the Lord to teach you His will.
Fr. Peter Guryanov:
The question about how to learn the will of God is, perhaps, one of the most important of our lives. You will agree that the will of God is the most precise and faithful criterion for what to do.
In order to learn or feel the will of God in this or that situation many things are needed, including a good knowledge of Holy Scripture, deliberateness in decision-making, and the advice of a spiritual father.
In order to properly understand the Holy Scriptures, firstly, they should be read with prayer, that is, not read as a text for deliberation, but as a text to be understood through prayer. Secondly, to understand Holy Scripture, we must, as the apostle says, “be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (cf. Rm. 12:2). The Greek verb for “conformed”—“συμμορφώνονται,” means to have a framework in common with this age: that is, as they say: “everyone thinks so nowadays”—it’s a kind of framework, and we must not comply with it. If we want to know the will of God, we must deliberately reject and ignore what one of the seventeenth century’s wise men, Francis Bacon, called the “idols of the crowd,” that is, the opinions of those around us.
It is said to every Christian without exception: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God … be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rm. 12:1-2); be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:17). And generally, the will of God can only be discovered through personal communion with Him. Therefore, a close relationship with Him, prayer, and service to Him are prerequisites for seeking the answer to our question.
To live in accord with the commandments of God
Discovering the will of God is quite simple: open the New Testament, to the First Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians, and read: For this is the will of God, even your sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). We are sanctified by obedience to God.
Thus, there is only one sure way to learn the will of God: to live in harmony with the Lord. And the more we are established in this life, as if putting down roots, and established in God-likeness, we acquire true skill in perceiving and fulfilling the will of God; that is, in conscious and consistent fulfillment of His commandments. They are general, but the particular flows from the general. If a person in some concrete life situation wants to know God’s will for him, and, for example, learns it from some Spirit-bearing elder, but the person himself does not have a spiritual disposition, then he will be able neither to understand this will, nor accept, nor fulfill it… Thus the main thing is, without a doubt, a sober spiritual life and careful observance of the commandments of God.
If some important stage in life arrives in someone’s life, and he truly wants to make the right choice, to act in a godly manner in this or that difficult situation, he can learn the will of God precisely on the basis of what I have just said—strengthening his Church life; that is, to bear a special spiritual work: fasting, going to confession, receiving Communion, exercising diligence in prayer, and reading the word of God more than usual—this is the main work for someone who truly wants to know the will of God in this or that matter. And the Lord, seeing such temperance and a serious disposition of heart, will always allow such a person to understand His holy will and give him strength for its fulfillment. This is a fact, proved many times over by many different people. We only need to show persistence, patience, and determination in our quest for the truth of God, and not in satisfying our own dreams, desires and plans… Because all these I have just named already have their own willfulness; that is, not the plans, dreams, and hopes themselves, but the desire that all would be just as we want. The question here is of true faith and self-denial—if you want and are ready to follow Christ, and not your own notions of what is correct and useful. Without this it’s impossible.
In Russia it’s customary to ask advice in especially important moments in life from an elder, from an experienced spiritual father, endowed with a special grace. It’s an urge that is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. But in going for advice we must remember, again, that it demands spiritual labor from us: strong prayer, humble temperance and repentance, readiness and determination to fulfill the will of God—everything that we have just discussed. But besides that, it’s necessary to fervently pray that your spiritual father would be enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, that the Lord by His grace through the spiritual father would open His holy will to us. We have such prayers; the holy fathers write about them. For instance, we have this prayer introduced by Abba Isaiah:
“O God, grant me Thy mercy and that which is pleasing unto Thee, and inspire Father (name) to reveal something about me.”
To desire the will of God, and not your own
Fr. Michael Gaponenko:
The will of God can be discovered in various ways—through the advice of a confessor or the blessing of your parents, by reading the word of God or by casting lots, and so on. But most important is to have the desire to know the will of God—it’s the readiness to unquestioningly follow it in your life. If there is such readiness, then the Lord will of course open His will to man, and possibly in unexpected ways.
Fr. Svyatoslav Shevchenko:
I like patristic advice. As a rule, we are eager to know the will of God when we stand at a crossroad—facing a decision, or when we want events to develop one way, but they go another less appealing to us. First, we must try to have the same attitude to any path or course of events, that is, to internally prepare ourselves for any outcome, not getting attached to any one option. Second is to sincerely and fervently pray that the Lord would arrange everything according to His good will and do all that would be useful for us in the plan of our salvation in eternity. And then, as the holy fathers affirm, His Providence for us will be revealed.
Be attentive to yourself and your conscience
Fr. George Merzlikin:
Be attentive!—to yourself, to the world around you, and your loved ones. The will of God is revealed to Christians in Holy Scripture: you can find there an answer to your questions. According to Blessed Augustine, when we pray, we turn to God, and when we read the Holy Scriptures, the Lord answers us. The will of God is that all would arrive at salvation. Knowing this, seek to direct your will in all life’s events towards the God Who saves.
And, in every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thess. 5:18).
Fr. Paul Konkov:
It’s easy enough to find the will of God: if after examining your conscience with a period of prayer it does not “rebel,” if your decision in this or that circumstance does not contradict the Gospel, and if your spiritual father is not against your decision, it means the will of God is in that decision. We must examine our every step through the prism of the Gospel and accompany it with prayer—even the very shortest one: “Lord, bless.”