Healthy expectations free us from some unnecessary frustration when making decisions. Had Gilligan and crew known that they were in for more than a three-hour tour, they could have packed and prepared differently. We don’t have to be caught off guard by the complexity and ambiguity of the decision-making process. The more realistic we are in our expectations, the better!
Author Brennan Manning recounts a powerful story about an ethicist named John Kavanaugh. Like many searching for a clear sense of calling, Kavanaugh found himself traveling to Calcutta in search of direction from Mother Teresa. When she asked him what he needed from her, he asked her to pray for clarity, only to have Mother Teresa flat out refuse his request. Bewildered, Kavanaugh retorted “that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for,” to which Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
We far too easily demand clarity from our Creator when, instead of clarity, he would rather cultivate faith in us. Obviously, clarity remains an end goal of the process of decision-making; however, faith precedes clarity. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Later in the same chapter, he also reminds us that “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6). Every decision, even those well-thought-out and prayed through, requires faith of some sort. It takes faith to stay in the states to minister in our neighborhoods just as it requires faith to leave the states to share the gospel in a foreign context. It takes faith to walk as a single man or woman just as it takes faith to enter the covenant of marriage with a spouse. It takes faith to foster children not knowing how long they may be with you, but it also takes faith to say a prayerful no to a potential foster placement.
Thus, when we are asking the Lord to give ample clarity, it is helpful to recognize that even decisions that have become clear require trusting faith.
Sometimes decisions are short, sweet, and simple. There is no need to agonize over which sides to select with your entree at a restaurant, though some of us do struggle between the steamed veggies and the side salad. When choices revolve around neutral, amoral, personal preferences, the consequences of the decision are rarely weighty. However, when decisions involve the more significant pieces of our lives, the process becomes increasingly complex.
Many of the decisions that cause the most agony in life are not decisions between good and bad but rather those that require us to discern the ever-thin lines between good, better, and best. Sometimes “moral convictions can collide and compete.” If we have competing values that are all biblical, the decision-making process becomes increasingly complex. For example, as parents we place a high value on our physical children and also on the spiritual children God has entrusted to us through the college ministry we serve. Since both are biblically good, they feel like competitors for our evenings and our attention. Rather than creating an absolute rule, we approach each week differently, asking God for wisdom as we plan our schedules.
In Romans 12:1–2 the apostle Paul instructs believers regarding how to discern God’s will. He appeals to them, considering who they are in Christ, to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, which initially sounds like an oxymoron. After all, in the cultural context in which Paul was writing, the word sacrifice conjured images of bloody animals on altars. However, in light of Christ’s once-for-all, completely sufficient sacrifice of himself upon the cross (Heb. 10:4) Paul reframes Christian worship, inviting believers to make choices that are “holy and acceptable to God.” He writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Paul focuses more on the formation of our souls than on offering a formula for decision-making. The world constantly shapes us through advertising and media, even when we are not aware of its shaping power. In order to have our minds constantly realigned, we need regular, steady intake of God’s word with God’s people.
To counteract the hours in which we are being actively or passively shaped by the world around us, weekly worship within the local church stands paramount. While it may not always feel earth-shattering or eternally shaping, regularly sitting under God’s word as it’s taught to God’s people shapes us as waves shape the jagged rocks of jetties. Rarely does a wave hit a rock in such a way as to rip off an entire jagged edge. Rather, the regular washing by the daily tides slowly rounds and shapes the rocks over years.
The same stands true for daily time in God’s word. While we may favor five more minutes of sleep or one more episode of the show we recently discovered, even short segments of time personally spent reading and studying the Scriptures powerfully shape us. While looking up a handful of verses that relate to the decision at hand is helpful, it can never substitute for an ongoing intake of God’s life-changing word. Just as vitamins are meant to supplement healthy eating habits, entrenched habits of devotion posture us to make wise decisions.
When our minds are being shaped and reshaped primarily by the word of God, we are prepared to take part in decision-making as another avenue of worship to God. We will have the sharpness of soul and sight that can help delineate between good, better, and best.
Only when our minds are more shaped by God and his values than by the surrounding world can we have the clarity of thought to discern the will of God moment by moment, decision by decision.
Christ, the Pioneer
When we face an important or especially befuddling decision, we naturally seek out those who have made a similar decision before us. A family I know interviewed a handful of missionary families before deciding to uproot their lives in obedience to God’s call to a country halfway around the world. Before deciding to apply to law school, it is natural to meet with others who themselves considered the same course of action. In doing such research and networking relationships, we seek a pattern and a pioneer. While these are, indeed, helpful, our souls will be most served by looking to Christ, the ultimate pioneer.
He knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). The reality that Christ stands outside of time, sovereignly steering not only human history but also our lives, anchors us in the choppy waters of complex decisions. God already knows all our days, which he has carefully written (Ps. 139:16). In Christ we have a pioneer who has gone ahead of us and before us, as the writer of Hebrews so powerfully explains in Hebrews 12:2. Christ, the founder and perfecter of our faith, is both prior and pioneer. When we face the decisions that can sometimes cripple, it calms our hearts to remember that we have one who has gone before, who hems us in behind and before (Ps. 139:5–6). Amid all the unknowns, we know the one who walks beside us, the one who lives within us, and the one who has gone ahead of us. We may not know the map, but we know the character of our guide.