Deciding what you want your life to be about is not particularly hard. Everyone makes that decision sometime, consciously or unconsciously. Many people, perhaps most, make it several times. What’s difficult is figuring out what you’re willing to give up for the things you really care about, what you’re willing to sacrifice for the life you value most.
I’m not talking about deciding where to eat Sunday dinner or what movie to see on Friday, although sometimes those decisions can be life-changing. I’m referring to pivotal decisions, decisions that result in a change of perception or a meaningful new direction in life, decisions with a clear before and after. Life before the decision is different in quality or character from life after the decision.
On Ash Wednesday several of you identified significant decisions you’ve made or must make. They’re decisions about health and self-care, employment and finances, nurturing or rebuilding or ending relationships. Not very many of them, maybe none, are easy ones. All of them are opportunities to affirm and assert core values that define your life.
Jesus made decisions like that. William Barclay described one of them in Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Capernaum: “There was a kind of symbolic finality in that move. In that moment Jesus left his home never again to return to live in it. It is as if he shut the door that lay behind him before he opened the door that stood in front of him. It was the clean cut between the old and the new. One chapter was ended and another had begun.”
A decision point like that came for Philip when Jesus challenged him to “follow me,” and Philip brought Nathanael to the same decisive moment, all in one otherwise ordinary day, filled with ordinary decisions like what they would have for supper (John 1:43-49). Would they continue with life as usual, or would they act decisively to close one door and open another?
All of us have moments like that when we’ve got to act decisively and stop vacillating between possibilities. But better isn’t very often easier; good decisions are often accompanied by great difficulty. And I’ve found that the greatest promise and greatest difficulty combine in decisions about following God’s will – not momentous decisions about the whole of life but ordinary decisions that moment by moment define who I am in the world; not, “Will I have faith in Christ?” but “Will I surrender to the will of God in this particular moment?”
One such decision for me – some of you have heard the story, but I tell it again because it’s a pattern for many other decisions – was a career choice I made while working in the publishing industry. With two job offers before me, each with strong advantages and disadvantages, I realized I didn’t know myself well enough, nor did I have a faith solid enough, to feel I was making a good choice. Well, of course I made the decision, and in making it I learned some life lessons about every decision to follow the will of God.
One lesson is that meaningful decisions to follow God’s will or to follow Christ are made not from a place of strength but from a place of weakness and vulnerability. Only because I was floundering in uncertainty and a sense of incapacity to deal with what I could see did I have the openness to be led by the God I could not see. And I came to know that the God I could not see had been active in my life long before I recognized it, bringing me to that pivotal moment when my life began to change dramatically.
Before my decision to follow God’s will or to follow Christ (here I use the terms interchangeably) was played out openly, it was already being played out in a hidden preparation and struggle behind the scenes – “prevenient grace,” Wesley called it, the grace that comes before any awareness or recognition. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” Jesus told his disciples (John 15:16). And earlier he had said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44). Before we decide to follow God’s will, God is already preparing us to do so.
Experiences of weakness and vulnerability, perhaps every one of them, are opportunities to recognize and affirm God’s active will in our lives. The spiritual struggle – and sometimes it can be fierce – that leads to significant life decisions may be akin to the physical struggle of labor that leads to birth. It is painful and disorienting, and it is part of the birth process and deserves our full attention and cooperation.
Another life lesson I learned in deciding about that job change is that the decision to follow Christ is not a single decision that resolves everything. It is a decision to join a journey, made in deep trust, with no clear guideposts for future decisions and no clear end in sight. It is one of many challenging decisions that will continue to define and redefine a life of faith.
In making that job change, I didn’t ask God to show me the right decision or even to help me make the choice. I simply expressed my trust that God was already in my deciding, and I made the commitment to give my attention to where God would lead me afterwards. As it turned out, my decision about which job to take was only a cover for the real decision I was making and the ones that would follow: Would I be open to the unplanned and unexpected course my life would take when I renewed my commitment to follow God?
After Jesus made his decisions in the wilderness that would test his readiness for the life to which God called him (Mark 1:12-13; Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), Luke tells us that the devil left him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). His testing would continue in the significant decisions to follow God’s will that he would make through the rest of his life, and so will ours. Anyone who has made a meaningful decision to follow Christ knows that. Our decision to follow Christ does not settle the future once and for all; it introduces us to a series of defining decisions that will mark the rest of our days.
Someone said that the importance of any journey is where it takes you in the end. God has already settled our destination in this journey of life. In Christ, God was reconciling the world and everyone in it to our Creator, not letting anything we do wrong stand in the way (2 Cor. 5:19). A decision to follow Christ doesn’t change our destination, but it will make an eternity of difference in how we get there.