At this point, someone might object and say, “But I still have to make decisions! How do I know what pleases the Lord?” Well, we begin with God’s revealed will; his character and purposes made clear in Scripture. God has called us to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (mark 12:29–31). Jesus told us to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (matthew 6:33). We are called to abide in Christ (john 15:1–17) and to allow the Holy Spirit to bear fruit in our lives (galatians 5:16–26). Jesus commissions us to join him in making disciples of all nations (matthew 28:16–20) and to be his Spirit-empowered witnesses (acts 1:8). These are just a few of the grand-purpose statements in the New Testament for the people of God.
Therefore, when we are grounded in God’s larger purposes for our lives, these can direct the overall trajectory of our lives. On the “smaller” decisions that confront us daily, we have the freedom to exercise wisdom. I would like to offer some questions that may help you discern if the action you are contemplating would please the Lord (2 corinthians 5:9; ephesians 5:10; colossians 1:10). At the outset, it’s important to know that these questions/answers should be considered together as much as possible. No single consideration rules over all the others. We’re looking for a pattern of answers moving in one direction or the other. Thinking about what the Lord might want and discerning what would be wise will take time. Above all, we are trusting the Lord to direct our steps as we seek him and pursue wisdom. In what follows, I’m suggesting that we should want to make the best decision possible out of a range of decisions, but without falling back into the balance-beam way of thinking. Simply put, there are better options and different ways to make decisions (vs. only one right decision possible) and for that we need wisdom.
Helpful Questions for Wise Decision-Making
Is this decision consistent with God’s Word (his revealed will)?
As I mentioned above, we never want to do anything that clearly contradicts what God has already told us to do in his Word. For example, it has become fashionable and acceptable in some circles that Christians live together before getting married. If you’re entertaining this as a possibility, know that God has already spoken on the subject (e.g., matthew 19:4–5; hebrews 13:4; ephesians 5:3). It’s not that sex is bad or that you don’t really love each other. It’s simply that sex is an extremely important gift from the Lord and needs the full commitment of marriage in order to be enjoyed most significantly.
Answering this question doesn’t require that we become Bible scholars overnight, but it does call us to read and understand God’s Word. Here are some ways to grow in our understanding of God’s Word. Find a church with solid biblical teaching. Listen to podcasts from trusted preachers and teachers. Read the Bible on your own, using a reliable study Bible or Bible handbook as a guide. Ask questions from mature believers. God has given us guidance through Scripture, to set us free for a full and meaningful life. The Bible is the reality book given to us by God to help us know how to relate to him, to each other, and to this world. It’s a storehouse of wisdom.
Is the Holy Spirit leading me in this way?
Living a life that loves and honors God is very personal; it’s about our relationship with the living God. God has put his Spirit within every genuine follower of Jesus and the Spirit leads and guides us in making decisions. Some have tried to separate the Scriptures and the Spirit but this is both harmful and senseless. Scripture is an expression of his very Person or Spirit, just like your words are an expression of you. God’s Spirit is never in contrast with Scripture. The Holy Spirit guides us through a variety of life circumstances, including decision-making. The Spirit’s leading helps us make choices that are consistent with God’s Word, especially when the Bible does not address the issue specifically or directly.
Learning to discern the voice of the Spirit is a process. It can be easy when you are a new believer to mistake a worship high or a caffeine rush or a hormonal phase to be the Spirit’s leading. Statements like “God told me to . . . ” can be very misguided. I once heard a fellow student say to a chapel full of people that God had told him that he would marry either this girl or that girl. You guessed it: he married neither. In fact, I married one of them! Over time we learn to distinguish between the Spirit’s voice and competing voices, and we can more confidently say at times, “No, that’s not the Spirit” or “I think the Spirit is leading me to . . .” Still, we have to be careful here since our own desires can play a role in how we feel the Spirit is leading us. One thing that I’ve found helpful is to remember that the Spirit’s voice leads us to love and serve God and others, to be other-focused, so that any voice suggesting that I act selfishly, no matter how much it may be wrapped in religious language, is not the Spirit’s voice.
What is my Christian community saying?
This is one of the most important questions/answers to consider. God works through Scripture, his Spirit, and his people in guiding us. So you’ll want to pay attention to what your Christian community is saying about the choice you are contemplating. But you have to be careful about the people you ask for input. If you ask friends you know want you to decide a particular way, you’ll probably get advice to decide that way. So, you can rig the answer to this question fairly easily. Here is what I suggest for keeping the process honest: ask people who know you well and love you deeply but are not wrapped up in your immediate emotional circumstances. Hopefully, you will have mentors, long time friends, or family members who can separate themselves from your immediate situation and offer wise advice. Be very cautious about going a particular direction when almost all of the people who know you best and love you most are suggesting a different path. It could very well be God trying to redirect you.
Did this action seem wise?
This is a basic but very important question. We often need to ask this question when contemplating taking on yet another responsibility. Although the biblical idea of wisdom is quite complex, the basic sense is the ability to discern what pleases the Lord in a variety of situations and contexts. The biblical idea of wisdom is much more than knowledge; it is applying knowledge of and love for the Lord to the particular situation in which we find ourselves. Wisdom gives us permission to say “no” to some opportunities in order to do a few things well, because we understand that it’s much better than trying to do many things and doing them poorly. It’s helpful at times to step back and take a wide-angled view. Would someone you consider wise think this is a wise thing to take on? I’ve found that reading the book of Proverbs on a regular basis helps us understand what kind of choices are wise.
It’s an important element of making wise choices to think about the long-term consequences of the different decisions and not just the short-term benefits. Making charts that show how each decision will affect every aspect of life, especially our relationships, can be very revealing (if we’re honest when making the chart.)
Does this fit with how I am gifted?
I once accepted an assignment of leading a big student ministry event as the main speaker. The only problem is that I’m not really a dynamic youth communicator. That’s just not how I’m gifted. I did my best, but my presentation fell flat. I’m geared more toward relating to young adults, and it turns out that there is huge difference between a ninth grader and a junior in college or a young professional. Lesson learned.
Getting to know yourself is one of life’s uphill climbs, and can be frustratingly difficult. Although God may certainly ask us to do things that are outside our primary area of gifting, especially in situations where there is no one else to meet the need, God wants us to operate from the core of how he’s gifted us. We learn over time what seems natural for us. These activities tend to be life giving and energizing rather than demoralizing and draining. But once more, keep in mind that this is only one consideration and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for neglecting God’s larger purposes mentioned earlier.
Does this fit with what I love to do?
We have to be careful with this consideration, but I still think it’s an important question, one that’s closely related to the previous question. For some reason, there is an unfortunate notion floating around that following the will of God has to make us miserable. As a result, we sometimes neglect our great loves, those passions put in our hearts by the Lord himself. But these loves have a way of breaking through over time. You don’t have to give up or avoid everything you love in order to follow God’s will. In fact, God will most likely lead you to serve him through something you love.
Don’t ignore the good and God-honoring things that you love! God has put those in your heart. Pay attention to the things you long to see happen in other people, in your church, in your world. For example, if you love sports and can’t stand organizational tasks, then God is probably not calling you to be an accountant. If you love quiet and solitude and contemplation, then you probably don’t need to start a wedding coordinator business. If you love teaching, why do administration? If you love kids, why work with senior adults and vice versa? If you love working with your hands, try not to get stuck in an office from 8 to 5.
It’s easy to overemphasize this consideration. It’s just one of the questions to consider. The fact is, our day jobs may not always perfectly align with our gifting. But it’s still important to pay attention to what gives you joy, what passions and gifts God has given you. Whether or not you can make a career of these interests, God has placed them in you for a reason. Surprisingly, many people deep down believe that God’s will for their lives can’t possibly include something they’ll actually love and enjoy, almost like they’re trying to serve out of a deep guilt. Let the cross of Christ free you from your guilt and shame. Then open your heart and all that you love to the Lord.
Does this fit with how God has worked in my life in the past?
God sometimes works in our lives in patterns (to be sure, he likes to surprise us too), or at least that has been my experience. While we want to remain receptive and open to God doing something new in our lives, it’s still wise to pay attention to how God has worked in our life in the past. Think of these patterns as expressions of God’s faithfulness to you. Through time you’ll learn to look for God to do what he has done before. But again—I can’t say this strongly enough—these patterns will be consistent with God’s character and God’s Word. These patterns can include not just how God acts in our lives, but also the ways we have come to recognize his will and his particular ways of leading us.
What doors are opening or closing?
For some people, this question is the primary one when making decisions. I actually believe it’s less significant than the previous ones, but still worth mentioning. That’s because there are times in Scripture that a door is open but the man or woman of God doesn’t walk through it. I think of Paul’s strained relationship with the Corinthian church. Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians that he had traveled to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that “the Lord had opened a door for me.” Presumably, this was an open door for effective ministry of the gospel. The door was wide open but Paul doesn’t walk through it. Why? Because, as he says, “I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macecdonia” (2 corinthians 2:12–13). Paul had sent Titus with a message to the Corinthian church and Titus was traveling to meet Paul with their response. Paul’s heart was in Corinth and in reconciling with that church. He couldn’t go through the open door of ministry because he was more concerned about his relationship with the Christians at Corinth. Not every open door is the will of God. Also, as I mentioned earlier when speaking about the university job I thought I wanted, sometimes some doors shut and there is nothing we can do about it.
Sometimes opportunities seem to arise out of nowhere while opportunities we expected seem to vanish. Behind the scenes, God is still at work, though we often don’t know what he is up to. Sometimes an open door does signal God’s leading, but not necessarily so. Sometimes God closes a door to redirect our path. At other times, it’s an obstruction from the enemy and we need to persevere. All this is to say that we have to admit that there are open and closed doors but the status of the door should not be the determining factor in discerning what is the wise choice to make.
Will this action bring peace and joy and bring God glory?
Finally, will the path you are thinking of walking bring you peace and joy? And will it bring God glory? Many different things get thrown into the mix of making a decision—such as time, money, place, responsibilities, benefits, and opportunities. Don’t ignore the basic relational payoffs when weighing a particular decision. Will this decision bring peace and joy, two key results of living a life that pleases the Lord? I’m talking about relational peace and joy, the kind that comes when you know you’re in the right place doing what God wants you to do. Following God’s leading may not be easy or always fun, but it will bring a deep sense of contentment and fulfillment, a godly kind of joy in doing what you know you’re supposed to do.
Finally, and perhaps above all, will this decision honor God? Will it please the Lord? Will it result in me loving God more deeply? Will God’s kingdom causes be strengthened? Will God’s people be edified and built up? We want to come to the end of our days and be able to say that we have glorified God with the life he gave us to live. What a tremendous privilege!