Making Big Decisions
Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles to the book of Proverbs, and this morning we’ll be in chapters 15 and 16 for the most part. I’m going to be reading several verses throughout my sermon, so it’s not going to be on the screens this morning. If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand and someone will bring you one.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Proverbs for a while now. Proverbs is a book of wisdom, and wisdom is different from information. We have more information than we could ever ask for in our day, but wisdom is knowing what really to value in life, and how to live, what gives our lives meaning. You can’t just google that. Or you can, but you’d get terrible answers. Perhaps more than anything what we need is not the information of our day, but the wisdom of times and places other than our own to help us break free of the common ideas and behaviors which have so shaped our culture—old ideas like joviality, fortune, prudence, and this morning we’re going to touch on and later retune to, vocation, meaning not just your work, but your contribution to your community.
Solomon, who wrote the Proverbs, insists wisdom isn’t hiding, but God is proclaiming and revealing it in every corner of creation—it’s just in the noise of this life, it’s hard to know what to believe. Who can you trust to know and speak the truth? How can we live in a way that won’t leave us empty and alone, that won’t leave us on the wrong side of history, or regretting what we’ve done?
The past couple weeks, we talked about the power of speech. A proud word can burn a bridge, tear apart a relationship, but humble wisdom builds people up, builds families up, and the things wisdom builds endure.
Last week we talked about the relationships between parents and children—it’s something Proverbs speaks a lot about, and something I’m intending to come back to. I admitted to you that I’m desperate for good advice on parenting. As a pastor, I don’t get a whole lot of questions about parenting—part of that is because I’m young, I know, and I’m still learning. Part of it, though, is I think most parents feel like they don’t even know enough to know what questions to ask. I will say, I’m always available for pastoral counseling if you have questions about how to relate to your parents or your children. Those relationships don’t have to be taboo. We can talk about them.
This week, though, I’m going to talk about something I get questions about all the time as a pastor, and it’s not taboo at all: making big decisions. Everyone is always asking for prayer related to big, life-altering decisions they have to make. We always say we’re going to pray about it, but what are we praying for, and what are we expecting to hear? Thankfully, Proverbs is a deep well from which we can drink this morning. Pray with me, briefly.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there about making big decisions—the kinds you know will change your life in enormous ways. I told the story last week of one of mine—when we said yes to our first placement in foster care and overnight became new parents. That was enormous. But there have been others.
Decisions like, who do you marry, or should you get divorced? Where do you live? Should you change jobs, or what career should you pursue? Should you have kids, and if so, do you have them now or do you wait? What church should I attend, or do I even want to be a part of church at all. All of those decisions have enormous implications. We want to get it right, and so, in church life, we pray. We ask for the leading of the Holy Spirit—and we should.
Only, I would guess that anyone who regularly prays about big decisions will know already, you don’t always get clear leading when you ask. You don’t always come to a place where you know a decision was the right one, or you agree with your spouse. Maybe, in your life, there are a few major decisions which bring you incredible grief and regret, you feel like you made a mistake, not in step with God’s will in your life.
What makes it worse, like I already mentioned, there’s a lot of bad advice out there about making these big decisions. Worldly wisdom tells us, job decisions are easy, just go towards more money more power. Be ruthless about it, take what you want and never apologize. People will tell you, either, never get married, it’s a ball and chain, or better to have loved and lost, get married, and if it doesn’t work out, just get a divorce.
I already mentioned, inside the church, a lot of the advice you’re going to run into is going to come down to some sort of spiritual leading. In Solomon’s time, they would literally cast lots, which is kind of like rolling dice, to make major life decisions, expecting the Lord to direct the dice, and we’ll come back to that. But still today, we don’t do the dice thing anymore, but we set up little tests. Don’t deny it! Like, God, if you want me to pick option A, then let someone I talk to tomorrow quote C.S. Lewis. And then we try to manipulate it, we pray that on a Saturday, like “Alex is preaching, it’s an 80% chance.”
We’re expecting to be able to make big decisions by consulting the Lord, and God is going to tell us which way to go. We think we can either be faithful to his leading and live in the center of his will, or we can go our own way and suffer until we change our minds and do what he wanted us to do in the first place. Really it’s not a matter of making a wise choice so much as it is a matter of discerning God’s plan.
So let’s start there. Should we always expect the leading of God in big decisions? Certainly he’s able to lead us supernaturally, but we don’t control the Holy Spirit, and he’s not tame, most Christians have experienced asking for leading and not receiving it, torturing themselves with thoughts of not being spiritual enough or praying in the right way. These are my questions this morning: broadly, I think, Christians believe God has a plan for their lives, but we doubt whether or not we can know what it is. We doubt that his plan takes our desires into account, and we have this sinking feeling, especially when things get hard, like maybe I’ve gone off-script. Maybe I’m not doing what God wants me to do and that’s why I’m having difficulty. And in the end, the base question is this: how do we make big decisions in a way that pleases God?
One of the biggest decisions I ever made was whether or not to ask Anne-Elise to marry me. I struggled. I really had a very difficult time with the decision, and not for a lack of prayer. I was praying constantly. This is actually during a period in my life when God’s leading was ever-present in my life, even at times miraculous, and he was pointing me down the very path that’s led me here to pastoring, when my plans and my heart were completely opposed.
But over and over again in my prayers, I had no leading from the Lord in regards to what to do in my relationship with this brave, brilliant, godly woman. She wanted to get married, but I was struggling with the unknowns. What if we get married and in ten years I’m miserable? We were so young, I knew we were still growing, and would we also love the people we would eventually become? My main doubt was this: what if she’s not the one God has for me, and how do I know for sure?
Plus, we were young, I was 20, headed to New Orleans to begin my career as a teacher before going back to be a professor, so it was a choice, as it often is, between, yes, no, and wait, and honestly, that young, most of the culture was telling me to wait. But I didn’t want to do what the culture was telling me to do, I wanted to do what God was telling me to do. But what was God telling me to do?
I had no idea. And I remember at one point even screaming at him in prayer that he was being withholding, unfaithful to me because he wasn’t guiding and directing this decision, because I was so scared I was about to lose this woman, and then just as scared to ask her to come with me.
Chapter 16 has so much wisdom for us in this; praise the Lord for his word. Proverbs 16:1 says this, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.” “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” And then similar to that, in verse 33 “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
So in our passage, there’s a tension, the same one I was feeling at 20 years old, when I was still dating the woman who would be my wife and not yet pursuing what would be my vocational calling, there was a tension—I could feel it—between the plans we make and the plans God makes. Our choices, our plans, matter, and they belong to us. Meaning we get to make plans, and we also bear the responsibility of the consequences.
But, God also has plans for our lives, and God gets to speak the final word. James, in his new testament book of wisdom, tracking these same themes, answering these same questions, James says, when you make plans, make them with the understanding that God is able to change them. You may make a plan to go some place and make money, but unless God is willing, your plans will come to nothing. You don’t even know that you’ll be alive tomorrow, he says. There’s a tension: we get to make plans, and God gets to change them.
Why? Because he is Lord. He is in the heavens; he does what he wills. And as with most tensions we find in scripture—theologians use the word dialectic to describe these tensions—as with any dialectic, holding to one side of the tension without holding to the other causes collapse. Think about it like two kids playing tug-of-war, if you let go of one side of the rope, the other child goes sprawling; game over, no one is having fun anymore.
If you believe in the sovereignty of God and neglect the responsibility of man, you believe in a God who condones your sin and is ultimately responsible for evil in the world. And if you believe in the responsibility of man without considering the sovereignty of God, then you believe in a hopeless world shaped only by humanity’s efforts. [mention the spheres]
To dig theologically for a minute, what I’m saying is, yes, God does have a plan for you “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans for welfare, and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” And according to his sovereignty, that future is assured, but we are living in the already not yet of the kingdom come. So, yes, God has a plan for your life, and yes, he has a will for your life, but it may not be as specific as you think it is. He’s not withholding his plans from you because you’re not asking correctly or praying enough. Sometimes, we can act on our own wisdom without affecting his plans at all.
We’re working through this with our seven-year-old right now, our plans and his agency within them, and it’s tough to figure out, there’s frustration on both sides. Anne-Elise and I will make a plan, like, we’re going to spend the day at the beach, we usually go to Waveland about an hour from here, and we’ll tell AJ that, and he will begin to ask questions. Can I bring my frisbee? Yes, that doesn’t interfere with our plans at all. Perfectly fine, probably a good idea to be able to entertain yourself. Then he’ll ask, can we go just me and mommy? No, the plan is for the family to go.
Hopefully you can see what I mean. It’s easy enough in the everyday to know that sometimes our choices don’t have tremendous consequences in God’s plans for our lives—like whether you put mustard or ketchup on your hotdog. It doesn’t have a whole lot of effect on the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Now, if you were talking about putting some crawfish etoufée on there, that might give you a glimpse of the kingdom come, but not ketchup. It’s just in the larger decisions that we convince ourselves we’re going to do something that might destroy God’s plans for our lives. We get nervous, so we seek leading.
I did finally receive leading from the Lord in my decision of whether or not to ask Anne-Elise to marry me. Rather I received an answer. Not in the way I expected, but very clearly. I realized all along, God was telling me I had a choice, and he was telling me, peace, child. Remaining single would have been a rich, wonderful blessing. Getting married to her would have been (and has been) a rich, wonderful blessing. A feast was laid before me, and I didn’t need to try to discern what dish the host was wanting me to choose, his will was only that I sit in fellowship with him. There wasn’t one right option, there were several, because the point of the feast, the will of the Host was focused on relationship, on something other than the decision I made.
To use another analogy, we are not actors on a stage with our blocking and lines scripted, so we can either do and say exactly as the author has written or else we’re getting it wrong. The Church isn’t Stepford. We are citizens of a kingdom. We live according to a new law, but it’s a law of grace to set the people of the kingdom free. There are about as many ways to be about the work of the kingdom as there are citizens. God does have plans for your life. He does! Isn’t that wonderful? But know that they are the plans of a good Father, not a controlling one. God’s plans don’t lock us into a role we can’t escape from, his plans are setting us free from everything enslaving us toward thriving and vocation.
I remember as a child, having several friends in school whose parents had already chosen their careers for them. I remember one girl, very bright; both of her parents were doctors, and she was told at a fairly young age she was going to be a doctor and marry a doctor. I heard her talk about it a few times. She felt a weight, and worried that she wouldn’t be able to measure up to their expectations. She worked constantly, didn’t really have deep relationships, didn’t go to church or have interests, or play. It was tragic.
I see the same weight on the faces of a lot of Christians I meet as they try to discern the will of God in their lives. At every crossroads, the weight of decision, anxiety that they aren’t living up to the expectations of God, our Father. Worried that they aren’t living radically enough, aren’t pursuing what he’s called them to pursue. I always try to point people toward the wisdom books, and give the advice that there’s more than one good way to live life, more than one good choice you can make. God is not so overbearing that he is going to object to this vocation or that vocation—any moral work is holy when it’s dedicated to the Lord—even this spouse or that one. His will is usually focused on your heart.
God’s instructions usually aren’t super-specific, because he wants his children to be free. He says things like, 15:22 “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” Basically, you know what will help you make this big decision? Ask people you trust. Ask your best friend what she thinks of your boyfriend, and give her cart blanche. Ask your parents what they would do if it were their career, or ask the coworker who’s a couple years ahead of you and is living a kind of life you respect. Ask me. I’ll tell you straight up, but not until you ask.
Proverbs 16:2-3: “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit. Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” The Lord is weighing your spirit, your heart, because from your heart flows your plans and your work. Being in the center of God’s will doesn’t entail having a specific job or living in a specific place, but rather having a certain kind of heart while you are living and working. But whatever you do—notice it says “your plans,” the plans belong to you—if you commit your work to the Lord, God’s plan is being fulfilled.
God doesn’t tell you in his word whether or not to go to law school, for example, but if you are a lawyer, then his word has a lot to say to you. For example, Proverbs 16:8 “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” Be the kind of lawyer, to quote the Porter’s Gate, “who reminds us justice one day will surround us.” Or if you’re a waiter, the kind “who reminds us of our savior’s bowl and towel.”
God may or may not specifically lead you into teaching school, but if you make a plan in your heart to teach, then God has a lot to say about your heart for those kids. For example that children are precious and belong to the Lord, that it’s blessed work training them in the way they should go. That God’s kingdom belongs to them.
God, your true Father, may not be as concerned as you are about whether or not you are successful and wealthy, so he may not be as concerned as you are about your vocational decisions. He does desire all of his children to pursue vocation, but he doesn’t want all of his children to be doctors and marry doctors, because our God has blessed every moral vocation and focuses instead on our wholistic thriving in Christian community, and teaching us to find fullness of satisfaction in him. 15:16 “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it.”
In our culture of soul mates and finding the one, God is less concerned about which person we marry than about whether or not we are pursuing Christ in our relationships. Are you pursuing Christian marriage or Christian singleness? If you are married, do you help, cherish, and forgive each other? Do you love each other well and allow love to cover sins between you? Because “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” Proverbs 15:17
And he’s less concerned with where you live than how you live. Whether you are in the city or the country, this country or that, have you sought the welfare of the city you’re in? Have you loved your neighbors as yourselves? Have you done the work of an evangelist? Pursued justice? Lived as salt and light?
So take comfort, church. God does have a plan for you, plans for your thriving, and his plans will, in the end, be the only plans left. And in the meantime, I hope you will pursue wisdom in your living. Number your days and know they are brief. Know that God is able to change any plan you make, and for that I’m grateful. I want to Lord to destroy any plan I make that is not of him, because I don’t want to build in vain.
I want to orient myself to his work. I want to pour my talents and abilities out to my community and my church, because you are God’s children, and what I do for you I do unto him. I want to love my family well, and keep them in my heart. And I want you to do the same, until the Lord’s kingdom comes. Pray with me.