Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 86
We all have times when we have to make big decisions that could determine the direction of our life. In this episode of LifeWords Q&A, David Reay and Clare Bruce chat about how to discern God’s will, and how to move forwards in decision making.
CB: “I’m standing at a crossroads. I’m about to make a major decision that will affect the course of my life. And I really want to follow God’s will. How do I know for sure what God wants me to do?”
…David, as a minister, how do you tend to start out with answering this one?
DR: Yeah, it’s a common question. I want to start off by saying… sometimes we worry too much about guidance about certain matters, without first understanding what God’s will is generally.
I know what God wants me to do in life, very clearly: He wants to be to become more like Jesus, to grow in Christian maturity, to be a gracious and generous witness to the world. He wants me to meet with other Christians, learning and caring for one another. He wants me to love God and love others. It’s hard to do. But it’s clear enough. That’s all spelled out in the Bible very unambiguously.
The problem is, how do we apply those principles? So I would say to people, first of all, please give priority to what God basically wants you to do. And only then you can start wrestling with the practical applications.
Let me give you some examples. Someone might say, and this is really real life: “Oh, David, I don’t know what to do. When I leave school, should I become a nurse or a teacher?” I’ve answered a few questions like that over the years. And my answer has always been, “I don’t know – but I do know, God wants you to be a godly nurse or a godly teacher or a godly something else”.
Or, “Should I join this church or should I join that church?” Well, obviously, you might have to consider the practicalities… but whatever church you join, be a godly, and encouraging member of that church. You see, here’s a radical thought. And I think I’m true in saying this many times: “God doesn’t have an opinion on what decision you make, as long as it is consistent with those general principles”.
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You see most decisions we make in life, are not based on some deep, earnest prayer. I’ve been at the shopping centre this morning, and I bought a number of things. And not once did I pray that I had to choose between buying this or that. I’m just assuming that as a person with my own common sense and brains and decision making capacities, I will make a decision
CB: Which is why God gave you those decision making capacities.
DR: Exactly. I think sometimes we mistake divine guidance as thinking “I’ve got to sit in my chair” as it were, “and wait for some blinding flash of insight”. Most of the decision making we face in life are based on what I call just normal common sense. And the most significant decisions are usually based on “God, help me to make a wise decision here”.
For example, I became an Anglican minister. And I could have just as easily stayed in my previous job with Qantas Airways, and God could have said, “Be a Godly person there”. I could have become a Baptist minister… God would have said “Fine, be a Godly pastor”. So I think we observe the basic principles.
And I want to really caution people against thinking that God has got some detailed blueprint to your life, that if at the age of 16, you make a bad decision you’ve ruined it for the rest of your life. Please do not succumb to that false, superstitious thinking.
I do think God has a plan for your life. I think his plan for your life is to grow more like Jesus. If you decide to be an architect rather than a doctor or something, that’s okay, I honestly think that God in many of these cases doesn’t actually have an opinion. He actually wants you to make a decision and to use certain principles in making a decision.
For example, you consult with friends. Strong word of caution – consult with friends who are prepared to challenge you. You don’t go to friends and say, “Oh, look, I’ve decided to spend 12 months overseas doing a short term mission. What do you reckon?” Well, that’s not after the advice from a friend that’s just asking for confirmation of what you’re already feeling. Go to people who will really express things honestly to you.
When Christians come to me and say, “I’m totally undecided about what to do,” I say to them, “That’s a healthy place to be, because you are now open to how God may highlight certain things. So you do sort of consult with people.
You reflect on circumstances; but dear me, they can be ambiguous can’t they? I know missionary friends from many years ago, were absolutely set on going to a certain country, but that country would not allow them the visa. And you would think at the time, “Well, that’s a door closed, isn’t it?” No, they quite rightly persisted, finally that door opened and they had a very fruitful ministry. So – circumstances: Is a closed or really closed door? Is an open door really an open door? Yes, circumstances matter, but they can be ambiguous.
What Are Your Passions
But also the underlying thing I want to stress to Christians, is, take account of your passions, your skills, and your interests. Sometimes we think God is going to call us to do something that’s totally contrary to all that. I want to argue to you that God will quite often put those passions in skills and interests in your own heart. The reason I’m involved in media work and writing work and pastoral work and preaching, is because I’ve had a passion for that.
Quite often I say to people who are facing a crossroads, “What would you really like to do?” Don’t ignore your feelings and your passions. There’s this horrible sort of feeling that some people have got, is, “God is going to call me to spend my life doing something I hate doing”. That does not happen. God calls you to the place where your passions and the needs of the world meet. And so take account of those passions and feelings. As long as they godly passions and feelings and so on.
Having said all that, though, I’ve got to be quite clear that sometimes God can guide people in exceptional ways. I know of many Christians who have been guided to a dream; through a particular person set of circumstances; through an amazing ‘coincidental’ contact with someone, and their life has been changed. I think, if God wants you to take a particular course of action He is perfectly capable of letting you know.
But normally, He will just say, “You choose”, as long as you choose on basic scriptural principles, you know, becoming more like Jesus and so on. But I want to plead with Christians, not to think, “I’ve chosen to be a nurse, oh dear, I should have become a teacher, I’ve blown it”.
No, no, no. I mean, there could be many futures for us. And I think God says, “Whatever future you choose, as long as you follow me, and express my love in those life situations, you’re on the right track”.
CB: Yeah, there’s a metaphors as you were talking that come to mind that have been very helpful for me over the years. I used to be that young person that was sort of frozen with indecision, paralysed by the possibilities before me. And a couple of helpful thoughts have included the one about pulling up your anchor, and putting up your sails and setting out from the shore – a boat sort of analogy. It’s better that you pull up your anchor and start moving, because once you’re moving, then God can steer the ship. But if you’ve still got your anchor planted, God can’t really steer you anywhere.
And the other one that I’ve found really helpful, is sometimes I liken life to a playground and we’re God’s children. And you know, a parent with their child in the playground, they usually just sit on the park bench and watch the kids play and run around and choose whatever jungle gym they want to play on. They don’t sort of micro-manage what choices they make during that play session. And I found that quite helpful for me as an adult to go, “Well, God gives me desires and passions, and I’m just going to follow some of those and see what comes of it.”
DR: I think they’re very helpful illustrations, I think particularly the point about taking a step. God does guide people as you move. And if someone says to me, “I genuinely want to follow Jesus”, do we really think God’s gonna play silly games with you? And that you make a stupid choice? No. So what I would say to people is, take a step. And if you have somehow rather totally ignored realities, or God really does have a specific other thing in mind, he’s perfectly capable of stopping you.
So take that step. But don’t always be feeling “Oh my gosh, I might be going the wrong way. God is actually capable, if he does have an opinion, he can put you back on course. But it gets back to the heart. If you’ve got a heart that is set on obeying Jesus, you will not have a problem with guidance. But I tell you what, if you’ve got a heart set on just indulgence of will, you will confuse guidance with your own will.
I can honestly say Clare that I have not lost any sleep at all in my life about this issue. Because I’ve always felt “God, you have given me wisdom”. I mean, I’m leading a church at the moment and we have to make enormous amounts of decisions about Covid, and all this sort of thing. And I’m saying at the beginning of each day, “Lord give me wisdom, to make the right decisions, to say the right things to do the right things”. And so I think, like most of us, we just go ahead and do things. And we’re trusting that if there’s some particular insight that’s needed God will grant us that insight.
CB: That’s really good. I’ve also thought of a couple of the other reasons sometimes people struggle with decision making. I think at times people want to know God’s will, because really deep down they have a fear of failure. Or they want to absolve themselves of the responsibility of decision making – so “if God will just send me writing in the clouds, then I won’t have to choose… and if it all goes wrong, well it’s God’s fault.” And sometimes we need to learn to be grownups and learn how to choose and be okay with mistakes.
And sometimes I think people also use God as a bit of a scapegoat. Like, you know, for example, a guy might break up with a girl and say, “Well, God told me to”, when really he just wasn’t man enough to own the decision for himself. You know what I mean?
DR: Yeah, brings back memories Clare.
CB: (Laughs) That’s really funny. I won’t push any further on that one.
DR: We’ll make that another podcast.
- So funny.
DR: But Clare I think you are absolutely right there. I think there’s some people who struggle – well, almost all the people, I’ve gotta say, who I talk to about this., have trouble in decision making full-stop. They want this sort of thunderbolt coming down from heaven to absolve them of having to make a decision. Whereas so often God says, “You have to make that decision”.
I’ve known Christians down through the years who have been paralysed, because it’s not so much a question of divine guidance. It’s a question of – they’re unable to make practical decisions in their daily lives anyway, because they’re fearful of making a mistake. They’re overly dependent on an earthly parent or whatever. They are utterly incapable of making a decision.
And I think in that case, we can’t expect God to step in and give special guidance. I think we’ve got to simply be open to the fact that we have to make a decision. And sometimes you make the wrong decision. But in the providence of God, even the wrong decisions that you make, can be put to good.
I think that some people can ignore guidance from God and therefore have taken the wrong track. But I think even then, God’s redeeming grace, God’s providential power, can sort of salvage something from that.
So I would say to anyone, “Don’t be frightened, you’re not going to make an absolutely iretrievable mistake; don’t rush into decisions or anything like that, but please do not be constantly…” I know some people who constantly go around asking opinions. And in the end, you just confuse yourself. Sometimes you’ve actually got to say to God, “I wouldn’t have a clue what to do here; I am going to step out; I’m not going to be afraid of failure, because, you know, I’m trying to obey you.”
And God’s not gonna sort of look down on you and punish you for taking a step out of your human ignorance.
CB: That’s really good. And I will say from a personal experience, I used to find it very difficult to make decisions at times and I’ve grown in that. So it’s something you can grow through. I think as you learn to trust yourself and trust your relationship with God more, you definitely find it easier over time.
DR: Yeah, I see it as part of just growing to maturity. And I think God gives us the freedom to make decisions. I think we sometimes worry far too much about guidance when what we should be saying is “God, help me to be a godly person today. Help me just follow the examples of Jesus today.”
CB: Good. Thank you very much, David. And I just want to add in there a little cross promotion to another podcast that I’m a fan of and that is Sheridan Voysey’s podcast, it’s called ‘More Than This’ and he does a lot of episodes on the topic of decision making, and I’ve found his work very, very helpful, and his writing too.
Tune in next week for another episode of Lifewords; subscribe; and if you want to send us a question to answer on the podcast, email firstname.lastname@example.org.