I’ve found that in pastoral ministry, there are a few areas of practical theology that seem to always be relevant among God’s people. For example, the issue of the assurance of salvation. That’s a biggie, and rightfully so. For some people it’s a real struggle. A common resource I give folks needing help in this area is simply to read the book of 1 John. It’s the book of assurance. Read it, and look for all of the birthmarks of the believer, such as “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9)
But there’s another area of practical theology that’d I’d like to address in this post. It’s that of discerning the will of God when facing a decision. That is, decisions like, “Should we move to Memphis, or stay put?” Or, “Should I take the job offer, or keep looking?” Or perhaps, “Should I go back to school?” You get the picture. Life is filled with decisions, and faithfully minded Christians are seeking God for His direction.
Two of my very favorite verses in this regard come from the Psalms and Proverbs. They are:
“Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” – Psalm 37:3-5
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” – Proverbs 3:5-8
It’s been said that 90% of God’s will is between your ears. Before we fly off the handle and think wrongly about God’s will, let’s be upfront by making a few clarifying statements (ground rules).
- God is a God of revelation. His will for your life will always be revealed. (Deut. 29:29)
- God’s will for your life is always a delight and desire to obey. There is no black X that God is calling you to. God’s will always comes with a cooperating heart. He is able to give you the desire to obey His will, and want to do it just the same. (Luke 22:42)
- God’s will for your life is never divorced from the teachings of Scripture. In other words, God’s will is God’s Word. Don’t look for a message in the clouds. (Heb. 1:1-2)
- God’s will for your life is always in concert with the mission of the true, biblical local church. The local church is where God’s people grow, serve, and find their true identity in the community of believers. Thus, God will use a body of believers to help you discern His will. The Christian life is not to be lived alone. No lone rangers here. (Col. 1:9-12)
- God’s will for your life is not a matter of tomorrow but today. God’s will is not out there (over the horizon) but in here (inside your heart). Ultimately, God’s will for your life is to be holy. Yes, you can pursue and obey that objective right now as you read. It is only when we obey this simple, fundamental command that we are then ready to receive direction on “which job I should take” or “which major I should declare.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
With that being said, a wise man once gave me some pointers as to how to apply such biblical teaching to the details of life. He said, Neal, when it comes to making the decisions in the Christian life, you need only to ask a simple question, “Which way are the flags flying?”
What he meant by this is that God will make it very obvious which way He wants you to go, as if a strong wind was blowing through your life, turning the flags of circumstance, counsel, and others all in the same direction. So, let’s look at what some of those flags might be to get some direction on that question you’re asking… “Lord, what do you want me to do?”
Flag #1 – The Word of God
Does it contradict the Word of God? (Psalm 119:105)
Always start with your Bible. I’ll be honest, many poor decisions I’ve seen people make through the years (myself included) could have been alleviated by simply reading, obeying, and apply simple teachings in Scripture. Bottom line: if it is a decision is contrary to Scripture – don’t make it, don’t do it.
Flag #2 – Providential Circumstance
Is there evidence of providential circumstances? (Acts 27:41-44)
John Wesley said so much in such a short statement, “Always follow providence.” What is providence? It’s the hand, the actions, the movement of God. And I’m a firm believer that God can move mountains. Have you seen God move in a special way? Have you seen him open a door (not the one you kick open)? Have you seen him answer a prayer? We need to pay special attention to these circumstances.
Flag #3 – Prompting of the Holy Spirit
Do you sense an inner leading of the Holy Spirit? (Romans 8:1-10)
The Holy Spirit of God resides within the believer (John 14:17, 26) and His intention is to fill and lead us (Eph. 5:18) that we might be controlled by Him. Therefore, I believe part of His ministry to the believer is to prompt or nudge us. You know that unmistakable gut feeling that you know is more than mere emotion.
Flag #4 – A Step of Faith
Does the decision require faith? (Romans 1:17; 2 Cor. 5:7)
The Christian life is a life of faith in Christ. We do not walk by sight, but by faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Christians know this. Therefore, when God calls you to a decision, He will always call you to a step of faith. Why? Because the decision is not designed to just move you from point A to point B, but to strengthen your trust in God and deepen your love for Him. Faith is like a muscle, and God intends to work it.
Flag #5 – The Wisdom of a Faithful Friend
What do your Christian friends say? (Neh. 5:7; Ps. 1:1; Prov. 27:9)
Again, the Christian life is to be lived in community. Let’s stop right here: If you don’t have any friends, you need to make that a matter of prayer. Go seek someone out – a pastor, a family member, someone who introduced themselves at church – someone. God gives us friends because we are not designed to live alone. He also gives us friends because we cannot trust ourselves. We need people who can speak truth into our lives, see us objectively, and give attention to our blind spots. Thank God for a true friend.
Flag #6 – The Position of Your Spouse
Are you in agreement with your spouse? (Matthew 27:19)
God has given you a spouse for many reasons (Gen. 2:24-25). But here specifically it is for you to listen to them. If your spouse loves Jesus more than they love you, their words of wisdom is certainly worth taking into consideration. Remember, a healthy marriage works like a team. Your spouse is more than a friend. What affects him, affects her. You are in this together. You both are seeking God’s will, yet you are filled with the same Holy Spirit. I often tell couples, “God does not intend to break up your marriage. He will not tell the wife one thing and the husband another.” So, pray together, study together, desire together, and then follow together.
Flag #7 – The Glory Issue
Does it magnify God more than me? (Ps. 115:1)
Sometimes we jump into situations with two feet because of our selfishly bloated ambition. Don’t do that. As Christians are thinking through decisions, seeking the Lord’s direction, we must take His glory into account. We want to follow God because ultimately, we want to honor God. Faithful Christians seek to obey God out of love for God. We want our lives to be holy and to walk circumspectly, so that His Name would be famous among those who watch us. Whose glory is it anyway? Good question.
Flag #8 – God’s Best Blessing
Can you ask God to bless your decision? (Deut. 30:19-20)
Where will this decision take you in one year? In five years? How about in ten years? Can you see yourself down the road, are you excited about what may be over the horizon? Those questions should spark a holy hunger for God’s will to be revealed and followed. Though tough decisions are often legitimately made with high anxiety, those who are following God’s will have a calm peace on the inside that “God’s in this.” Pray about your decision, and ask God to bless it more abundantly than you could ever imagine (Eph. 3:20-21). If something feels off, hit the brakes.
That’s a lot of flags, and for good reason. Let’s not just take one and run with it. When God begins to move in your life, you’ll see multiple flags begin to wave in your life – and your friends, your spouse, and those who love you most will see them waving too.