God Is Not a Magic 8-Ball
So stop shaking Him.
And I started young. I remember as a kid holding my Toys R Us gift certificate while in the huge toy store, paralyzed because I was unable to choose between the Star Wars and Transformers aisles.
So you can just imagine what happened when I had to make a major life decision a few months ago.
The decision sounded so simple, but it wasn’t: I could stay in my own hometown after college or move away in order to take a job. If I stayed I’d be helping my church (which I love) and I’d be with my family. If I moved I’d be helping a Christian ministry I love, and I’d be with some great friends. It wasn’t just a decision about a job; it was a decision about calling and relationships and gifting. And it was heart-wrenching.
So, being obsessed with list-making, I made columns of pros and cons that went on for pages. I wrote down priorities I wanted to keep in mind like “involvement in a good local church” and “friends who will hold me accountable.” Pretty soon I had pages on pages of notes, and my head was spinning. I was in agony. I started practicing near divination—flipping randomly through my Bible looking for verses that would give me a magical answer. I kept hoping that same word or phrase would float to the top of my consciousness and then that would be it…. I would just know.
During that time, one day stands out in my mind. The turning point. I should’ve been studying for a test but instead I just left my campus and started driving. I felt like giving up, and I was desperate for God to speak to me. I found a little secluded park, got out and decided to pray. If God didn’t speak to me I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
Love What God Loves
I found a spot in the park under a tree and began reading Psalm 37.
Verse 23 said, “The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hands.” But the words on the page felt hollow. It was hard to believe that amidst all the chaos of my decision.
Then I saw it. The condition. “When.” “When he delights in his way.”
A quick internal inventory revealed a distinct absence of “delight” in my heart. But what did that have to do with my decision? Then I saw verse 4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” There it was again — the command to delight in God. Then, through all my hardheaded selfishness the thought came to my mind:
Do my desires in this decision line up with God’s desires? Do I love what God loves?
I’d had it backward all along. I was trying to bring all of my thoughts and questions and reasoning to God and expecting the answer to float up in front of me. I saw God as little more than the solution to my problem. With my decision I was acting as though God had no other purpose than giving me what I wanted: an answer. My thoughts were consumed with me-centered thoughts like, “How will this affect me? What will happen to me? Will I be happy?” It was me-driven decision making. I was treating God more like a Magic 8 Ball than a God that I loved and served.
And Psalm 37 shattered my Magic 8 Ball. This Psalm is no superficial prayer, no perfunctory oration. This Psalm comes from the heart of a man that knows God deeply and loves God deeply. The David of Psalm 37 is the same David of Psalm 63 that said, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” David’s deep relationship with God drives leads him to God-driven decision making. His concern became, “How can I bring glory to God with this decision? How can I advance God’s kingdom through this decision?” His was a God-driven life.
So what does David’s example have to do with me? It means that the most important factor in every decision I make is not how I feel about it or what it will mean for my future (though those are important) but whether it will please God. As a Christian my priorities have been radically altered by the cross of Christ. First Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “You are not your own; for you were bought with a price.” I once lived to gratify myself, but now that I’ve been redeemed I live to please the Redeemer.
In my life today what ultimately matters is not whether I get the right job, or pursue the right girl, or buy the right house. Certainly these are all extremely important. But what ultimately matters is pleasing the God who saved me. My desires and plans and hopes and dreams must be shaped by the God that created and saved me. Charles Spurgeon writes in his commentary on the Psalms:
“Men who delight in God desire or ask for nothing but what will please God; hence it is safe to give them carte blanche. Their will is subdued to God’s will, and now they may have what they will.”
I realized that during the course of my decision I’d started spending less time reading God’s Word, less time praying, less time delighting in God. And the time I did spend in Scripture was about “finding an answer,” and not primarily about communing with God. As a result, I’d spent more and more time in my own thoughts. And that’s a problem, especially when I remember that I’m still a sinner and that my heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9).
I saw that if I really wanted to know God’s will for my life I was going to have to get close enough to Him know what He loves and hates and desires.
If you’ve ever had a close relationship (especially if you’re married) you know what it’s like to try to study someone else, to find out what they like and dislike, to learn whether on a given night they’d rather go out for dinner or take a walk. But it’s not work; it’s a joy because you care about them and want to please them.
In the same way we’re called to know and pursue God passionately until His desires become our desires, His loves our loves, His hatred our hatred. And as we do we’ll see ever more clearly the steps he has established for us.
Usually in my decision-making my thoughts are swirling bits of confusion and chaos. I’m a frustrated bundle of anxiety and too much coffee. The thing is, in Psalm 37 David paints a radically different picture of someone seeking God: “The law of God is in his heart; his steps do not slip” (31).
The thoughts of the righteous man in the verse don’t shift back and forth the way mine often do. They’re steady. They’re grounded in God’s Word. And when we’re tempted to question God’s goodness, or character, or commandments (“Did God really say?”), God’s Word reminds us of the truth about God, ourselves and our world.
My steps often slip when I make decisions — not because God hasn’t given me clear direction, because I often ignore the clear direction found in His Word. Decision-making doesn’t have to be overly complicated.
I’ve never forgotten the staggeringly clear advice I got while interning with a pastor named Jon Smith. Someone asked him how he tries to help people make decisions. He said many times it’s as simple as going to Scripture and looking for two things:
- Things Scripture specifically commands us to do.
- Things scripture specifically commands us not to do.
Then consider what you find in Scripture and use it in making your decision.
So, for example, if you’re deciding whether or not to take a new job, one question could be going to Scriptures like 1 Timothy 6 calling money a “root of all kinds of evil” reminding us that “it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith” and telling us to “flee these things.” In light of that verse one question might be, “Am I taking this job out of greed and a sinful desire for wealth?” Or where Scripture encourages and necessitates involvement in a local church for the Christian (see the book of Ephesians), one question could be, “Will deciding this allow me to continue my involvement in church or take me away from it?”
Jon’s advice helped me see that the best thing I can do to prepare for all of the future decisions in my life is to get up every morning and spend time with God. The best thing I can do when making decisions is to ground my thoughts in God’s Word.
But sometimes even when we’re seeking God and searching God’s Word the answer isn’t clear. What happens then?
As I read the verses in the park I realized why I tend to be a horribly indecisive person: I’m afraid.
I’m afraid that as a result of my decision something will go horribly wrong and my life will end in shambles. I’m afraid that after one wrong move my life will snowball into a series of unfortunate events ending with me penniless and shoeless somewhere in Central America. (I confess that my fears may be just slightly irrational.)
As if he’s addressing me, David says in Psalm 37, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (vs 7). This is not a passive waiting. It’s active. Derek Kidner’s excellent commentary on the Psalms points out that David actively redirects his emotions (“delight yourself in the Lord,” vs 4), actively entrusts his life (“commit your way,” vs 5) and reputation (“He will bring forth your righteousness,” vs 6) to God.
If I don’t trust God while making a decision, then my decision will often be made out of fear or a desire to control my own life or other sinful cravings. And it’s only when I’m trusting God that I pursue God, love His Word and think clearly.
Ask For Help
Now one qualification: When making decisions you should often do more than what I’ve described above (seek God, search Scripture, trust God), but never less. We need counsel from others, we need to think clearly, we need to weigh practical concerns. But more than anything else we need God. We need to seek God, trust God and spend time in His Word.
That day in the park God was kind enough to radically adjust my perspective. And it radically changed the way I made my decisions. It changed my decisions from things I decided and asked God about later, to things driven by God’s desires for me and my life.
And little by little this indecisive person is learning to let God drive his decisions.
Copyright 2008 Ricky Alcantar. All rights reserved.