Every Christian wants to know God's will. Especially when we're facing big decisions. We'd like to know which college he wants us to attend, which career he wants us to pursue, which spouse he wants us to marry, which house he wants us to buy.
And so sometimes we get a little wacky trying to figure out what God's will is. I know people who come up with ridiculous games they want God to play. They'll pray, "If you want me to take this job, then please make the phone ring right now....Ohhkaayyy.... right now?" I know one guy whose parents try to find God's will by closing their eyes, flipping the Bible open to a random page, pointing their finger down on a random verse, and doing whatever that verse says. It's a good thing they've never hit Matthew 27:5, "And Judas went and hanged himself."
Why do we do all these spiritual gymnastics, when God has promised that he'll tell us everything we need to know? That's what James said in his letter to people who had experienced persecution as Christians from their families, neighbors, employers, and authorities, but weren't sure how God wanted them to respond. James gave them this encouragement:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:2-5)
In James' letter, there are five simple steps we can take to receive God's guidance and make godly decisions. Here's the first:
1. Ask for God's wisdom.
In the words James uses, it’s clear that he isn’t talking about some wispy, theoretical wisdom. He’s talking about the kind of wisdom that guides you in your everyday life. The kind of wisdom that dictates how you’ll reflect Christ in the hectic stress of the office, or in the chaotic mess of a house with young kids. It determines how you respond to your precious child after he throws his bottle on the floor for the 10th time. It controls what you’ll do when you’re flipping through TV channels, and a show catches your eye that will be destructive to your soul.
James is more interested in this everyday wisdom because he realizes that the big decisions we make in life are crucially affected by the little choices we make every day. God promises to give you his wisdom when you ask for it. But there’s a condition:
Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6)
He’s talking about someone who asks for God’s wisdom, but then doesn’t follow it once they get it! So the next step in gaining God’s guidance is:
2. Commit to follow God’s wisdom when you get it.
If you ask for God’s wisdom, then ignore it and do you own thing when he answers, James says you’re like a wave tossed in the ocean. I know what this feels like. On the windward side of Oahu, there's a tiny island with on the back side. This cove has steep cliffs on all sides and a steep protrusion of rock in the middle. There are waves coming in from all directions, and waves bouncing off the cliffs in every direction.
It’s fun to jump off the cliff into that cove, but when you land in the water it’s extremely difficult to swim out. You may start going in one direction, but then five seconds later you’re going in the opposite direction. There are sharp rocks all around you, and sometimes there are sharks hanging out on the bottom, looking for an afternoon snack.
It’s a dangerous place to be! And James says if you’re going back and forth like that, asking for God’s help and then rejecting it when he gives it to you, you’d be better off just not asking. So follow his guidance when he gives it in the little decisions you make every day.
James has some advice for the big decisions too. He gives an example of businessmen planning a trip. This was just as common in his day as it is in ours. Through James, we’re listening in on their conversation:
You who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. (James 4:13-14)
Is James condemning their plans? No, not exactly. Is he saying it’s useless to prepare for the future? No, not really.
He’s not criticizing the act of making plans, he’s telling us to make our plans with humility. That’s the next principle of receiving God’s guidance:
3. Make plans with humility
We’re free to set 5-year plans or 30-year plans, as long as we’re following James’ first bit of advice, and truly relying on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as we do so.
James isn’t rebuking these businessmen for their actions as much as their attitudes. He’s condemning their arrogance and their self-confident planning that doesn’t recognize God or his sovereignty. “What is your life?” James says, “You are a mist!”
When I first bought a house, we started getting all kinds of phone calls from loan companies and insurance salesmen. One guy was trying as hard as he could to sell me life-insurance.
He had all the right things to say: “Do you really want your wife to be paying a huge mortgage all by herself, Mr. Dirks? How will she survive?” I told him I would talk to my wife and if we were interested, I would call him back the next day.
“That’s fine, Mr. Dirks,” he said, “You go ahead and call me back tomorrow. …If you wake up.” …Click.
I don’t think the guy had ever read James 4, but he was absolutely right. We can make all the plans we want, but we need to make them with a big “IF.”
That’s exactly what James says in the next verse:
Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15).
Is James establishing some kind of ritual incantation that we should recite before every statement we ever make? That’s what my dear grandmother thought. “If it’s the Lord’s will, I’ll make it to Bob’s Big Boy for lunch.” … “If it’s the Lord’s will, I’ll watch Lawrence Welk before I go to bed.”
It’s not the words so much as the principle behind the words. That is… as you're making your plans with humility, you need to:
4. Live your life with dependence
We all make choices in life. What career to pursue, who to marry, where to live, how many kids to have, where to send them to school. James says, “God has given you wisdom, so go ahead and make those plans.
Just recognize that God’s sovereign will is the final authority, and that any human plan works only “if the Lord wills.”
I can hear the question in your head: “So what if our godly plans, made with humble dependence on God, fail?” What if you spend four or five years and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a college degree that you’re never able to use? What if you decide to invest your retirement savings in Palm, and it all vanishes? What if you decide to marry a wonderful Christian woman or man, but the marriage soon falls apart? Does that mean you weren’t following the will of God?
James answers these questions as he concludes his letter:
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:7-11)
Here he returns to the issue of suffering, and how it relates to the will of God. When you’ve relied on God’s wisdom, but your plans seem to be failing, then God doesn’t always call you to give up on our plans. He calls us to be like the prophets and…
5. Endure trying times with patience
We might not what God’s ultimate plan might be, but we can know his guidance day by day. And, just like Job, that guidance might lead us straight into suffering. But when it does, we know we’re in good company because Jesus is the best example of suffering for God’s greater purpose.
Following God’s guidance doesn’t mean life will be easier. It almost always means life will get harder. But the promise of Christ is that he will guide us, empower us, and even carry us through those times: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20)