Demetrius Johnson probably thought very little if at all about rushing back into his burning apartment two Fridays ago to save his three-year-old son. His decision, I believe, made itself; there was no other choice but to do what he knew he had to do, even though it would cost him his life.1 Some decisions are like that; they come suddenly and allow little or no room for compromise, and you know what you have to do.
But if such decisions come suddenly, they don’t come out of nowhere. They have gestation periods, sometimes long ones – a lifetime long, some of them. A seed planted years earlier meets the right conditions and erupts into growth. An alarm clock wound long ago reaches its moment and rings. It’s time to get up and do what your life has been leading to, time to do what you’re here for. You simply know it’s the right thing to do, the right direction to take, the right life to live.
My decision to enter seminary was like that. After a lifetime of preparation and a decade of wrestling with vocational questions, I knew in a moment what I had to do. One line in a sermon brought all that wrestling to a climax. “You know what God has called you to do,” my pastor said, or something like it; “what’s holding you back?” And like that, it was done. I didn’t make the decision as much as the decision made me.
No matter how compelling the voice or how clear the choice, however, for most of us most of the time there are other voices in the conversation. Every decision to say “yes” to one thing involves saying “no” to many others. That’s what a decision is, literally a de-cision, a cutting down or a cutting away. And things that get cut away seldom go without complaint.
What I cut away was a career in publishing. I knew what that was about, and I was growing to love it deeply. I still do. I didn’t know much about what seminary was going to be about, and I knew next to nothing about what lay beyond. Looking back now I’d say what I thought I knew was illusion and liability, and I wish I had rid myself of it earlier. Sometimes I wonder if I would have made a different decision, but it has taken a lifetime of growth to get to this point.
I wish I could say I have no regrets about the decision I made, but that would make a story too perfect to be believable. Regret, ambivalence, second thoughts, grief, the what-ifs – these are the voices of things we leave behind in every decision, and often they don’t let go easily. Should I have left that job or taken the other? Should we have purchased that house? Should I have said “no” to that opportunity? The hardest thing about doing what’s right, someone said, is you never know what’s going to come of it, and the lure of the road not taken is strong.
But making the right decision, choosing the right path, answering life’s call – whether you know what’s going to come of it or not – by the time you make it, is a decision that’s already coming to birth. It comes to you at an odd angle, often from your blind spot, and opens a way you didn’t even know was there to possibilities you didn’t imagine even existed.
Everything depends on the first step down that new path. Don’t pray for faith, someone said, unless you’re willing to move your feet. Don’t pray for God’s guidance unless you’re willing to follow, especially when you don’t know what’s going to come of it. But know this: No crop is ever harvested without plowing and preparing the ground, and planting the seed, and suffering the long wait as the mystery of growth has its way.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-27). We sleep and rise night and day, going on with life as usual. Suddenly the seed, small as a grain of mustard, has become a tree too big to ignore. The moment of decision comes.
Some seeds require trauma to germinate. The seeds of some trees lie dormant in the earth for years until a forest fire cracks open the shell and exposes the living heart. Maybe it took that apartment fire to reveal the capacity of Demetrius Johnson’s heart and cause it to be released into the moment. Maybe it takes the sudden pain of loss, grief, or despair to bring transformation to its tipping point.
It seems to have taken the urgent uncertainty of a career decision for me to decide about changing the direction not only of my career but of my life. For most of us, however, the decision comes in gentler ways, ways so ordinary we usually overlook them. We can’t predict or control the timing of the decisions that define our lives, but we can pay better attention to their ripening, we can till the ground in which our authentic life grows, and we can nurture the seeds as they develop. We can do the things John Wesley said keep us in love with the God who is creating us.
The disciplines of faith, the practices of discipleship, are not about conformity to a tradition; they’re about preparing the way for the birth of something new and authentic in us. We may start a new life by deciding to pattern ourselves after someone else – a mentor, a saint, even Jesus – but sooner or later comes a moment when copying someone else proves insufficient. We need to stop drinking at someone else’s well and begin drinking from the spring of living water that gushes up within us and gives us the life that really is life.
The big, life-shaping decisions of life may come to us in outward events, but the life those decisions open to us, the spring of living water, must be developed from the inside out. “Living in the presence of and in harmony with the living God,” Bishop Reuben Job wrote, “is to live from the inside out. It is to find our moral direction, our wisdom, our courage, our strength to live faithfully from One who authored us, called us, sustains us, and sends us into the world as witnesses who daily practice the way of living with Jesus.”2
In short, to decide to live from the inside out, to turn in our thirst to the inner well of living water, to decide to live into the genuine, honest-to-God, graceful eccentricity for which God makes each of us, is to decide to mature. However you and I name the spiritual disciplines – individual and small-group prayer and Bible study, covenant discipleship, works of devotion and worship, mercy and justice – one of the decisions that will change your life for the better, as it has mine, is the decision to work them into the foundation and fabric of your life.
notes — 1. The Buffalo News, 19 February 2016. ▪ 2. Reuben Job, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 54.