From time to time people ask me how to be sure that something is God's will. How do you know when it is God's voice calling amidst the competing priorities? Plenty of people have weighed in on this idea for centuries. In fact, I would say that is the very question that encouraged the writers of the Gospel and the selection of the sacred texts that make up the scriptures. Yet there are plenty of circumstances that don't seem to mesh with a literal reading of the Bible, and there are even passages that seem to contradict.
In Paul's letter to the church in Rome we find discouragement for legalism, and Jesus' primary adversaries in the Gospels are not the Romans but the scribes and Pharisees. It seems that God has always known that we are bound to seek definitive standards that we can use to our own advantage, so the tension between definitive guidance and invitation to respond to grace remains throughout religious and non-religious Christian practices.
So then, how do we respond to God's grace? How do we know what is God's will? Some time ago I was given a suggestion to consider the question of God's will in terms of calling. Many people describe a sense of calling in terms of a longing or passion for something that they feel benefits God. Experience has taught me that there is more to it than that. For me, calling has been a threefold process. First is the awareness of a need or an urge to be involved in something bigger than myself. Second is the independent acknowledgement by someone else that I might have gifts and skills to meet that particular need. Third is the opportunity to respond to the particular need through the confirmation of others and their invitation for my involvement.
Admittedly, I have not always gotten it right. But even when I have not been as faithful to this process as I could be, God has always been faithful to me. The point is to seek checks and balances and to be open to the movement of God's Holy Spirit rather than trying to direct or determine what I believe God wants based on my particular situation.
At the end of the day it comes down to benefit and glorification. Who does it benefit, and whom does it glorify? That is not to say that we do not benefit from following God, but it is to say that we do not benefit in the way we expect or want. It is to say that God's will is going to be done whether I participate in it or not, and I would rather be a part of something bigger than myself than constantly struggling to make myself into something bigger than I am.
"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen."
Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)