What do you do when you can't decide?
I know a couple who toss a coin to help them make decisions, even big ones like what job to take or where to live. It has worked out alright for them so far, but beyond deciding what to have for dinner or what movie to watch, tossing a coin doesn't appeal to most people to help with decision-making.
What do you do when you can’t decide, and when much more is at stake than what choice of shampoo to buy? Where do you turn when your GPS to God’s so-called plan for your life just won’t respond and he seems silent?
Often, the decision-making process we choose is just as important as the decision itself, and the road to a good decision has got many parking spaces, deceptive road signs, and diversions along the way.
Simon was waiting. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was waiting for, but he told himself and everybody else that he was waiting for God to guide him: to guide him about what to study at university, who to date, which church to attend...
Meanwhile, months rolled into years until by his mid-twenties, he still hadn’t made decisions about those things, but he said he was still waiting on God.
When a friend asked him what this ‘guidance’ from God would look like, he replied that it would be clear, like a sign in the sky of his mind. It would feel ‘just right’ and all the ducks would line up in a row... the children of God are promised a great future right? It would be an open door right in front of his face… God is the giver of good gifts right? Oh and lastly, it would be easy (or at least straightforward)... that would be a clear sign that God was going in front of him, clearing the way to help him out.
And so, Simon paused, but then walked on by some opportunities for apprenticeships or study that passed him. He dated a few girls but after a while, each time he discovered something about them that was less than ideal. The ‘right one’ must still be out there, he thought. He still didn’t know what he wanted to do next year, let alone the rest of his life.
By his late twenties, he started to feel a nagging sense that life wasn’t turning out how he had thought it would. Frustration at God came creeping in. Where are the signs, God? Where are the ducks that are meant to line up in a row? Where are the open doors?
Simon thinks that God is like Santa, and I think he’ll be checking the chimney for his presents for a long time to come.
Ella has trouble deciding. Unlike Simon though, who can’t see God’s leading in anything, Ella sees God’s leading in everything. That’s the problem! If she feels attracted to a particular choice, she thinks it is God telling her to go for it. If she feels scared, she interprets that as God not wanting her to go ahead.
If she isn’t sure, she thinks it is God telling her to wait. Whether it’s an emotion, a logical thought, or a word from a friend, she tries to baptise everything by saying it is from God. But is it?
Well, it is how she decides. So, she turned down a couple of amazing job opportunities that came her way, because she felt so terribly inadequate and scared about them. Surely, she said, God would have given her more confidence and peace about it if she was meant to do it? Ella was in a relationship with a man she said was her dream guy, even though her friends and family didn’t like him. Sure, he was a ‘bad boy’ and she had her concerns, but she was deeply attracted to him. Didn’t that mean that God wanted her to be with him? Hadn’t the happy high she felt when they first met been a sign that he was a gift from God? When Ella got unhappy at her last church, she interpreted that as God calling her to a new church... though it was actually because she couldn’t be bothered putting in any effort. When she finally decided to study at medical school, she declared God was calling her to make a difference to the hurting... but actually, the primary drivers were that she wanted to feel significant, and was terribly afraid of struggling financially the way her parents had all their lives.
When she stops to think about it, Ella has a niggling feeling that sometimes she is deceiving herself with all this God-talk. But saying, “God is saying this...” keeps family and friends off her back, and kind of appeases her conscience. So she keeps doing whatever feels good at the time, and naming it as God’s leading. It is how Ella decides.
Both Simon and Ella are making decisions that are affecting the entirety of their lives. Both of them are over-spiritualising their decision-making, and claiming that it is God who is (or isn’t) leading. It isn’t working out too well for either of them, but what are the alternatives? How can we tell whether something is or isn’t God leading us? If there are no ducks lining up in rows and if we can so easily deceive ourselves with our motivations, then how can we truly discern?
In the Christian’s backpack on the journey of life there are three essential navigation instruments. Our Triune God has guided individuals, families, and communities with these for centuries. These instruments are the Spirit of God, the Word of God, and the people of God. Screeds has been said, done, and written about these three things so I’ll keep it brief, focusing especially on two vital aspects of how to use each of these instruments well.
The first of these aspects is truth. Truth is vital when discerning and decision-making. Jesus promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). When we make decisions based on truth, we create a secure foothold for ourselves. It doesn’t mean our pathway will be all flowers and candy, but it means that we can trust that our decisions have been made based on what is true, what is right, and what is honourable to God.
Trust is the second essential aspect. Trusting in your decision, and more importantly, in the God who is with you as you walk into your decision, is vital because challenges come to every single path.
We can only trust what is true. Let’s take a brief look at how we can find truth to trust in our decision-making through the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God.
The Word of God
The Word of God (A.K.A the Bible) is utterly essential to our decision making in life. You might think, how can that be? I don’t see any instructions detailing which university to choose, or who to vote for in the next election! This is true, but the primary role of the Bible in our decision-making is not so much for specific minute instructions: it is for understanding the general will and purposes of God for our lives, for humanity, and for the planet. The big story of Scripture gives us a framework to understand and interpret our own stories, and where they fit into God’s big unfolding story. Without the Bible, we are left searching for answers to what all of creation is for, who God is, and who we are ourselves.
As we grow in our understanding of God’s big story and our place in it, we see things around us differently. Instead of interpreting the world around us through other frameworks available to us (such as society’s ideas of ‘success’ or ‘purpose’), we see it through the only true framework – God’s. Scot McKnight explains this well: “Guidance begins with Scripture, or it will wander astray. How so? Some claim to hear God in such things as inner promptings or feelings of peace, or through prophetic words or the counsel of friends. Yet what they hear sometimes counters clear principles of God’s word, which means they are not hearing the God of this grand story. So we are quick to call our attention to the necessity of grounding all guidance in Scripture.”1
As we grow in our understanding of the truth found in the Word of God, we will grow in our ability to make true and trustworthy decisions in our lives.
The Spirit of God
While the Spirit of God guides us through many things, including the Word and the people of God, here I am referring to God’s guidance that comes directly to our consciousness: our mind, will, and emotions. This powerful trio are God-given gifts that are essential to our decision-making.
However, as well as having powerful abilities for good and for truth, they also can be powerfully used for bad and for deception of ourselves. They are amazing gifts, but they are not always trustworthy! As we saw with Simon and Ella, if we make our logic, or our will, or our emotions our primary decision maker, then we give them a place God never intended them to have. We quickly end up deceiving ourselves, calling things true that may not be true or trustworthy.
How do we avoid this trap? We desperately need the Spirit of God within us to help guide us into what is truth, and to show us what is truly going on within ourselves. We need our minds, wills, and emotions to be servants of the living God instead of being king themselves. We need the Spirit of God to help show us what is true and what is false in our own, often mixed up and misleading emotions, reasoning, and motivations. This requires a willingness to listen to God, to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves even when it is hard, and to havea lot of humility and grace. Thankfully, we don’t tackle this task alone – our Triune God is with us: "the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God" (1 Corinthians 2: 10-12).
The people of God
The people of God simply refers to other Christians. This might include the old, the young, family, strangers, those from our own church, or those who you hear on a sermon from the other side of the world. Our generation are often told that we are individualistic and not well connected with our wider community. This is not always true, but if it is true of you, then be aware that you could be missing out on an absolutely gold resource of wisdom, experience, and counsel – the people of God.
When you are making a decision, seek out what others who you trust have to say. You certainly don’t have to accept everything they say, but others often see things that we don’t see... or don’t want to see! Humbly chew on what they say and take in the truth. Proverbs 11: 14 reads, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Don’t make a decision until you have checked in with “an abundance of counselors,” even if you don’t like some of what they might say! Remember, your goal in listening and talking with the people of God is to find truthful and trustworthy advice regarding your decision, so choose people who you know are truth-full and trust-worthy.
Look for what is true, then trust it
Look for what is true through the navigational instruments of the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and the people of God. One may be helpful, but all three will help you to discern the path to take more strongly.
When you do make a decision and put your first foot on that track, you may have some unwanted company. Even if it is a true and trustworthy path, fear, risk, and discomfort might be in your backpack. But if you are surrounded by the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God, there will also be courage, hope, and trust in every step that you take.
In your decision-making backpack, you may want to also include a coin to toss…but a coin toss doesn’t quite have the time-honoured respect that the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God do... and who needs small change anyway?
Story: Lindy Jacomb
Lindy is a graduate of Carey Baptist College and has just accepted a call to pastor at Karori Baptist Church.
1.Is there a decision that is hanging over you at the moment?
2.How could you look at the three navigation instruments discussed here to help you move forward?
3.Are you able to trust God’s Spirit within you and those around you to help you?
1 Scot McKnight. 2015. A Fellowship of Differents (p. 162). Zondervan. Michigan.
Photo Credit: igorstevanovic/shutterstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.