Every last one of us has asked the question, What’s next? High school students trying to figure out where to go for college have asked this question. So have college students trying to lock in on a major (80% will change majors at least once), along with singles who are in a dating relationship and married people needing to discern when to have kids and how many. While these questions defy any unique faith category, Christians have historically filed these under the heading of the will of God. “God, what are you saying?”, we groan when faced with life’s proverbial forks in the road.
But this very question now sparks an age-old theological debate. While Christ followers contend that Christ does speak, we can be at odds over the method. Sure God’s primary voice is the Word of God, but does he also speak audibly? Garry Friesen’s, Decision Making and the Will of God, is weighted towards the no, while the title to Dallas Willard’s, Hearing God, let’s you know where he stands on the question.
If you’re looking for an answer to whether you should attend Stanford or Morehouse, marry Shiela or break up with her or take the out of state job, you just won’t find a chapter or verse in the Bible that will give you that answer. So what are we to do when faced with these decisions? I’ve found the following steps to be helpful:
Step One: Ask Him
In John 10 Jesus describes himself as the door and the Good Shepherd. The metaphor of the door points to salvation- how one gets into the sheepfold of the flock of God. The metaphor of the Good Shepherd depicts Jesus’ relationship with his sheep once they’re in. Then Jesus says, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4). The Greek word for know is an intuitive knowledge, like the kind of knowing I had when after a few months of dating Korie I just knew she was going to be my wife. Or the kind of knowing one has when they meet someone for the first time and just know something’s not right. It’s that knowledge the sheep have when their shepherd speaks. Do you see what’s being implied here? The Shepherd is speaking long after the sheep have come through the door (of salvation). Jesus speaks.
A few chapters later Jesus pictures the Holy Spirit as our guide. Now what does a guide do? He speaks. When I was a little boy my father taught me the timeless principles of fishing; things like how to bait a hook, cast and reel. A few years ago I went on a fishing trip where I hired a guide. All he did was take the basic truths I’d learned of fishing and he showed me how to apply them in specific places at specific times so that I had great success. This is how the Holy Spirit works with the Word. The Word gives us the timeless principles, and the Holy Spirit- our guide- shows us how to apply them in specific ways. We just need to ask him.
Step Two: Use Wisdom
In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard tells the story of a preacher who was out in the middle of a field late one night, and he couldn’t see. The field was full of rocks which made his journey treacherous. Several times he heard someone calling his name. Finally he stopped and felt around. It was a good thing he did this. A few more feet and he would have died. Oh, by the way, he never saw the person who was speaking to him, and concluded it had to have been God.
Can I confess to you that this rarely happens to me. Maybe a handful of times in my whole life have I heard the voice of God in this way. The normal pattern for me is that I pray and ask God to speak into something, and I don’t hear anything. Now what?
There’s a whole section of the Bible called Wisdom Literature. Books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and several others make up this genre of Scripture. Wisdom is skillful living. It’s practically applying the timeless principles of Scripture to the specific scenarios of every day life. Now this is interesting, because embedded in the very idea of wisdom is choice.
By the end of this year my boys will be teenagers, and what I’m trying to do, the older they get, is to not tell them exactly what they need to do. Hard, I know. I think good parenting empowers children to make age appropriate decisions. I also think this is how God parents us. A sign of immaturity is the need to be told exactly what to do in every situation. It’s the mature person who can make decisions within certain parameters.
So, when I don’t hear from God, I take that as God saying, make a decision. Now I know this will rub some of you the wrong way, because you think God needs to speak into every decision you make. But can I ask you a question? Did you pray about what pants to wear today? Or if you should wear pants at all? Did you pray about brushing your teeth, or where to get gas? Of course you didn’t, and you shouldn’t. We make decisions every day, wise one’s. It’s the child who needs to be told to brush his teeth. The mature person doesn’t. Again, when you don’t hear anything from God, make the decision, a wise one. But how do we do that?
Step Three: Figure Out the Fences
Imagine your child asks you if she can play in the backyard. You say yes, but a few minutes later she comes in and says can I play on the slide? You agree. A few minutes later she asks if it’s okay to play on the swing set? Of course, you say. Then she asks comes back in moments later and asks if she can play in the sandbox. You look your sweet daughter in the face and tell her your will is she plays within the fences of the backyard, and she can make whatever decision she wants as long as its within those fences.
The same holds true for us. I think it’s good to ask God about our “sandboxes,” but when we don’t hear an answer we have to figure out the fences- those biblical parameters- that will help us make a decision. So, for example, when thinking through a job situation, it’s always helpful to process these fences: 1. Will the job contribute to the common good of society; 2. Will it allow me to provide for my family (As a man this is my call); 3. Has God given me the gifts and capacity to meet the demands of the job? While there’s more questions we could ask, these are the fences. Now we are free to choose.
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