5 Keys for Making Big Life Decisions
July 18, 2011
The Jeskes have lived lots of amazing days in Nicaragua, China, South Africa, and the U.S. The latest book is This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling. @ChristineJeske is getting a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, and @AdamJeske leads social media for InterVarsity and the Urbana Student Missions Conference. Connect at Into the Mud and Executing Ideas.
Some choices present themselves pretty clearly: You find that the masters program you’re considering can be done for free if you’re serving overseas. Everyone says you’re an idiot if you don’t ask her to marry you. The apartment in the neighborhood you’ve had your eye on is an incredible deal. The job opportunity arises and you immediately jump for it without needing any kind of push.
But many unassuming little choices leave you peering into the river of possibility, trying to discern what’s right. He’s moving away, but you are still in school. The house you love is a bit too expensive. The church you’re in is in flames, and you want to bail. You want to go overseas, but the country you feel led to just closed its borders. There isn’t a very obvious answer. So: What are you supposed to do?
Let’s knock out the basics first: God knows you, loves you a lot and wants to lead you. You should ask God where to go and then go.
Got that? Good.
But … how? And how do you know what God wants? And what if it seems like He’s OK with any of the choices available?
Like most tasks in life, God doesn’t give quick, easy formulas for making choices. So here are five suggestions to help you steer along the journey.
1. Help wanted
Tell some friends, especially the further-along-in-life kind, that you need help. Politely plead for their time and their ears. If they accept, slowly and thoroughly tell everything you know about your options, hopes and worries. Give them your desires and concerns about your own selfishness and pride. Invite them to ask questions and reflect back to you what they’ve heard you say. You may not end up taking their advice, but if they’re wise (and try to choose people who are), they’ll certainly help you see the situation more clearly than you would alone. And sometimes, they might notice things you haven’t, or ways you’re acting that you’re too immersed in to see. The verbal processing itself will help clarify your thinking, too. Then ask them—beg them—to pray for you.
While you have their ear, ask them to search their personal network of connections for better options. Many great opportunities in housing, relationships, work and, well, life don’t come through search engines, but through people in the right place at the right time pulling precisely what you need from their pockets (or their contact lists).
Also, know that wise people who love you will tell you things that will be difficult to hear. Perhaps you haven’t quite grasped that you’re not cut out to be a musician. Or it could be that God isn’t calling you to drop out and move to Haiti. Maybe the wooing you’re undertaking is actually more like creeping. Listen to the wise voices. And sit with their hard words. They might just be the same ones God wants you to listen to.
2. Book it
Instead of opening your Bible for the first time in a year to wherever the pages fall for your mystical word from the heavens, how about reading it with your brain turned on? Using the Bible like a horoscope is an insult to God, and to your own ability to listen and reason. Instead trust that God does have wisdom, and He’s not trying to keep it a secret. Scripture applies directly to you and the decisions you need to make.
Start by looking for general principles that might cross an option off your list entirely (or bump some other option to the top of the list). Don’t kid yourself. Right off the bat—and hopefully this is obvious—make sure what you’re considering isn’t morally wrong. If you’re thinking about double-crossing someone, cheating on someone, lying or otherwise being a nutjob, knock it off! Then look for the sometimes-not-so-obvious deceptions. Are you making your choice out of greed or arrogance? Would one of your choices make it hard or impossible to stay connected to a church, share with those in need, honor God, quit habitual sins or disobey other big musts of the Bible? Have the courage to cross that one off the list, no matter how attractive it (or he/she) is.
3. Get off the people-mover
Most decisions we make in life slide by without us ever realizing we’re deciding. Life pulls us onward like a big conveyor belt. So we need to look up and figure out whether we are going where we need to go—and if not, stretch out a leg and get off.
In a perfect world, what would you ask for? If you can answer that question, then ask. Maybe you found the place you want to spend the summer studying but can’t find affordable housing. Maybe you want to serve in Eastern Europe as a pharmacist. Maybe you dream of being a roadie for that new band at Coachella. Or perhaps you just want to live in a more diverse neighborhood. Or it could be a new ministry role, or for a best friend, or increased self-control. Now is the time to ask for what’s missing. Without shame. Ask God. Ask everyone. Get off the conveyor belt.
4. Hold your horses
Sometimes the right decision is no decision. Sometimes you wait without any new options. These seasons can feel even more painful than trying to make a decision, because in waiting you have so little power over your destiny. Whether you’re lingering in the unknowing until you pay off debts, graduate, find a new couch, finish your lease or have a baby, learn to relish the present. Practice patience. Yes, sometimes days and months drag on like a long frozen winter, but when summer comes and things start growing and chirping again, you’ll look back and see how this slow season shaped you. Make sure it shapes you for the better.
5. Now: stop worrying
When you’ve done most or all of the above and nobody has noticed some big disobedience in one direction or another (say, financing your education by selling meth or working at a roadside porn emporium), stop the humming of your worry muscles and relax. Trust. You’ll be OK. God isn’t lurking around the corner waiting to smoosh your life into misery if you accidentally pick option A over option B.
St. Augustine put it simply: “Love God and do as you please.” Make your decisions with God-given sense, with an honest goal to pursue Him and “commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed” (Proverbs 16:3). God’s in the business of redeeming even our worst choices, and every highway has off-ramps to other choices.
If there’s one thing you can know, it’s that there will always be more choices. Trust that God will honor your efforts … and then go make some choices.
For more tips on making your way through life's transitions, check out this full article in the July/August 2011 issue of RELEVANT magazine.