A little over a month ago, my daughter Lucy – 17 years old, junior in high school – had a big decision to make. The decision wasn’t life-altering, but it was big at this point in her life. And like many decisions, the way forward wasn’t clear at all. It wasn’t a moral choice where there was a right way to go and she just had to have the courage to choose it. It was essentially a benign decision that had advantages and disadvantages both ways. It also had a deadline – and as the deadline got closer the way forward continued to be a mystery.
As she worked through the process she really felt the stress of uncertainty. She honestly didn’t know what to do and it was a decision we as her parents couldn’t make for her. It was all on her. And she struggled like crazy as she weighed the pros and cons of each direction.
Though it was tough, as her dad I was actually happy she went through it. It certainly wasn’t fun – on one of the last nights before the deadline she was on the verge of tears as we discussed it. But to go through something at this age that she’s going to face innumerable times throughout her life was hugely beneficial. She learned – or started to learn – that life contains choices and those choices are oftentimes not clear at all.
She also began learning something even more important. One night after we talked and prayed I told her something that I’ve only realized in the last few years. I told her that just because we prayed didn’t mean she’d have clarity on the issue by the deadline. Praying for guidance doesn’t guarantee the guidance will be clear. I said that throughout my life I’ve typically seen God’s work in the rearview mirror more than through the windshield. I’ve prayed for wisdom and then made decisions that seemed best to me based on what I knew and what circumstances dictated, not necessarily because God spoke to me and made the answers clear. It’s only later that I’ve sometimes seen how God moved me to a particular choice without me knowing He was moving at all. Consequently, she shouldn’t necessarily expect to have specific direction on this decision or on most decisions she’s going to face throughout her life.
And that’s a huge lesson to learn. When we pray for guidance we have to understand that God answers that prayer but often does so without assuring us that He is. He guides without overtly telling us He guides. It’s not typical to go into a decision with full assurance that we’re making the right choice.
I can’t remember many big decisions in my life where I’ve prayed and felt God leading me a certain way. I’ve prayed and prayed and then acted without knowing if what I’m doing is the best thing or if I’m making a mistake. It’s down the road that I’ve usually been able to see how God moved me in a certain direction. God has led but He’s typically done it in a way that’s remained a mystery until the decision’s been made. And there have certainly been times when that kind of leading has frustrated the heck out of me.
I recently had to make a fairly large decision and had to make it on a tight deadline. I was essentially given about 18 hours to decide whether or not to do something – to take an opportunity – and the ramifications were significant. It was an overnight decision and I tossed and turned most of the night as I wrestled with what to do. I prayed and prayed. As the deadline grew closer the prayers became frantic – “Please show me what to do. Please show me what to do. I have to make a decision in a few hours, so You really need to guide me. I have to make a decision so please show me what to do.” The prayers eventually turned into, “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST SHOW ME WHAT TO DO?? WHY CAN’T JUST THIS ONCE YOU SHOW ME DIRECTLY WHAT TO DO? I HAVE TO MAKE A DECISION NOW!! WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO???” The answer to my pleading was dead silence. I even asked a couple of friends to pray and still all I heard for my efforts and their efforts was the sound of cosmic crickets chirping.
Since I never felt confident at all as to what direction to go I kind of chose a middle course that wasn’t really an option. I made the choice based on information that I later realized I’d misunderstood. The person waiting for my decision was actually a little confused by what I did and so just moved on and probably chalked it up to me not being very bright. When it was all said and done, not only did I miss the opportunity but I also felt incompetent for having handled it so badly (the decision affected my wife too and she pretty much agreed with my assessment of how I handled things).
Here’s the thing, though. It ended up being the best possible outcome. By bungling the opportunity, we had the chance at a better opportunity that presented itself a short time later and one we wouldn’t have had if I’d handled the first decision differently. Not only that, but looking back I still can’t believe I seriously considered the first opportunity. I was definitely caught up in the heat of the moment and God actually protected me from myself. He protected me from doing something I would’ve regretted for a long time.
The lesson? God answers prayers for guidance but He answers them in His own way. And that way will always be what’s best for our sanctification and His glory. God is interested in the decisions we ask His guidance for, but He’s much MORE interested in our becoming like His Son (Rom 8:29) and glorifying Him with our lives. And it very well could be that a decision-making process that causes us to struggle with uncertainty and frantically pursue Him is exactly what furthers our development as His disciples. If He simply appears in a vision and tells us what to do, we don’t continue to seek and ask. It’s when we don’t know what to do that we pursue Him most intensely.
I read a devotional recently wherein the author said that God wants us conformed and transformed, but not necessarily informed. I think that’s especially applicable here. God has larger goals in mind than just making sure that we always know what to do and what direction to go. He’s not interested in us having peace about every decision nearly as much as He is in us becoming more like Him.
Think about what scripture teaches about pursuing God. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17). Jesus tells the parable of the persistent friend at midnight who won’t stop asking for a favor (Lk 11:5-9). Jesus also tells His followers to ask, seek, and knock (all present tense – keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking) in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:7-11). God knows it’s in our best interest to pursue Him, so He tends to bring circumstances into our life that cause us to be unsure and go after Him for help. And the longer that uncertainty lasts, the longer we pursue.
All this to say, we should absolutely pray about everything and certainly pray about decisions we have to make, but we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration if we expect God to clearly show the way once we’ve prayed. God answers our prayers for guidance but He doesn’t answer on our terms and He doesn’t promise to make every choice clear on the front end. God’s goals are higher than ours and we save ourselves a lot of heartache if we remember His goals when we pray. And that means in the midst of praying for wisdom and guidance we should thank Him that He loves us enough to put us in situations that cause us to chase after Him. And we should pray in faith that He does guide us, even if we may have no idea – while it’s happening – how that guidance works or what it’s leading us to do.
The good news is that if we understand this it might lessen the stress we feel when faced with difficult choices. It will change our expectations.
As for Lucy’s decision? She made a choice but it ended up being for naught. The virus crisis closed down school so the decision she struggled so mightily to make became a non-issue. Which actually kind of reinforced my point – she prayed and prayed over something God knew had already been decided for her. But He let her keep praying and struggling because He knew she’d be better for the pursuit.