Have you ever felt that your life has a sense of meaning—that it fits into a larger plan or design? Do you ever get the sense that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself—a purpose of some kind? Well, there is a reason why you feel that your life has a purpose: it’s because it does! The Bible teaches that God has a plan for humanity, and he also has a plan for each individual believer (Jas. 4:15; Eph. 2:10; Ps. 32:8-9).
Four Types of Decisions
There are four major types of decisions that confront believers. It is helpful to break these down into specific categories:
1. Clear Decisions
Clear decisions are the obvious, important, and black and white issues that the Bible specifically addresses. For instance, imagine if a married man was wondering about God’s will regarding sleeping with his neighbor’s wife. This man wouldn’t need to pray about discerning God’s will for too long! Adultery is an important, black and white issue that the Bible clearly addresses.
2. Commonplace Decisions
Commonplace decisions are insignificant issues that the Bible doesn’t address. For instance, we don’t need to pray about which color Jell-O we should eat at the cafeteria line. In fact, most of our decisions in life are this way. God simply expects us to make a choice and move on.
3. Conscience Decisions
Conscience decisions are issues that the Bible addresses, but are up to the prerogative of the believer. For instance, Paul speaks of moral issues of conscience in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. There, the believers were wondering if it was permissible to eat meat sacrificed to idols. A modern day example might be eating a juicy cheeseburger in front of a new Hindu convert (who was formerly a vegetarian). There is nothing wrong with eating meat, but a believer might voluntarily abstain from these things for the sake of conscience or for the purpose of reaching others for Christ (1 Cor. 9:20-22).
4. Complex Decisions
Complex decisions are decisions that are very important for our lives, but they aren’t explicitly mentioned in Scripture. For instance:
“Where should I work?”
“Who should I date?” or “Should I get married?”
“Should I go back to school, or try to get a job?”
“Where should I buy a house?”
“What city should I live in?”
“What career or degree should I pursue?”
“Should I try to plant a church in a different city, or should I build a ministry here in this city?”
We might characterize these four different decisions in this way:
Regarding complex decisions, often believers will say, “I just feel a calling…” or “I know that God would want this for me…” But how do we know this?
Let’s consider several of the ways that believers can easily be led astray in thinking through these complex and important decisions.
ERROR #1: “God’s will for complex decisions is the same for every believer.”
Since the Bible isn’t crystal clear on these issues (e.g. marriage, career, etc.), it is wrong to declare that the answers to complex decisions are the same for every believer. If this were the case, then God would have made some universal, moral commands about these decisions. But he didn’t. For this reason, we should be careful not to “exceed what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
For instance, consider the question: “Which city should I live in?” The Bible seems to give conflicting examples. Jesus and Paul were itinerant teachers, travelling from city to city. Jesus stayed in Israel, while Paul travelled hundreds of miles away. Peter stayed in Israel for much of his ministry, but eventually made it as far as Corinth, Greece later on (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5). By contrast, the apostle James stayed in Jerusalem his entire life. Clearly, some people are called to go, and others are called to stay. We would be wrong to make universal, moral commands that demand one or the other.
We do not feel comfortable saying that there are inviolable rules for each of these questions—only biblical principles and reasons for adopting one option over another. While Christian leaders should be free to offer their wisdom and opinion on these matters, we do not feel that leaders should have any kind of command or control over what a believer may or may not decide. Oswald Sanders wisely writes, “We should never allow others, however much we respect their counsel, to make our decisions for us. It is our future which is involved, and we must take the responsibility.” As adults, we need to learn to stand behind our own decisions.
ERROR #2: “We don’t need to worry about these decisions. God will work it out somehow.”
This is really a “super-spiritual” view of complex decision-making. “Super-spirituality” refers to holding to a low view of human agency. For instance, a super-spiritual believer might say, “God is in control, so I don’t need to share my faith. If God wants that person to come to Christ, then God will make it happen!” Of course, this is a half-truth: God is in control. However, God also declares in his word that he works through human agency (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 10:14). So, while this believer seems to be trusting God, he is actually defying what God says in his word.
Interestingly, the super-spiritual believer only “trusts God” in this way, when it comes to important spiritual decisions—not regular, important decisions. For instance, imagine if we applied this perspective to other important areas of life:
-Should we counsel college students not to study, because “God will work it out somehow” for their final exam?
-Should we tell the unemployed person to stop looking for a job, because “God will work it out somehow”?
-Should we counsel a young man to get married to his girlfriend after their first date, because “God will work it out somehow”?
The list could go on, but we surely get the point. It’s odd that we would apply a criterion to spiritual decisions that we wouldn’t apply to any other decision in life. Like all other important decisions, we should hold to a high view of reason and personal responsibility.
ERROR #3: “Romans 8:28 promises that God will cause ‘all things to work together for the good.’”
Sometimes the super-spiritual believer will cite Romans 8:28, which states, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good.” They argue that God does promise to work all things for the good, and this would include our complex decisions. However, they often fail to read the entire verse, which adds, “To those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” This promise only applies to those who “love God” and are pursuing “His purpose”—not their own purposes.
ERROR #4: “The Bible never tells us what to do with these complex decisions, so they are morally neutral. Therefore, it is legalistic to have a strong opinion about these decisions.”
The Bible doesn’t give us black and white answers to these difficult questions. However, this doesn’t mean that we should consider them unimportant or morally neutral. These complex decisions are very important and incredibly spiritually significant. In fact, the NT claims that we will be held responsible for our decisions in these areas. James writes,
(Jas. 4:13) Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
This statement sounds much like the thinking of the super-spiritual believer: “Why wouldn’t I move to a new city, if it could result in some extra money? God exists everywhere, so I’m sure he’ll be in that city too.” However, James writes,
(Jas. 4:14) Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
James claims that our time on Earth is short. We might think that living for a year of profit isn’t that big of a deal, but what if this is the last year that we’re alive? We should live every single day for God. Paul tells us to “make the most of our time” here on Earth (Eph. 5:16). James writes,
(Jas. 4:15) Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”
Remember that the context of this statement is figuring out a complex decision (i.e. “What city should I live in?”). Here James claims that God has a will for such a thing, and we are responsible for discerning this. He continues,
(Jas. 4:16-17) But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Apparently, God holds us responsible for these complex decisions, so much so, that we could know “the right thing to do” and still “not do it.” James labels this as “evil” and as “sin.” Of course, the sin here is not choosing to live in this city or that. Instead, the sin is to say that we are going to be in the driver’s seat of our life, and Christ can tagalong in the backseat if he wants. The Bible is clear that we follow Christ, rather than the other way around. As we consider these complex decisions, we realize that they will have eternal consequences and ramifications.
ERROR #5: “I’ve made unwise decisions in the past, and God worked through them. God can work through poor decision-making.”
We couldn’t agree more with this statement—at first glance. God regularly works miracles in our lives, despite our sinful decisions. However, this shouldn’t justify making perpetual foolish or even sinful decisions. For instance, consider a believer who decides to fornicate one night with his girlfriend. As a result, the girl becomes pregnant, and they give birth to a little girl nine months later. In the midst of this, the birth of the child teaches both of the parents responsibility, commitment, and sacrificial love. They even decide to get married and raise the child in a Christian home.
Now consider if the man later said, “Fornicating with my girlfriend was the best decision that I ever made… It pushed me to marry my wife, gave me my newborn girl, and turned my life around for Christ.”
Of course, this would be the wrong lesson to draw from this story! While God did work graciously through this situation, this doesn’t warrant making the same mistake in the future. In the same way, while God will work through our poor decisions, this doesn’t warrant making similar decisions in the future, some of which are irreversible (Heb. 12:16-17).
ERROR #6: “I want to know God’s will for the rest of my life.”
We need to be content with only getting enough direction for the immediate future—not the long term. Psalm 119:105 states that God’s word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” A lamp only shows us a few steps ahead. This serves as a good picture for us in learning the will of God. While we might want a spotlight that shines miles ahead on our path, this isn’t God’s way.
Most likely, God refrains from giving us too much leading, because it might scare us away from following him in the long term. When I first came to Christ, I’m glad that God only gave me short-term directions, rather than offering the big picture. If he had told me that I would want to devote my life to serving him, it would have been too intimidating to handle.
While God might lead us in one direction this year, this might change next year. Part of discerning God’s will is being humble enough to continue to listen to him. For instance, we might discern that God is legitimately calling us in one direction, but years later, we might sense that this has changed. The super-spiritual believer will often claim that they have heard definitively from God on a given direction. But we would never feel comfortable claiming this with absolute certainty. Instead, humility is in order in assessing (and often reassessing) our direction, which is subject to change.
Ways to Discern God’s Will
How can we discern the will of God for these very complex decisions? There are at least five different ways that prove helpful.
The Gibeonites tricked the men of Israel into making a deal with them, and God allowed this to happen, because they “did not ask for the counsel of the Lord” (Josh. 9:14). James instructs us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Jas. 1:5). Moreover, many prayers for guidance can be found in the Psalms (Ps. 5:8; 19:12-14; 25:4-5, 21; 27:11; 31:3-4; 86:11; 119:5, 10, 35-36, 80, 133, 176; 141:3-4). This principle should cause us to ask several questions:
(1) Have you prayed about this complex decision?
(2) How much time have you spent in prayer about this major life change?
(3) Like Jesus, have you prayed that God’s will would be done in this area, or do you still feel like you are wrestling with surrendering your life to Christ?
While Scripture might not give us explicit direction on complex decisions, we do believe that it helps us in discerning God’s will. For instance, meditation on Scripture will help us to bear spiritual fruit (Ps. 1:1-3). Even reading the Bible will help to build and solidify our faith and willingness to follow God (Rom. 10:17). Often, believers are confident that Scripture is silent on their decision, so they never even think to look at Scripture. But this contradicts the psalmist, who says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). Scripture is the final arbiter in making our decisions, and quite often, it contains a framework through which we can make our complex decision. Regarding this principle, we should ask:
(1) What biblical passages might shed light on your complex decision?
(2) Am I interpreting these passages in context or out of context?
(3) Does Scripture directly speak to this question, or should on biblical principles that will help?
#3: Mature Counsel
Fellow believers can help us to gain more of an objective perspective on our decision. Often, our personal feelings can affect our decision-making, leading our thinking to be clouded. This is why the Bible speaks so much about the need for wise counsel:
(Prov. 11:14) In an abundance of counselors there is safety.
(Prov. 12:15) The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
(Prov. 15:22) Without counsel plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed.
(Prov. 19:20) Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future.
(Prov. 20:5) The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.
(Prov. 20:18) Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.
(Prov. 24:6) By wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.
(Prov. 27:17) Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
Specifically, wise counsel entails asking mature believers, who will try to give us God’s perspective. We should avoid seeking out fellow believers who will tell us what we want to hear. If this is our motive, why even bother asking anyone at all?
Reggie Lewis serves as a potent illustration of this practice. In 1993, Lewis was a famous basketball star for the Boston Celtics, until his team of doctors told him that he had a fatal heart ailment. Lewis pursued other medical counsel, until he found a doctor that would classify his condition as a “benign fainting disorder.” Lewis got the counsel that we wanted to hear. Unfortunately, he died three months later while shooting baskets at Brandeis University. Sadly, his story is illustrative of many believers who go searching for counsel; they look for those who will support their own opinion.
This may or may not surprise us, but one of the primary ways for learning the will of God is to think about it. While God will sometimes supernaturally make his will known to us, we shouldn’t expect that this is normative. For instance, in his excellent book Knowing the Will of God, Blaine Smith writes,
The overwhelming majority of decisions noted in the New Testament God’s will was discerned through a reasoned decision. Human reason was the channel through which God’s will was normally known; discerning his will boiled down to a matter of making a sound, logical choice.
Smith uses the term “sanctified reason” to describe the way believers should think through complex decisions. He offers several biblical examples of this:
(Rom. 15:19b-25, 32 NLT) In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum. 20 My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. 21 I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says, “Those who have never been told about him will see, and those who have never heard of him will understand.” 22 In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. 23 But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. 24 I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey. 25 But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there… 32 Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.
In this passage, Paul explains that he had made plans for his missionary journeys. But notice the lack of “spiritual language.” He doesn’t say that he had to hear a message from God to make these decisions. Instead, he made a logical and strategic plan, based on what would be best for spreading the message and love of Christ. Consider another example:
(1 Cor. 16:5-9 NLT) I am coming to visit you after I have been to Macedonia, for I am planning to travel through Macedonia. 6 Perhaps I will stay awhile with you, possibly all winter, and then you can send me on my way to my next destination. 7 This time I don’t want to make just a short visit and then go right on. I want to come and stay awhile, if the Lord will let me.8 In the meantime, I will be staying here at Ephesus until the Festival of Pentecost. 9 There is a wide-open door for a great work here, although many oppose me.
Again, we see Paul making a logical and strategic plan. Of course, he is open to God correcting him if he is wrong (“if the Lord will let me” v.7). But notice that he doesn’t make his decisions based on supernatural guidance. Instead, he determined God’s will based on those who were coming to Christ in the city (“wide-open door” for ministry). This caused Paul to stay longer.
Likewise, when looking to recognize leaders for service, the NT offers objective criteria above anything else. For instance, Paul told Timothy and Titus to look for leaders of good character—an objective criterion (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9). The apostles chose Silas and Barsabbas to deliver their letter, because they were “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:22). Paul chose Timothy as a missionary because “he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2). Earlier, Paul split from John Mark because of his past desertion on their missionary journey (Acts 15:38). Thus Smith writes, “It appears, then, that Paul regarded rational judgment of a person’s qualities as the prime factor constituting a call to Christian leadership.” As Oswald Sander writes, “The Holy Spirit guides us by quickening our discernment and enlightening our judgment, not by superseding it.”
Of course, sometimes God has a better plan than what we can create from our finite perspective. For instance, the Holy Spirit told Philip to go to a desert road in the middle of nowhere—even while a great revival was occurring in Samaria (Acts 8:26). Also, when Paul made a good and reasonable decision to preach the gospel in Asia, the Holy Spirit blocked this from happening (Acts 16:6). Paul was the greatest leader in the early church, but God allowed him to spend significant time locked in prison. As it turns out, Paul ended up leading most of these prison guards to Christ, and this helped spread Christianity to the Roman world (Phil. 1:13).
Sometimes after a long period of thoughtful, reasonable, and prayerful reflection, we can still make a decision that God will want to override. In these cases, we can trust that God will “close a door,” so to speak. Sometimes, if we are being stubborn with pushing our agenda, God will allow us to choose our own path. But if we are really searching for his will, we can be confident that he will stop opportunities in order get our attention. Smith writes, “While God can, if he chooses, lead us contrary to reason, we may trust that in such cases he will make his directions unmistakably clear.” We don’t believe that God will lead us “contrary to reason,” as Smith says. Rather, God will sometimes have a greater reason than we might perceive. In these cases, we should be sensitive to God’s leading.
Getting practical is often helpful. For instance, Sanders writes, “It is for us to glean all the information available, and then to carefully weigh up the pros and cons before coming to a decision.” We agree with this view, and feel that it is often helpful to write a four square chart of the pro’s and con’s of our decision.
Pro’s for personal success, comfort, or financial advancement.
Pro’s for ministry, fellowship, or the overall cause of Christ.
Con’s for personal success, comfort, or financial advancement.
Con’s for ministry, fellowship, or the overall cause of Christ.
In addition to such a chart, we might ask several questions about our decision:
1. Which side does this plan seek to benefit the most?—the least?
2. Which side has possible reward, and which side has probable reward?
3. Which side is more of a risk? Which side is more certain?
4. Who seeks to benefit from this decision? Me or the cause of Christ?
5. Which takes a back seat? Me or the cause of Christ?
When we view our decision in this way, it can often become clear which way we should choose.
#5: Personal Desire
The Proverbs do warn us to be careful about our own inclinations. There we read, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12 NIV). But, of course, this doesn’t mean that all personal desire is, therefore, sinful. The Bible affirms that our personal desires should factor into our decision-making (Rom. 15:23-24; 2 Tim. 1:4; 1 Cor. 7:9; Ps. 37:4). Our spiritual gifts and abilities will play a big role in many of our decisions in this regard. However, personal desire is mentioned last, because it shouldn’t be the central factor driving our decisions.
It isn’t enough to know God’s will; we need to be willing to do God’s will as well. In fact, willingness is much more important than even knowing God’s will (Ps. 143:10). Often times, God will make his will very clear to us, but we need to ask ourselves: Am I willing to follow God down this particular path? It is certainly biblical to pray about God’s will, but most of this time should be spent praying that God would give us the strength and courage to follow through with his will, rather than simply knowing about it.
The Bible teaches that God will lead us like a Shepherd leads his sheep (Jn. 10; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; 5:4; Mt. 9:36; Ps. 23). This is comforting, because sheep are incredibly stupid animals! Therefore, we should spend less of our time anxiously fretting over God’s special will and more time praying for the strength we need to follow Christ—wherever he leads us.
Often, believers wonder if they would really want to follow God’s will for our lives—even if we could know it. But, as Paul says, God’s will is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2 NIV). Personally, I can’t remember a single time that I followed God’s will and regretted it. But I can think of many times where I resisted God’s leading, and bitterly regretted it! If God really loved us enough to give us his Son, why would we believe that he would hold back on anything else (Rom. 8:32)?
Smith, M. Blaine. Knowing God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991.
We found Smith’s book to be an excellent treatment of understanding the categories surrounding discerning the will of God.
Friesen, Garry, and J. Robin Maxson. Decision Making and the Will of God. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2004.
In Appendix 2 of Knowing God’s Will, Smith offers both his praise and critique of Friesen. For the most part, he found Friesen’s book to be the best theological treatment of discovering the will of God for the believer, and he often suggests the book as good reading on the subject. However, as Smith notes, beyond God’s moral will, Friesen doesn’t allow for a personal or individual calling from God. We feel that this is overstated and false. For instance, Jesus had a personal and individual calling for his life (Mt. 26:42; Lk. 22:42). Even Jesus’ individual works were considered the will of God (Jn. 4:34). While the will of God is diverse for each believer (Rom. 12:3-8; c.f. 1 Cor. 12:4-7), Paul instructs us to know this (Rom. 12:1-2).
Sanders, J. Oswald. Every Life Is a Plan of God: Discovering His Will for Your Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1992.
Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Problems. Chicago: Moody, 1971. See Chapter 1 titled “The Problem of Guidance.”
 Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Problems. Chicago: Moody, 1971. 19.
 Schaeffer, Francis A. The New Super-spirituality. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.
 Smith, M. Blaine. Knowing God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991. 61.
 Smith, M. Blaine. Knowing God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991. 62.
 Smith, M. Blaine. Knowing God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991. 65.
 Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Problems. Chicago: Moody, 1971. 16.
 Smith, M. Blaine. Knowing God’s Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991. 66.
 Sanders, J. Oswald. Spiritual Problems. Chicago: Moody, 1971. 17.