As we approach 2013, I (Rob Pickersgill) want to talk about how we make decisions as Christians, trying to follow Jesus, and act out God’s plans in our lives. How many of us will be making decisions over the course of 2013 which will shape what life looks like in 2018, 5 years down the line? Will you have major decisions to make in 2013?
Here are some ideas, they might resonate with you:
· Career choices – promotions, change of career, retirement
· Education – choosing universities, A levels, GCSEs
· Moving house
There isn’t a Christian I’ve met who hasn’t, at some point, grappled with this issue of “What is God’s plan for my life”. I’ve divided this morning’s talk into 2 sections, firstly we’ll be unpacking a bad way of seeing God’s will, and then we’ll look at a more helpful method. Before we begin, Church, will you join with me to pray, that God speaks through my words?
How do we make tough decisions in life? Let me, first of all, talk about some common methods which I think are unhelpful.
Finger in the Bible
This is, when faced with a big decision, you might pull a random verse from the bible, take it out of context and hope that through it God gives you a specific insight into what you should do (and if it seems irrelevant, you might keep trying until you get something you can use).
There was a young man who was thinking of marrying his girlfriend Lisa, so he consulted the finger in the bible method. He landed on Proverbs 6:25, which reads: “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty, or let her captivate you with her eyes”. Well, the young man, who should I be dating? So he went in for another go, and landed on Isaiah 55:12 – “You shall go out with Joy”. Unfortunately Joy didn’t feel the same way.
Now I’m not saying it’s wrong to flick through the bible, many of my quiet times with God begin like that, but when we are facing major decisions in life, seeking a specific answer from a random verse is like playing a spiritual tombola. God could use it, but is it the best way?
Friends, when we’re trying to find God’s will, we’re not flipping coins. The finger in the bible method is closer to paganism – it completely ignores the fact that we have a personal relationship with our all good, all wise, all caring heavenly father, who loves to work through these decisions with us, helping us to discover true wisdom.
Another thing you’ll often hear people say is that when God opens a door, his will is that you immediately walk through it. They’ll say, “I got headhunted for a job in a different company, God had opened a door for me, so I walked through it”, or how about this, “I really wanted to go to Cambridge, but their offer was conditional on me getting certain grades, so when Anglia Ruskin gave me an unconditional offer, it was God opening a door so I didn’t have to take the risk”
Now the bible does mention open doors. In 1 Cor, Paul says;
1 Cor 16:8-9
I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.
However the biblical model is that this is not necessarily a sign that God is telling someone to “go through” the door. In 2 Cor 2, Paul says this:
2 Corinthians 2:12-13
Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.
In the bible, an open door doesn’t mean that God is giving someone a command, it’s simply a phrase to mean an opportunity. And just because God has provided this opportunity doesn’t mean that he wants you to take it. Sometimes a closed door is an invitation to patience, waiting and risk taking. Some of us know this already. Earlier this week, Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, tweeted this;
“Who you become while you are waiting is as important as what you are waiting for”
If I really don’t want to do it, then it must be God’s will
Have you ever heard anyone say anything like this? I once heard a true story of a woman who decided to marry her husband because he was precisely the kind of person that she didn’t like. She said that saying yes to this man’s proposal was God’s way of putting her will to death. That lady has been dying every day for 30 years.
And it’s not just marriage. This is particularly common amongst people involved with children’s work and overseas mission – people who spend their lives doing what they least want to do. Listen, if this is how you view God’s perfect will at work in your life, what sort of picture must you have of God? That you need to do the very things you hate in order to please him? Yes there are times in life when God will take you outside of your comfort zone and challenge you, but Jesus has come so that you can have life to the full. He created your desires, gave you the gifts that you have, and he wants you to use them to build His Kingdom.
You see, all of these methods of finding God’s plans for you come from a blueprint view of God’s will – that God has planned all the fine details of your life planned out, and it’s your responsibility to discover them. But there are a couple of problems with this blueprint way of thinking:
Firstly, exactly how detailed is the plan? Do you need to wait for God’s guidance every time you need to find a parking space? Or buy clothes? Or decide what you’re going to eat? Is it only for purchases over £100? If the responsibility was on us to discover these fine details of life, we’d never move; we’d be constantly waiting for God to show us what to do.
And more importantly, what if you miss it? What if someone else, or circumstances prevent you from achieving God’s plan? For example, you might feel as though God wants you to take a certain job, but your boss, in his sin, gives it to someone else. How about if your child gets ill? Worse yet, what if you mess things up? What if you make a mistake? What happens when you fall short of God’s perfect plan for your life? Is there any hope of redemption, or is the plan lost forever? The blueprint view dictates that life is like a tightrope; you need to avoid messing up. It’s your responsibility to get it right, all the time.
Friend, this morning, I’d like to offer you what I think is a better, more biblical way of viewing God’s perfect will for your life.
How should we picture the will of God?
(Blueprint or Game Plan?
I mentioned to you before the blueprint view of God’s will. Larry Osborne, in his book “Ten Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe” he lays out a really helpful set of contrasting images of the will of God. He mentions the blueprint version. Many Christians believe that God has a very specific set of instructions for their lives that spells out in detail virtually every decision.
Larry Osborne offers an alternative – viewing God’s will as an American Football game plan. Now I don’t mean to cause offence to and soccer fans, but I think the rules of American Football lend themselves to this analogy much better than UK Football tactics!
When a coach is preparing a team for a game, they sit down ahead of time and put together a game plan. The game plan provides general guidelines for how the team is going to attack the opposing team’s defence, how the team is going to defend against what the other team is likely to throw at it on offense. But a game plan can’t be a detailed set of instructions as the behaviour of the opposition and the skill involved with each kick, throw and catch cause uncertainty. The game plan offers guidelines; it offers general principles with lots of freedom and flexibility built in.
So to use the American Football analogy which calls for a pass to a receiver going across the middle, but the receiver is suddenly covered by three defenders, only a fool would force the ball into that kind of coverage. A good football player is able to be flexible and make adjustments based on the changing circumstances in the game. God mostly gives general guidelines, broad principles in which we are to operate.)
Dot-to-dot or an original painting
I just gave you an analogy of a blueprint, but how about a dot-to-dot. The idea of a dot to dot is that you find the next dot, and you draw a straight line to it. In the same way, this dot-to-dot view of God’s plans means that God must reveal where and what the next step is before we move towards it.
What if, instead of a dot-to-dot, the Christian life was more like this: God hands you a blank canvas, and gives you paints and oils and crayons of every colour – they represent your passions, your skills, the things that make you you – and then a model walks into the room, and the model is Jesus. And God says to you, “I want you to use what I’ve given you and, with every brushstroke, create a picture of my Son”. What if your ultimate goal in life was to make your life look like Jesus? What if God was less interested in where you were, and more interested in what you’re doing there?
(A cosmic GPS or a loving friend?
Sorry to labour this point, but it’s so important! You know, the blueprint, dot-to-dot approach to the will of God makes God look like a cosmic GPS. In 200 feet, turn right. Turn right. Turn right. In 1.1 miles, bear to your left and exit on Pinfold Lane. Is God a cosmic GPS? Is the will of God like Google maps? Is that the way you think about God?
Or is God more like a loving friend, who navigates with patience? If we miss a turning does He force us to make a U-turn, or does he take you through the scenic route; via Offord? Is your relationship with God more like a dog on a chain that God is yanking in a certain direction, or does God treat us as persons with decision-making abilities and desires, and longings and creativity?
Now, I know that for some of us, we want to say, “God, just tell me exactly what you want. I wish it was dot-to-dot, I wish there was a blueprint. I don’t mind being a dog on a chain. I just don’t want mess up.” God says, “I’ve made you for so much more. I created human beings to enter a personal relationship with me, to paint with me, to co-create with me, to partner with me in bringing my kingdom into this world.”)
You see, when the bible talks about God’s will, it doesn’t refer to specific decisions and events in any given person’s life, but it refers to God’s unchanging character, his moral will, which was perfectly revealed to us through Christ Jesus. Look at some of these examples:
1 Thess 4:3-4
It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable
It’s God’s will that you avoid sin.
1 Thess 5:18
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Did you know God is always good? You can always thank him.
1 Peter 2:15
For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of the foolish.
It’s God’s will that you do good.
For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day
It’s God’s will that you believe in Jesus.
Let me give you a few pointers which I find really useful when I’m facing a big decision. I’m stealing them from Rich Nathan, the leader of a Vineyard church in Columbus, Ohio.
(You can get the audio from his sermon on this, a manuscript of that talk, a small group guide and a follow up bible study here: http://www.vineyardcolumbus.org/watch-listen/messages/if-god-has-a-perfect-will-for-your-life-what-if-you-miss-it/)
Firstly, trust in God’s ability to lead you. Trust in God’s ability to lead you. In John 10, we read this:
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
What’s Jesus saying here? Jesus is saying “I take the same responsibility over leading you in your life that a 1st century Palestinian shepherd took in leading his sheep to the fold. I go ahead of you, I call you by name. I don’t run off, I’m not wearing camouflage, I’m not hiding behind a rock”
Isn’t it wonderful that, throughout the whole bible, we’re compared to little sheep? As I’m sure you know, sheep are the prototypes of the world’s stupidest animals. I mean, they will wander about all over the place! That’s why the parable of the lost sheep makes so much sense, because we’re prone to walk off, but He comes out to find us. We should look at these passages and say “Thankyou Jesus that you don’t call yourself the dogtrainer of dogs, or the foxmaster of foxes, but the shepherd of the little sheep.” What a gift!
He says, “I know what you’re like, I know you don’t know where you’re going, I know you’re scared about the big choices you need to make in 2013, and I take responsibility over you. I take responsibility over you”
Do you see what I’m getting at? That my confidence is not in my “great” ability to hear, but in His great ability to speak. My hope comes, not from my ability to follow, but his great ability to lead me. How many of us can take a look in the rear view mirror and say “There’s my shepherd, he was leading me all along”
When I was looking at universities, I had my heart set on Leeds, on paper it was much better at getting me where I wanted to be as a civil engineer, but I went to the open day at Nottingham, and I just knew that Nottingham was where I needed to go to university. I can’t explain it; it flew in the face of all my logic, but I just felt like it was home, I had a sense of peace about it. Similarly, last year, I was all set to graduate and work towards a promising career in civil engineering, when I realised I was much more excited about my church in Nottingham, and the way in which lives are being changed through it, than I could ever be about a career in civil engineering. So I’m currently spending 2 days a week volunteering at the church, serving it, and enabling it to do all it does.
My next tip on how we become good decision-makers is to become a wise person. Become a wise person.
Now when I say become a wise person, I don’t mean you should watch more Jeremy Kyle, and try and imitate him. And I don’t mean buy a self help book, or listen to moneybox live on Radio 4.
(It’s interesting to note here that much of the “wisdom” we learn from the world involves us reaching within ourselves, discovering something within us. It says that if you feel that something is good and noble, if you think that what you’re doing is a good idea, and you don’t feel guilty, then go for it. It’s yours for the taking. And it’s with this mentality that we saw thousands of normal young people caught up with rioting and looting last year.
The world says we need to look inwardly, but the bible says “Rubbish!”. When we are searching for wisdom, we don’t look within ourselves, but we look to Jesus. We look to God’s perfect revelation of what is right and wrong. The world says “right and wrong are subjective, they depend on your point of view”, but God says “Look at me”, God is right. God is truth. God is goodness. God is justice. God is wisdom. Look up!)
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Did you know that there’s a book in the bible which is devoted to wisdom? It’s called Proverbs, and it’s just over halfway through the bible. There’s 31 chapters, which means you can read a chapter a day through January – there’s a new year’s resolution for you!
And here’s a really important theme of proverbs: throughout it, we’re reminded that the Christian life is not a solo sport. Time and time again, we’re instructed to seek counsel, to lean on one another. Again, I’ll whizz through some examples, feel free to get my notes from the website:
The way of fools seems right to them,
but the wise listen to advice.
Plans fail for lack of counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.
Listen to advice and accept discipline,
and at the end you will be counted among the wise.
Surely you need guidance to wage war,
and victory is won through many advisers.
What should you do when you’re approaching a big decision? Ask wise people for advice! Talk to the other people in your home group or at Decaf or at Songs of Praise! You know this church runs 13 home groups throughout the area during the week. Are you sharing your life with other Christians? I would go as far as to say that if you are regularly attending GBC on a Sunday morning, but you’re not in relationship with people during the week – you’re not sharing your fears and frustrations with other Christians – you’re not being vulnerable with anyone, then you’re missing out on what it means to be part of the church. As it used to say on the East Chadley Lane entrance, “A church is a people, not just a building”. Because this church is made strong when the relationships within it are made strong. Because what we do here on a Sunday morning isn’t a church meeting, it’s the church meeting.
What am I trying to say? If you’re faced with a difficult decision at work, at home, in your marriage, in your education, whatever it is, find a Christian brother or sister whom you trust and respect, and share it with them, listen to them, let them carry some of your burden.
What should you do while you’re waiting to hear God’s voice? Don’t stop serving.
You are in an amazing position for building God’s kingdom. When you’re waiting; when you’re stuck behind a closed door, remember this. You’ve got to
Start where you are.
Use what you have
Do what you can
Because you cannot start where you are not. And you cannot use what you do not have. And you cannot do what you are unable to do.
Let me simplify this. How many of us have prayed prayers of, “Lord, if you only give me this promotion…” “Lord if you help me get these results I need…” “Lord, if you move me out of the backwaters of Cambridgeshire, and into the city … then I’ll start living for you” “Lord if you help me get this car I want, I could do so much more for the church” “Lord if you heal me, then I’ll start praying for healing in other people’s lives”
Look around you, because you have everything you need to live for God right now. God has given you gifts to use in the relationships that only you have. You don’t need to wait for God to make his move – he’s already made it! Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.
Some of you are looking for the bigger picture, what you should be striving towards, is God calling you to youth work, or overseas missions, or medicine. Listen, while you’re waiting on God for that answer, why not find someone who does know which direction they’re headed, and bless them. Serve them. Help them to be equipped for the ministry God’s laid out before them.
Finally, Obey what you already know.
This is what Jesus says in Mark 4:
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Those who have will be given more; as for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
In other words, if you listen well to what you already know; if you are obedient to the instructions that God has already given you; God will give you a greater capacity to hear his voice in your life.
But if you are disobedient to what God has already highlighted; if you close your eyes, if you put your fingers in your ears regarding what God is clearly saying to you about where you’re at right now, how do you think you are going to find his will regarding the next step? If God is speaking to you about the way you are relating to your spouse, your parents, or your child; if God is speaking to you about your speech, or your need to spend time with him in the morning; if God is speaking to you about your financial habits, and you are putting your fingers in your ears, how do you think you’re going to hear the next step for you about your education or career?
(Pay attention to the prophetic)
(Rich Nathan includes this final point, which I didn’t mention when I spoke at GBC due to it being a big topic and it being a shorter sermon. However, I believe it’s a very important point; I agree with it and shouldn’t be glossed over in any way. I’ll leave you with Rich’s words:
“I want to speak to you in closing about the role of prophecy, dreams and visions and God’s still small voice in your heart in assisting you in making a decision. In the Bible many decisions were encouraged through prophetic words. For example in Acts 13: 1 – 3 we read this:
Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Now, prophecy can be one of the greatest blessings or one of the greatest curses for you in determining what God’s will is for you in your life. I think there is a good reason why Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Do not despise prophecy.”
That is because after you have gotten burned several times with bad prophetic words where someone has led you astray through a prophecy that you would tend to despise it. The fact is prophecy is always going to be mixed. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that:
1 Corinthians 13
“We know in part and we prophecy in part.”
And we have to test all things.
1 Thessalonians 5:19
Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.
We have to test all things and hold fast to that which is good. But earnest people can give bad words because they have selfish desires for your life, or because they are not able to distinguish God’s voice from their own thoughts.
So, how do we sort through all of this? How do we think about prophecies that were spoken over our life in the past or may be spoken over our life in the future? As a general rule, and you can write this down; personal directional words of prophecy ought to be followed only when they underline or confirm what God is already saying to you. Personal or directional words of prophecy ought to be followed only when they underline or confirm what God is already saying to you.
As you pray, as you incline your heart to listen to the Voice of the Holy Spirit, what do you sense he is saying? I like to think about prophecy as being like a yellow highlighter. God is already saying something. He is speaking to you through your desires, through counsel, through your giftings, or you have been praying about something, you have a deep inner impression that this is what God wants and then a word of prophecy comes and it highlights what the Lord is already doing. It communicates, “this is me” – it is not just you, son. It is not just your desire, daughter, it is me. It is like God just lights it on fire.
That is what God has done in my life on a number of occasions. He has used a prophetic word from somebody else to underline something he was already speaking to me about.
Let me highlight a principle here for you. You are responsible for what you do with your life and what you do with the talents that God has given you. And you will not be able to stand before God on the last day and use the excuse, “God, this prophetic person told me to go in this direction, so that’s what I did because I thought it was you.”
The Lord is going to say to you, “You were responsible to pray and seek my face and find out what I personally wanted for your life. You can’t pass that off to some prophet.”
Friend, you can trust the Lord’s leadership in your life. If you seek for wisdom and grow to be a wise person, if you obey what you know and stay sensitive to God’s Spirit, God will move you to the place of your highest and best use. God loves you and he wants to partner together with you in having you live a life that will bring him ultimate glory and bring you and the world ultimate blessing.)
Trust in God’s ability to lead you.
Become a wise person.
Don’t stop serving.
Obey what you already know.
(Pay attention to the prophetic)