Choosing to start a master’s degree was one of the most complicated — and life-shaping — decisions I’ve made.
I was wrestling with how I should serve Christ with my life, how I could be most effective with the gifts God had given me. And the Bible didn’t spell out specifically what God wanted me to do.
I began looking at a seminary degree, which meant leaving a full-time ministry position with steady income for full-time studies that would diminish my time and ability to support my family. Then the questions snowballed: How would we pay for school? What would we do for health insurance? Where would I best get prepared for my long-term ministry goals? How would the move affect my wife, Allison?
Once I was accepted, we faced all the details of making life work. That included moving over 700 miles to Texas, finding a place to live, and searching for those elusive jobs that would be both flexible and substantive.
After we arrived in Dallas, those details continued to slip through my fingers. I had lined up a job that was supposed to provide health insurance for part-time hours, but after I started I learned that we wouldn’t be eligible for 13 months. I soon found a higher paying job (without insurance), but after a month working there, they called telling me not to come in that day — the uncertainty of available work with that employer continued for the next five months that I worked there.
With increasing financial strains, the pressures of academia, and my wife becoming lonely and emotionally weighted down, I increasingly questioned whether I had made the right decision. Was this really how God wanted me to serve him?
In God’s sovereign timing, he slowly pulled the pieces together, and after nine months of spinning our wheels, he provided workable employment, affordable housing, and emotional support in a way we never could have planned. We went on to thrive in seminary, and I finished the degree.
Making this decision and living it out raised lots of questions and challenges. Not knowing what step to take next or if the last step was right often brought a crippling frustration. And it was a weighty decision — one that would completely change the course of our lives.
That’s a common challenge for Christians when making all kinds of non-moral decisions: Where should I go to college? Should I date this person? Is she the person I should marry? When should we start a family? What job is the right fit for me? How can I best serve in ministry? Should I consider overseas missions?
Over the years, I’ve struggled with both knowing how to make decisions and second-guessing myself after I’ve made them. But I’ve also found that while God may not spell out the specifics for our individual lives in the Bible, he does provide great clarity on how we as Christians should make decisions and how to have peace in the process.
Where Wisdom Starts
We gravitate first to the book of Proverbs, the premier wisdom book of all time. Proverbs spells out very clearly where wisdom starts: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10).
In essence, wisdom begins in my relationship with God. I can attain wisdom when I approach God in humility and reverence, acknowledging my own fallenness and warped perspective in comparison to his holiness, purity, and perfect wisdom. It starts with a belief that I’ve got a lot to learn (Prov. 9:7–9). Such an attitude prepares me to accept wisdom from God by removing the illusion that “I know best.”
During my first year of seminary, external circumstances caused me to question the wisdom I had received prior to arriving in Texas. Our challenges didn’t jive with what I believed our situation should look like.
But knowing that God saw our struggles from the larger perspective calmed my anxieties and gave me peace to wait things out before making a drastic change based on fear. This waiting period challenged me to exercise my faith in God and entrust our situation to Him. In time He overcame our obstacles and strengthened our trust in His providence.
Starting with fear of the LORD also means that I don’t request on-demand advice apart from nurturing my relationship with God. Rather, it assumes that I’m already standing daily in the refreshing stream of God’s truth and grace. If I’ve been dwelling in a desert, disconnected from the Lord, it will take time to travel nearer to him so I can recognize his wisdom when He gives it. But as I gain a greater knowledge and love of who God is — loving, faithful, in control, pure — I am ready to hear and trust Him when difficult choices come.
So whether a big decision confronts me today or not, cultivating wisdom starts right now. It starts with fearing God, knowing God, and loving the God of all wisdom.
Recognizing God’s Voice
This ongoing relationship demands that we communicate regularly with God. Then when we’re making decisions, we need to go to the Lord and ask for wisdom.
The good news is that when we pray for wisdom, God is eager to grant it (Prov. 2:1–5). “For the LORD gives wisdom,” Prov. 2:6 explains; “from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
James 1:5 says much the same thing: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” Scripture charges us to ask in faith, but also makes clear that God loves to give — He yearns to share wisdom with us.
God’s wisdom comes through a variety of sources. I’ve found wisdom in the text of Scripture, in the quiet of prayer, in a sermon or book, in consultation with a pastor or mature Christian, and in friends and family. Parents can often provide specially tailored advice. And being involved in a local church body allows other Christians to get to know me well enough so they can speak into my life. Finding wisdom requires listening to many advisers.
Indeed, the Scriptures say that “[w]ithout counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22; see also Prov. 11:14; 24:6). Stated another way, making decisions alone both reveals my arrogance and forecasts my failure. I need input from others to make me aware of considerations I can’t, or won’t, see.
During my first year of seminary, I distinctly remember talking with the pastor of the church we were attending about the struggles we were facing. He had been through similar experiences in seminary and was able to provide a calming perspective on our specific concerns. He also offered practical recommendations for moving forward. Had I not consulted someone with wisdom, I could have made a rash decision that only aggravated our woes.
But sometimes when we ask many advisers for wisdom, we receive different, even dissonant, advice. In weighing the variations, the character of the adviser matters a great deal. What is her or his track record in living out the Christian life and making wise decisions? I often feel blind when dwelling in the cloud of emotional turmoil that accompanies big decisions — is this counselor more objective and able to see more clearly than me?
We also have to beware of selective hearing. If I ask enough people, I’m bound to find someone who will agree with me. Rather, seeking out advisers of good character who objectively tell me what I need to hear, even if I don’t like it, can help me avoid the trap of surrounding myself with people who just affirm what I want to hear.
Ultimately, though, I am responsible for my own decisions. I have to live with the consequences of whatever choice I make. While seeking wisdom from others, it’s critical to assess their counsel against God’s criteria and in concert with my prayerful pursuit of insight from the Spirit.
James 3:13–18 provides a helpful gauge for measuring my decisions against God’s priorities. James contrasts the wise person with those who “have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in [their] hearts” (3:14). How often do we find our decisions motivated by “earthly” desires (3:15), trying to get ahead or attain what someone else has?
Instead, James provides a description of “the wisdom from above” that we can use as a grid to evaluate our decisions. Unlike earthly wisdom, “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (3:17). Walking through this list of heavenly wisdom’s characteristics to assess the details of our decisions helps us evaluate the options.
Here again we see the need for being in close, ongoing relationship with God. We are not pure, but God is. As we walk with the Spirit day by day, we can better recognize the purity of His wisdom, which often contrasts the wisdom of the world.
The remaining characteristics of wisdom push us out of a self-absorbed approach to decision-making by considering how our decisions affect others: Will this decision promote peace? Will it harm others or treat them gently? Am I listening to the good reason of others or simply demanding my own way? Will this choice produce fruit that promotes the gospel of God’s mercy? Am I really being honest with myself?
This passage helps us view our decisions in the grander scheme of God’s purposes. In some ways, developing our character and relationship with God through our decisions matters more than the actual decision. Still, where we go and what we do is important, and prioritizing godly values will steer us toward a choice that pleases God. Through this approach we wrestle with both the problem at hand and the purity of our hearts.
Ultimately, no one can give you or me a step-by-step guide for every decision we will face. But fearing God, seeking his wisdom in a multitude of counselors, and aligning our criteria with the characteristics of heavenly wisdom bring proper perspective to the decision-making process.
This approach frees us from anxieties so we can rest in God’s sovereign plan. Proverbs 16:9 admonishes, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” Perhaps that’s where wisdom culminates: Entrusting the process and outcome of each decision as we walk through it to the all-knowing mind and all-powerful hands of God.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.