Diagnostic Decision Making
Not being sure how to decide between two or more legitimate life options is a common human experience. It is part of what it means to be a finite creature in a finite world mysteriously governed by the infinite God. Whether it is a student trying to discern what college to attend, a young man trying to know which girl to pursue for marriage, an adult who has been presented with a variety of employment opportunities or a seminarian wishing to know how to discern his calling, most of us find decision making to be a platform for anxiety in our hearts and minds. Of course, we should always go to God in prayer, asking Him to shut all the wrong doors and open the right door. This step should never be neglected. However, are there any biblical principles that God has given us to help us carry out the decision making process?
When I was a seminarian, I was faced with the possibility of accepting a call to a pastorate in several different churches in a similar geographical location. I knew that I couldn’t accept all of them but was wrestling with how to discern between them in order to know which–if any of them–was the one that the Lord wanted me to take. In the course of a conversation I was having with a professor about the challenge of it all, he said, “Nick, you’re like a kid in a candy store. It all looks good, but you can’t take it all home.” That statement certainly helped settle my mind for a moment. However, I still found myself at a loss about how to know what to do. This professor then said, “I would encourage you to take a sheet of paper and put all of the pros on one side and all of the cons on another. Then seek to narrow it down from there.” That also helped immensely. In the end, I didn’t take a call to any of those particular churches. However, that process fundamentally helped shape the way in which I seek to help others think through how to cut through the multiplicity of major lawful life decisions with which they are faced.
There are also a number of questions that we derive from God’s word that help us discern what decision we are to make in any given life situation. In his excellent little book Discovering God’s Will, Sinclair Ferguson set out the following diagnostic questions to ask when we are confronted with numerous life decisions:
- Is it lawful? “No action which is contrary to the plain word of God can ever be legitimate for the Christian. No appeal to spiritual freedom or to providential circumstances can ever make what is ethically wrong anything else but sinful. For the Christian is free only to love and obey the law of God. Therein lies his true freedom.” (see 1 Co. 6:9-11).
- Is it beneficial? “Will it bring benefits, as far as I am able to judge, so that my relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is strengthened? Will it draw me nearer to Him…There are so many areas in which this applies…Of course, no two people will give exactly the same answer in every situation. We are no longer speaking about whether a course of action is lawful for the Christian. we are considering only actions which are. But something which has a neutral influence on one person may be detrimental to another. We are not called to judge other men’s consciences [1 Cor 2:15; 4:3-5]. But “the spiritual man makes judgments about all things”, and this is what we are enabled to do when we ask: “Is it beneficial to me?” It may or may not be in others’ experience.” (see 1 Co. 6:12).
- Is it enslaving? “The Christian must always, through the grace of the Spirit, be master of himself…It is possible to make choices which, eventually, will tend to squeeze out our spiritual energies; to commit ourselves to things which, however legitimate in general terms, will eventually become the dominating and driving force in our lives…Of course we have our spiritual liberties. But when we find ourselves unable to enjoy the Christian life without our liberties, then we have become enslaved to them. There is, for example, presumably no built-in evil about owning a new car, or living in pleasant house, or enjoying various foods, spending time in various pursuits, or with certain kinds of people. But when we cannot be content without them; when we simply must have them – they are no longer our liberties, but our chains.” (see 1 Co. 6:12)
- Is it consistent with the Lordship of Christ? “Sometimes we say that the principle by which any action may be judged is: Can I take Christ there? There is truth in that. But it is not the whole truth. For, Paul emphasizes, we have no choice in the matter. We do take Christ there. As those who are united to him we cannot leave him behind. So the real question is: Can I take Christ there and look him in the face without shame? Is this course of action, this decision I am taking, totally consistent with my personal confession that “Jesus Christ is my Lord?” (see 1 Co. 6:19, 20)
- Is it helpful to others? “I must not rest content with asking whether a course of action will be personally helpful. Will it have a like beneficial effect on others? Indeed, do I engage in it with a view to serving and helping them? Or, am I in danger of “destroying the work of God”? [Rom 14:20] When speaking of the Christian’s personal freedom, and the way it must be balanced over against the weakness and strengths of others, Paul confesses: “I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example…” (see Ro. 14:20).
- Is it consistent with the example with biblical example? “Do not be surprised that Paul’s discussion reaches its conclusion with these words: ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ’ [1Cor 11:1]. “What would Paul have done?” “What would Christ Himself have done?” these are the questions we can now ask. Are there incidents, or is there teaching in Scripture, which can be applied to the situation in which I find myself? Will it give me a clue to the will of God for my life now? [Cf. Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7; 2 Tim 3:10; Heb 6:12; 13:7].” (see 1 Co. 11:1)
- Is it for the glory of God? “Even here, Paul cannot escape from the ultimate challenge, “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” [1 Cor 10:31]. We cannot escape this challenge either. It is the non-negotiable norm of Christian living. If my heart goes out for His glory, then I will find the yoke of these questions easy, and the burden of gospel holiness to which they urge me is light indeed.” (see 1 Co. 10:31).
Answering these questions honestly when we are faced with a decision upon which we have already set our heart is not always easy. In fact, we are sometimes (often?) biased in our own assessments. It may help us to sit down with a pastor or mature spiritual mentor to help us discern how we have answered these questions. As we do so, we will find it a good but easier to rest in the decisions that we make, knowing that we have sought to honor God and be a blessing to others in those decisions.
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