Phillip Jensen with Tony Payne
Some time ago, I spoke at a conference with forty medical students. I commenced proceedings by asking this question: "What are the important decisions that you will face in the next couple of years?" The answers were relatively predictable: marriage, which hospital to work in, what specialization to follow, what to do with all the money they would earn, how to cope with moral dilemmas such as abortion and euthanasia, if and when to go to the mission field, and so on.
These sorts of decisions seem to preoccupy young Christians (and not-so-young Christians as well!). We want to find God's plan for us in these important decisions, so we look to the Scriptures for guidance. However, the Bible doesn't seem to be of much help. It only seems to speak in a general sense. It doesn't help me to decide whether to be a mechanic or a brain surgeon, or whether to marry Druscilla or Mary-Lou.
The traditional approach to this problem has been to distinguish between God's general and special wills. God is said to have a general will, applicable to all mankind and revealed in the Bible, and also a special will for each one of us, that is not found in the Bible. God's general will tells us, for instance, not to commit adultery and not to be "unequally yoked," but in order to choose between Druscilla and Mary-Lou we have to discern his special will for us.
How do we discover God's special will? The proponents of this approach usually recommend a combination of various methods: consulting older Christians, praying, seeking God's peace, putting out a fleece, waiting on God, looking for signs, hoping for open doors, and so on. More recently, there has been an upsurge of interest in "hearing God's voice" speak to us directly through impressions, voices in our heads, dreams, visions, and the like.
This approach is wide of the mark for a number of reasons, and to explain why let us return to my encounter with the medical students.
I asked them another question: "What color is the equator?" They refused to answer. I asked them again. They still wouldn't answer. In fact, they told me that they couldn't answer and that the question was stupid.
This would have been very frustrating for me, had I been an honest seeker wanting to know the color of the equator. What if I really thought that the equator was colored? If my friends continued to stonewall, I would have to turn to other sources of information to find an answer.
The point is this: if we ask the wrong question, we either get the wrong answer or no answer at all. And if we get no answer, we are tempted to turn elsewhere to find an answer. Many of our problems with guidance stem from precisely this: we ask the wrong questions, and then wonder why we cannot find answers. We flounder around in great anxiety trying to discover the color of the equator.
How do we know if we are asking wrong or irrelevant questions? From what we know about the sufficiency of God's revealed Word, it would seem simple. We should ask the questions that God thinks are important, and these are the questions he has answered in the Bible.
God does not have two plans, one general and one special. He has only one plan, and it is both general and special. He wants all people, and each of us individually, to be under Christ (Eph. 1:3-10). He has a plan for each Christian to make us like Jesus by guiding us along a path of good works until we reach perfection on the Last Day (Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 2:8-10).
This is God's priority for us all. This is at the top of his agenda. Unfortunately, it is not always at the top of our agenda. We are terribly concerned about choosing between Druscilla and Mary-Lou. We think the success of our whole married life will depend on the right choice, and we agonize over it. However, God's priority is for us to be godly, whether we are single or married, and whether we marry Druscilla or Mary-Lou. After all, that is the journey we are onto become like Christ.
What is more, God has given us all we need to know to complete this journey. If something is important and we need to know it in order to fulfill God's plan, then it is there for us in the Bible:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence. (2 Peter 1:3)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
God has not left us in the dark or in the twilight. He has not left out anything that is important for us to know on our journey with him.
When we come to apply this to the nitty-gritty of daily life, God has also provided something to help us: the biblical idea of wisdom.
Wisdom is a broad and rich concept in the Bible, and we haven't room here to do it justice. Put simply, wisdom is the art of living successfully in God's world. The wise person understands that the world works in a certain way, because God has created it to work that way. God's world is an orderly and rational place. It is marred by the Fall, to be sure, but it is still God's good, habitable, predictable creation. What is more, he has created people in his image to be the rulers of this creation, to name it and work it and subdue it, and to multiply within it. The wise person understands this and makes his or her way through the world skillfully and successfully on this basis.
Wisdom is firstly and essentially known through the revelation of God's mind. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Prov. 9:10). Because this world is God's creation, we can only really understand how it fits together, and where it is heading, by knowing God and his plans. Only by having a right relationship with the Creator and ruler of the world can we begin to understand the world and be free to live rightly in it. God's way of living will always be best, because he made the world and knows the best way to live in it.
The ultimate expression of God's wisdom is Jesus Christ, "in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3). In knowing Christ, we come to know the mind of God. We not only see what God is like, but also relate to him personally. We are shown and taught the way of life that pleases God and his ultimate purposes for all creation.
However, although wisdom can ultimately be known only by knowing God, something of wisdom is available to the human mind because we are made in God's image. The world has been made according to God's wisdom, and it functions properly when wise principles are applied. Even the non-Christian, therefore, can perceive something of wisdom by observing what works (or doesn't work) in the world. Anyone with an ounce of sense can see, for example, that laziness leads to poverty, or that talking too much gets you into trouble, or that hard work and good management lead to prosperity. This is simply the way the world works, because God has made it to work this way. By observation and experience, and by applying the mind that God has given us, we can work something of this out. We start to see patterns, and causes and effects. We begin to accumulate wisdom.
However, even though some of this sort of wisdom is available to everyone, the Bible also teaches that if we do not fear the Lord, our wisdom will be misshapen and faulty. The world in its wisdom did not recognize God's Messiahif they had, they would not have crucified him. Worldly wisdom, because it has a different starting point and different aims, opposes God's wisdom in Christ at many points. Although there is some overlapat the level of agreeing that certain things achieve good results in our worldthere are also major and numerous differences. Worldly wisdom ultimately fails to be wisdom, because, in not acknowledging God as the Creator and source of all true wisdom, it keeps making faulty judgments. At many points, worldly wisdom simply won't work.
With this brief sketch of what wisdom is, we can very helpfully divide the decisions that we face day by day into three categories. These categories aren't absolutely watertight, and some decisions will contain elements of each (more on this below). The categories are:
Whenever God's Word tells us explicitly and precisely what to do and what not to do, the decision is simple: we should joyfully and gladly obey.
The Bible sees certain things as always right and others as always wrong. God's guidance, for example, is for us not to steal or commit adultery or deny Jesus. He wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to rejoice in the hope of salvation, to clothe ourselves with humility, and so on.
We often have to make decisions at this straightforward level of obedience to God. We are faced with the choice of acting righteously or unrighteously, and, as those who fear the Lord, Christians should choose to do what is righteous and holy and pleasing in his sight. And this obedience is not a burden. Our response to God's Word should be a firm trust and a willing repentance. We are God's adopted sons in Christ, and we have his Spirit dwelling within us, leading us to obey the law and put to death the misdeeds of the body. Obeying God (or choosing to act righteously) is a joyous privilege, and, as the wise person rightly perceives, it is also the best way to live.
An important clarification is needed at this point. Sometimes it is not just the act itself which is right or wrong. Sometimes the context or situation will determine whether it is right or wrong. Killing, for example, may sometimes be right (Ex. 21:14-17) and sometimes be wrong (Ex. 20:13), and God tells us how to distinguish between the two. Similarly, although all foods are clean, Paul warns the Romans that it is not always right to exercise our freedom to eat them:
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. (Rom. 14:20-21)
In much the same way, our motivation for doing something can be righteous or unrighteous, even though the action itself is neither here nor there. Decisions about where to live, for example, are not in themselves questions of obedience. However, our motivations for moving to one place rather than another might be quite wrong (e.g., status, pride, greed), and we would need to repent of this. Having done so, the suburb or town itself is a matter of relative indifference, and we would use other means to make the decision (more on this below).
Sometimes, then, there will be some aspects of our decisions that are matters of righteousness, and some others that are not. We need to give first priority to the matters of righteousness, for they are the things that matter most to God.
Even though there are many decisions in life that are straightforward matters of righteousness, there are many others that are not. Sometimes we are faced with two options that both seem right, and we still have to choose.
Marriage is an example of this in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is careful not to impose celibacy on people as a matter of righteousness or obedience. It is right to marry, and it is right to remain single and celibate. It is a choice between two "rights." So how do I choose? Paul gives some practical advice on the benefits of marriage and singleness. If your sexual appetites are strong and lead you to burn with passion, then you're much better off married. That is the best course for you. If you do have the gift of remaining single and staying sane, then that would be a better thing for you, because in a fallen world so much can be achieved for the Lord by a single person.
In other words, making wise decisions is not only about acting righteously. Having listened to God in the Scriptures, and having viewed the world from his perspective, good decision making also involves using observation, experience, and good judgment to work out what is the best course of action in a particular case. This is part of wisdom, as we saw above. Some situations or courses of action just work out better in this world, because of the way God has created it. Proverbs is full of such observations about life:
Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it. (Prov. 15:17)
Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. (Prov. 13:20)
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)
Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field; and after that build your house. (Prov. 24:27)
These are astute assessments of what life is like in God's world. But in one sense, they do not stem from a special divine revelation. Anyone can see that if you spend time building your house before you have first provided a source of income or food, you will starveand then your beautiful house will not be of much use. Anyone who has observed life, and thought about it, could come to this conclusion.
In other words, even where God doesn't give us direct guidance, he still graciously provides for us. He puts us in a good and habitable world that is not chaotic or unpredictable. He gives us the ability (and the mandate) to make enough sense of the world to live in it, and to rule it, however imperfectly. He doesn't leave us totally lost and incompetent in an utterly hostile environment. Despite the disorder and suffering that we encounter (as a result of sin and the Fall), we are capable of thinking about life and making decisions. Despite the frustration and absurdity that is part of our fallen world, we are capable of some wisdom.
Christians often get confused about "righteousness" decisions and "good judgment" decisions. If something is a matter of righteousness, then there is no need to search for further guidance or discussionwe should do what the Bible says is right and flee from what is wrong. However, if a decision is not a matter of righteousness, but simply of good judgment, then we should seek the counsel of the Scriptures (to see what principles or perspectives they might give), weigh up the factors involved, and then make our choicewithout feeling guilty that we might be making the "wrong" choice. If it's not in the right/wrong category, then we can't make the wrong choice. Choosing either course is perfectly right and pleasing to God.
To return to our example of choosing a place to live, we do not need to worry that God has a particular suburb picked out for us and that we will be acting disobediently if we choose the "wrong" one. There is no word from God in the Bible indicating that one area is more righteous to live in than another. Provided we have dealt with our motivations, and repented of greed, ambition, and pride, then the choice of suburb is simply a matter of good judgment. All sorts of factors might influence our decision. For example, we may move to a particular location in order to avoid being in debt, or to move our family closer to a biblical church, or to reach a particular community with the gospel, or to reduce traveling time to and from work and thus have more time with the family, or for a host of other reasons that reflect a wise, God-centered way of thinkingand which would therefore be a better, rather than a worse, decision to make.
Any of our decisions in life, from the things we buy, to the politicians we vote for, to the way we spend our leisure time, can be influenced by this sort of wisdom.
This means that different Christians will make different decisions according to their differing circumstances and perspectives. For godly motives, one family might decide to live in the country, and another in the city. In one situation, we will answer a fool according to his folly; in another circumstance, we will choose not to reply (see Prov. 26:4-5). This is quite possible with matters of judgment. One man, in the wisdom of God, will choose to marry Druscilla; and another, also in the wisdom of God, will opt for Mary-Lou.
At this point, some Christians balk. It sounds as if too much responsibility is being landed back in our court. What if we make the "wrong" choice and step outside God's will for our lives? This is a knee-jerk reaction from our old, habitual thinking. If both courses of action are right, then either course represents God's will for us. And we can't step "outside God's will"his plans can never be thwarted (Job 42:2).
What if something is a "matter of judgment," and we make a poor decision (that is, a choice that has nothing unrighteous about it, but is just not very smart)? Will I have to suffer the consequences? Most likely, yes. God wants us to learn wisdom, and very few people learn wisdom if their folly is continually rewarded.
However, God does protect his peoplewe do not need to be anxious about it. He won't allow us to be lost because of our own folly or to be tempted beyond our strength (1 Cor. 10:13). He will pick up the pieces and make sure that we survive and grow through the experience. If it is in our best interests to suffer the consequences of our folly, then God will bring them to us, but if it isn't, then God will spare us. We can trust his generosity and power to do so.
Wisdom will also tell us that some decisions are of such little consequence, that they are not worth wasting time and energy on. They are not matters of righteousness, nor would one course or other be particularly better or worse. An example might be choosing between two similarly priced items of similar quality that we are about to purchase. In these instances, we should just make a decision and do it, without much thought.
In fact, the wise person will see that it can be a mistake to put too much importance on decisions that are really trivial. By giving more time and energy to a decision than is warranted, we can end up overlooking things that are important, either as matters of righteousness or of good judgment. We can find ourselves straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel.
Having outlined these three categories of decisions, we can begin to see that quite a few of the decisions we face are multifaceted. That is, they contain elements of righteousness, elements of good judgment, and elements of trivial unimportance. Of course, part of wisdom is being able to tell the difference.
Reprinted (slightly edited) by permission from The Briefing. Phillip Jensen is the Anglican dean of Sydney, Australia. Tony Payne was the editor of The Briefing when this article was written; he is now their publishing director. They quote the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2004.