Sooner or later, every sincere Christian wrestles with this issue: We all face turning points in our lives and need to employ a sound decision-making process. I’ve certainly struggled with a number of difficult decisions during my Christian lifetime.
Because many of these decisions have major consequences for us and the other people they affect, we want to make as good a decision as possible. So, how do we do it? When faced with a serious decision, how do you make that decision? Are there some guidelines or some procedures that will help us?
I believe so. Following a certain set of steps will raise the likelihood that we’ll make the best decision. Before we consider those, however, let’s narrow down and define the kind of decision I’m talking about.
First, let’s rule out some possibilities. I don’t mean, “How do you know what to do– in a moral sense?” Most Christians who have been in Christ for very long have a sufficiently refined conscience to guide them through most days. You shouldn’t steal, lie, kill, cheat the government, be unfair to your employees, cruel to your family, etc. When faced with those kinds of moral decisions, it’s generally easy to decide. Bible study, conversations with other Christians, Bible school, and pulpit lessons all provide clarity on most moral issues. Some things are clearly right and clearly wrong, and the overwhelming majority of Christians acknowledge those. So, moral decisions on which there is great consensus among the Christian community and clear Biblical direction are not the kinds of issues I’m talking about.
And I don’t mean, “How do you know what to do in the daily walk of your life?” The run-of-the-mill, day-to-day decisions. Being guided by your conscious, channeled by your commitments, and directed by your goals, most day-to-day decisions are pretty easy. Rarely do you think deeply about going to work, eating breakfast, talking to your family, reading the paper, or watching the news.
But there are two areas of human endeavor which are of concern to a Christian and are of the type to which I’m referring. The first has to do with “ministry.” I hate to call it “ministry,” because that word implies that there is a portion of our life that is somehow set aside for special work, and that work is called ministry. Following this line of thought, some of our activities are ministry and some aren’t. I prefer to believe that everything we do, if done for the glory of God and within the Christian context, is part of God’s plan and therefore, ministry. Our life is our ministry.
But the word, “ministry,” in the common and traditional use, implies that area of Christian endeavor in which we try to more closely align ourselves with God’s work and will. Should I, for example, leave this church and join that one? Should I speak to this Christian friend who behaves in a way I find offensive? Should I start or join this Bible study? Should I take these food items to the soup kitchen? The list can go on and on.
The other area of concern is those major decisions that we have to make in our lives that have nothing to do with what the traditional Christian world calls ministry. These are decisions that affect our lives and our loved ones, with consequences that extend for years in the future. Should I take this job or that one? Should I move or stay where I am? Should I have another child?
In these cases, particularly when there is a choice between two or more “good” actions, I’ve often struggled in knowing what to do.
But the struggle is even often more specific than just deciding what to do. In every one of these events, my motivation has been to do the will of God. I really didn’t want to make a mistake and do my own will. Rather, I wanted to be sure I was doing what God wanted me to do. Sounds easy. Of the choices I have at any one time, I want to make sure that I’m doing the one God would have me choose. That’s a given. So, the question really is, not what should I do, but rather, what does God want me to do. And that’s exactly the point at which it gets confusing. How do you know what God wants you to do?
All this assumes, of course, that you are also motivated by the same desire – to choose that course that God wants for you. If not, then there isn’t any need to read further. This article assumes that you’re making a decision within the Christian context.
So, the question isn’t what should you do, but rather what would God want you to do.
Let’s start at the obvious, and often times sufficient, starting point. If you want to know what God wants you to do, ask Him. In other words, pray. And then, expect that He will answer that prayer, and provide the direction you seek.
So, asking for God’s direction is the necessary first step to Christian decision-making.
After having done that, you need to be sensitive to God answering that prayer. So now, the real question is, “How does God answer this kind of prayer?” “How does He provide direction when you’re in the middle of a major decision?”
1. Search the scriptures.
Over the years, I’ve had a number of different answers offered to me. One, of course, is to read and study the Bible and do that which the Bible indicates you should do. I agree. That’s the first option. If you can find a clear direction for your decision in the Bible, then your task is complete.
Much of my Christian life was spent in a denomination that emphasized that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Bible, and only through the Bible. Like many denominational positions of all kinds, there is a great deal of truth in that position. Certainly, the Holy Spirit works through the scriptures. “Thus says the Lord” means just that. And certainly, anyone claiming to have a revelation that “added to or subtracted from” the revelation in the Bible is to be viewed with suspicion. But, my personal experience is that, when it comes to guiding the lives of His children, God doesn’t just confine Himself to the printed words in the scriptures. He speaks to us in other ways, ways that complement, support, and emphasizes truths taught in the Bible. And, He addresses issues that are not taught in the Bible.
So, while relying on direction from the scriptures works some of the time, it isn’t the total answer. If my choice is to be cruel to this person or not, the Bible gives me great direction. If my choice is to cheat on my taxes or not, again, the Bible is clear in its direction. But what about all those areas of human decisions that are not in the Bible? Should I take back this wayward and unrepentant child? I can make a good case on Biblical grounds for both sides of that one. Should I go to this church or that one? Both churches can articulate convincing arguments laced with scriptural citations that support their respective positions. Should I join the armed services or not? Passionate Christian arguments can be made on both sides of that issue. So, while appealing to the scriptures is a first, and reliable source for direction, it leaves a lot of human decision unaddressed.
2. Look for evidence of God’s work.
Henry Blackaby, in his book, Experiencing God, proposed another source of direction. Look around and see where God is working, and join that work. So, if you’re in the middle of a decision as to which church to join, for example, and you see God working actively in one and not the other, then join the place where God is active. Great advice, and a concept that helped me take a real step forward in my spiritual walk. But, still, somewhat limited. The implication is that God always works in someone else before He works through me.
But, what if the question isn’t whether or not to join some existing work, but rather to start a new work? Can’t God work in me first? And can’t I be the place to which other people are drawn?
Or, suppose the issue isn’t an outward, visible-to-other-people, kind of work? In other words, suppose my choice is to work on improving my prayer life, or building my devotional time? Suppose the decision that is troubling me has to do with my internal spiritual growth. In those cases, it doesn’t help much to look around and see if God is working around me. I need Him to work inside of me.
Or, suppose that my decision is not about anything “spiritual.” Rather, it’s about some major fork in the road that affects my career, family, or business. Should I take this new job? Should I fire this employee? Should we have a child now? Those are not the kind of issues we generally think of as being God’s work.
So, the suggestion to look around and see where God is working is a great idea, and it adds a major component to our spiritual lives. It is a way that God answers our prayers for direction. However, it may leave additional unanswered questions.
So, how does God communicate to us about those issues that are not directly addressed in the Bible, or that appear to be outside the kind of work we normally associate with God?
The Bible is full of examples of God communicating to His people. The options, it seems, are endless. He spoke through a burning bush, through a donkey, through dreams, and through His prophets, to name just a few. He wrote on a wall, spoke with a booming voice from heaven, and sent angels with messages. If there is any pattern, it is that there is no pattern. God chose to speak to people in a wide variety of ways.
Many of those examples from scripture are dramatic and leave no room for questioning if the message is from God. When a huge hand appears out of nowhere and writes a message on the wall, chances are pretty good that message is from God. When a booming voice rings out of heaven, or a burro turns around and starts talking, most of us would pay attention, understanding that the source of that communication was God.
But, in our lifetime, He seems to use more subtle methods. Here are some ways in which He’s communicated to me. These aren’t offered as an exclusive list of God’s methods. Rather, they are simply some observations from one person’s life. If God has used these means to communicate to me, it’s entirely possible that He may use them to communicate to you. His options are endless, His creativity beyond our comprehension. So, He may communicate to you in an unlimited number of other ways. With that understanding, here’s my list.
Sometimes God arranges circumstances in such a way as to make it very clear which direction He wants us to take. There have been several occasions in my life where He’s relied on this means of communication. One such time occurred during the time when we were preparing to move from the Detroit area to Grand Rapids. In order to make that transition, I would work three days a week in Detroit, and two in Grand Rapids. I’d drive into Grand Rapids in the morning, work all day, spend the evening looking at houses, stay the night, and then drive home to the Detroit area after work the next day. Part of my plan was to find a house for us to move into. On at least six occasions, I found a house I thought would be good for us, and made arrangements for Coleen to come back over the weekend and look at it. On every occasion, by the time the weekend came, the house was gone – purchased by someone else. I had been looking in the Southeast area of the city – the area that had been recommended by all my business associates.
One day, the real estate agent with whom I was working was sick. We were supposed to look at more houses, and she asked another associate to show me that week’s possibilities. He suggested a home in the north end of town. When we looked at it, I decided it wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but it had potential. Mindful of our run of bad luck, I immediately made a ridiculously low offer, thinking that the offer-counter-offer would tie the seller up for long enough for Coleen to see the house, and for us to decide if we really wanted it. I was sure the seller would counteroffer, and then, if we didn’t want it, we would not respond to his counteroffer.
But, to everybody’s surprise, he accepted the original offer, and we had a house. A few months later, we joined a church on the North end of town, and shortly thereafter, I became an elder and played a very instrumental role in the church’s life for the next few years. In retrospect, I understood clearly that God was working through circumstances to make sure we were in the North end of town, where He could use our family in that particular church.
When circumstance upon circumstance is piled and you have the strong feeling that God is behind them, pay attention. It’s God answering prayer by prodding you toward a decision.
4. Other people.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been troubled by a decision and had someone, perhaps in a totally unrelated conversation, say something that struck me like an arrow, targeting exactly the issue I was wrestling with. Almost never is the person delivering a powerful message even aware of the effect of it. Often, these conversations come from other Christians, but not exclusively so. God can, and has used non-Christians to unknowingly communicate His message.
When you’re struggling with a decision and asking God for His direction in prayer, be sensitive to the possibility that He may speak to you through other people.
In recent years, He’s used dreams to communicate with me on at least two specific occasions. On one of those, I was very frustrated with our search for a house church. Coleen and I had grown more and more disenchanted with the institutional church, to the point that we could barely stand to sit through a service. At the same time, I knew that we needed to be in a house church, and were having difficulty finding one. I was extremely frustrated. Then I had a dream. I woke up clearly understanding that the dream was a communication from God and clearly understanding what it meant. He was telling me that our search for a house church would have its ups and downs, but that we would eventually get there. I was reassured and encouraged. As a result, I dug in for the long run and waited on God to lead us in the direction of a home church.
On each of these two dreams, I awoke with a clear memory of the dream, a detailed and specific understanding of what the message the dream with communicating, and an unshakable belief that the dream was from God.
This from a person who doesn’t remember dreams. To this day, I can describe those dreams in detail.
6. Inner prompting.
Rather than coming from the outside, often God speaks to us from the inside. We get thoughts — thoughts that come to use as communications from God. Imagine the Holy Spirit living in us. That Spirit speaks to our spirit, and the communication rises to the surface of our brain in the form of a thought. Sometimes these thoughts come with a solid conviction that they are from God. I’ve come to rely on that conviction. If I have a thought, particularly when I’ve prayed for an answer, or when I’m in the middle of reading the Bible or praying, and with that thought comes a conviction that the thought is from God, that’s good enough for me. I proceed on the basis that God has spoken to me.
But many times, I can’t help but question whether the thoughts come from someplace in my own mind or whether they really are communications from God.
If I’m in doubt if the thought is from God or from me, and I compare the thought with some clear insight from the Bible and discover a contradiction, I know the thought isn’t from God. He doesn’t contradict Himself.
We need to be cautious on this point, however. It’s easy to take a position, and then to search the scriptures for some validation of that position. Rather than go to the scriptures with an open mind on a particular subject, we can have our own conclusion, and then twist the scriptures to support it.
For example, you may be considering whether or not you should accept a friend’s invitation to spend a weekend of wild partying. Since you really are tempted to do this, you find a Bible passage that says, “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.” Ah-ha! You have your answer.
Not so fast. Start reading a few words earlier, however, and you realize the correct thought is expressed by the whole of the verse, “Only the fool says eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.”
So, we need to be as thorough and objective as possible when we search the scriptures for guidance.
So far, I’ve been talking about thoughts as being the carrier of God’s inner prompting. Yet there is another way that God speaks to us from the inside.
I don’t know if we have the right language to express it. I hate to call it “FEELINGS” because that word implies emotions like anger, infatuation, and etc.
I’m not sure God uses those to communicate with us.
Rather, we sometimes receive intuitive understandings. A sense that comes over us, whereby we understand truth from God. This is different than a thought because it’s larger. Our understanding is bigger than that contained by any thought. And it’s not a feeling, although it often is described as one. Rather, it’s an understanding that comes through what we call intuition.
Here’s an example from my own life. At one point I was facing a legal proceeding. Having been a veteran of some of these, I knew that fairness, right and wrong have little to do with what happens in the court system. So, I was very concerned about the outcome. I approached the elders of the church and asked them to pray on my behalf.
We prayed together. As I was leaving the meeting, a powerful intuitive understanding came over me. I knew that God had answered the prayer in my favor. The legal proceeding was not until the next day, but I knew that I would prevail.
When that knowledge came over me, I then felt a powerful sense of peace. The understanding and the sense of peace combined to produce that sense of intuition.
That sense of deep peace, and even the lack of it, can be another indicator of God’s communication with us.
Remember, the Holy Spirit speaks deeply within us, communicating to us at levels deeper than conscious thought. Sometimes His communication to us comes in the form of a sense of deep peace. The Apostle Paul, in II Cor 2:12, describes this working in his life. He had no “peace” about a decision, and so didn’t pursue it.
Looking back on my life, I can think of several occasions when that was, in fact, the way it happened. The decision to marry Coleen, for example, was one in which I remember being at peace with the decision, but very upset at any other outcome.
My family has gone to South Africa a number of times in the last ten years to assist with a missionary effort there. Yet one year, both Coleen and I had a sense of a lack of peace about going. Nothing we can put in words, but both of us agree, we don’t feel peaceful about the decision to go. So, we decided to forgo the trip.
I’m coming more and more to trust and depend on this feeling of peace in even day-to-day decisions. For example, I decided today not to take on a specific new client for my business. I had already invested quite a bit of time in them. But when it came down to it, I did not have a sense of peace about working with them. I decided to turn them down. The decision to not pursue them as a business client gave me peace.
Peace, or the sense of agitation that marks the opposite of peace, can be a powerful communication from the Holy Spirit.
8. Listen to older, wiser, and more spiritually mature Christians.
Seek the counsel of older, wiser, and more spiritual Christians. I’m convinced that is one of the reasons God has given us the church. It provides a place to discuss ideas, concepts and directions. It provides a diverse mix of ages and life experiences. Each person in the church is “part of the body,” and has a unique role to play in the lives of other members of the church. The older and more experienced, more spiritual and more educated members are a great resource to others. There have been several major turning points in my life where I sought the counsel of older more spiritually mature people. They will have a greater sensitivity to God (they know Him better than you do because they’ve lived with Him longer), and they can be much more objective than you.
So, make sure you seek the counsel of older and more spiritually mature Christians around you.
Finally, there is one additional possibility. Sometimes, God is silent. Sometimes, He chooses not to speak, not to provide you direction. He doesn’t answer, because He wants you to figure it out on your own, and deal with the consequences of your decision.
Look at it from this perspective. God is interested in us from at least two different perspectives. First, we are His servants, and He uses us to work His will in the world, to do His work. So, when that’s on His mind, He often speaks clearly. Think of Jonah — the prophet who was swallowed by the big fish when he tried to get out of doing some work God wanted of him. That was the case in the direction we got from God regarding the house we bought. He wanted some work to be done in that church, and he made sure we were going to be there to do it.
And God is also interested in our spiritual growth. He wants us to continuously grow closer to Him, and become more like His Son. Our lives are not to be focused on our well-being, comfort, and collection of material possessions. Rather, our lives are to be a series of learning experiences from which we gradually grow more God-like. Now, we all know that we usually learn better from doing something than by being told. One of the things God wants from us, one of the qualities He wants to build into us, is the quality of discernment and wisdom. And these come from making decisions and living with the consequences.
So, sometimes, He doesn’t speak, because He wants us to have the growing experience of making our own decisions, and gaining wisdom as a result.
What if we make a mistake in those circumstances? He’s thought of that. Rom 8:28 says, “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” God is able to turn any mistake or unfortunate circumstance into something positive for us.
Let’s review. When faced with a significant decision, a Christian needs to do these things: Pray for God’s direction, search the Bible, and then look for God’s direction though inner prompting, other people, circumstances or intuitive understandings.
And sometimes, there is no answer.