Tough decisions come up quite often in the Christian life. We face hard questions about birth control, whom to marry, what job to take, where to move, as well as those difficult end-of-life medical treatment questions. What do we do when faced with a difficult decision? If you're like me, you (sadly!) tend to face tough decisions in ways that are less than biblical, because sinful motives cloud your judgment. For example, we think selfishly about what's best for ourselves, we are quick to come to conclusions and too stubborn to change our minds, or we make the decision based on the fear of man or some other sin with which we struggle. Sometimes a tough decision is made, and only afterwards we realize that we forgot to pray about it at all. In this brief essay, I lay out a very general method for facing tough decisions biblically.
Of course, prayer is the first place to start when facing big decisions. We can even pray now for wisdom to make tough decisions in the future. Every major decision we face should be done with much prayer, depending upon God for grace and wisdom to obey him in our choices.
Another important step in making tough decisions is obtaining advice from godly and wise Christians. I realize many of us may be too proud to go to a pastor, elder, or other mature Christians for advice in decision making, but this step should not be avoided. Proverbs 12:15 is clear, "a wise man listens to advice" (cf. Prov. 13:10, 19:20). In fact, it might even be wise in some decisions to consult those outside of the faith who have expertise on some aspect of your choicelike a doctor who has done the surgery before, for just one example.
For example, if you face the decision of whether or not to take a new job in a different city, you should ask advice from another wise Christian (or several Christians) to help you weigh the pros and cons, and help you pray through the issue. Quite often when we make decisions we miss some huge factorseither purposely or inadvertentlythat could help us decide the godlier path. A wise Christian's advice might help us see several perspectives that are important in making the decision, perspectives that we miss from our own point of view. The Christian you select to help you in your decision making should know Scripture and be able to give you honest and objective advice. You may also want to choose a person who isn't much affected by whatever decision you make.
There are also other biblical teachings we should take into account. Below is a basic biblical guide to decision making. These questions should be wrestled over in prayer, Bible study, and discussions with other wise Christians. There are more things to think about in decision making, I realizethese are just some general things to get us thinking in the right direction. I also encourage careful and patient deliberation when making decisionssometimes it is helpful to write down the pros and cons of the difficult choice you face (following the questions below).
We should do everything in order that God may be glorified (1 Peter 4:11); we should do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). The Westminster Shorter Catechism must be on our mind as we make a decision: the chief end of man is to glorify God. Our decisions should glorify Godthis is a basic litmus test for our decisions.
How do we glorify God? By believing in his Son and keeping his commandments out of gratitude. We glorify him when we deny ourselves and seek his kingdom above all things. We glorify God when we praise and adore him in public worshipin corporate prayer, song, and listening to his voice in preaching. Our choices should contribute positively to these thingsthey should help us obey the Lord, love him better, help us seek his kingdom first by denying ourselves, and help attend and be attentive in public worship.
For example, if the new job we are thinking about means we'll be working sixty-five hours from Monday to Saturday, there is a good chance it will hinder our public worship, because we'd be totally exhausted on the Lord's Day. It would also leave little time for habitual prayer and Bible reading at home. Taking the job may mean a better income, but it would detract from our worship and piety, and therefore not be conducive to our "chief end" of glorifying God. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but time in corporate worship and in private prayer is more important than a large income.
Here are a few questions to ask concerning this step of the decision-making process with the goal of glorifying God: Which choice will be most in line with the Ten Commandments? Which choice will help me better keep God's commandments? Which choice will help me deny myself and seek God's kingdom better? Which choice will best display the glories of the gospel? Which choice will help me worship God better (physically, mentally, and spiritually)? Which choice will help me be more faithful to public worship at a solid church (Heb. 10:25)? Which choice will help me pray and read the Scriptures more? Am I making a choice because I'm proud, because I love money, because I am selfish, or because of some other sin to which I'm prone? Will one of the choices bother my conscience, which in turn hinders my worship of God? Am I simply afraid, or do I lack moral courage to make the harder but more God-glorifying choice? Am I leaning towards one of the choices because I fear people more than I fear God? Am I leaning towards one of the choices because I want to somehow get back at someone (sinful revenge) rather than praise God?
When making choices, along with considering how we can glorify God the best, we also should consider how our choices affect others. The Bible says, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God" (Heb. 13:16). In other words, when making choices, let us "look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil. 2:4). Broadly speaking this means our choices should not hurt, but benefit other people. The Heidelberg Catechism, when discussing the sixth commandment, says we should be peaceful, patient, meek, kind, and merciful to our neighbor and do what we can to advance his well being (Q. 107). We should think of this when we make decisions.
More narrowly, and more importantly, our choices should be edifying and beneficial for other Christians (Heb. 10:24). In fact, we should "do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). Our decisions should benefit Christianswe should think of them when we make choices. When facing a major decision, we do what is best for other Christians; we choose the decision that will be most beneficial to Christ's church. In other words, our choices should help other Christians better glorify God; it should help them worship better and grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Our choices should help other Christians better keep the commandments. Secondarily, our choices should help other Christians in a temporal way (financial, health, etc).
For example, suppose a Christian was deciding between two colleges to attend as he continued his goal to be a teacher. One college was close to a small but solid church that would benefit from his teaching ability and his tithing (albeit a small tithe!). This would be something significant to consider as he makes his decision. Another example might be birth control. Suppose a Christian family of six includes a wife/mother who suffers from illness and frequent depression. It may be an unwise choice to have another child at this point, because it would hurt the whole family (and possibly close Christian friends) both spiritually and physically (e.g., the wife's depression might get worse, she might get more ill, or the family might miss many worship services).
Here are a few questions to answer when making a decision. Which choice will be more helpful to other Christians? Which choice will help them worship and glorify God more? Which choice will mean other Christians grow in faith and godliness? Which choice will help my wife, husband, kids, friends, or church draw closer to God and be more knowledgeable of the Scriptures? If this is a family situation, which choice will strengthen the home spiritually (in faith, obedience, worship, prayer, fellowship, etc.)? In the long run, which is better for other Christians? Which choice is the least selfish choice (usually that is the better one)? Which choice will show love to others most? Which choice will be the greatest blessing to the most Christians? Which choice will benefit a solid Christian church? Which choice will strengthen the communion of the saints?
The third principle for decision making comes from Matthew 5:16, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Our choices should make us shine like stars in a dark world so others glorify God (Phil. 2:15). When making a choice, we should think which option will bring the most glory to Christ and his church. I'd also encourage those making tough decisions to consider the discipleship passages in the Gospels, where Jesus tells us to count the cost, deny ourselves, and take up a cross ( Matt. 10:37-39, Luke 14:26-33, etc.)
One example might be where to build a new shed in your back yard. Suppose a neighbor of yours is quite rude and grumpy, always looking for an excuse to mock Christians. Suppose she also enjoys a view of the nearby forest from her living room window. Though you may have the legal rights to build a shed on your property, which would block her view, you may want to let go of your rights at this point so that the woman doesn't have another reason to revile the faith. Also, by not blocking her view with a shed in a certain place, you show love to that person. The Lord may use such an event to someday make her willing to listen to the gospel.
Again, here are a few questions to ask when making decisions. Assuming unbelievers are watching (they usually are), which choice will show them that I love Christ more than anything in the world? Which choice will make them think well of Jesus's name? Which choice will make them think well of the church, of other Christians? Which choice will show others that I love Christ and his church more than my own needs and wants? Which choice will show them that the world will eventually come to an end and that my home is in heaven? Which choice will show others that I am a serious Christian?
The above three steps could be abbreviated using several biblical principles: Seek first the kingdom of God, deny yourselves, and love your neighbor as yourself. If we get these and other helpful verses into our minds and hearts, it will be easier to implement them when making a tough decision. Hiding God's Word in our heart helps us avoid sineven in the decision-making process (Ps. 119:11). Furthermore, we realize the great Reformed teaching that the Spirit and the Word go forth togetherthe guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit in decision making will always correspond to the Word (Zech. 4:6, John 14:26, etc.). Depending on the Spirit in making decisions means resting on the Word of the Lord.
Of course, there are other things to consider when making tough decisions. I do want to point out the fact that I didn't mention our material well being in the above. I left it out on purpose. Too often our decisions are made selfishlywe make choices based on money, housing, comfort, amenities, and so forth rather than applying the biblical principles of humility, self-denial, loving God first, and loving others second. We live in a world that distorts our ability to make decisions biblically. All around us, the world tells us we can and should have our way, right away, with no pain, little thinking, with the biggest return and pleasure. They don't call us the "Fast-Food Nation" for nothing!
However, the Christian pilgrim way is often just the opposite: we must be patient, submit to God's will, face some pain and discomfort (mortification), think hard, and sometimes forgo pleasure and wealth as we make a hard choice. Our choices may bring much discomfort our way, so we pray for courage to stand by our decision and contentment if our decision results in loss of earthly comfort. By making a wise decision following Scripture, we receive a great blessing: a clear conscience before God and the pleasure of glorifying and enjoying him. At the beginning and end of our decision-making process, we realize that in his providence, timing, and way, God will work all things for our good and his glory. If God is glorified, we should be satisfied.
 For a lengthier treatment of cultivating Christian virtues in light of decision making, see chapter three of David VanDrunen's Bioethics and the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).
Shane Lems serves as pastor of the United Reformed Church of Sunnyside, Washington. Ordained Servant Online, April 2011.