Sermon: "Discerning God's Direction"

4th in the "Meeting God in Change" series.
Delivered June 24, 2007 by Rev. John Schmidt.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: 1 Samuel 23:1-6 and Psalm 32:6-11

Sermon Notes are at the end.

Well we have been talking about change the last few weeks. The first week we thought about the fact that it is actually God who calls us in to change; that change isn't just a matter of imposition or threat to our lives, that there are times that God actually puts a call in our lives and that call requires change from us and so there are things that we need to believe, things we need to leave, and things we need to receive from God. The second week we looked at the fact that no matter where we are, no matter how open we are to change there comes a point where the change becomes so significant that we start to fear and that we need to learn how to bring these fears to God, because fear is a faith issue. Our faith has to be strengthened in order to face these fears. And last week we talked about being available to God; that sometimes God wants to change us and we need to open our lives to that work of God in our lives. But we might not yet have talked about the thing that bothers you the most about change. At least it bothers me a whole lot and that is how do we know God's direction when we are facing change? When there are all kinds of options out there, how do we sift from among the options and actually know what God is telling us? How do we discern God's direction?

When I am on vacation one of my habits is to go to other good churches. I go there to worship, to hear a sermon, to check out how they do things differently so I can learn. And about a year or two ago I was over in Hunt Valley and I was listening to Frank Boswell preach and I was enjoying that experience and he was telling about a student at Reform Theological Seminary who was sharing how he had been called to the ministry. This man was in another stage of life doing other things and yet felt like God was kind of calling him towards the possibility of being in ministry and going in to seminary and yet he couldn't settle it in his life. He just couldn't figure out is this really something from God; should I really take this risk or not and so he decided to go off on a little retreat, go out camping and then deal with God while he is out camping and pray about it; to clear his mind. So he was out camping and it started to rain. He got inside the tent, crawled in to his sleeping bag and continued this prayer and he was still torn all kinds of ways about it and finally he said, "God, if you really want me to go to seminary give me a sign." Moments later he was struck by lightning. As soon as that guy could move his limbs he signed up for going to Reform Theological Seminary.

Now I like that kind of leading except for the lightning and paralysis, I really like that, because it's absolutely clear. God give me a sign; wham! you know clearly this is what to do. But that's not usually what happens in my life and probably not in yours. Most of the change that I face, most of the decisions that come my way are filled with all kinds of issues. First I have to have facts that I have to gather. I love facts and so I can't have confidence about a decision unless I get some facts. But that's not the whole issue, because at some point or another I have to make a decision. As I make that decision I worry about what about mistakes that I might make if I make this decision. I have conflicting thoughts and emotions. This would be good, but this would be good too. It's messy. It's full of doubts, full of second guessing myself. Thankfully, I am not alone. We are not alone in having to figure out what it means to seek the will of God, because the Bible is full of instructions about it and its full of good examples and David is a good example of seeking God's direction.

Now David had all kinds of problems in his life and he is by no means perfect, but something that David was good at his whole life was seeking the will of God for his life, because David wanted God's will in his life. David wanted what God wanted. And we are going to look into a passage now as David actually struggles with this issue of what does God want and we are going to take a look at how he handled it. So let's pray.

Lord, we want to learn how to discern your direction in our lives. We want what you want in our lives and if we are not there in our lives that is where we want to get. We want to get to the place where we want what you want in our lives. And so help us now as we look into your words, instruct us, open our eyes, help us to understand, help us to believe and then help us to obey what we learn. For we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Turn in your Bibles to 1st Samuel, Chapter 23, Verses 1 to 6. It's in the Old Testament around page 200 and something. 1st Samuel, Chapter 23 starting with Verse 1:

"When David was told, "Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors," he inquired of the Lord, saying, "Shall I go and attack these Philistines?" The Lord answered him, "Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah." But David's men said to him, "Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!" Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, "Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand." So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved the people of Keilah. Now Abiathar son of Ahimelech had brought the ephod down with him when he fled to David at Keilah."

This is a real life dangerous situation and it's not a clear moral or religious situation where David can just go to the law and say "Oh okay, its clear. I don't do this or I do do this." And yet its an extremely important moment because at this point David's decision will involve the life and death of other people, either involve rescuing people from the city or giving them over. It will involve his men facing dangers or who may be dying. It might mean that he faces his own death. There are all kinds of pressures on David at this moment. High stakes decisions. No clear answer and so let's take a look at what he does.

The first thing I would like us to look at is what David doesn't do. Take a look at Verse 1. "Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors." David hears this information and when he hears this information he can apply his good sense and his good logic and listen to his emotions about the situation and those are good things, but discerning God's direction is more than just good sense, good logic and emotion. David could have heard that and said, "Okay, how many men do I have and how many men do they have? Do we have the advantage of surprise or not? What are the losses we will have if we don't go after them? What do we gain by doing it?"

All of those things are good things about us. It's part of the image of God in us that we have good sense, that we know how to apply logic, that we have emotions about things, but it is insufficient by itself to make a decision of discerning God's direction. David has all of these capacities. We have all of these capacities. We should use these capacities, but David does something more and that's what happens in the very next verse. In Verse 2 it says he inquired of the Lord. David asked God. This phrase, "inquired of the Lord" comes up a lot of times in scripture and its almost always in a positive light, because a characteristic of a godly person and a godly leader is that they are someone who inquires of God, who asks God about what God wants. This shows us that David wanted what God wanted. It shows that David believed that God would speak, that he believed that God's will would be best and he is willing to release control if God's answer isn't where his emotions lie. A lot of us lose the whole battle on seeking the will of God right on this point. We don't ask. How many important decisions slide by about family and business, health, go to school, not go to school, what should I study, should I marry this person or not marry this person. All kinds of decisions come back through our lives, comes past us and how many of them do we forget to even ask God? David wanted what God wanted so David asked God.

Verse 6 is important here. It talks about an ephod. Abiathar brought the ephod down with him. The ephod was a linen garment that was worn by the high priest. Over it was a breastplate and in the breastplate was something called the Urim and Thummin. Now we don't know exactly what that was and it was only used for a certain period in the life of Israel, but it was always used in these situations when people were trying to get a sense of what God's direction was. And so, one of the priest had brought the Urim and Thummin and the ephod and the breastplate to David and so whether they were sticks or rocks or whatever he uses this as part of the discernment process. Now we don't have the advantage of that, but we have a bigger advantage, because as Christians Jesus has said that the Holy Spirit indwells inside of us and that wasn't the case for every individual at all times in the Old Testament, but its true of every believer now. And so we can have an inner discussion and hear the inner voice of God in ways that they may not have. But the important issue whether David approached it with the Urim and Thummin or whether we do in an inner dialogue with God and his word; the important thing is that David asked. He wanted what God wanted. So the big question for us is do we really want what God wants.

Let's go on and see what happens next. Verse 3. "David's men said to him, "Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!" David hears the counsel of his friends, but discerning God's direction is more than the counsel of others. Now we are supposed to seek the counsel of other godly people. This is a good thing for us to do, but David recognized that it wasn't just a matter of that, because sometimes even God's people can be motivated by selfishness, fear, lack of critical knowledge, but David takes them seriously enough that you can tell he is shaken by it. The fact that these very people are willing to lay down their lives to stand with him, they are saying, "Man this is crazy. The Philistines are dangerous and then if we make ourselves visible Saul is going to find us. If you think we are afraid here, we are really going to be in trouble there." So David is shaken. Maybe he hasn't heard right. Maybe he is moving too fast. So what does he does do, the very next verse he inquires of God again. That's how concerned he is; that he hear God's will in the matter. David wanted what God wanted. He didn't want what he wanted. He didn't even want what his friends felt would be safe. He wanted what God wanted.

Take a look at what happens again then in Verse 5. In Verse 5 it says, "So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock." The next thing about discerning God's will that we see played out in David's life in discerning God's direction is that David obeyed. He didn't play games with God. We can sometimes say to God, "God show me your will" but inside of us we have already decided what we want God's will to be and we are really not willing to negotiate that point. And so we start playing a game with God where we are really asking him to bless what we have already decided. God will not play that game. It's a serious thing to ask for God's direction and when we get that direction our obligation then is to obey. Now, David is a great example of someone who seeks God's direction and is willing to obey, but we have another example in King Saul of someone who didn't obey even when God's will was clear, because although David wanted what God wanted, Saul wanted what he wanted. He didn't care what God wanted and we see this pattern lived out again and again both in David's life in a positive sense and in Saul's life in a negative sense. In fact, both of these kings of Israel they lived at roughly the same time; they both made massive mistakes in their lives and yet God valued the relationship with one and condemned the other and the critical difference was David sought God. When David did something wrong and he understood it again fresh he repented and he came back to God seeking God's will. Saul on the other hand just wanted what he wanted and walked farther and farther from God.

Let's take a look at what happens in the next few verses and this is Saul. Verse 7: "Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, "God has handed him over to me, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars." And Saul called up all his forces for battle, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men." Do you see anything in these two verses where Saul asks God? No, it's not there. And in fact, again and again you are going to find that this pattern is in Saul's life. Saul takes a look at the circumstances, the situation and says, "Here, David has got in to a position where he is boxed in. I know where he is. I am close enough to attack, therefore, it is true that God has delivered him over in to my hand." He looks at the situation and the circumstances and he is absolutely wrong, because he didn't ask God. Now that tells us that discerning the will of God is more than circumstances. Saul doesn't ask God. Saul wanted what he wanted and he looked at the situation and it wasn't enough. It's more than circumstances. Now we are to look at circumstances in discerning the will of God. It's a very important thing. If you've got to be a certain height to be a State Trooper and you are not that height; well that's an important circumstance. You've got to take in to account in discerning the will of God. But it's more than circumstances. Saul looked at the circumstances. He didn't inquire of God and proved to be absolutely wrong.

Now if you have any question about whether Saul is just making a small mistake or whether there is something bigger going on, let's go down to Verse 17. Jonathan finds David and gives David some encouragement and this is what he says to David. "Don't be afraid, Jonathan said. My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this." Now what was Saul just doing? Saul was trying to kill David. But yet Jonathan his son is saying my father knows what God has said. God has said that you are going to be king. My father knows this and yet he still is opposing the will of God. He is still tracing David. He is still trying to make things bend his way. This is a serious heart problem in Saul's life. Saul wanted what he wanted. David wanted what God wanted. And there is a world of difference in those two places of heart.

David talks about the difference in a Psalm that he wrote; Psalm 32. And I would like us to go there for just a few minutes. Psalm 32, Verses 6 to 11 and we will take a look at David himself talking about what it means to seek God's direction. We will begin at Verse 6.

"Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord's unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!"

David begins this section by talking about the fact that the godly can pray and seek God while he can be found and when there is dangers and changes around you can find a safe place. In Verse 8, God himself commits himself to guiding us, to instructing us. There are three important words here; I will instruct you and teach you and I will counsel you. Those three words of commitment, of relational commitment from God presume that we are answering back with a willingness to be instructed, to learn and to be counseled. God can't extend himself to us like that unless we are willing to receive it. And so that has to be cultivated in our lives, to be open to be taught, to want God's input. That is what David was like. And so David could have this person-to-person instruction from God and he contrasts that in Verse 9. In Verse 9 it says, "Do not be like the horse or the mule which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you." The contrast of being instructed is having the bit and the bridle. Saul wanted his own way. Did he get it? No. By circumstances, by sovereign power God had the bit and the bridle in Saul, so no matter how hard he tried he never got to where he wanted, but God pulled him into what he fully intended to do in history. Saul was dragged there unwillingly because he had no power to stand against it. He was without understanding and yet still dragged into what God did. His desire to do something different did not ultimately mean that God's purposes for David and for Israel and for the world would ever change.

In Verses 10 and 11 David talks about the joy of being in that right place of seeking God and being in that relationship and he talks about the joy, the safety of being in this relationship with God where we in his will and God is showing us the way and protecting us along the way. David wanted what God wanted. It made all of the difference.

How about us discerning God's will? Let's take some principles from this passage and from the experience of saints over the years and just hit a few things so that we can get an idea of how to apply this in our lives. George Mueller was a great man of God. He began some orphanages in England and God used him mightily for a number of years and he taught this about seeking the will of God.

"I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the LORD's will, whatever it may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is." (--George Mueller)

9/10's of our struggle with hearing the will of God is going to be willing, our willingness to go in whatever direction God points, because we always begin very often with a strong preference. And so there is this struggle of getting our heart into the right place the way we are really willing to go in whatever direction God points.

And so let's take a look at what some of the tools are we can use as we go through this struggle. The first one is seek God in the word. Don't just trust your feelings. Our feelings go all over the place. Our emotions are wonderful, but they don't necessarily exactly correspond to the will of God. Just because I am excited about something doesn't mean that it's going to happen. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it. And so we need to go to the word of God for clear principles, for instruction, for the rights and wrongs and maybe for other life situations that are similar to ours where we can see someone else live it through and we can gleam from that something that speaks in to our lives. God will use his word to guide us.

The second thing is to seek godly counsel. The scriptures tell us to do that and sometimes it can be a decisive thing for us. For two years the session of this church struggled with the whole idea of how much building to build, how much to pay, can we afford it, should we raise the money? We struggled with this five different ways and finally we came to the point that we realized that we needed godly counsel and that godly counsel was you the congregation. And as we listened to you and listened to God together it became clear to us in a way that it hadn't been before exactly what we should do. Godly counsel is extremely important. It's not the only thing, but it's extremely important.

The next thing is; take into account the circumstances. Circumstances are important. How much money we have? How much time we have? Where we live? What our grades are? What our health is like? All of these things are important parts of our circumstances. They aren't to be taken alone, but they are important and they help shape our decision.

The next one is to ask God to reveal his will. This is a critical part; all through this process to be seeking God to make it clear and to believe that as we pull these other things in to place, as we get our heart in to the right place, that God will speak, that we can trust him to speak and guide us in a situation.

And then finally the last step is that we have to make a choice and sometimes that is the part that I hate, because once you make a choice you have cut out all the other options and I love keeping all my options wide open. Sometimes all of this happens very quickly, but the issue is not the technique. The issue is the heart. David wanted what God wanted so he asked. If we really want what God wants, we will ask too.

Last week I was in a situation where in a very short period of time I went through almost all of these steps. I was dealing with this issue that there are three churches trying to cooperate together to go to Malawi. Each church has separate goals, separate personalities. And so we are firing emails back and forth and making phone calls trying to come up with some kind of agenda and direction for the mission trip that is only a few weeks away. At one point during the week it looked like one whole option was going to be pulled off the table, because of our discussion and at that point I realized that we really needed some wisdom before we lost that option. And so I went and talked to some godly people. I went and talked to Phyllis DeSmit. I talked to Ann. I emailed some pastors and all and got some information. I made a list of all the circumstances, the pluses and minuses. I thought about the scriptural principles that should be applying to this situation. Which ones are directing us here? And then, skipped lunch and just prayed and waited before God and what was frustrating was that all the options were good. These were good churches trying to go in different directions. All the options were good and whatever decision we made somebody you would have to walk up to them and tell them, "Sorry we are not doing what you want." I hate doing that about good things. I wanted everybody to be happy. I wanted everybody to get a yes from me. I desperately wanted it to be somebody else's decision, but it wasn't that case. And as I prayed a thought that I had never had before about the situation came to mind and it ultimately became a way for us resolving the difficulty. I believe this week that I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing God speak. Not with an oral voice, but absolutely clearly. And that is the wonderful thing about change. Change and all the crisis it causes, all the choices it brings in to our lives, this stuff is not just a threat. It's the opportunity to meet God in it. Change is an opportunity to meet God. That's where we need to end this series. Change is an opportunity to meet God and that's the best part of it.

Let's pray. Lord, help us with that heart problem, to really want what you want. There is all kinds of steps that we can take, but the big struggle is getting our hearts to the point where we really want to do what you want to do. So help us with that God and then show us how to hear your voice and discern your direction in our lives, for we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sermon Outline Notes:

Discerning God's Direction
  • More than good sense, good logic, or emotion.
  • David asked God. "Inquired of the Lord"
  • More than the counsel of others.
  • David asked God again.
  • David obeyed.
  • Saul doesn't ask God.
  • Saul wanted what he wanted.
  • More than circumstances
  • Instruct, Teach, Counsel
  • Not the bit and bridle
  • Getting to the place where we want what God wants
  • Seek God in the Word --Don't just go with your feelings
  • Seek godly counsel
  • Take into account the circumstances
  • Ask God to reveal his will.
  • Make the choice.

© 2007, Rev. John Schmidt
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145