God wants us to make wise decisions, but he can redeem even foolish ones

April 6, 2017

doRecently, I had a conversation with a friend who was mulling over a major life decision. He sensed that God was calling him to change his career, but it wasn’t clear. He said, “I wish I could know for sure if this is what the Lord wants me to do.”

As I listened, I became newly sympathetic with a complaint made by theologian Phillip Cary. In his book Good News for Anxious Christians, he says that over the past few generations a novel idea has entered the mainstream of evangelical Christian thought: that the primary means by which we hear God speak to us is not through studying the scriptures, reflecting on them, and letting them guide our decisions, but by discerning a “voice” or intuition inside our heart and believing that it comes from God. Cary insists that it doesn’t.

The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of most evangelicals, that God reveals himself to us… The idea… was that when you have a big decision to make—say, about marriage or your career—then you are supposed to seek guidance from God (good idea!) and the key way to do that is by listening to how he’s speaking in your heart (bad idea!).[†]

While I have no reason to doubt that Cary fairly represents the evangelical tradition, I can’t go all the way with him: Doesn’t God guide us in our decision making—even through intuitions or dreams? And if we refer to this guidance as God’s “voice,” I have no problem with that—so long as we don’t believe that whatever God “tells” us this way is equal in authority to God’s Word.

But I agree with him that we put unneeded pressure on ourselves if we expect to hear this “voice” (sorry for all the scare quotes) every time we have an important decision to make. Like Cary says, God gave us the gifts of our minds and wisdom to reason things through. We are not wrong to use them! In fact, let’s trust that God will guide us as we do so.

Besides, the most important and perhaps least appreciated way that God guides us is through providence. Providence is the doctrine that says that God is always guiding us through everything that happens in our lives and the world. God is always at work through circumstances in our lives, both good and bad.

Do you see how God’s providence takes the pressure off—at least a little? Getting back to my friend’s dilemma, there isn’t necessarily one right choice that he needs to make, otherwise he is “out of God’s will” unless or until he corrects his mistake and gets back on the path that God chose for him. God is infinitely resourceful: not that God doesn’t want us to make wise decisions in the first place, but God can redeem even foolish ones. If my friend makes a poor choice and regrets the decision, guess what? God will bring good even out of that choice.

Haven’t we all had experiences in our lives about which we say, “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, but I’m glad it happened to me”?

Providence means that, in a sense, wherever we are right now is where God wants us to be. Which means at every moment we can accomplish God’s will for us: which is, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010), 2-3.

4 Responses to “God wants us to make wise decisions, but he can redeem even foolish ones”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Yeah, this belief in providence should take some of the pressure off of us and relieve anxiety. However, when it comes to “righteous living,” even though God nonetheless gets us “where he wants us to be,” that “destination” still might end up being somewhere other than what could have been had we “sinned not.” I think of David and Bathsheba as perhaps the prime scriptural example: “God has forgiven your sin, BUT, BECAUSE YOU HAVE DONE THIS THING, the sword will never depart from your house, and the child that is born to you will die.” Not a happy outcome! Yet, on the “good side,” the progeny of David and Bathsheba led to our Lord and Savior.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t disagree, Tom, but the post wasn’t mostly about sinful choices we make. I would distinguish “foolish” from “sinful.” But I’m also talking about—in my friend’s case—choosing between options that are (as far as we can tell) neutral in terms of wisdom or folly, and certainly not sinful. Where is God in that decision? What does God want us to do? God may want us to decide—and he can happily work with either alternative.

  2. Bob Harvey Says:

    hey looking back i see the wreckage of my many (and counting) foolish and bad, but not necessarily sinful, decisions, and i can see that yes these many have been redeemed. if only i could get over the fact that Jesus had/has to clean up my messes i’d be golden. like a speaker at our ch once said, Jesus is not repulsed by our stench or condition or how we got there only in our response to His call. but then we all have made messes beyond our control to clean up and we rely on others too do it for us.


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