Last time we began our consideration of the teaching of Proverbs concerning guidance or decision-making by pointing out that Bible-believing Christians, for want of better teaching and far too many poor examples, widely imagine that God will direct their steps with providential signs or by means of impressions made upon their minds and hearts. They have been taught to attempt to discern God’s will for them and to expect it to be revealed to them when they find themselves at a fork in the road, when they have to make a decision. They have been taught to think that God will in some way tell them what he wants them to do. Now, as we made a point of emphasizing last time, the Bible never teaches us to make our decisions this way, never promises such heavenly direction, and never tells us how we might find it should we need it. Lots of Christians claim to have received such direction directly from heaven, but in far too many cases we have reason not to believe them. But, then how do we know that it was really received in other cases as when the minister tells us that he was led that morning to preach on this particular subject? Did God really give him a direct instruction to preach on that text? How can we tell that it was God who told someone to do this or that? How do we know that the so-called inner light was not simply someone baptizing his own desires with the language of divine guidance? The idea that Christians would receive such signs and directions comes almost entirely from the record in Holy Scripture of prophets and apostles receiving such explicit and immediate guidance. But prophets and apostles were exceptional and even in their day ordinary beleivers did not make decisions by waiting upon God to send them a sign.
We pointed out that the entire system of evangelical guidance rests on a serious misunderstanding: viz. that you need to know God’s sovereign plan or blueprint for your life in order to make wise decisions. You need to know what God intends to do with you so that you can line up your plans with his. Dr. Packer has a brilliant illustration of this way of thinking which occurred to him because he happens to be a railroad buff. He describes a large room between platforms 7 and 8 in the train station in York, England. In that room is a map with lights showing every track and the location of every train upon a track in the entire York area, as well as the direction of that train and its speed on the track. Christian people, says Dr. Packer, think of their lives in the same way. They are on a certain track and need to make the right decision at the next junction, choose the direction or track God intends for them to take; otherwise they may find themselves on a track on which another train is barrelling toward them in the opposite direction, or on one that leads to a dead-end siding, or sends them off in a completely different direction far away from the plan God had for their lives. But there is nothing like this in the Bible. True enough, God has a map of your life, and every decision you ever make from the least to the greatest is accounted for on that map, but we are never taught that we need to see that map or even a piece of that map ahead of time to be able to make wise decisions.
Stop and think of how depressing it must be honestly to see your life in such terms; so depressing that hardly anyone ever does. If that is what a happy, fruitful, godly life requires, making exactly the right decision, the decision that God intends for you to make at every juncture in your life’s road, then – and be honest enough to admit this – every sin you have ever committed has taken you off the Lord’s intended path for your life until now we are so far removed from God’s “Plan A” that we will never get back to it and the business of our lives is simply to make the most of the tatters that remain! God had a plan, but we blew it – again and again – and that’s that. We are now so far removed from York station that we can’t even tell upon which dead-end siding we now find ourselves. There is nothing like this in the Bible, honest as the Bible is about our sin.
What is more, this view of guidance so popular in evangelical circles does not honestly reckon with the real situation. Ordinarily people expect signs or impressions – some form of heavenly direction – only at certain times to make certain decisions, the ones they judge to be particularly important. But the fact is, our lives are a tapestry woven of very fine thread. Little things portend great things in our lives without our even suspecting it at the time. Who is to say what small decision made, almost without thought, isn’t the far more consequential one so far as the outcome of our lives is concerned? You know the little adage:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of the shoe the horse was lost,
For want of the horse the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle the war was lost.
Who is to say what the really important decisions will prove to be when all is said and done. But no one waits for the Lord to direct him to put his shoes on in the morning or to take one of two often-used routes to work in the morning, or to pick that restaurant for dinner, or to make that phone call at that particular moment, and on and on. God has ordered each one of those steps, to be sure, but it is all his secret; it is not disclosed in advance to you. In fact if you had to stop and wait for his direction to make every single one of those decisions, you’d never get to work in the morning and you’d never get home at night!
The understanding of God’s sovereignty that underlies this popular view of guidance is, in fact, nowhere found in the Bible. God has ordered your days, to be sure, but what he has done in planning your life – all of which can only be known to you only after the effect – is a secret and remains a secret beforehand. It is in its nature a secret and so in the Bible it is never made the basis of your decision-making. You don’t need to know God’s secrets; you only need to know his Word and the will for your life he has published in that Word. That is the explicit teaching of many texts such as the famous Deut. 29:29 I read to you last time; whereas the other view of guidance, that by providential signals and impressions left on the mind, is utterly lacking biblical support. Find me a verse in the Bible somewhere in which we are taught either to expect such guidance, direct direction from heaven, or are taught how to find it if we need it.
So we begin with the unmistakable fact that apart from the government of our decision-making by the law of God, the Word of God has precious little to say about the particular choices that we must make. Here is A.W. Tozer on this point.
“In our anxious search for the will of God we often fail to see that in the majority of decisions touching our earthly lives, God expresses no choice. He leave these things to our preference. Some Christians walk under a cloud of uncertainty, worrying about which profession they should enter, which car they should drive, which school they should attend, where they should live and a dozen other matters. But God has set us free to follow our own personal bent, guided only by our love for Him and for our fellow man.
On the surface it might appear more spiritual to seek God’s leading than just go ahead and do the obvious thing. But it isn’t. If God gives you a watch, are you honouring Him more by asking Him what time it is or by simply consulting the watch? If God gives a sailor a compass, does the sailor please God more by kneeling in a frenzy of prayer to persuade God to show him which way to go, or should he just steer ahead according to the compass?
Except for those things that are specifically commanded or forbidden in Scriptures, it’s God’s will that we be free to exercise our own intelligent choice. The shepherd leads the sheep, but he doesn’t want to decide which tuft of grass the sheep will nibble on each moment of the day. In almost everything that touches our everyday life on earth, God is pleased when we’re pleased. He wills that we be as free as birds to soar and sing our Maker’s praise without anxiety. God’s choice for us may not be only one but rather any one of a score of possible choices. The man or woman who is wholly and joyously surrendered to Christ can’t make a wrong choice – any choice will be the right one.” [A.W. Tozer, His (May 1969); cited in Ian Tait, “Guidance: Its Context, Problem, Substitutes, Ingredients, and Glory,” Sermons [typescript], 9]
But there is more to say than simply that the Bible is a sufficient guide for decision making. The fact is the Bible itself teaches us some important principles for making wise decisions, and Proverbs contains a good bit of that teaching. We have come finally to the material in Proverbs regarding decision-making, but I didn’t want us to proceed without getting clear in our minds and hearts this foundational principle of the sufficiency of the Bible. Never underestimate the importance of this foundational principle of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Consider a text like Isaiah 8:19-20:
“And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.”
In other words, if you wish to inquire of God’s will, if you want “light,” consult his Word. It is there that he speaks to you about your life.
But, remember, the Word addresses more things bearing on the making of decisions than simply the commandments that require or forbid only some particular decisions or behaviors. There is a comprehensive ethic of decision-making taught in the Bible. It covers behavior, of course, but also descends to motives. One very good way of examining the choices that lie before us at any time is to consider our motives. Which choice satisfies the requirement of Holy Scripture that we do what we do in order to give glory to God, to love him and to love our neighbor? Just forcing yourself to consult your motives will make many a decision perfectly clear. With what choice do I best hunger and thirst for righteousness? With what choice do I best place the interests of others before my own? With what choice do I most seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? With which of two choices do I best seek to follow in the steps of the Lord Jesus himself who left me an example that I should imitate him?
What we want in making decisions is a biblical mind, a mind that is saturated with the principles and the life-view taught us in Holy Scripture as well as a mind that is thoroughly awake and alert to the counsel God has given us for making our decisions. So what is that counsel?
- To make good decisions, to be a wise decision-maker requires the exercise of prudence or sound-judgment.
Prudence in this sense is simply a biblical mind evaluating circumstances and possible choices and we see this frequently in the Bible. Think of Paul’s missionary strategy or decision-making. We read that he remained for a year and a half in Corinth because the Lord had spoken to him in a vision telling him that he had much people in that city to be called to faith in Christ. But he remained for three years in Ephesus not because of a vision but because, as he put it, “a great door of effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” [1 Cor. 16:8-9] That is, it seemed wise to stay in Ephesus because the gospel was bearing a rich fruit there and because he needed to establish the church so that it would be able to withstand the opposition and persecution it would face. That was simply Paul’s sound, experienced, practiced judgment at work. It was a prudent decision made for reasons that are very easy to understand and approve.
In other cases Paul moved on because there was no such “great door” for effective work opened to him. There is no hint that in such cases he received a vision or some other heavenly direction. Indeed, read through the book of Acts with this question in mind and you will come away from that book with the impression that in most cases the apostles charted their course according to the dictates of prudence. In fact, a good case can be made that visions or special revelations were given to them when God instructed them to do what sound judgment would not have led them to do. For example, why would Philip leave Samaria where the population was embracing the gospel in great numbers to head out into the wilderness where there was no one to preach to? Because, as it turned out, an Ethiopian eunuch needed to hear the gospel and believe so that he could take the good news back with him to Africa. And so Philip received direct instruction to leave Samaria for the desert.
You remember the Lord’s famous remarks about how a prudent man counts the costs before undertaking a project. Well Proverbs, in the same way, recommends prudence to us, sound, sensible judgment as the way to make good decisions.
“A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.” [14:15]
“A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.” [22:3]
Or consider 21:5:
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.”
Here we have a specific example of the difference between prudent and foolish decision making. The one who is eager to get rich makes poor decisions, cuts corners, lays a shoddy foundation, all of which come back to bite him in the end. The diligent, however, knows that prosperity will require hard work, the patience to invest while waiting for a reward that will come only later, and the ability to weigh decisions according to their long-term effects. Quick decisions that are not carefully thought-out often prove to be a mistake. [Waltke, ii, 172; Longman, 391] Surely any American ought to grasp the importance of this teaching. The imprudence of our government officers is precisely what has created the mess that we are in, the haste with which they have made decisions, the lack of reflection on the likely consequences, and their desire for immediate reward – especially re-election – has put us deeply in debt with no easy way out. That is foolishness according to Proverbs. Prudent, thoughtful, carefully weighed decisions are wise ones and they don’t typcally get us into a mess that will be difficult to remove ourselves from. Or, as we read in 24:27:
“Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.”
The proverb may be paraphrased: “Don’t undertake anything hastily without due preparation.” [Whybray in Longman, 442] It means much the same thing as the Lord’s statement about counting the cost before beginning an undertaking. Put this in a modern context and it becomes something like: “Make sure the revenue is adequate before beginning the program” or “Be sure the company can turn a profit before buying an expensive headquarters!” That is prudence, common sense, sound judgment and it comes from a child being taught wisdom and from what we learn from the observation of life.
- Second, good decision-making requires godly advice and counsel.
Proverbs says more about this than perhaps any other aspect of its teaching about guidance and decision-making.
“Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” [11:14]
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed.” [15:22]
“Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.” [20:18]
“…by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.” [24:6]
Now, obviously these are generalizations; the assumption underneath all of them is that these counselors are wise men themselves, not sycophants or toadies, not amateurs who know very little about what they are talking about, but experienced men who have learned how to read circumstances, common-sensical men who can see the problems in a plan, and good men who will not approve of rash, imprudent, or morally suspect plans. Rehoboam took the advice of men as stupid as he was and lost his kingdom as a result. Obviously there is a second, unspoken assumption as well: viz. that we are willing to take the good advice we receive, even if it contradicts our fond hopes. Rehoboam got some good advice from wise men; he simply refused to take it.
We are finite creatures. We see so little of a situation and are so easily influenced by our own biases and prejudices, our habits of thought, and, especially, our desires and we have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. We have often made decisions, and human beings are always making decisions under the influence of strong desire, hopes, and wishes. But nothing skews right thinking, nothing trumps common sense, nothing makes fools so regularly out of men and women as strong desire. And a willingness to consult others who can offer a dispassionate evaluation is the best antidote to such foolishness.
Even in the age of the apostles – and surely this is a striking fact – this wisdom was practiced at the highest level. We might have expected that when the understanding of salvation itself was being threatened in those early years, the apostles would simply have given to the church an authoritative deliverance from the twelve regarding what was to be believed and what was to be done. But, as we read in Acts 15, instead the apostles and the elders talked it out with many men being given the opportunity to speak and reached a considered judgment based on the wisest advice.
I read recently a fascinating article on Jack London’s justly famous short story To Build a Fire. [D. Haddon, “Never Absolute Zero,” Touchstone (Jan/Feb 2012) 21-23] Something I was more interested in because I knew I was going to Alaska, something I would have been even more interested in after coming back from Alaska as cold as it had been. Twenty degrees below zero one morning when we woke up. Thankfully we weren’t in Fairbanks where that same morning it was 47 degrees below zero! In the piece of literary criticism the author exposes what he takes to be London’s failure, and this is what caught my attention, to understand his own story!
London was a naturalist in the technical sense, a man who believed in nature and only nature and saw the world in survival-of-the-fittest terms he had learned from Darwin. His famous short story is usally taken to be an expression of London’s naturalistic worldview as the protagonist succumbs to the relentless cold in that hostile north country. As the story begins London himself explains that the man died because he lacked imagination. He failed to appreciate the dangers of traveling alone in temperatures so low that when he spat his tobacco juice froze instantly in mid-air, indicating that the temperature was below 50 degrees below zero. A lack of imagination is a natural failure, not a moral one. London wasn’t big on morality! But, in fact, says this literary critic, London failed to understand his own story. It wasn’t the cold that killed the newcomer to the Yukon; it was a lack of character, of morality, a lack demonstrated in his arrogant failure to take the advice of a man who knew much more than he did about traveling in the arctic in winter. Though London begins the story by explaining that the protagonist died for want of imagination, six times in the story the man recalls the advice he received from the old-timer who had warned him not to travel alone when it was below 50 below.
In the first instance the man recalls how he had laughed at the old-timer when he told him how cold it could get in the Yukon, but now faced with the effects of the extreme cold he began to appreciate how much the old man actually knew. When he suddenly breaks through the crust of snow and ice and plunges his legs into a never-freezing spring and must immediately attempt to build a fire to save his life, his respect for the old man increases. When, however, he quickly and rather easily succeeds in building a fire he reverts to his original scorn for the old man’s “womanish” advice. Then, when the snow-covered spruce under which he had built his fire dumps snow on it and extinguishes it, he thinks that “perhaps” the old timer was right. “After 50 below, a man should travel with a partner.” With his feet already frozen and unable to start another fire because of the stiffness of his hands and with his body shaking from hypothermia, he panics and starts to run until finally he collapses from exhaustion. Lying on the frozen snow he drifts off to sleep and to death seeing a vision of the old-timer “warm and comfortable and smoking a pipe.” Before losing consciousness, the man addresses the old man, “You were right, old hoss; you were right.”
The man didn’t die because he lacked imagination. He died because he foolishly ignored the advice of someone who knew a great deal more than he did about traveling in the arctic winter. The man’s failure wasn’t natural, it was moral. It was arrogance and a failure to do what wise people do: viz. follow the good advice of men who know.
Every important decision you make cannot be made for you by others, but many of them can and even those that can’t will be made the more wisely for your consulting people whose opinion you have reason to regard with respect.
- Third, wise decisions require prayer.
In Psalm 25:4-5 we read:
“Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior and my hope is in you all day long.”
Now you might read that psalm and think that the man was asking for signs, for directions. But if you read the psalm you will discover that David is not interested in aquiring signs to direct him along the Lord’s favored way, specific pieces of information needed to make good decisions at forks in the road. He wants the Lord to write his Word on his heart, purify his heart, grant him the fear of the Lord, confidence in God’s law, and a sense of his constant and active dependence upon the Lord for everything in his life.
In the same way in James 1:5 we read:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
You will hear that verse quoted again and again and again and then interpreted as if when we find ourselves at a fork in the road and need to make a choice, if we pray God will somehow answer our prayer and tell us whether to go left or right. But what is the wisdom that we are to pray for? We are given a definition in James 3:17-18. It is purity, peace, gentleness, mercy, sincerity, righteousness, and so on. “If any of you lacks wisdom,” is the same thing as saying, if any of you lacks godly character or some feature or part of a godly character, ask the Lord to give it to you. We are talking not about signs or impressions to direct us at some fork in the road, but a godly character.
Proverbs puts it this way:
“The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. 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.” [16:1-3]
Again the point is very clearly that we are to offer our lives to God in sincere faith and obedience and ask him to bless us with his grace and Spirit. That is how guidance comes to God’s people, through the blessing of the Lord upon their faith and obedience and from his working in them by his Spirit a godly character that knows how to make proper, wise decisions.
That is why Proverbs is so emphatic about the humility required of us because of the limitation imposed upon us by our ignorance.
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” [19:21]
“The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” [16:9]
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” [27:1]
Our ignorance of the future cannot be overcome. We do not know the future. Even the wisest decisions can lead us into troubles of various kinds, which is no proof at all that the decision was wrong. Paul knew by a prophecy that if he went to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey he would be arrested, but he went anyway, not because he was told to by an angel from heaven but because he felt it was his duty to go. He promised the saints in Jerusalem that he was returning, he had brought these representatives of his Gentile churches with him, and he needed to take them to Jerusalem. But we have the promises of the Lord never to leave us or forsake us, to honor those who honor him, and to reward those who live according to his Word. That is our confidence and so we ought to pray accordingly:
- That God would give us clear thinking about our lives with thinking informed by his Word in every way.
- That he would form in us a holy character that craves the right things.
- That he would give us strength to resist temptations when making wrong decisions is a real possibility.
- That he would make us wise in the sense of wisdom in Proverbs: skillful in living our lives in this world beset with temptations of every kind and ruled by the devil himself.
What we are not taught to do anywhere in the Bible is to pray that God would send us a signal or show us a sign by which to know what he wants us to do. That is to ask for what God has not promised to give us and to pray a prayer he has not promised to answer. You can pray it but you have no guarantee whatsoever that he will answer it. Rather we are to pray for biblical wisdom to make good, prudent, and sensible decisions and God assures us that if we pray according to his will he will answer; and to live godly lives and to make wise decisions is most assuredly God’s will.
- Fourth, and finally, wise decisions will be the responsible exercise of the liberty God has given us. God made us to choose things. He gave us a will and he wants us to exercise that will.
The fact is that God rules the world; we don’t. That should be our great comfort and confidence in making decisions. We don’t have to know the future because our heavenly Father does. We don’t have to know what will come of every decision we make, because our Father will love and care for us no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in and whatever those circumstances may be – happy or sad – they will work together for our good.
So if we know that we are facing a choice between options that are both agreeable to the law of God; if we know that we have examined our motives and really wish to do what is right; if we have asked God for the wisdom to make prudent choices and committed our ways to him; and if we have consulted others who we know can give valuable advice, then we are free to make whatever choice we please and if we still can’t decide, we’re free to flip a coin!
The greatest manual of Reformed theology apart from Calvin’s Institutes is the four large volumes of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, only recently brought into English translation for the first time. It is a monumental work in both scope and learning. Bavinck grew up in a pious home, the home of a Dutch Reformed minister, Jan Bavinck. It is not too much to say that humanly speaking it is hard to imagine Herman Bavinck without his father Jan and to imagine Herman Bavinck’s great theological career had his father not been a pastor and articulate theologian himself. The great Reformed Dogmatics were in a very real way born in the upbringing of Herman Bavinck in that devout Reformed pastor’s home. But Jan Bavinck almost never made it into the ministry.
The short form of the story is this. In the first third of the 19th century the classis or presbytery in that particular part of Holland was asked by one of its senior ministers, now old and tired, to appoint a helper who would eventually replace him as the pastor of his church. The men of the presbytery were unsure whether to proceed to do so and so they took a vote which resulted in a tie: 11 to 11. They asked a kitchen maid to draw one of two slips of paper from the hand of one of them one of which read “For” the other “Against.” She chose the slip that read “For,” so they proceeded to discuss which of five possible candidates they should choose. They eventually reduced the five to two, one of which was Jan Bavinck. After more discussion and consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate they voted: again a tie, 11 to 11. Once again the young woman from the kitchen was asked to draw one of two slips of paper from the hand: she chose the one on which was written “Bavinck.” [Gleason, 11-12] They had to make a decision; their careful consideration hadn’t resulted in a clear choice; and so it was clear that whatever decision was to be made would be an acceptable one, a prudent one, a wise one. So they in effect flipped a coin. Did God determine which slip was chosen? Of course he did. But no one at the time could have known what remarkable things were to come of that choice in the next generation and, of course, no mere human can say what blessing might have come from the other choice had it been made. The men had been responsible, they had been prudent, and, in the event, either choice could have been rightly made. Such is life and such is our God to bless the choice as he did.
Now, listen to me carefully. Does God sometimes intrude into our lives with striking providences that change our lives in important ways? Of course he does. He doesn’t do this all the time but he does from time to time and those are wonderful times, are they not! Does he hear and answer our prayers? Of course he does. Does he lay concerns and convictions upon our hearts that make us want to do one thing or another? Of course he does. I suppose we have all had the experience of this, of feeling that the Lord is speaking directly to us and the Bible says that he does this. It speaks of the Lord laying a matter on a man’s heart. Does he give us experiences of tremendous inner peace? To be sure. The Bible says he does. Does he direct our steps by his providential ordering of our affairs? To be sure. A middle eastern Muslim becomes a Christian at least in part because he has a dream. That has happened frequently. Most Muslims who become Christians don’t have a dream, but some do. The Lord is free to work in our lives as he will. Sometimes a man or woman prays for help in making a decision and the decision is made for him or her by the providence of God. We see that all the time. A man is praying to know which of two jobs to take and gets a call saying that one of the jobs has already been filled.
We are not talking about God’s wonderful involvement in our lives or his fatherly provision for his children. You see, brothers and sisters, I am not speaking in any way to diminish the mystical dimension of our lives, that experience of God directly in our hearts, that sense of his love, his pleasure, his approval. The nearness of God is our good, as the psalmist puts it.
What we are talking about is how we are to make decisions. And Proverbs does not tell us to look for a sign or wait for an impression. It teaches us to become prudent people and people of sound judgment by actively cultivating the knowledge and practice of a godly and skillful life (and it tells parents to raise their children to become such wise people); it teaches us constantly to be relying on the counsel of wise people around us; it teaches us humbly to seek the Lord’s blessing upon our lives, and it teaches us happily to exercise the liberty our Father has granted his children to make their own way in the world as they trust and obey him.
The biblical doctrine of guidance is dialectical like virtually all of the Bible’s teaching. That doctrine is that God orders all our steps and guides our feet in that precise way he has long before determined that we should go; every moment of every day already on a blueprint down to the very last breath you take, but his will for our lives is worked out and brought to pass by the free and unfettered choices that we make hour by hour and day by day. We are to choose wisely and well, as much as possible according to his Word and always with a view to his pleasure and glory, and if we do we shall have the great blessing that comes to those who are wise. But we are reminded constantly in the Bible that even when we do not choose wisely, when we choose badly and must pay the price for foolish choices, even then we do not escape our heavenly Father’s will or frustrate his plan.