I preached recently on a passage with a lot of application to the area of 'guidance' (which is Christian shorthand for 'how we make decisions with reference to God'). And various people said it clarified for them a topic about which they'd heard different – and confusing – things. So here's a summary of a seminar I've often given on 'Guidance and decision-making'.
A wrong view of guidance
One view of guidance says this: 'God has a specific plan for your life and in advance of every 'fork in the road' (eg, 'Do I apply to this university or that one?', 'Do we buy this house or that one?'), you have to discover that specific plan, in order to make the right choice.' Now the obvious problem with that view is: how do you discover God's specific plan for you? After all, there are no verses in the Bible linking you specifically with any university or house (or job or boy- or girl-friend, etc). To which people say things like, 'Well, God will give you peace about the right way,' or, 'You'll feel led (or 'called'),' or, 'You'll just know'. But that all becomes hopelessly subjective, and highlights where that view of guidance goes wrong. What's right with it is that God does have a specific plan for each of our lives (Ephesians 1.11 says things happen 'according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will'). But what's wrong with that view of guidance is the idea that we can discover God's specific plan for our lives in advance of making decisions – when the truth is: we can't. We only discover God's specific plan for our lives in retrospect. So, for example, I now know that it's part of God's specific plan for me to be married to Tess – because I'm married to Tess. But I didn't know that eight years ago when we were still just going out (in fact, I didn't know it until about 1.20pm on 24th February 2007, after we'd made our vows).
The right view of guidance
So, what's the right view? It says, 'God does have a specific plan for our lives – but we can't discover it in advance of making decisions, because he hasn't revealed it to us in the Bible. So our responsibility is to understand what he has revealed in the Bible – his 'general plan' – and then to make our decisions in line with that.' And, to summarise the whole Bible, God's plan is: to bring a people back into relationship with him, who live (imperfectly) for Jesus as King in this life, and who will join him (finally made perfect) in his kingdom beyond this life. And that plan is being worked out as people hear the gospel and are forgiven back into relationship with him through Jesus' death on the cross. So knowing God's general plan tells us the two goals or priorities that should govern our decision-making – they're gospel ministry and godliness:
• Gospel ministry – that's playing our part in the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church (which is how God takes his plan forward); and
• Godliness – that's living godly lives, living as wholly as we can for Jesus as King – which is what the whole plan is aiming for.
One way of picturing all this is to think of life as a game of football. In what he has revealed to us in the Bible, God has done two things to guide us:
• He has marked out the boundaries of the pitch – the 'moral touchline' or right-versus-wrong line within which we must play. For example, there's the bit of the 'touchline' that says, 'You shall not steal' (Exodus 20.15).
• He has also shown us the goal we're aiming for – the twin goal of gospel ministry and godliness – so we know that everything we do on the pitch should be moving towards that goal.
Now when it comes to guidance, we face two types of question. There are 'type 1 questions' like, 'Shall I be a bank robber?' And those are 'moral touchline' questions, right-versus-wrong questions. And the Bible answers those questions, it decides the issue for you, and you can be 100% certain before you act what God wants you to do (don't be a bank robber, in case you're in doubt).
But then there are 'type 2 questions' like, 'As a maths graduate, shall I go into accountancy or teaching?' And there the 'moral touchlines' don't help you, because both accountancy and teaching are right – they're both permissible positions in which a Christian may play on the pitch. So this time you're not facing a right-versus-wrong decision, but a permissible-versus-permissible decision. So how do you decide? The answer is: you have to ask, 'What's best for my gospel ministry and godliness?' Which is why some people have labelled these type 2 questions 'wisdom decisions'. Because whereas with type 1 questions, we simply need obedience to do what the Bible tells us to, with type 2 questions we need wisdom to see which of the options facing us will be best for those twin goals in God's plan. So with 'type 2 questions', the Bible doesn't answer the question for you, it doesn't decide for you – you have to make a decision, and you have to make it with less than (often far less than) 100% certainty.
Now, getting the right view of guidance doesn't instantly solve all our guidance problems: making decisions – especially 'big' decisions – isn't easy. But the wrong view of guidance with which we began causes people great and unnecessary problems. For example, I've come across Christians agonising and fearful about making the 'wrong' decision when in fact they're trying to choose between options that are both perfectly permissible and right (like accountancy versus teaching). And it's been such a relief to them to discover that it's not a right-versus-wrong decision, but a wisdom decision – a matter of trying to see what's best from God's point of view, and going for that. Another problem caused by the wrong view of guidance is Christians who think that they've missed God's 'Plan A' for their lives through making a wrong decision, and that they're now permanently stuck with 'Plan B' – for example, the person who thinks, 'Maybe God meant me to choose teaching instead of accountancy, but all these years I've been on the wrong path.' And they need reassuring that what God meant them to do was to try to make a wise choice (after all, with 'type 2 questions', he doesn't reveal in advance what we 'ought' to choose) and that the choice they made was part of his plan. And that even applies to unwise or even morally wrong choices we've made: God allows us the freedom to make such decisions – and yet they're all part of his plan.
So how do we go about making decisions?
1. We need to trust the Lord and pray for wisdom: Proverbs 3.5-6 says: 'Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.' That means trusting the wisdom of what God has revealed in the Bible, rather than our own wisdom. So, for example, one thing he reveals is that he wants a believer, if he or she marries, only to marry another believer (1 Corinthians 7.39) – otherwise it will be a marriage pulling in fundamentally opposite directions: one for Jesus, one not. And we need to trust the wisdom of that when there's no potential Christian partner on the horizon. And we need to pray for wisdom (ie, the ability to see and the will to choose what's best for gospel ministry and godliness), as James 1.5-7 says: 'If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.' The point of those verses is that when we pray for wisdom, we must be single-mindedly willing to go where wisdom clearly leads, rather than be 'double-minded' and not go where it clearly leads. So for example, some of us are already thinking and praying about involvement in our future new ministry at St Joseph's Benwell. What if, as some of us do that, it seems clearer and clearer that the best thing for gospel ministry is actually to move to that area of town? James's point is that we're being double-minded when we do reach a settled conclusion about what's best, but we don't go for it for whatever reasons (the hassle of moving, the uncertainty of schooling for my children, etc).
2. We need to find out what the Bible says that bears on the decision. We need to ask, 'What are the right-versus-wrong lines within which we must decide?' and 'What wisdom does the Bible give for choosing between things that are both permissible and right?' For example, take the area of considering going out and marriage. The right-versus-wrong lines in the Bible are clear: if I marry, God wants me to marry 1) someone of the opposite sex who is 2) a fellow-believer and 3) not already married (and Jesus taught that those who have divorced remain married in God's sight, while both partners live). But the Bible also gives us wisdom to see what's best within those lines. Eg, it says that if I'm presently single and managing singleness OK and not feeling under any pressure to seek marriage, it's best to remain single for now and make the most of the advantages of more undivided time and energy for growth in gospel ministry and godliness (1 Corinthians 7.32-35). On the other hand, if I'm definitely wanting to seek marriage, it gives wisdom about looking for a partner – for example, 'Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.' (Proverbs 31.31)
3. We need to consult other sources of wisdom, too. That includes other people and our own experience and accumulated wisdom. 'Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.' (Proverbs 15.22)
4. We need to make a wise decision. Remember, for 'type 2 questions' we're not making 'right-versus-wrong decisions but 'wise-versus-unwise' decisions. And a wise decision is one that, as far as we can see, is best for our gospel ministry and godliness. And apart from some exceptional guidance through things like visions (Acts 16.6-10), that's how the apostle Paul made his decisions. For example, he wrote to the Thessalonians, 'So… we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you…' (1 Thessalonians 3.1-2) And that's why Paul wrote to the Philippians, 'And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…' (Philippians 1.9-10). And that's a great prayer whenever we're thinking through a decision: 'Lord, help me to discern what is best here for serving your purposes – for gospel ministry and godliness.' So, for example, one Christian I know was originally a drugs rep, which involved lots of travel, staying away overnight in hotels. And that didn't help his godliness because of temptations for him and being absent from family. And nor did it help his gospel ministry because the job gave no real continuity of relationships for sharing his faith – and left him little time to be involved in church. So for those reasons, he re-trained and became a school-teacher just round the corner from home – a good example of making a wise decision. It's important to add two things: one is that sometimes, it's just not clear that one of two good options is really better – in which case, it comes down to our own inclination and preference (for example, would I rather live in this road or that one?). The other thing is to emphasise again that we have to make a decision. So, for example, I was talking to a Christian friend about his long-term girlfriend and asking him what he was thinking about the future. And he said, 'I'm still asking myself the question, 'What does God want here?' – and I'm still not sure.' To which I said, 'That's the wrong question. The question is, 'What do you want here?' – and what God wants is for you to make a decision about that.' (See 1 Corinthians 7.36.)
5. We need to submit the decision to God's sovereignty. God's sovereignty is his total control over all things. So God is sovereign over the person you are – over the person he made you (with the gifts, IQ, personality, looks, etc, which you've got) and he's sovereign over the things which have shaped you in life (your family, education, influences, difficulties, set-backs, etc). And that means (contrary to the message we often get from the culture and the education system) we can't do anything we want, so long as we work hard enough – the world is not 'our oyster', with endless options open to us. And God is also sovereign over the opening and closing of doors of opportunity – for example, sovereign over exam results, sovereign over school or university places, sovereign over the job market, sovereign over whether they call you for interview, sovereign over what they decide after the interview. So, while we're trying to make a decision, we should pray for wisdom to see and choose what's best; and once we've made a decision, we should pray, 'Lord, please only let this go ahead if it's your will, if it really is the best thing.' (See James 4.13-15.) And the great reassurance is that, because God is sovereign, he can keep shut any door we push, if he knows it's not going to be good for us.
6. Living after a decision. You may do all of the above, make a wise decision and then still feel anxious and far less than sure. Well, as we've seen, with 'type 2 questions', you can never be 100% sure. When I said 'Yes' to the offer of a post at JPC (having originally said 'No'!), I felt about 51% sure – life is like that sometimes. The thing to do then is to keep trusting that God was sovereign over the decision, that he allowed you to make it as you tried your best to be wise, and that he can bless you and use you where you now are. I don't think I was sure in a settled way about being at JPC for several years after I arrived – but had to trust and wait for that to become clear.
But what if you encounter real difficulty as a result of a decision? For example, a friend of mine accepted the headship of a school with a Christian foundation, only to run into huge opposition to his attempts to revive properly Christian assemblies, school services and so on. And he undoubtedly wondered whether he'd made an unwise decision. But encountering difficulty as a result of a decision does not at all necessarily mean it was an unwise (or even wrong) decision. Just think of Nehemiah: his decision to lead the re-building of Jerusalem was absolutely in line with God's plan – but he faced difficulty and opposition every step of the way.
But, finally, what if we're clear that we have made either an unwise or a wrong decision? Well, Romans 8.28-30 says, 'And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified he also glorified.' That's a reminder that God is sovereign over everything: we never step outside his plan for us, which includes our sins and unwise decisions. And he allows those sins and unwise decisions because (for example, as they humble us and make us more dependent on him) they are all part of his process of making us more 'conformed to the likeness of his Son'. Now if we've made an unwise decision, we need to trust and obey God where we now are – and learn to be wiser in future (which might mean 'unpicking' the decision, if it's reversible). On the other hand, if we've made a sinful decision, we need to acknowledge and confess that to God, and start seeking to trust and obey him again, from where we now are (which, again, might mean 'unpicking' the decision, if it's reversible). But it might not be reversible: for example, one Christian I know married someone who's not a Christian – knowing that was not God's will as revealed in the Bible. And she said to me, 'My Christian life went nowhere after that – until I admitted to myself and to God that the step I'd taken was wrong, and asked his forgiveness, and set myself to start living for him again.' She understood that, now she was married to her husband, it was God's plan for her to be married and stay married to him. But she had to acknowledge and confess that the step of marrying him had been wrong – and only by doing that did her Christian life get going again.