Decisions used to paralyze me. I would take forever to evaluate all the options before me. Even then, I would spend months going back over the decision. “What if I made the wrong choice?” was a constant fear.
Evangelical Christians seem to be especially prone to the fear of making a wrong decision. We occupy spaces that talk a lot about remaining in God’s will, following God’s will, and the consequences of what happens if we don’t. Sometimes the choice that will keep us in God’s will is obvious (i.e., should I cheat on my spouse or not?—the answer is NO!). Other times the answer is not so obvious and could be any one out of a number of good options.
How do we discern God’s will when the choices are not clear choices between something good and something wrong/sinful?
A Matrix for Discerning God’s Will
Discerning God’s will implies that things will not always be clear. Sometimes we will have to make a decision when we are less than 100% confident in that decision.
Discerning also implies a process. While it would be easier for the clouds to roll back and an angel to declare “Thus says the Lord,” that doesn’t usually happen. Correction, I’ve never had that happen.
So how do we honor God in our desire to make choices in accordance with His will? Here’s a helpful matrix to walk you through the process of discernment. Disclaimer: while only being addressed in one point below, I’m going to assume that you are prayerfully bringing your request to God throughout the process.
- What does Scripture say? The first place to search is the Bible. If your choice involves any option that Scripture speaks against, it’s not a good choice for you. This gets more complicated when your decision involves something that either isn’t addressed in Scripture (“Which job should I take?”) or when Scripture supports more than one option (“Which ministry should I be involved in?”). In that case…
- What does your community say? Discuss your decision with wise, spiritual people in your life who know you. What do they think of your options? God often speaks through our community.
- Use your brain. Think through your choices. What are the pros and cons? What opportunities in the future open or close when you decide? How do those opportunities align with the previous steps in the process? God gave us brains for a reason. Scripture also instructs us to ask for wisdom. (James 1:5) Use both!
- Do you feel a sense of calling? Calling is the ace in the whole. If you feel a sense of calling to one of the choices, go with that one regardless of what’s happened in the previous components. Sometimes God will call us to things that our immediate community doesn’t understand (re: the prophet who attempted to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem when Paul felt it’s where God was leading him in Acts) and that aren’t wise (re: Jonathan attacking a Philistine garrison with just his armor-bearer in 1 Sam 14).
Working through the matrix should leave you with a decision that honors God, considers the input of your community, is rooted in wisdom, and factors in calling. That sounds like a good decision!
But if you’re like me, the “what-if” card is still in play. “What if I still make a mistake?”
Trust God to Burn Your Boat
I heard a story at a conference while I was in college that revolutionized the way I thought about decisions. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I think it teaches a true principle so I’ve stuck with it.
The story goes that back in the 1800s an American man felt called to foreign missions. In those days, a call to foreign missions was often a call to go, live, and die in that place. So, the man set about selling all of his possessions and preparing to embark on his mission.
He traveled to New York to catch his boat to head for his mission assignment. The night before he left he stayed in a hotel near the harbor. Waking the next morning, he went to the harbor to discover that his boat had burnt down the night before, his trip had been canceled, and another could not be scheduled for the foreseeable future.
Understandably frustrated and a little confused, the man stayed in New York for a while (he had sold all his possessions and prepared to be gone forever). Eventually, he began training other missionaries prior to their departure. Over time, he discerned that his call to mission was actually to help train other missionaries. Instead of departing, he remained in New York and trained hundreds of missionaries who served all over the world.
The moral of the story: trust God to burn your boat.
You’re Not Strong Enough to Thwart God’s Purposes
The man had made a wise decision that had been affirmed by his community. It was just slightly off. So, before he had the opportunity to make the final step, the Lord intervened and re-directed him.
We can make decisions that honor God and still need God to re-direct us in some form or fashion towards His ultimate good for us. Those instances don’t require that we stay in a state of spiritual contemplation or inactivity. Sometimes God wants us to take a step towards something and have that action be part of our discernment process.
We must trust that we are not bigger than God’s plan or purposes. No matter how big of a mistake we may make along the way, the Lord’s purposes and plans for our lives will not be thwarted by our actions. Even when those actions are dumb or short-sighted in retrospect.