What to do when you don’t know what to do.
How did you know you were supposed to be a missionary? How did you know you were supposed to go to Africa? My wife and I have been asked questions like these more times that I can count. The truth is the answers to such questions are rarely simple.
Each of us, at some time or another, has had to make a decision where God has not left clear instructions for us. At times, these decisions can seem small:
Should I get a side job?
Is it time to replace my vehicle?
What should I do for my vacation time this year?
At other times, these can be life, business, or ministry altering decisions:
Should I pursue marriage with this person?
Would a move to a new community be right for our family?
Do I make a career change?
It can be difficult, even painful, when where we desire to know the “right” path but don’t have a clear sense of direction. In many cases there can be tremendous risk and sacrifices that accompany these decisions. Worse still, we will face many such dilemmas through the years and whatever choice we make can directly impact the course our life takes.
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, the disciples were faced with an important decision they had to make on their own. Jesus had now ascended into heaven and, for the first time, He was not there to consult about what to do. (Acts 1:12–26) The question they faced was whether and how to replace Judas as an apostle.
This was an important decision for numerous reasons. The apostles knew they needed twelve. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and Jesus had told the apostles that they would judge Israel on twelve thrones. (Mt 19:28) But whoever they chose would directly impact the future ministry of the church because the apostles would be responsible for baptizing and teaching new believers. (Mt 28:19–20) In this passage, Peter follows a fairly systematic means of decision making that serves as a model for us as well.
Consult Scripture. The first question the apostles faced was whether Judas Iscariot needed to be replaced at all. To answer this question, Peter first went to the Scriptures. Peter referred the disciples to Psalm 69: 25, “May his camp become desolate” and Psalm 109:8, “Let another take his place.” Peter drew from his knowledge of Scripture to inform how he acted.
While all Scripture is God’s Word, we should be careful how we approach the Bible in decision making. I knew of a young man who was trying to decide whether to pursue marriage with a young woman. He prayed that God would show him an answer and randomly opened his Bible to Hosea 1:2: “Go, take for yourself a wife inclined to infidelity, and children of infidelity; for the land commits flagrant infidelity, abandoning the Lord’.” As you can guess, the young man was even more confused by this “answer” than he was previously.
The Bible is not a tarot deck that we can randomly open for answers to specific problems. In fact, even if we study it well, the Bible will rarely answer specific life questions directly, but it often will often give us principles to help guide our decisions. It might not tell us whether we should get a new car, but it does teach us financial principles. It might not tell us whether to change jobs, but it does warn us of greed, worry, and pursuing earthly treasure.
Of course, approaching the Bible as a whole means that we need to have a comprehensive knowledge of the Scriptures, which requires that we study it regularly. Because no one has a complete knowledge of the Bible, the next step is also important.
Consult Other Believers. Notice that Peter did not make a decision unilaterally but presented his proposal to his brothers and sisters in Christ. (Acts 1:15) In fact, it was the other believers who decided who should be candidates for Judas’ replacement. (Acts 1:23) We must seek counsel from mature followers of Jesus. The Bible says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” (Prov 27:17) We need other believers to affirm us when we need encouragement and rebuke us when we are going down the wrong path.
We should also be careful about who we consult for Christian counsel. Some people will always try to give us the answer they think we want to hear. (“Just follow your heart,” etc.) Other people will give you the answer that makes sense to them, regardless of whether it’s biblical. When our family was raising support to be missionaries, we were asked why we would go to another country when there were plenty of lost people in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s important, when seeking Christian counsel, to talk to believers who know the Scripture well, but also will be honest with us even if it hurts.
Pray. Prayer is not something we should just do when faced with difficult decisions. The practice of prayer should be a regular part of our lives. Notice that in this passage the believers “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” before they ever even discussed the problem. (Acts 1:14) But once they were faced with a decision they prayed again and asked God to show them who He had chosen for the task. (Acts 1:24) Likewise, we should continually pray, but when faced with a decision we should ask God specifically for what we need. Jesus taught his followers that “they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1)
Use Wisdom. The Bible is clear that we cannot always trust our own reason or emotions. We cannot discern God’s plan by reason alone, (Is 55:8–9) our hearts are corrupt and deceptive (Jer 17:9), and following God’s plan often means trusting Him when things don’t make sense. (Prov 3:5–6) But these verses don’t mean that reason is useless, only that it should be employed after we have searched the Scripture, sought God in prayer, and consulted with other believers.
When our family had to change mission fields, we turned down locations that did not have adequate schools or communities for our children. I knew that for us to survive long term on the field, we would need these things. This fact was not something that was revealed through Scripture, it was something I knew as a father from previous experience. I had to rely on what I knew about our family and myself to guide our decision making.
In the passage in Acts 1, Peter understood that whoever was chosen as an apostle would be conveying Jesus’ teaching to others. This wasn’t a Biblical criterion for apostleship, it was a rational one. It only made sense that whoever was chosen for this task needed to have followed Jesus from the beginning. From this criterion, the disciples were able to narrow possible candidates down to two individuals, Joseph and Matthias.
Trust God’s Providence. After Scripture, prayer, consultation of believers, and rational elimination, the disciples were still left with a choice. So, they asked God to reveal his will to them and they cast lots. No one really knows how lots were cast in the Bible, only that it was a seemingly random way of making decisions (similar to rolling a die, drawing straws, or flipping a coin). While this may seem like an arbitrary means of decision making, the disciples likely chose this means based on Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Once I have explored every other means of discerning God’s will, I will often place my faith in his providence. Should I get a new job? I’ll apply and see what happens. Should we buy a new car? Let’s see if there are any available in our price range. We serve a God that opens what no one can shut and shuts what no one can open. (Rev 3:7) We pursue his will with the confidence that if we seek Him with our whole heart we will find Him. (Jer 29:13) and that our Good Shepherd will only ever lead us where He wants us to be. (Ps 23:1–3)
Live for Jesus.