Faith and Decisions
So today is the second in our series on Faith in real life, questions about how our faith in Jesus Christ, our reading of the scriptures, our membership together in the Kingdom of God, touches matters of day to day living.
And having looked last week at family, at the profound truth that we are not made to be alone, that the powerful idea and ideal of family reflects our need to be in deep and meaningful relationships with other people; and at the way that Jesus expands the idea, inviting us to recognise our community of faith as an extension of family – or, where the family of birth is absent or destructive, as an alternative family – so that no-one ever need be left alone.
Today, the second sermon challenge that this series sets us is “Faith and Decisions”. How our faith comes into play in our decision making. How are we, people of Jesus Christ, different in the way that we decide where we will go, what we will do, how we will do it, from everyone else? How do we decide different because of Jesus?
And I think it’s fair to say that this is a pretty big question. Certainly for me – from when I first became a Christian as a teenager, it’s been there – how do I know what God would want me to do? In the big decisions: what subjects to study, what courses to do, what jobs to apply for, whether to get married, what country to live in; but also in those many smaller decisions which sometimes become so much more consequential – whether to cross the room and talk to someone who looks sad, whether to spend a night in or go out to the party – and occasionally even in the seemingly trivial – read a book, or binge-watch Netflix?
And I’ve got to tell you, if the question we’re asking is “how can we know what decision God wants us to take?” then the answer I’m going to give you is going to be a fairly unsatisfying “huh? dunno, sorry. Haven’t figured that one out yet.”
In fact, if I’m honest, I’m going to say that if anyone tells you that they know an absolutely foolproof way of deciding what God wants, then you would probably be wise to walk calmly away.
The thing is, the Bible doesn’t actually have a huge amount to say about making decisions. It doesn’t give us a recipe, a workbook, a process to follow. It gives us examples, sometimes, but they tend to be really – and for me, at least, unhelpfully – clear cut. “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, to Ezekiel, to John – they knew what to do. Sometimes the narrative describes a conversation between God and the individual, like two people speaking together – Abraham arguing with God – sometimes a vision, like for Isaiah, or an angel, Mary, or Joseph, or for Moses, a voice from a bush. Sometimes the ‘word’ gets tested – Gideon, laying out a fleece of wool and praying “if this is really you, God, let the fleece be dry in the morning when the ground around it is wet with dew”.
But the thing about all of those stories is that the initiative lies with God. These aren’t stories of people wondering what they ought to do, struggling to make a decision, and then God answering the question. They are, it seems, the exceptional stories of God taking hold of an individual, calling them for a particular role.
The Bible doesn’t really talk much about making decisions, in the ordinary – or even special – situations of life at all.
At least, not directly. But it has a lot to say about a whole load of things that inform our decisions.
The Bible is full of teaching and proverbs and stories about wisdom, about character, about priorities. About the sort of people that we are meant to be, the sort of ways we are invited to think, the sorts of things that we are commanded to hold as valuable.
At the heart of what is known as the ‘Wisdom literature’ in the Old Testament, lies the book of Proverbs. And it opens with these words, describing what it is for:
For learning about wisdom and instruction,
for understanding words of insight,
for gaining instruction in wise dealing,
righteousness, justice, and equity
In the very opening words of the proverbs, the role of wisdom is laid out, as it goes on:
to teach shrewdness to the simple,
knowledge and prudence to the young—
let the wise also hear and gain in learning,
and the discerning acquire skill,
Shrewdness, knowledge, prudence, learning, skill. These are the things offered by the author to his or her reader; these are the things that you will need.
The book of proverbs, this core of teaching about the practical skills of living well, doesn’t say “these words will teach you how to hand your decisions over to God, to let God decide for you how you ought to act”. That’s a noble desire, in its way, but it isn’t what is on offer – here, or as far as I know, anywhere else in the Bible.
What is on offer – here, and everywhere else in the Bible – are words to teach: to teach shrewdness, knowledge, prudence, learning, skill. Words to teach us how, in Paul’s words to the Ephesian Church, to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.
The Bible turns out, in educational terms, to be thousands of years ahead of its time. When it comes to decision making its not offering to give you the answers; it’s offering to teach you how to find them for yourself.
And it does so in two main ways. If we want to make good decisions, Biblically informed decisions, Godly decisions, then the Bible has loads to say about two things we ought to ask ourselves.
What sort of person would God have you be, and
What sort of things would God have you value.
What sort of person would God have you be. When you boil it down, this is what an awful lot of the stories of the scriptures are about. From Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper” to the Good Samaritan, from the practical wisdom of the Proverbs to the fruits of the Spirit, there are ways of being, character traits if you like, that come through in a positive light.
And the thing is, they aren’t the ones that the narratives of the world might tell us to value.
Success and power don’t get portrayed too well: more kings and rulers die in shame than live out their days in glory.
Wealth is pretty mixed, too – though Solomon’s wealth is seen as sign of God’s blessing, there are a lot of people with little or nothing who get singled out for praise.
Strength? Well Goliath has a pretty negative image, and Samson’s is mixed at best.
What gets praised? What values, what characteristics do you see in the actions of those praised in the scriptures?
Generosity. Faithfulness. Honesty. Courage.
Those who seek out reconciliation, those who accept their error and learn from correction.
Those who treat others as of value, who offer hospitality to strangers, those who seek to live in peace, those who find ways to bless the place they find themselves and the people they meet.
Love. Joy. Peace.
Patience. Kindness. Goodness.
Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self Control.
What sort of person would God have you be? As you read the scriptures, look for character. Look for the character shown by people whose actions are praised.
The character of the woman or man of God.
And then the second question: What sort of things would God have you value.
What would God have you value? Surely the things that God values.
In our reading from Proverbs, the author offered as the point of wisdom, this: the pursuit of righteousness, justice, and equity.
What does God value? Justice, and equity – for all people, the freedom to be, to flourish, to have access to the basic needs of life, of health, of opportunity.
What does God value? Community. As we reflected last week, it is not good for anyone to be alone – so families, tribes, villages, communities of faith – these things matter, have value to God.
What does God value? Faith. For all people to come to a knowledge, and an ever deepening knowledge, of God. For communities built around faith in Jesus Christ to grow, flourish, share the good news of the kingdom of God.
What does God value? As you read the scriptures, look for the things that seem to matter, the things that God cares about.
The things we should value.
If we really want to make better decisions, decisions that are pleasing to God, then I don’t think we’re offered easy answers, three step programs, simple shortcuts.
I believe we are invited into a lifetime of ever deepening searching of the scriptures, learning the sorts of people that God calls us to be, and the things that God values, that God cares about.
And as we face choices in our lives, big or small, to ask those two questions of the alternatives before us:
What sort of person am I called to be? What does the character growing in me, as a child of God, say of these choices? What would the person I want to be, think?
And what in this choice, really matters? Where in this are the things that are of value to God? What is shiny and ephemeral, and what is deep and lasting and true.