Note: After writing this, I made the decision (see what I did there?) to keep this post long. It was God’s will. Readers on a phone or tablet, you might want to save this one to google reader or the pocket app and desktop/laptop it.
Summary of a Biblical View of God’s Will
In the last post I gave an abbreviated look at how the Bible talks about God’s will. To summarize, God’s will is his purpose, orchestration, and desire for how things should be and how things will be. The prior aspect of God’s will (how things should be) I called his
revealed will, and it is given to us through the revelation of God from God in Scripture and in Jesus. The prior aspect (how things will be) I called God’s
secret will, because it is often hidden from us until it happens.
I also said that when we ask,
What is God’s will for my life? we are usually trying to enter into the secret will of God. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that we are not held accountable or expected to search out such things. It is God’s revealed will that guides and directs us, and the very nature of his revealed will—Scripture that speaks to all cultures at all times—limits it from speaking to specifics for our individual lives. In the rare instance where Scripture does speak to such things, however, it does so briefly and broadly:
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified. (1 Thessalonians 4:3)
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18)
This is all well-and-good to talk about in theory, but what happens when you actually have to make a decision? That’s the focus for this post.
God’s Will and Decision-Making
The funny thing about decision-making and God’s will is that we only consider God’s will for our lives selectively. I doubt, though I could be wrong, that most of you weren’t worried about what God’s will was for what you should eat for breakfast today, or what clothing you should wear. You probably didn’t pray about whether you should put your right shoe on first or your left. And, if I had to guess, you weren’t paralyzed by over whether you should take a shower or not (hint: if this is a major decision you have to make, just take the shower).
But when it comes to a decision about what school to go to, or whether you should take a specific job or not, the game suddenly changes. The reason for this is obvious, not all decisions we have to make are equal. Consider this, however—what if the cholesterol in that pop-tart was just enough to put you over the edge for heart-disease? Sure, that’s a simplistic look at it, but enough to show that decision-making itself isn’t simplistic. Still, seeing some decisions as weightier than others is necessary and good. What this shows us is that we are already practicing the freedom we have to make one-decision over another. We need to extrapolate from lesser decisions to heavier ones so that we can walk in a relative amount of freedom for them as well.
There are two factors I see that should be considered when making these weightier decisions: wisdom and community. Before we dig into these two factors, however, let’s dig into decision-making and God’s will when it comes to the easiest decisions.
Decision-Making and God’s Revealed Will
The Role of God’s Revealed Will in Decision-Making
The role of God’s will as revealed in Scripture cannot be underestimated. In Scripture, God reveals his very self to us, and this means at the very least (and definitely much more than this) that it reveals what he requires of us, and what he desires from us. But to restate the problem, we tend to come to the Scripture with the wrong view of God’s guidance. We want direct answers, audible is best, as to what we should do. What God gives us, however, is a paradigm that filters the data of our lives and guides us in a direction. In other words, God wants us to do the hard work of decision-making, so he gave us a guide instead of an answer.
Again, Tim Keller is helpful here as he gives us this illustration which I’ll paraphrase and mix in my own examples: when we are incredibly young our parents must make our decisions for us because we don’t have the capacity or wisdom to choose the best things for us; we are often ruled by our desires. Give a five-year-old the option, and they will choose cookies for dinner more often than not. It’s best that mom and dad decide what to eat. But consider that same child at twenty-eight, calling his father in order to ask permission to go over to his friend’s house. A good parent would see this as absolutely crazy—the child is no longer a child, he is mature enough, and hopefully wise enough, to know with whom he should hang out with and when.
The illustration breaks down at a certain point, because we are never outside of the good, fatherly custody of God and we must always rely on him for all things, but here’s the point: God desires to see us mature and gain wisdom to live lives marked by his will: sanctification. He has given us the tools we need in Scripture to both mature and be mature, to be sanctified and make decisions based on God’s revealed will for our lives.
So here’s another simplistic example. In my 2012 Year in Review, I mentioned that they were closing down the store where I worked. Let’s say that I had two choices before me: one, I could transfer to another store owned by that company and continue to do what I already do, or two, I could be forced into selling drugs in order to make ends meet. It seems obvious why I should choose, right? But why, from a Christian perspective, is it obvious? Because God has revealed his will regarding what is right and wrong. The Bible doesn’t say one way or the other whether being an optician is what I should do, but it does give me moral guidelines that I can use to decide selling drugs probably isn’t God’s will for my life.
Of course, our life is rarely so simple, but the principle remains. When we are choosing between options, and those options directly contradict God’s will as revealed in Scripture, we automatically reject those options. But what about when we have to choose between options that are not inherently sinful?
God’s Will and Wisdom
When we have several options before us that are equally biblical allowable, we must turn to wisdom in order to choose between them. Let’s use another example, but this time let’s bring it hope. What if my options are to plant a church in Asheville, or stay in Louisville and continue to work with Sojourn? Which option openly contradicts the Scripture or God’s revealed will? Some may, understandably, argue that if I felt called to Asheville, then staying would be sinful disobedience—and at first glance this would seem correct. Disobedience is sin. But how can we objectively tell whether I was, in fact, called to Asheville? Determining that is subjective at best, and neither option is objectively sinful. So, there must be some degree of freedom here. And where there is freedom, there must be grace for choosing.
Filtering our Decisions against God’s Word
Now, in order to know that our options aren’t sinful, we should filter them through God’s revealed will. Again, a simplified example: first, as we’ve noted, neither option is inherently sinful because they do not contradict God’s revealed will, thus so far I am free to choose either one. Second, both options fit within God’s will for my life personally because both offer ways and situations that would lead to my sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4 and 5). Again, so far so good. Third, both options offer possibilities for kingdom-expansion. Both promote the values of God’s kingdom. At this point we must conclude that I am free to choose either option. If there were more than two options, and each made it through the filtering process, then I would be free to pursue any of the multiple options. At this point, I just need to make a decision and run with it—but how do I decide? What pushes me past the inertia of equally valid options and moves my feet in a direction?
Wisdom and Our Decisions
The concept of
wisdom is vitally important in the Bible. Biblically, wisdom is not so much about knowledge as it is the application of that knowledge. Biblical wisdom has been called the art of skillful living. Applied to decision-making, wisdom is the ability to weigh the options in light of the their repercussions and decide which option is most wise.
When it came to Asheville, there were two very big negative repercussions—namely, sparing the details (read the year in review), my wife’s health and our finances. Because these two issues far outweighed the negatives of staying in Louisville, I chose to do the latter, with my wife’s health taking precedence over the issue of finances.
An Important Note
At this point, I should interject with an important note. Let’s say that, despite these things, I decided to go ahead and move forward with planting a church in Asheville, would that decision have been wrong? I chose the phrase
negative repercussions intentionally. I truly believe that I was free to choose Asheville. I didn’t stay in Louisville because I believed going to Asheville would be wrong or sinful. As I said earlier, I think it was the opposite.
As my friend Dennis pointed out in a comment on facebook, finances are not necessarily a preclusion to church planting. Not having
finances in place would make planting a church difficult, but church planting is difficult by its very nature. God could have, maybe even would have, blessed us with the necessary finances by stepping out in faith to plant the church. I took this into consideration. Again, the biggest reason was my wife’s health, but God could have supernaturally blessed that, as well. In the end, I went with what I thought was the wisest decision, not the decision that was the most right. It is equally possible that God would have killed our plant by letting it flounder and then die, and as another friend, Jeff, pointed out in his comments to my last post, this too would have been God’s will for me had it happened.
This isn’t a defense of my decision, so much as these comments help me show more fully the nuances I intend between sinful/not sinful and our freedom to choose between multiple good things. As I wrote in my response to my friend’s message that spurned these last two posts:
Was I free to go to Asheville, despite it looking like the less-wise choice? I believe so. If I went, is God able to do amazing things and take care of both my wife’s health and our finances? Absolutely. Was it guaranteed that he would? I don’t believe so. Would it have been sinful for us to go anyways? Nope. The role of pioneering mission work like in church planting and Paul’s missionary travels is necessarily dangerous by it’s very nature. If one plants a church, they must realize and assume this fact. Had I gone, it might not have been my wife’s health or our finances, BUT it would have been something.
God’s Will, Community, and Decision-Making
The interesting thing about biblical wisdom, however, is that while it must be exercised individually, it is often forged in community. Proverbs, a book all about wisdom, says
Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed. (15:22). Human beings were created for community because we were created in the image of the One who is a community-in-himself.
Bringing together the subjects of decision-making and community may sound weird, but that’s because we live in a hyper-individualized culture. If we think a decision is best for us, who cares what others think? But this cultural value is a minority held value—most cultures throughout history, and even the majority of them today, have been more communally focused than individual-focused. In these cultures, like the ones that produced the Bible, decisions were made with the effects it would have on the community in view, with the individual considered second.
That’s not to say that such a view is completely right or vice-versa. The truth lies somewhere in-between. However, such cultures offer a healthy and helpful critique to our own cultural blind spots. When was the last time you consider how your decisions affected the community you’re in, and not just yourself? What makes you hesitate about offering your decision-making to the broader church community you find yourself in? Of course, in the end, you must make the decision yourself, but your community offers something that you can’t give yourself—20/20 sight in your blind spots.
Seeing as how this post is already longer than the first (which was really long), I won’t spend much more time here in this post. I think Proverbs 15:22 offers a great summary. There is a need for the input for the community in our decision-making, a need we will desire if we want to wisely make decisions.
In Conclusion: Freedom through God’s Will
So, how do we make decisions? First, we run through the paradigm or filter God provides for us in his revealed will for us. Is it sinful? Does it line up with Kingdom values? Second, after eliminating those options which contradict God’s broad will for all people, we weigh the options carefully, thinking through each with wisdom. Third, or as an extension of the second, we bring our decision before our community of friends for their wisdom and input. Finally, we make a decision. All the preparation and weighing in the world doesn’t matter unless we actually decide. And when, in hindsight, we realize we made a mistake we rest in God’s grace and move on. He’s a good father who wants to free his children, not paralyze them with fear. And, in his will for us, he even uses our mistakes to accomplish his will for us: our sanctification.
I want to end with the last few paragraphs of my response to my friend, slightly edited. Hope its helpful.
That leaves one lingering question: Did God’s call on my life fade, or was it never there to begin with? I honestly don’t know—but at the same time, it ultimately doesn’t matter to me which, if either, are true. I’m the kind of guy who can easily over-think everything and die a thousand deaths at the hand of “what if?”
But if I were to stress out about whether I made the right decision, then I would be going against revealed God’s will for me according to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice, pray, give thanks. I might be doing a lot of praying, but my prayers would be rejoicing nor thankful.
And therein lies the proof of God’s will for me from 1 Thessalonians 4:3; the fact that I am trusting God with my decision, rather than being anxious over my it, is proof of God’s sanctifying grace in my life. That’s not the natural me at all.