One of the most important issues in any of our lives is that of making choices. We make them every day - big ones like who to marry, what career to choose, what city to live in. But equally as significant are the everyday decisions that we make, the consequences of which add up to be just as significant as the momentous decisions.
The choices we make are going to determine our destiny. I've heard someone say that most decisions can be made by any reasonably competent person of average intelligence. But there are a small number of decisions that are life-changing. Even the small decisions end up really making a difference because we make them on such a regular basis.
So the question really is how to make good decisions, and there are two schools of thought. One is the hands-off approach. Do you remember the Greek myth of Oedipus? Before he was born, it was prophesied that he would kill his father and marry his mother. When he grew up he was aware of this prophecy, and he tried everything to avoid his fate, yet he ended up killing the prophesy despite all of his efforts. In this view or reality, you can make all the decisions in the world, but you can't escape your fate. Your destiny is predetermined, and no matter what you do you can't avoid your fate.
The very opposite view is probably what most of us hold. It can be summed up in the famous words of the great theologian, Doc from Back to the Future. Doc said, "Your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one." In this view, everything is up for grabs, and you can determine your own future by the choices that you make.
Then we have a unique view that doesn't really fit into either category, and you might have been exposed to this view within the church. The view is that God has a perfect will for your life: the person you're supposed to marry, the job you're supposed to take, and so on. It's like the bull's eye. It's your job to discern what that will is through a series of steps, like praying, putting out tests for God to confirm what he wants, and sensing when you have peace. The pressure's on with this view, because if you marry the wrong person you not only miss your own bull's eye, but you have taken the bull's eye away from the person who was supposed to marry your spouse, so you've messed up things for at least three people, probably more.
So it's in this context that we come to Proverbs and ask, how in the world are we supposed to make wise decisions? Proverbs is very helpful in answering this. It's amazingly nuanced and practical when it comes to this subject.
So let's look at what Proverbs teaches us on this subject. First: our role when it comes to decisions. Second, God's role. Third, how to put our role and God's role together.
First, let's look at our role in making decisions.
Proverbs teaches us that you have a role in making decisions. For example, listen to these proverbs:
The plans of the diligent lead to profit
as surely as haste leads to poverty.
Surely you need guidance to wage war,
and victory is won through many advisers.
And if you make good decisions, you'll get to enjoy the benefits. Proverbs 31 speaks of the noble woman who embodies the wisdom described in Proverbs, and it says:
She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
One of the clearest verses that describes the both the importance of planning, and one of the most important ingredients in planning, is found in Proverbs 20:18:
Plans are established by seeking advice;
so if you wage war, obtain guidance.
You'd have to be crazy to go to war if you didn't have a plan. Imagine having all the troops lined up about to engage in battle when somebody asks, "OK boss, what's the plan?" "I don't know yet. We'll wing it." Armies have plans and strategies before they go to war, and they're based on lots of advice from lots of smart people. That's why there are books like The Art of War. Smart sports teams have plans before they approach a draft, like the Leafs did this past week. I hope! And you'd be crazy if you didn't have a plan. It involves thinking about goals, getting advice, thinking about the steps necessary to accomplish that goal, devising alternatives, dealing with roadblocks, and using your imagination to picture the end result.
We need to begin with the human side and say: you need to plan. Some people think it's unspiritual to plan, but Proverbs says that's bunk. Some people say that we need to go through all kinds of spiritual exercises to determine God's will. Proverbs says: no, plan. Use your brain. Get good advice. Make good decisions. So you should be planning for your future. That's the human side of planning.
Proverbs doesn't stop there, though.
Second, we need to look at God's role when it comes to the decisions that we make.
Proverbs teaches us that we have a role to play in our decisions, but so does God. Proverbs 16:1-2 says:
To human beings belong the plans of the heart,
but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue.
People may think all their ways are pure,
but motives are weighed by the LORD.
What this means is that we can plan, but God may have something different in mind than what we plan. Verse 1 gives us an example. Have you ever planned what you were going to say to somebody, even planned carefully, but when you went to speak, something completely different came out? That's what verse 1 says. You can plan all you want, but if God wants you to say something different, then you're going to say something different. You can plan all that you want, but if God wants something else to happen, then something else is going to happen.
Then verse 2 says that God sees something completely different than we do. When I make a decision, I think that I'm being objective and rational, and I'm often pretty convinced that I've made the correct decision when I'm done. That's what the first part of verse 2 says: "People may think all their ways are pure." The reality is, though, that I am not impartial and rational when I make decisions. God sees my heart and my motives, and he understands that I'm often not making the best decisions because I have all kinds of mixed motives, and so do you.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that our problem isn't so much small-s sins, like sinful actions, as much as capital-S Sin. We have sinful hearts. John Bunyan said it well: there's enough sin in his best prayer to damn the whole world. That is, even when we are at our best, we are still full of mixed motives and selfish desires and all kinds of things that corrupt us. We can't make wise decisions like we're supposed to because our hearts are corrupt, and we lack wisdom.
Then look at Proverbs 16:9:
In their hearts human beings plan their course,
but the LORD establishes their steps.
Proverbs 19:21 says:
Many are the plans in a human heart,
but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails.
Do you see the tension? We have a role to play when it comes to decisions, but so does God. You see this especially when it comes to bad things that happen. What happens when the decisions that are made are bad ones? Proverbs 16:4 tells us:
The LORD works out everything to its proper end—
even the wicked for a day of disaster.
Here's what this means. The first part of the verse says that God is in control of everything. But the second part of the verse says that when wicked people make bad choices of their own free will, God is able to use even their free choices for good. God doesn't author evil, but he's able to use even the evil choices that people make of themselves for his own purposes. We can choose, but God ultimately gets his will done even through even the bad choices that we make. A good example is the life of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph was able to say after years of being unjustly treated by others, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Genesis 50:20).
There's a tension here that we really aren't going to be able to put together. Are we free to make our own choices? Yes. Do our choices really matter? Yes. But does God sovereignly determine the way things are going to turn out? Yes. The technical term for this is antinomy. It's an apparent contradiction. And if you think about it, it's really the best of both worlds.
If your decisions didn't matter, then you may as well stay in bed all day because what's the use? But if your decisions determine everything, then the pressure is on. You have to make good decisions or else. But if your decisions matter and at the same time God determines the future, then you have an important role, but you can relax knowing that God is in charge. Understanding our role and God's role brings significance to our decisions, but it also brings confidence because we know that God is at work even through our mistakes and the bad things that happen.
This also means that if you want to know what God's will is for your life, you're standing in it. God's will is not something that you discover; it's something that he does. He has you right where he wants you. So your decisions matter, but God ultimately uses those decisions so that it's his purpose that prevails. He uses even the bad things to accomplish his purposes.
But what we really need is to pull this all together.
And there's no better verse to pull this altogether than Proverbs 16:3:
Commit to the LORD whatever you do,
and he will establish your plans.
This is one of those verses that you think you know what it means, but we probably don't. We need to slow down and read it again. This is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say to make plans and then pray that God will bless them and establish them. That's not at all what it says.
It says, "Commit to the LORD whatever you do." The word commit there literally means roll. It means rolling everything you do on to the LORD, giving everything to him and keeping nothing back. This means complete dependence on God. What this means is that you stop relying on yourself, and that you roll control of your life over to God so that everything you do and who you are is completely committed to him.
This is much more than praying that God will bless what we choose. The original sin involved rolling our lives away from God and declaring independence from him. As a result, our natural condition is one of sin, of wanting our own way. But Christ has come to make a way possible back to God. Through Christ God has made it possible for us to roll our lives back on to the Lord, so that our entire lives are once again lived in submission to him.
When this happens, verse 3 says that God will establish your plans. The result of giving our entire lives over to God is that he will establish what he wants to do through us. This takes all the pressure off. Our decisions matter, but we don't bear the weight of them. We roll everything on to God, and he does with us as he pleases. And then we don't have to worry about the results. If it was all up to us, then we have pressure and all kinds of fear. But because God is sovereign, we can rest even though we know our limitations. When we commit our entire lives to God, and realize that he's sovereign, we can plan and then relax, knowing that our achievements are ultimately up to God. We can then live in prayer and peace.
So your decisions matter. But what matters most of all is that you are committed to God. When you get this balance, that your decisions matter, but God is sovereign, and that what matters even more than your decisions is that you are yielded to him - then you can work and relax, knowing that God is sovereign, and that he can work through the choices that you make.
Jack Miller was a pastor on the verge of burnout. In 1970, while pastoring a small church in Pennsylvania and teaching practical theology at a seminary, he became so discouraged that he resigned from both his church and the seminary. He had failed. People weren't changing like he knew they should.
He spent a few weeks crying. Gradually he came to realize what was wrong. He realized he had been motivated by his own personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. "He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval," his daughter writes, "his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and seminary."
Miller came to a turning point. "He had been relying on the wrong person to do ministry - himself." He began to give up all dependence on himself, and began to learn the basics of doing Christian ministry in Christ's strength. The result was greater freedom and power.
Miller discovered that his actions mattered, but it's not all up to him. He learned to give up all dependence on himself, to acknowledge how poor in spirit he was, and then rely exclusively on Jesus and the gift of His Spirit in constant prayer.
Miller once wrote to a young missionary and said:
Remember the only real leader you have is Jesus Christ. Unless you are daily taught of him you will not be able to make the right decisions.
Miller discovered the joy of rolling his entire life on to the Lord, and relying on God's strength and not his own. And his life ministry was never the same.
My prayer for you is that you will make wise decisions. But my greater prayer is that you will understand that God is sovereign, and that it's only as we roll our entire lives over to him that the pressure is off, and we discover the freedom and joy that come from relying on him.
Father, I pray that you would give us wisdom as we make decisions. Thank you for the important role we play in making decisions, but thank you that you work even through our weaknesses and mistakes.
Thank you also for the invitation to trust you, to roll our lives over to you. The original sin was Adam and Eve claiming sovereignty over their own lives rather than submitting to you. Jesus Christ came to undo the results of that sin, to make it possible to once again submit to you.
Through the power of the Spirit, please convict us today in the areas in which we are trying to control our own lives, acting as little gods. Stop us from relying on the wrong person - ourselves. And bring us back to submission to you through the work of Christ and the power of your Spirit, so that every person here would realize that the only leader they have is Jesus Christ. In his name we pray, Amen.