There is a thought-provoking scene in Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Young Alice comes to a fork in the road and asks the Cheshire Cat which direction she should take. “‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
“‘I don’t much care where –’ said Alice.
“‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you walk,’ said the Cat.”
There are some decisions that you spend time thinking about. What sounds good for lunch? Which voicemail needs to be answered first? Can the haircut wait until next week? These decisions may seem small and insignificant, but woven together, they form the tapestry of our daily lives.
Then there are life-altering decisions that cause you to struggle. Career path? Marry or remain single? Which church will allow you the best opportunity to grow and minister to others? These are often hard choices that deserve a great amount of thought.
Often the same decision-making process we use for minor issues is used for major decisions as well. So the question is: How do we choose wisely? What criteria do we use to evaluate, to discern the best course of action?
The Priority of God’s Will
Imagine the tragedy of waking up at the end of a self-centered and meaningless life. At the brink of death you reflect upon the years of wasted time and wonder how you allowed yourself to minimize the things you knew were important by becoming a slave of routine.
Our years on this planet are brief, and none of us want to waste them. But unless we regularly acknowledge God and His desires, our lives will count for little.
Because He created us and redeemed us, God doubly owns us. We therefore have an obligation to fulfill His will as His workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and His children (1 John 3:1). Like Jesus, our spiritual food should be to do the will of Him who has called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9; see Matthew 7:21).
We also have an obligation to ourselves to discern and fulfill His will for our lives. Positively, it is only by making this a top priority that we will find the joy and satisfaction of an ultimately meaningful existence on this earth. Negatively, it is only in this way that we will avoid the undesirable and sometimes devastating consequences of pursuing our own will while rejecting God’s.
The initial pleasures of sin do not outlast the guilt, double binds, and disillusionment that are its final product. God loves us and desires what is best for us; He is also omniscient and knows what is best for us. Since His will for our lives is “good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2), it is in our own best interest to affirm His desires even when they are contrary to our own.
There is also the obligation to others. We cannot choose in a vacuum–the decisions we make will inevitably affect others, sometimes in ways we could never imagine. God has entrusted each of us with the stewardship of a unique sphere of influence. In the decisions we make and in our resulting life-styles, we are called to be faithful ambassadors of Christ to the believers and unbelievers we touch.
Psalm 37:23-24 (NIV) If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.
Psalm 73:23-24 (NIV) Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
The biblical model of knowing God’s will centers on a relationship, but we must be careful to use the right earthly analogy. In some relationships we simply want to be told what to do or we want to get approval for our predetermined plans.
A better analogy is that of the joint decisions reached by a married couple who enjoy an intimate relationship of mutual concern, respect, and trust. In this case, both are involved in the decisions that are reached, and it is sometimes impossible to distinguish the parts each played in the process.
I suggest that the will of God is a divine/human process, not solely divine or solely human. When we consciously acknowledge His presence and depend upon Him in the course of making decisions, the choices that are made are both ours and His.
God’s will, then, is not an end but a means of knowing Him better and becoming more like Christ.
A SUBTLE VOICE
Because God honors our choices and desires our unforced love, He does not overpower or coerce us.
“God never burglarizes the human will. He may long to come in and help, but he will never cross the picket line of our unwillingness” (James Jauncey).
He speaks to us in a subtle voice, and we may be unable to hear Him when there are too many distractions in our lives.
Just as we would have trouble carrying on a telephone conversation in a room full of blaring music and chattering people, in the same way the clamoring voices of selfish desires, lack of submission, pride, independence, and unforgiveness prevent us from being receptive to the quiet voice of God.
“Does God guide? Yes, I believe that he does. Most times, I believe, he guides in subtle ways:
- by feeding ideas into our minds
- speaking through a nagging sensation of dissatisfaction
- inspiring us to choose better than we otherwise would have done
- bringing to the surface hidden dangers of temptation
- by rearranging certain circumstances. . . . God’s guidance will supply real help, but in ways that will not overwhelm my freedom.”–Philip Yancey
There are a number of decisions that are significant enough to capture our attention in the course of each day. A deliberate acknowledgment of the presence of God during these times will carry us far in making God’s will a way of life rather than a crisis experience.
The fabric of our lives is woven out of the threads of such minor choices, so it is wise to form the habit of being conscious of God while making them. This habit of taking God seriously in small decisions will make major decisions less traumatic.
Poor Conceptions of God’s Will
1. I must pray about each decision I make.
Some decisions follow logically from others, and do not need to be prayed about. If you decide to go to college, you do not need to ask God whether you should attend classes and do the required work. Many other decisions, like what clothes to wear and how to behave in different social situations, are matters of common sense.
2. God’s will is often contrary to human reason.
While it is true that God’s thoughts are much higher than our own, this does not mean that His will for our lives is erratic and peculiar. He gave us a rational capacity and wants us to use our minds in the decisions we make. It is our responsibility to submit our thinking to the truths of Scripture and the illumination of the Spirit so that we will have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). God may direct a believer to do something that does not seem to make the best sense, but this is exceptional, not normative.
3. To submit to God’s will, I must give up my happiness.
God is not a majestic monster who wants to make us miserable. His will for us is the only pathway to freedom, fulfillment, and joy (Psalm 37:4 (NIV) Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
John 15:11 (NIV) I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. He loves us and offers an abundant life to those who walk in His ways
4. If I follow God’s will, my problems are over.
A quick reading of the book of Acts makes it clear that an abundant life does not mean a trouble-free life. Obedience to God prevents and corrects many problems, but does not exempt a believer from trials and temptations.
5. If I stray too far from God’s will, He won’t be able to use me again.
God does not exempt us from the consequences and scars of sin, but this does not mean that He puts us on the shelf.
When we acknowledge our sins He forgives and cleanses us (Psalm 51:1-13; 1 John 1:9) so that we can be used again in His service. Some of the heroes of Hebrews 11 were also great sinners.
The Power of Prayer
God is sovereign. That being the case, in what sense can we say that the Sovereign Lord, the One who transcends all imaginable boundaries and who knows all things, makes decisions? There has never been an event that took God by surprise, and there never will be.
There is great comfort in this, because we come to realize that as imperfect creatures living in an imperfect world, we can never really disappoint God. We can grieve him, but we cannot thwart or frustrate him.
In spite of how our world appears to us, it is exactly the way he knew it would be, and we are right on schedule in the unfolding of his plan to bring us to the best of all possible worlds. God has even incorporated the foolish, sinful decisions of people into his divine scheme.
Things that were meant for evil and harmful purposes, God weaves into his good will to accomplish his program in our world:
- Because he is omniscient, his plan is based not on appearances but on consequences.
- Because he is omnipotent, he is able to fully accomplish his purposes.
- Because he is omnipresent, his dominion continually encompasses the created order.
- Because he is not bound by space and time, he views all things from the perspective of an eternal now; a particular moment to us can be an eternity to God, and yet the entire life span of the cosmos can be an instant to him (2 Peter 3:18).
Though the Lord our God sits enthroned on high, he “stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:6). He is transcendent and majestic, but he is also imminent, attentive and compassionate.
Even though God is all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present, the Scriptures portray his very real interaction with his people in earthly time and space and affirm that our prayers make a difference in the outworking of God’s purposes.
Philip Yancey writes: God is not a blurry power living somewhere in the sky, not an abstraction like the Greeks proposed, not a sensual super-human like the Romans worshiped, and definitely not the absentee watchmaker of the Deists. God is personal. He enters into people’s lives, messes with families, calls people to account. Most of all, God loves.
Theologians from many different backgrounds find common ground in the important role of prayer. John Wesley is frequently quoted as saying, “God will do nothing in the affairs of men except in answer to believing prayer.”
Jack Hayford says, “You and I can help decide which of these two things – blessing or cursing – happens on earth. We will determine whether God’s goodness is released toward specific situations or whether the power of sin and Satan is permitted to prevail. Prayer is the determining factor.”