Have you ever struggled with making a decision? While we love having freedom of choice, we can also become paralysed with indecision when faced with too many choices. Once during a high stress period of work, I just couldn’t decide what shirt to wear in the morning. It surprised me how hard it was making that simple choice. One missionary became overwhelmed with the number of breakfast cereal brands they saw in the supermarket when they returned home from overseas. They walked out of the supermarket without buying any. These examples sound trivial, but they reflect a growing issue people face in an increasingly complex world - how do I decide when life has so many options?
Sometimes we know clearly what to do, but we just need strength to do it. However, in many cases, we are faced with a wide range of options that appear equally good. What guidance can the Bible give us in making such life decisions? How can we find wisdom to choose the right pathway when faced with a number of alternatives? Bible stories are a great source of wisdom for life. Not all stories in the Bible explicitly state a clear teaching principle. However, this does not mean they are not instructive. Through these stories we see real people faced with real situations and their actions and choices can help us understand God’s principles for living in a much deeper way than a simple concept or pithy saying. “Truth that seeps out from the cracks of stories is absorbed deeper into the human heart than truth told as objective fact” (David Salmon).
One great bible story that helps illustrate principles of decision making is Paul’s ‘Macedonian Call’ in Acts 16:6-13. Paul and his team had been exploring different options for further ministry. For some unknown reason, they were prevented from going to the Roman provinces of Asia and Bithynia. Then a man from Macedonia appeared to Paul in a dream asking him to come to them and help. Paul and his team acted on this vision by taking a ship to the city of Philippi in Macedonia and then going to a river outside the city gates where they expected to find people praying. This was to be the starting point for a new ministry in that region.
In this passage, Paul and his team were not making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, but between what seemed equally good options. Their experience has relevance to us as we face choices in life, work, ministry, family etc. Through the cracks of the real-life story in Acts 16 we can discern an excellent balanced approach to making wise choices. The primary source of all wisdom is God. But Acts 16 suggests that God can provide us with wisdom from four sources:
1. REASON: A Renewed Mind and Thinking
The first way God can gives us wisdom to choose a right pathway in life is reason. Reason comes from a renewed mind (Romans 12:2; Eph. 4:23). It is our own God-given ability to think things out and apply Godly principles to life. We can see the voice of reason at work in Acts 16. When Paul had the dream, he and his team were already actively seeking out places for their next phase of ministry. They were not waiting around for a supernatural dream to decide their future. They were using their own reasoning to explore a number of options. As they stepped out based on their own reasoning, God intervened to redirect their steps (Is 30:21). However, God did not give them a detailed plan; he just directed their thoughts towards the region of Macedonia. Following the dream, the team continued to use their own God-given reasoning to work out how to get there, which city to visit (Philippi) and the details of what to do when they got there (go to the customary place of prayer). Paul was a mature man of God and leader who had learned how to make wise decisions. He at all times relied on the Holy Spirit to guide, but that included using his renewed mind to make reasoned choices.
2. INSPIRATION: Dreams, Visions, and Inner Voice or Witness
A second way God can give us the wisdom to choose a right pathway through life is through direct divine inspiration. This includes things such as dreams, visions and the spiritual gift of a word of wisdom as God intervenes in our lives to show us things we otherwise would not know. It also includes at times a quiet inner voice of witness. In Acts 16, we can see divine inspiration helping the team make the wise decision to go to Philippi through Paul’s vision (Acts 16:9). This can be part of our experience too. As we seek God, we can have divine encounters and sovereign experiences of his supernatural leading. These were not regular occurrences for Paul, and they came as Paul was already active serving God. Nevertheless, he was not so busy in service that he didn’t have time to seek God and discern the promptings of God’s Spirit. Just as we have natural senses we also have spiritual senses. As we undertake spiritual disciplines of prayer, solitude, bible study and fasting, it is good to always be aware and notice incidental thoughts, pictures, impressions and feelings. These may be the promptings of God to our spiritual senses. They can nudge us in the right direction as we seek to make wise choices.
3. COUNSEL: Advice and Confirmation from Others
A third way that God can give us the wisdom to choose us is through wise counsel. Advice and confirmation from others is an important way of testing our own reasoning and sense of divine inspiration. In Acts 16 we see counsel at work as the team consults together on what to do after Paul’s dream. Even Paul did not act independently. Wise counsel is important because each of us individually only knows in part (1 Cor 13:9). Often we get a fuller picture on a situation when we have deeply listened to others point of view. However, seeking counsel requires an attitude of humility. We need to be willing to listen. Also people can be unwilling to share their thoughts unless we take an effort to ask questions and draw out their opinions and input (Pr. 20:5). Such wise counsel can help us avoid making wrong decisions. It can also help us fine tune a right decision so that it becomes more effective.
4. EXPERIENCE: Remembering and Reflecting on Past Landmarks
A fourth way God gives us the wisdom to choose the right pathway through life is through experience. Past events and situations that God has allowed in our life provide a rich store of wisdom which we can apply to today’s situations. Prior to the vision In Acts 16, Paul confidently went ahead without an immediate word from God because God had already spoken to him and separated him for this task (see Acts 26:15-18; Acts 13:1-3). Paul was drawing on his past experiences with God to dictate his present actions. Similarly, we can use our accumulated memories of God’s work in our life to help shape our future direction. To gain the most from past experiences, we need to take time to remember and reflect on what we have learned. The Old Testament Israelites often built memorials to remind them of landmark events where God spoke to them or acted on their behalf. In Jeremiah 6:16, the people of Israel are encouraged to remember and reflect on these old landmarks. Similarly, a regular habit of journaling helps us make the most of life’s experiences as we record landmark events and our reflections on how God has spoken to us from day to day. Later when faced with difficult choices we can reflect back on what we learned in the past.
Putting it All Together
The bible encourages us to always confirm decisions in the mouth of two or three witnesses (2 Cor 31:1). I apply this as rough rule of thumb when making tough decisions. I never rely solely on one of the above sources of wisdom. For example, I may have a divine prompting but I will generally look for wise counsel and some consistency with God’s prior leading in my life before acting on it. In some circumstances I may not have a direct “word” from God, but if my reason tells me this is consistent with my life direction, and others also support the decision, I generally have confidence to proceed. We can compare this to a basic rule of rock-climbing--always keep three limbs on the rock-face. Experienced rock-climbers always keep two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet on the rock-face. Fewer points of contact increase the risk of slipping or losing your grip. Reason, Inspiration, Counsel and Experience are like the four limbs of decision making. Three of them together provide a means of negotiating some of life’s difficult decisions with confidence.
Eating Rice makes you Wise!
Reason, Inspiration, Counsel and Experience are four ways in which God can give us the wisdom to choose a successful pathway through life. An easy way to remember these is through the first letter of each word. Together they spell the word RICE. If we utilize a combination of all four of these sources of wisdom it brings balance and a sense of confidence as we make difficult choices.
Sample Discussions Questions
1. Share about some times when you have found making a decision difficult.
2. What ways have you used to help you make life choices?
3. What is the role of logic and reason in our decision making as Christians?
4. How do you discern the promptings of the Holy Spirit in your life?
5. Which principles from Acts 16 do you most use to help you make decisions?
6. What area do you think you could strengthen to help you make better decisions?
7. Pray for anyone who is facing a difficult life choice.