The Path to Discerning God’s Will

The Path to Discerning God’s Will March 30, 2014

We had a really interesting discussion in my Sunday school class today. The focus was on the idea of God's will, and the view some Christians hold that there is a perfect will of God for each life, including where one should study, whom if anyone one should marry, where one should work, and so on.

As we read Romans 12:1-2, I was struck by the implications of the wording as never before. That passage reads:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform 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.

In a parallel universe, if Paul had held the view of Scripture that modern day fundamentalists claim to, we might find him telling people to simply read the Book in order to find God's will. But in our universe, Paul said something incompatible with that. He said that one must test and approve what God's will is. In other words, one must figure it out. And the way to do that does not begin by reading texts, but by offering oneself self-sacrificially, in a way that leads to inner transformation.

As I have mentioned before here, someone could embrace the core principles articulated by Jesus, and yet still act like the priest and Levite in Jesus' parable about the good Samaritan. Putting God first could be treated as meaning that one should scrupulously follow the Torah – which has very specific and stringent stipulations about priestly purity. If the man who was lying by the side of the road turned out to be dead, the priest would have become ritually defiled, unable to carry out his priestly duties. If the man was dead, the Torah required that he be buried before sunset – but not by a priest. A priest was not to defile himself unless the deceased were a very close relative. Leviticus 20 spoke clearly on this.

And so let us make no mistake about it. Jesus criticized the priest for obeying Scripture.

Paul, in keeping with the emphasis in the teaching of Jesus, indicates that one starts by living and worshipping a certain way, and then discerning according to that way of life.

You can stick closely to the Bible and yet be not merely far from, but diametrically opposed to, what Jesus taught. Because, despite what some religious people say, morality is not something that one has to find written in a book or some other outside source. Morality is when we do to others what we would wish done to us, moved by compassion and empathy, until we come to recognize that it doesn't take anyone else's command or decree to make caring for others the right thing to do.




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  • Thirty years ago, I remember hearing Jack Hyles preach from this text.He said there is three will’s of God: good, acceptable, perfect. This is what literalism gives you. Convoluted, insane interpretations. Even though I do not worship your God James,I do agree with you when you say “Morality is when we do to others what we would wish done to us, moved by compassion and empathy, until we come to recognize that it doesn’t take anyone else’s command or decree to make caring for others the right thing to do.”

  • Paul Connors

    “And so let us make no mistake about it. Jesus criticized the priest for obeying Scripture.”

    No, no, no. There is no law in Leviticus against unknowingly touching a dead body. There, one only becomes unclean once you know you have touched a dead body. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest passing by on the other side has no idea if the victim is dead or not. So, the priest faces two possibilities: (a) that the priest will become unclean if the victim turns out to be dead, and (b) that the priest will have failed to offer aid to the victim (as is also required in Leviticus!). The situation is uncertain. The priest chooses to put the weight on avoiding possibility (a).

    It’s in the weighting of the two laws that the priest goes wrong. Jesus makes much the same point in (at least) two other places.

    • Yes, I put it starkly intentionally. It is ultimately a case of deciding that the purity stipulation took priority over the need to care for an injured individual. But there is no specific command to do the latter, and it would not be illogical to deduce that, if something as important as burying the dead takes second place to priestly purity, then so should other things like offering assistance to an injured individual.

      Then as now, I suspect that some would not have seen the distinction you are positing between prioritizing Scriptures and obeying Scriptures. When one thing is specifically commanded, most whose religion is focused on observing commandments will those clear commandments to trump broad application of principles without the same specificity.

      But ultimately Jesus himself said, just as Paul did on the issue of circumcision, that in setting aside or ignoring specific commands, he was upholding the core of Torah and not undermining it. But not everyone was convinced.

      • Paul Connors

        “But there is no specific command to do the latter…”

        Huh? Both “you are not to act against the life of your neighbor”, and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” come specifically right out of Leviticus 19! And they are surrounded by a number of similar and specific commands.

        Weighting between commands is what Jesus complains about (e.g. Matt 12:11, Matt 23:23).

        • Gary

          I think an important point is missing. Story, Luke “29But he, desiring to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor? 30Jesus made answer and said,”…
          The Good Samaritan story doesn’t say anything about who the injured person is. But Lev 19 says “33And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. 34The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself”…I think it is clear in Leviticus that the neighbor is an Israelite. Lev 20 just after that says “Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.” So my naive interpretation is that Leviticus has a rather narrow view of what a neighbor is. But the Good Samaritan story is directed at helping anyone in need, even a non-believer.

          • Paul Connors

            “…Leviticus has a rather narrow view of what a neighbor is.”

            Taking (e.g.) all the commands given in Leviticus 19 addressed to the people of Israel, and noting that Lev 19:33-34 extends the commands to non-Israelites, there is no one left in the whole of Israel who was not to be treated as a neighbor.

          • Gary

            Lev 19:33-34, extends the command to non-Israelites? Oh really? How do you explain Lev 20:2 Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.? Unless you like to stone your “neighbor”? I gave up trying to explain Leviticus along time ago. You should do the same.

          • Paul Connors

            “Unless you like to stone your ‘neighbor’?”

            If my neighbor is violently sacrificing his child to Molech, perhaps a little something should be done? What do you suggest?

          • Gary

            OK, a little long of scripture, but I don’t know how else to say it. Leviticus clearly demonizes Samaritans. I very much doubt that there is much, if any evidence, of widespread child sacrifice in The northern Kingdom of Israel where the Samaritans hung out. The Good Samaritan story doesn’t give the injured person a religious test of purity. Scripture of demonizing Samaritans, example,
            2 Kg 17:28
            28So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Beth-el, and taught them how they should fear Jehovah. 29Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt. 30And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burnt their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.

        • arcseconds

          It seems to me the priest could simply respond that Lev. 33-34 simply tells him to treat foreigners the same as Israelites. He’s not discriminating here on the basis of the injured party being a foreigner, so that’s fine.

          He’s also not doing anything to endanger the person’s life.

          So neither of these commands (he could argue) actually applies to the situtation.

          • Paul Connors

            “He’s also not doing anything to endanger the person’s life.”

            Sure — aside from walking past when he could help someone who was half-dead. Not so neighborly.

          • arcseconds

            You say that it’s a matter of prioritizing commands, but what I’m seeing is a direct command to avoid dead bodies (Lev 21 1-4) with the only exception being for close relatives, versus (at best) what Dennis Dennuto would call a ‘vibe’ in Leviticus 19 (*).

            The injured man isn’t stated to be a foreigner, so presumably that’s not relevant to the story. I think we can presume that the priest would not, in fact, act any differently whether he’s a foreigner or not. He’s not doing anything to endanger the man’s life (the man’s chances are neither improved nor reduced by the priest’s actions). So the priest hasn’t broken either of the commandments you’ve mentioned, but may end up breaking the commandment at the beginning of Lev. 21 if he tends to the man.

            I agree that this isn’t very neighbourly, or very nice, but I don’t see how this can be construed as prioritizing commandments. The issue seems to be (again, at best) vibes versus specific instructions, which is more or less what James saying.

            Someone who is only interested in obeying instructions, and not in picking out vibes and allowing vibes to trump specific instructions is going to behave like our priest does.


          • While we cannot know for sure, it is possible that Jesus mentioned the theft of the man’s clothing precisely because that was what would have readily identified him as either a foreigner or a fellow Jew. I think Jesus was posing one of those classic “what if?” scenarios precisely to broaden the meaning of the command to love one’s neighbor to the greatest extent possible.

          • Paul Connors

            “…what I’m seeing is a direct command to avoid dead bodies”

            Yes. And Leviticus also directly commands the love of your neighbor as yourself. In the circumstances of a priest approaching someone who may be either alive or dead, the priest is faced with the choice of obeying just one of those two commands. Either he can pass by, and thus ensure that he will obey the command against potentially touching a dead body. Or he can render aid to a potential victim, and thus ensure that he will obey the command to love a neighbor as himself. But he cannot be sure of obeying both commands. So he has to weigh them up and choose.

            “The issue seems to be (again, at best) vibes versus specific instructions, which is more or less what James saying.

            Vibes? Perhaps if we were to say “spirit” I could start to grasp what you might mean. I think that in Leviticus (surprisingly to some) both a living spirit and truth are present, and entwined in a single body. So I have no problem in using the truth of reason and logic on them because they will not kill the spirit that is found there.

          • arcseconds

            The commandments you mention do not command loving your neighbour as yourself. They command treating foreigners the same as Israelites.

            If the priest would tend to an Israelite, and not a foreigner, and he thinks the injured man is a foreigner, and so he doesn’t bother, then he’s breaking the commandment.

            If he either thinks the man is an Israelite, or thinks he’s a foreigner but would walk past an Israelite too, then he’s in the clear.

            I mean, yes, you can ignore the context of talking about foreigners and read ‘yourself’ as literally a single individual, rather than as referring to the whole people of Israel (as in ‘one of you’). And maybe that’s the best way of reading this text, I don’t know, I’m not a hermeneut. But it’s not the obvious way of reading this text, and I don’t see that a 1st-century Jewish priest, or Jesus’s audience, would understand it this way.

          • Paul Connors

            “The commandments you mention do not command loving your neighbor as yourself. They command treating foreigners the same as Israelites.”

            I’ve been referring to the context of Leviticus 19. There, verses 19:2-18 address Israel, include the command to “not to act against the life of your neighbor”, and culminate in the summary command to “love you neighbor as yourself”.

            Lev 19:34 indicates that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself”.

            So there is symmetry between how natives and strangers were to be treated. A priest failing to offer needed aid to a victim is not following a command, and it makes no difference whether the victim is a native or a stranger.

      • Michael Wilson

        I’m not sure that it was intended that the priest and Levite are passing by because they think the man is a corpse. I suspect that they are in this story simply because they are the opposite of Samaritans, people whose pedigree ensures their worthiness. Their passing by I think should be taken as callousness, not piety.

        On the bigger question raised by this post, I think your right, James. As best as can be ascertained, Jesus nor Paul dismiss the Torah, and Jesus likely did put a lot of effort into observing its “jot and tittle” but I think he did imagine it as a hierarchy beginning with his greatest commandments which in his practice probably led to a lot of action that did not happen after a careful examination of the situation in light of Levitical legal theory. For Paul, who also likes to invoke scripture to his cause, I suspect that knowing God’s will was more a exercise in his mystical practice than scriptural interpretation. I get the impression that the early Christians felt that their relationship with God’s spirit gave them a direct line to God’s will that would trump ant sort of systematic use of scripture. And I think he would have certainly thought using his letters as divine scriptures to be foolish. the line you quote from Romans suggest that once one has been raised with Christ, one see’s with Christ mind, and not the traditional way of thinking and it is the individual thinking like Christ that is able to determine God’s will, not someone cross referencing their dilemmas with the Torah, much less any other popular Jewish writing or the letters of he or his contemporaries. Of course that position is fraught with difficulties since without any real set authority any oaf can say “I think Jesus would get that cash, no matter what!”

        • Mark Erickson

          Good points.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Great post James! Probably my favorite of yours I have read.

  • Mark Erickson

    “Paul, in keeping with the emphasis in the teaching of Jesus,” Do you think Paul knew of the parable of the Good Samaritan, as told by Luke?

    • Michael Wilson

      I like that way of putting it James, “one starts by living and worshiping a certain way” it is not just the knowing that gives the ability to know what is right, but actually acting accordingly using a model.

    • I just had in mind general knowledge of Jesus’ teaching, but it is certainly possible that Paul knew the parable. There does seem to be a particular connection between Luke and Paul.

      • Mark Erickson

        So Paul knew that Jesus told this parable? How? Was it original to Jesus?

        What is the particular connection? And who is “Luke”?

  • Neko

    I’ve been preoccupied recently by that very passage so am pleasantly surprised to find your post. Thank you for the insight.

  • Imagine how much simpler a wholesome life would be without religion to stuff it up – with no-one to confuse anyone over rules and things, but with people acting according to their natural impulses as social beings to care for their fellow creatures. Of course, religion has taught believers to fear natural impulses as evil and things to be suppressed. But all the parable of the good Samaritan is teaching is to let go of your religion for a moment and just act with a bit of natural humanity.