Wise decisions

Today we’re looking at how we come to wise decisions. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James).

As anyone with a shred of life experience knows, when it comes to decision making the answers we’d like don’t often appear out of thin air. Someone once asked a famous monastic scholar, “How do we know what the will of God is”, to which he responded, “We don’t. That’s the joke”[i]. Sometimes decisions can feel that way. As involved as we trust God is, we don’t often get clear cut answers to our very specific questions. But, if we read James rightly, we notice that we’re not actually told to ask God for easy answers or microwave solutions – which is where our asking usually starts – but for wisdom, and then to put our faith to work. In the Bible it appears that God doesn’t flippantly override human will and human capacity at the drop of a hat. God is generous with wisdom, and we’re on deck to work it out.

Lacking Wisdom

It’s probably important at this point just to note the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The Bible tends to differentiate the two, knowledge being what we know, and wisdom being defined as how we live. Or, you could say given today’s topic, wisdom is found, or not found, in the choices we make. That’s why the whole book of James feels very grounded and unambiguous. James is classified by scholars as wisdom literature, as it’s concerned with how some of the first Christians went about their lives, as friends of God living with wisdom, or enemies of God living in foolishness. It’s very black and white. So wisdom is not just what you know, but what you do with what you know. How you relate to others; how you relate to ordinary life; what you do with language. It’s all very earthy. You can have all the knowledge in the world at your fingertips (and in a way today we do), but how are you living? Wisdom is about character and action, and therefore it’s tied up with our decisions.

Some studies say that adults make about 35,000 decisions every day.[ii] Many decisions are almost unconscious, where others are more closely tethered to our self-awareness and the results of a choice. Some decisions are relatively inconsequential, others are hugely consequential, and still others seeminconsequential but carry dramatic repercussions (I’m thinking of looking at our phones while driving, or sending that angry text before giving it a night’s sleep). Little decisions can be as crucial as the obviously big ones. Then of course there are the routine decisions we make daily which shape our character over time; the way we are and how we are directing our life’s trajectory. We need wisdom for that wide array of decisions we’re faced with our entire lives.

Our starting point from our theme verse, then, is to confess that we certainly do lack wisdom and pledge ourselves in attentiveness to God who shows us the way in the dark. The pie of knowledge is always a humbling reminder. There are things I know; things I don’t know; things I know I don’t know; things I don’t know I don’t know; things I know but have forgotten; (and everyone’s favourite) things I think I know but really don’t. That’s enough to make any decision feel impossible. But given all the instruction around wise and Godly living in Scripture, there must be some pointers on how to make a good decision. I’ve aimed to collect a few themes into four areas. I doubt this is the whole picture, but it’s a start. What to keep in mind when trying to make a wise decision as a follower of Jesus: overwatch, thriving, uniqueness, and community. 

Overwatch

A decision, especially a tough one, can feel incredibly lonely, as if everything rides on your call. And this is where we must remember that God is real, and God is on overwatch (or to put it in theological terms, God is sovereign). The Judeo-Christian belief is that God has a vantage point and a capacity beyond my very limited point of view and capacity. Someone once said, “I have two pieces of good news for you: there is a Messiah, you are not him.” When decisions can feel overwhelming, even crushing, I must remember that this is God’s world, and I am one of God’s creatures, even one of his children. It’s not all down to me, which is not just a comfort, but a necessary truth for a functional life of faith. Listen to the Psalms, prayers which often return to this sentiment. Listen to Ecclesiastes, “You are God in heaven, I am here on earth”. God sees what’s happening, nothing escapes his unique perspective beyond creation. We aren’t the center of the universe, not even the center of our own lives (no matter what social media tells us). Someone else is at the center of things, overseeing things, and the sooner we admit that in our decision making the sooner the pressure begins to lift a little, sometimes a lot. 

We work out this truth in prayer. Before prayer is a discipline, even before prayer is a devotion, prayer is a dependence – a dependence on the Being at the center of things, whom we have access to through Jesus, and this is where to start. I usually like to start elsewhere, often at the end, with all the maddening conclusions I could draw about the fallout of my choices. But eventually I have to learn I can only start here with God, because you can only start at the beginning. And, as we read in Genesis, “In the beginning, God…”. Prayer is where every wise decision begins to gestate. It may take time, it may take some sacrifice, but a peace develops with a movement to the center with God as life’s origin point. I think of it a bit like a merry-go-round. The further away you are from the center, the more chaotic things feel, and you worry you might fly off completely. But get to the center to hold on and you’ve got a chance. You’re still spinning, but you’ve fixed yourself to the hub of things and there’s some integrity to that. A decision made with God in our periphery, rather than our focus, is a decision which undermines God’s reality and necessary involvement for a wise life.

With God’s sovereignty and centrality in mind, we take into consideration what we know of God’s character in Scripture as seen in Jesus, and before long our choices begin to take shape (but we’ll come to that more so later). The key is to start with a bearing from God rather than thinking we have to make it up as we go. Maybe there’s something to thinking less about decision making and more about decision taking. Since I’m a created being, I’m not making anything out of thin air in the wild and chaotic universe, under pressure to come up with the goods alone. I’m going to take a decision, like taking a path. And the paths before us are varied: there are Godly paths, and ungodly paths; wise paths and unwise paths; selfish paths, and selfless paths. We stand with God at the dividing point of these paths and depend on him to direct us – we’re asking for a bearing and then moving in that direction. As we hear in the Proverbs, “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths…”

Thriving

If we want to follow Jesus, we must ask the question of our decisions: what direction from this decision offers the most dignity and respect, the most potential for others thrive? That may not help us know what exactly colour to paint the living room, or what school to attend, or satisfy our ego, but it pulls into focus a key point of faith: we want to flourish in the life of Jesus and to help those around us to flourish. We’re constantly faced with decisions which give us the chance to promote thriving or to stifle, to neglect or nurture, to abuse or encourage, to override or equip. So after remembering God’s overwatch, we add to that our interconnection and responsibility to others. In our decision taking we’re aiming to do as Jesus commanded: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It’s humbling to see the choices that begin to drop off the table once we commit to loving God and loving others first. There’s wisdom in admitting we can be very selfish and defensive creatures at our worst. Decisions with God on overwatch, and human thriving as our intent help us become our best.

Uniqueness

One of the enduring pictures of the Church in the Bible is that of a physical body, and within that metaphor St. Paul says that much like a physically body, the Church is full of bit and pieces – eyes, hands, parts that look important, parts that don’t – yet they’re all of equal value and all have a special purpose. One of Living Waters’ former lead pastors, Doug Smith, liked to say, “We only have to be the church that Jesus wants us to be.” What he meant by that was that Living Waters was entirely unique, just as every localized Christian community is unique. So there’s no perfect mold to follow, no magic, or secret sauce that will make us the “right kind of church”. Becoming who God has made us to be is a unique road for every church, because each church is made up of unique persons. Now apply that thinking to our unique personhood. There is no secret-sauce-decision that will give us the “right kind” of life. So often in decision taking we get stuck in toxic patterns, unsound societal trends, unhelpful cliches. You’re a totally unique person, living a singular life, equal in dignity and value to the life next to you. And your decision is a new one because of the many factors at play. So it’s important to make room to take unique choices because of life’s many nuances. This isn’t to say that we should adopt an “anything goes for anyone” attitude, or get wishy washy, as James warns against, far from it. We’ve already covered the importance of God on overwatch and human thriving as non-negotiables for wise decision taking seen in Scripture. Embracing uniqueness as the Bible describes also doesn’t mean we’re so desperate to be special we avoid the simple, even dull path we know deep down is best (sometimes sitting with an elder can help us young folks remember that we needn’t overthink every decision). But it is to say that within those bounds of God’s overwatch and our intention for human thriving, there may be more room than we realize to make the unique choice given a season, our personality, giftings, or commitments. I’m here to be me and you’re here to be you, so let’s just get on with it. Also, as many of us have no doubt discovered, sometimes you wonder if a number of choices will do just fine in God’s eyes. So maybe it’s not about getting it “right” when it comes to uniqueness in Christ but getting it true. Is this choice being true to the God I’m shown through Jesus in Scripture, is it true to loving my neighbour, is it true to my unique life as I discern God’s bearing?

Community

I’ve sat with folks over the years facing a tough choice, and a recuring theme is the fear and danger which comes with isolation, which, though real, can be helped because of our place in the body of Christ. We’ve been given one another in family circles, friendship circles and in church life. As unique as we are as body parts, we are also one body, united by Christ, designed for interconnection, and there is strength in numbers. One scholar talks of working together on tough decisions as “building a collective intelligence”[iii], and most important decisions seem best made with this in mind, or at least running in the background. Who can build a collective intelligence with me, to discern wisdom for a decision? I don’t mean calling a committee meeting a hundred times a day, but just to say that making isolated decisions is acting in a kind of unreality which tends to lead to foolishness and unfortunate outcomes. Sometimes you sit with a friend, either of you facing a decision, and when the burden is shared it’s eased in that simple connection of sharing, listening and prayer. Sometimes the wisdom found in developing that collective intelligence is not what I turned up with, or the time together allows what’s true to come to the surface. We needn’t go it alone, an unreality we weren’t designed for, when discernment together is readily available. As our core value of Community says, “in life together we discover everything Jesus has for us.” That discernment takes time and trust building. One of my favourite parts of being on our team here at the church is when one of us wanders into the room an says to one or two “I’m trying to sort out the best course of action here, do you have a moment?” Not only do we increase our odds of a wise decision, we’re brought closer together in humility and generosity of spirit.


[i] Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, p.103

[ii] https://go.roberts.edu/leadingedge/the-great-choices-of-strategic-leaders

[iii] Rowan Williams,

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