Navigating the Seas of Life: Charting the Course | Proverbs
Brian Hedges | September 8, 2019
This morning we’re beginning a new series of messages, just a four-week series, from the book of Proverbs, and we’re calling this “Navigating the Seas of Life.” All of us in this voyage of life that we’re on are constantly having to navigate, aren’t we? We’re having to make choices, we’re having to make decisions, we’re having to think about the direction we’re going; we’ve having to navigate different kinds of challenges.
It may be decision-making, the need for guidance (which we’re going to talk about this morning), it may be in our relationships, our friendships, how can we build relationships with others? It may be in our work, right, our jobs, our occupation. How do we be a vibrant witness for Christ in the world in which we live, and how do we do our work well, in ways that both honor God and also help build up others? Then, when we think about what matters most in life, what we’re really looking for, what brings value to our lives, that’s also something that we’re navigating, that we’re trying to work out.
For all of these things and many more we need wisdom, and Proverbs is one of the great Old Testament books of wisdom. So we’re going to spend four weeks looking at different topics in the book of Proverbs, and we’re kind of using this navigation imagery for this series. This morning we’re talking about charting the course; that is, thinking about our overall direction in life and then how we’re making our decisions.
Next week we’re going to talk about choosing your crew (that has to do with relationships), then manning your post (that has to do with your work, your vocation, your responsibilities), and then finally, finding the treasure (what is it that really matters most?). Proverbs has a lot to teach us about that.
This morning we’re going to look specifically at guidance and decision-making, wisdom for making decisions. I didn’t know this until last night, actually, but I found this as I was reading a sermon from Tim Keller on guidance. He’s always very helpful for me. He pointed out that the Hebrew word for guidance that is used in Proverbs shares the same root as the Hebrew word for rope, and the reason is because it’s navigational imagery, because you use ropes to hoist a sail and to steer, help steer the ship. So it fits really well with the imagery we’ve chosen for this series. So this morning we’re going to talk about guidance.
Now, there are lots of ways in which we need guidance, and I think if you think about every age category in life, regardless of your age, we’re making decisions, aren’t we? Even children are making decisions. They’re making decisions about how they respond to siblings and to their parents, they’re making decisions about what to do with their time; and part of parenting, of course, is helping to raise children who make good decisions, who make wise decisions.
Certainly when you enter into adulthood, young adult, so if you’re a student or you may be in your early 20s, you’re working on education, you’re beginning to start a career, there are lots of decisions you have to make during that time period. You’re deciding who to date, if you date; you’re deciding who to marry, if the Lord is leading you to that.
Then once you’re married you’re making decisions about buying a house, and how to spend money, and about your career. Then with children, and once you have children you’re making decisions about education, right; what kind of school do you put them in, and how do you raise them, and how do you navigate media, the use of media, in your home, in your household? I mean, there are so many decisions that have to be made!
Then, when you get to middle age, you’re making new kinds of decisions, because you’re starting to steer these children you’ve raised into young adulthood, and you’re making decisions about their education and you’re trying to direct them in their course.
I’m not to the empty nest stage, but I’m sure that once you’re an empty nester, and even a senior adult, you’re still making decisions. You’re making decisions about health, you’re making decisions about retirement, you’re making decisions about how to interact with your grown children and with your grandchildren. You’re thinking about leaving a legacy for those who will come behind you.
So, throughout life, from start to finish, we’re making decisions, and sometimes we find ourselves in seasons of life where we’re having to make lots and lots of decisions. So this morning I want us to think about how Proverbs can give us some guidance and wisdom for decision-making.
Here’s another little tidbit from Keller. Keller said that, you know, you’ve heard of the milk of the word and the meat of the word. When you think of the milk of the word you may think of John 3:16, you think of the meat of the word you’re thinking of the book of Hebrews, right? He says that Proverbs is the hard candy of the word.
Think of a Jolly Rancher. What do you do with a Jolly Rancher? You don’t just bite down on it hard, you don’t chew it up; you put it in your mouth and you let it dissolve. Proverbs are kind of like that. You have to think about them. Proverbs challenge our thinking, and usually the way Proverbs does this is by giving us some kind of an antithesis, a little proverbial statement that is showing us a contrast between one way and another. We’re going to see that especially this morning as we work through a number of proverbs together.
So, as we’re thinking about guidance, this is how I want to navigate this particular sermon. I want us to think about: walking on the right path, carefully planning your steps, and getting to know the Guide. Those are the three things that are necessary, I think, for a life of wisdom in our decision-making. Walk on the right path, carefully plan your steps, and get to know the guide.
I. Walk on the Right Path
I want us to start in Proverbs 4. Most of what I want to say here in this first segment is from Proverbs 4. We’re going to look at Proverbs 4:10-11 and then verses 18 and 19. Let me read the passage, and as I’m reading I want you just to notice the contrast between righteous and wicked, and notice the use of this language of “way” or “path,” carrying the idea of a road or a highway, a path that someone travels. Notice what the text says.
“Hear, my son, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. I have taught you the way of wisdom; I have led you in the paths of uprightness. … But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.”
See that? Paths and ways, talking about walking on the right path.
Now, Tremper Longman in his commentary points out how verses like this in Proverbs connect to the “two ways” theology that’s found in Scripture. Two ways are found in Scripture. You see this over and over again in Scripture. Let me just remind you of a couple places; you know this.
Psalm 1, the very first psalm, contrasts the ways of the righteous and the wicked. “The Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” That’s Psalm 1, and you find that repeated again in the psalms.
You even have it in the words of Jesus. Remember how in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7, Jesus contrasts the narrow gate and the straight way with the wide gate and the broad way? One leads to life and the other leads to destruction. You have two ways. You have this contrast between the way of righteousness and the way of wickedness.
You have that contrast again and again and again in Proverbs, and you find it with all different kinds of language, but it’s always a pretty clear contrast between what’s right and what’s wrong. It may be a contrast between light and darkness; in fact, you see that right here in Proverbs 4:19. It may be a contrast between justice and injustice. It may be a contrast between wisdom and foolishness, or folly; the wise and the fool. Those are two characters that show up again and again in Proverbs. Or it may be a contrast between purity and immorality, so moral purity and sexual or moral immorality.
These are the contrasts that just show up over and over again in Proverbs, a contrast between the way that is good, right, wise; and the way that is not good, that is unrighteous, wicked, and ultimately is folly.
So the first thing we have to do when we’re thinking about decision-making in life is not start with the little micro-decisions, the daily decisions you’re making, and not even thinking about the big-ticket items (“Who do I marry? What college do I go to? What job do I have?”). The very first thing you have to do when you’re thinking about a biblical way of wisdom is you have to ask yourself, “Am I on the right path?” You have to walk the right path.
I want to give you three exhortations that will help us to examine ourselves to see if we are on the right path. Here’s the first.
(1) The very first exhortation is, be sure you’re headed in the right direction. Look again at verses 18 and 19. It says, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.”
There are two different paths here, and notice that the path of the righteous is headed somewhere, right? There’s a direction to it. He says it is “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” In other words, there’s a growing, increasing light.
You might think of someone who’s beginning to walk early in the morning, and it’s just that first blush of the sunrise, right? But then they walk and they walk and they walk, and if they walk for five or six hours or so they’re going to see that they are in the full light of the noonday sun, and it becomes brilliant and burning and bright.
The author here is saying that the path of the righteous is like that. Now, that connects to the light/darkness imagery that’s used over and over throughout Scripture, and oftentimes, especially in the New Testament, you’ll see that light is a metaphor for people who belong to God’s kingdom, the kingdom of light. It’s a metaphor for those who belong to the day. We were singing about that this morning, right? We are called out of darkness into God’s glorious day, the glorious light of Christ we’ve been called into.
We are journeying towards something. What are we journeying towards? We’re journeying towards God’s kingdom in its full revelation, we’re journeying towards the Celestial City, to use Bunyan’s language. In fact, the full title of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is this: The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come. That’s the direction that we’re to be headed.
This direction is very clear in Scripture, there is a definite route to get there, and there are clear signposts along the way. The very first thing we have to do in thinking about wisdom in our life is to ask this question, “Am I headed in the right direction? Do I have the right destination in mind?”
It leads us to have something that we might call a pilgrim mindset, a pilgrim mentality. We’ve talked about that recently. If you’ve been around the last few months, we’ve been talking about Abraham, because Abraham had this pilgrim mindset, didn’t he? He was looking for a city whose builder and maker was God. He saw the promises from afar off, but he maintained his pilgrim status throughout his entire sojourn in the Promised Land. You and I are the same way. We’re pilgrims on a journey, and the question is, are we headed in the right direction?
Brothers and sisters, this corrects some of our mistaken thinking about guidance, because a lot of times we’re not thinking about the ultimate things in our lives, we’re thinking about the immediate, and we are so consumed with next week’s decisions or even next year’s decisions, or we can even become so consumed with things like, “What career will I have? Who will I marry? How many children will I have? How much can I afford my house? How am I going to pay for retirement?” We get so consumed with those things that we’re not even thinking about the long-term, ultimate realities. Am I headed for heaven or for hell? That’s the first question that everybody needs to ask. The first exhortation is to be sure you’re headed in the right direction.
(2) Here’s the second. We also need to remember that it’s a gradual journey. So again, you see this in verse 18, “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter.” There’s a process here, there’s growth. It shines brighter and brighter until the full day.
Once again, it’s somewhat of a corrective for us, because if you’re like me, when I’m trying to figure out what God wants me to do in a situation, my impulse is to say, “Lord, show me and show me now!” I want immediate guidance. I want to know right now, immediately, what am I supposed to do.
God’s way usually is to put us on a gradual path where the focus is not so much on getting clear answers for every point of decision as much as it is focusing on the details of my life that are helping to form and shape my character and turn me into a wise person. We want concrete guidance for the big-ticket decisions in our lives; God wants to make us more like Jesus, and often will have us on this gradual, long-term journey as part of the process. So, you have to reckon with that.
(3) Be sure you’re headed in the right direction, remember it’s a gradual journey, and then, number three, don’t swerve off the path. So many of our daily decisions are either helping us walk the straight and narrow road or they are swerved off of the right way. Proverbs exhorts us not to swerve off the path.
Let’s pick up again in Proverbs 4. Let me read to you verses 20-27, because what you’re going to see here is, after giving this exhortation and this description of the path of the righteous, he now describes in detail what his son (a father is addressing his son) is to do. These are the practical, concrete things that every one of us has to attend to. Look at Proverbs 4:20.
He says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and healing to all their flesh. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”
What is he saying here? He’s saying, “Pay attention to your heart and to your words and to where you’re looking and to the influences in your life and to your motives and to the daily path that you walk.” It’s very much focused on the daily words and attitudes and motivations of our lives, and a sense of watchfulness over our lives. We are to keep our hearts, we are to watch our hearts.
To quote John Bunyan again, he wrote another great allegory called The Holy War. The Holy War is this story, this allegory, of how Emmanuel is coming back to the City of Mansoul in order to take it back from his enemy, who’s taken it captive. There are five gates in the city, and the five gates are the senses—Eye-Gate, Ear-Gate, Mouth-Gate, and so on.
Well, that’s what you have describe right here. The author of Proverbs here is talking about what you see and what you say, he’s talking about these different gates to our souls. He’s talking about guarding the heart; you and I have to do that. We have to pay attention.
Now, here are the implications for us. An implication is that we must attend to the details of our daily lives and how we are being formed, to think of the influences, the things we do, the way we use our time, the things that are going into our minds, the media we consume. We have to pay attention to those things, and we must obey anything that’s already clear, whatever God has already commanded us to do.
Listen to Elisabeth Elliot. Elisabeth Elliot, of course, was the widow of missionary Jim Elliot, who was martyred in 1956. Elisabeth Elliot wrote some wonderful stuff on guidance, and this is one of the things she said.
“Does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person’s seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured; do what God tells you to do now, and depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.”
So right now, the very first thing—I know that some of you are wanting specific guidance in some big decision, but the very first thing for every one of us to attend to is simply this: Is there something that God has clearly shown in his word that I am to do that I am not obeying right now? That’s God’s will this morning. Whatever the decision is, the big decision that’s ahead of you, whatever may happen with that, what’s clear is that God wants you to obey his word, and there are some things that are really, really basic.
Here’s the first question. Every one of these points I’m going to end with one question that’s kind of the takeaway. You might even think about jotting these down and taking them home to think about them. Here’s the first question: Are you in the right way? Are you in the way of righteousness versus the way of wickedness? Are you walking in the light or are you walking in the darkness? Where are you headed? What will be your eternal destiny? Do you know? Are you walking with God? Do you know Christ? Are you a Christian? That’s the first question. We all need to examine ourselves, we need to turn to Christ if we haven’t done so.
Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” That is a common way that all of us start on. We start on the wrong path, and the Christian life begins when we get off of the wrong path, onto the way of righteousness. So walk on the right path.
II. Carefully Plan Your Steps
Now, second point, carefully plan your steps. Without showing you the proverbs, let me just read a few snippets, okay, because I just want you to see that Proverbs assumes that we will plan, that we will think ahead, that our decision-making will be affected by that.
So, “The plans of the heart belong to man,” Proverbs 16:1. “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established,” Proverbs 16:3. “The heart of man plans his way,” 16:9. “The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way,” 14:8.
Planning is assumed, and part of Christian life (part of any life, really) is making decisions, making plans, and deciding the course that we are going to take. When we’re planning, we’re just thinking about it in advance instead of thinking about it in the moment.
So I want us to think about it now. Having established that the most important thing is that you’re in the right way, you’re in the way of righteousness—having established that, I want us to think for a few minutes about wisdom in the actual process of decision-making. How do you do that? How do you make good decisions?
This is kind of a mysterious thing for lots of Christians who are always trying to discern God’s will and are trying to figure out how to do that. Oftentimes, when I sit down and talk to people who are in the—you know, they’re trying to make a decision about career or about marriage or something else, one of the questions I will ask is, “How do you think God will lead you?” Most people don’t have a very good answer to that question. They don’t know how God’s going to lead them. They’re just kind of going by impulse, they’re just kind of going by emotions. That’s not the right way.
So, what are some concrete, practical things that can help us? I want to give you three guidelines, all of these coming straight from Proverbs.
(1) Here’s number one: prepare before you build. Proverbs 24:27. I want you to see the principle, which relates to building a house, but then I want you to see that this applies to everything in life. Prepare before you build.
Proverbs 24 says, “Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.” Now, there’s nothing distinctively Christian about that. That’s just common sense, isn’t it? Before you build a house—we know this—you have to assess whether you can afford to build, and a builder has to get the right materials, get the right people lined up for the work and for the jobs and so on. You prepare before you build.
That’s a principle that holds true through Scripture. I think essentially what it means is that we have to prepare to make good decisions, to make wise decisions. That means we have to be well-resourced, it means we have to research, it means we have to think, and it means we need to think ahead. We need to know what we’re getting into before we get into it.
This is especially important for things like choosing a career. I think one of the most important things that young people can do when they’re beginning to think about college is they can take things like career assessments, right, where they’re trying to get a read on who they are as persons and the kinds of jobs that they may be suited for. That’s a wise thing to do. That’s just part of preparing.
Then in choosing a major in college, you’re making a choice wisely where the expected income from that choice can pay for the degree you’re getting. I’ve talked to people, sometimes, who have gotten thousands and thousands and thousands of student loans and are having trouble paying it off, and one reason is because they kept switching majors, they didn’t know what they were going to do; and then when they finally chose a major, they chose a major that would never be able to pay off the loans. It can lead to 20 or 30 years of financial hardship because of that. It’s a lack of careful planning.
Let me give you a personal illustration. Most of you know this is my second pastorate. I’ve pastored two churches. I’ve been here for over 16 years now. But my first pastorate was a little church in Texas, and I was there for 20 months. It was really tough. It was not a great experience.
Now, there were lots of reasons for it. One reason is I was 25 years old, and young pastors make lots of bad decisions. So I probably wasn’t the easiest guy to work with at the time. I was changing things so quickly that I think people were having a hard time adjusting to it.
I think part of the problem was the church itself. It was a small church, it was mostly run by one family, they didn’t want to change in virtually any kind of ways, so there was just resistance all along the way.
But I’ll tell you what I think the biggest problem was. Here was the biggest problem: it was the lack of fit. I didn’t fit the culture and the context of that church. And it was a lack of knowledge, because I went assuming a lot of things about that church, and them assuming a lot of things about me. They didn’t really know who I was, they didn’t know what I thought, they didn’t know my philosophy of ministry, they didn’t fully understand my theology, I didn’t fully understand theirs. So as soon as I got in the saddle and started teaching and preaching there was conflict.
Now, my experience here has been very, very different. It’s been very different. I know things are changing, and maybe everybody doesn’t like every change that’s happening, and that’s okay. But I think the experience here has by and large been pretty peaceful, it’s been pretty good. We’ve never split the church or anything like that. I haven’t felt like I needed to leave. It’s been, by and large, a peaceful experience.
That’s largely owing to your good graces as a wonderful, peaceful people. Hopefully it’s owing in part to some maturity on my part. Maybe I’ve grown a little bit in years of ministry. But here’s what I think is the single biggest factor (apart from, of course, God’s blessing). The single biggest practical factor: when I came up to this church to candidate in 2003, I had an older pastor counsel me on how to do the candidating process. I didn’t know how to do that. He told me how to do it. He told me to schedule as many interviews as I could.
I think we did something like 12 or 13 hours’ worth of interviews, over the course of a weekend, with every demographic in the church. I just told the deacons at the time, who were leading the search committee, “I want you to get me a young couple, I want to interview them; I want you to get me a middle-aged couple, I want you to get me senior adults; and I want to talk to them one-on-one.” I spent about an hour with representatives from each demographic.
Then I said, “I want a one-on-one meeting with every deacon, with every Sunday school teacher, with every person who’s in leadership,” and I had a list of questions, and they had questions for me. We worked through things—they’re asking specific questions about things like elders and theology and all kinds of stuff. Some of you were here during that time. A lot of you weren’t, but some of you were here.
When we came out of that weekend, I think everybody kind of knew what to expect. We knew to expect. You kind of knew what you were getting with me, and I knew what I was getting with you. There haven’t been a lot of curveballs along the way.
That’s the principle here: plan before you build, prepare before you build. Do the research. Know your options. Don’t be too quick to make a decision before you really have knowledge in hand.
Proverbs 13:16 says, “In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” I think the contrast here is intended to show us that fools flaunt their folly because they act without knowledge. Fools act without knowledge, but the prudent act with knowledge. How do you get knowledge? You get knowledge by gathering information. That’s one of the first and most practical steps for decision-making.
(2) Here’s number two: beware of impulsive and emotional decisions. Proverbs over and again warns us against the dangers of haste and the dangers of trusting our own minds and hearts.
Proverbs 19:2: “Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” This is the idea of someone who’s acting without knowledge and who’s impulsive, they’re making haste with their feet. They’re impulsive in decision-making. Again, Proverbs 28:26: “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Now listen: here’s one of the most common things you’re going to see in popular culture, in a movie or on TV. When people are trying to make a decision about what to do, what is the mentor going to say to the disciple or the student? He’s going to point to his chest and he’s going to say, “Listen to your heart.” Proverbs says exactly the opposite! Proverbs says whoever listens to his own heart is a fool. To trust in yourself is foolish. Don’t trust in yourself!
Listen: a lot of Christians do this, and we do it with spiritual language. You know what we do? We say, “I have a peace about it,” or, “I don’t have a peace about it.” What does that even mean? “I have a quiver in my liver,” right? “Something feels right inside.” You’re trusting in your feelings. If you’re trusting in this and you’re trusting in your feelings, you’re often going to make bad decisions, because your feelings are not reliable guides to what God wants you to do. You need to be rooted in the word, and you need to be making decisions wisely by developing wisdom and by talking to wise people.
So often, I think what happens is that we confuse our emotions for the voice of the Holy Spirit. We have to be very careful about that. How do you know the voice of the Holy Spirit? You’re not going to know the voice of the Spirit unless you are deeply rooted in his word, because the Spirit is always going to speak in a way that accords with Scripture. He’s never going to lead you apart from Scripture.
There’s actually a historical anecdote that I think illustrates this really well. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Both of these guys were instrumental in the Great Awakening, right, the revivals in the Great Awakening in the 1730s and ’40s. Edwards was a very serious-minded, thoughtful, reflective theologian. Whitefield was a dramatic, emotional, highly-engaged evangelist. They had very different temperaments.
But Whitefield had a tendency early in his ministry to give too much credence to what he thought were the impulses of the Spirit. He would think the Spirit was telling him to do something and he would do it. He would think that God was telling him something and he would claim it.
Edwards warned him about this. Edwards said, “I think you’re giving too much heed to this.” Whitefield kind of blew him off and said, “No.”
Then something happened in Whitefield’s life. Whitefield believed that God told him he was going have a son and that he was to name him John. He was married and had a son, and then the child, I think it was stillborn, either stillborn or died in infancy.
It completely shattered his understanding of how God speaks to him. He realized that he had been going on emotions and on impulses rather than really hearing the voice of God.
Brothers and sisters, we have to be careful. We have to be careful with what we claim God is telling us to do, we have to be deeply rooted in the word, and we need to guard ourselves against the compulsive and emotional decisions.
(3) One way we do that is point number three: seek wise counsel. Again, Proverbs says a lot about the importance of advice and counsel.
Proverbs 12:15: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
Proverbs 15:22: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisors they succeed.”
See the principle there? We need to get advice, we need to get counsel, we need to open ourselves up to others.
How do you get good advice? You need to choose people who are godly, that is, people who are walking with God, especially when you’re talking about personal decisions that have to do with your spiritual life. You need godly counselors. Your best friend may not be the person who can give you the best advice.
You also sometimes need professional advice. Don’t come to me with a legal problem; go to a lawyer. Don’t come to me if you have incessant headaches; go to a physician. Go to someone who has expertise in the area, and oftentimes that’s what we need, we need to seek out someone who has expertise and say, “Hey, I’m having trouble with this area of life, this part of planning for my life, and I need your professional advice.” Sometimes it’s worth paying for that. You need professional advice.
Godly counsel, professional counsel; also, we need unbiased counsel, right? Sometimes you can think that you’re relying on a multitude of counselors, but really all you’re doing is you’re talking to all the people that you already know will agree with you. The course of wisdom is to be willing to open ourselves up to people who may disagree with us, who will have an unbiased opinion, who will not be biased in our favor, necessarily, but will give us objective advice and counsel.
Then we need much counsel, a multitude of counselors, Proverbs says. We need much counsel. All of us need this from time to time.
So the big question, then, arising out of this point is simply this: Are you deciding with wisdom? Are you making decisions with wisdom?
Think about the things we’ve just talked about. Where do you fall on this scale? Some of you are probably more spiritual than the Bible in your decision-making. There are some people who are always wanting to throw out a fleece, like Gideon throwing out a fleece; remember that story in Judges? Gideon throws out a fleece—God tells him what to do, and he says, “Well, Lord, I just want to be really sure, so I’m going to put a fleece out and you make the ground wet and the fleece dry.” God does it, and then he says, “Okay, tomorrow morning make the ground dry and the fleece wet,” and God does that.
People use that language, throwing out a fleece. Of course, we don’t throw out real fleeces. What we do is we say, “Lord, if it’s cloudy tomorrow then that’s an indication that I should do this,” or, “If this person calls me within the next week then that’s an indication—” we do those kinds of subjective things. Don’t do that. If you’re going to throw out a fleece, get yourself a piece of lambskin and put it out and do what what Gideon did! If you want to use a fleece, use a real one. (I’m not advising you to do that.)
Don’t be more spiritual than the Bible. There are a lot of things that God just wants you to make wise, informed decisions, and he gives you the common sense to do that. Use sanctified common sense. Don’t be overly emotional, be thoughtful.
Maybe this is the most important thing. We need to be careful of making decisions in isolation, rather than making decisions in community. So often I’ve seen people make very serious decisions. Most often this happens with me when people decide to change churches, right, and by the time I find out that they’re moving churches, they’ve already made the decision. They haven’t asked my advice (maybe they don’t want my advice at that point), but oftentimes what happens is people don’t make those decisions by seeking any kind of counsel or advice, they just subjectively make decisions, “This is what I’m going to do,” and then they inform everybody. Well, when you do that you may be robbing yourself of perspective that would have led to a different decision.
III. Get to Know the Guide
Okay, we’ve talked about walking in the way of wisdom, we’ve talked about carefully planning your steps; now, number three, get to know the guide.
I want us to think about this in two different ways. I want us to think about God’s sovereignty as the one who guides our lives and then the actual personal relationship that we have with him.
(1) So, Proverbs 16—I’ve already read pieces of this, but let’s look at Proverbs 16, because there’s a whole fistful of texts in Proverbs 16 that show us the contrast between man planning his way and the Lord’s role in our lives.
Look at Proverbs 16:1. “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” Verse 2, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Verse 3, “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established.” Verse 9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”
Now, you read those verses (and there are many other examples we could give) and essentially what you’re seeing is, again, it’s a contrast. Here’s what man does, but here’s what the Lord does. Man plans his way, but the Lord orders his steps. Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established, if you acknowledge God in this. So there’s kind of a contrast between our part in planning and then God’s role, which is broader overall and yet also gets down to the details of our lives.
Of course, it raises this important question. Do we make decisions that determine our future, or does God determine everything? Those are essentially two different philosophies, aren’t they? It’s fatalism or determinism on one hand, or what’s called libertarianism on the other. Does God or some overarching power decide everything, so that my choices don’t really matter, or do my decisions really make a difference? Which one is true?
To illustrate this (I was thinking about this this week, and last night especially), two movies that I think illustrate these two different ways of thinking. One of them is the old 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Has anybody ever seen Lawrence of Arabia? A few of you have.
So, I saw that movie for the first time on Wednesday night, on the big screen. That is an amazing film. It’s like three hours long, maybe over three hours long, it’s the most amazing cinematography I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s the story T.D. Lawrence, who was this British officer during World War I, very instrumental in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, or the Turkish empire.
There’s a place in this film where Lawrence is kind of rallying together a group of Arabs, and he’s going to take them on a journey across the Arabian desert. It’s almost a death wish. Everybody’s saying, “You can’t do it. It can’t be done.” He says, “We’re going to do it. We can do it.”
The goal is he’s going to take them across the Arabian desert so that they can attack this port city in Jordan, named Akaba. They’re going to attack it from the rear. Nobody ever attacks the city from the rear, because nobody can cross the Arabian desert. He says, “I’m going to do it. I’ll lead people across.”
So he gets a group that is willing to do it, they’re taking their camels, they’re going across this desert without water, the desert’s called “the sun’s anvil” because it just crushes people. As they’re on this journey, one of Lawrence’s friends, one of the Arabs that we meet, goes missing. After several days, one morning they notice he’s not on his camel, he’s fallen off his camel.
Lawrence wants to go back and get him, and one of the other Arabs, named Ali, says, “No, it is written, and if you go, then you’re not going to make it to Akaba.”
Lawrence says, “Nothing is written,” and he gets on his camel and he heads back to get his friend, Gasim. Sure enough, he gets him. It’s a really heroic moment, and he gets him and saves his life, brings him and comes back to the oasis where all the other Arabs are waiting for him, and he brings Gasim, and he’s rescued him. Lawrence makes a statement about Akaba, “It is written in here,” in his own heart, “that I will go to Akaba.”
Well, then there’s this interesting twist that happens in almost the next scene. It’s the day before the battle, and there’s a dispute between two different groups of Arabs. Somebody’s been murdered, and the whole thing’s about to fall apart, the whole expedition, everything they’ve labored for. It’s about to fall apart, and the only way to solve the problem is for the one person who’s neutral, which is Lawrence, to agree to do the execution of the murderer. When he pulls out his gun and looks at the face, it’s Gasim, who he just rescued.
Of course, the point in the movie is that it was written after all. In spite of his best efforts, he couldn’t avoid Gasim’s fate. He was going to die. That’s fatalism. That’s determinism, determinism on the big screen.
Now let me give you an illustration of libertarianism. Another great classic movie, Marty McFly, Back to the Future. You remember at the very end, the very end of the Back to the Future movies, when it’s Michael J. Fox character, it’s Elizabeth Shue’s character; they’ve been in the Wild West, and they’ve had this piece of paper that’s from the future, and everything’s changed. The future has changed and the ink on the paper has disappeared.
Jennifer’s the character, and she comes to Doc Brown and she says, “The writing has disappeared; what’s happened?” What is it that Doc Brown says in that moment? He says, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is what you make it. Make it a good one.” That libertarianism. You make your own future.
Listen. The Bible is counter to both of those. The Bible doesn’t neatly fall into either one of those categories. The Bible and Proverbs—you even see it in the proverbs we’ve read—Proverbs teaches that your decisions do matter, and they will influence your destiny and your outcome; and that God is sovereign and in control of all things, and you cannot ultimately escape outside of God’s sovereign wisdom and grace and providence.
You say, “How does that work?” I don’t know. It’s a mystery. Philosophers call this compatibilism. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that your decisions matter and that God is in control.
When we can grasp that, it actually produces both humility in our lives and also great confidence. Humility, because we know that everything just doesn’t hang on our own decision-making. We make the best decisions that we can, but we do it with trust in the Lord. Also confidence, because I don’t want some of my decisions to have too much influence in my life, because I’ve made some bad ones. I have confidence in the Lord that he can take even my bad decisions and can turn them around for his glory.
Listen to what Tremper Longman says in his great commentary on Proverbs. He says, “All planning should be done in recognition that God can indeed overturn it.” Isn’t that a comfort for us as Christians? He says, “The thought is not that we simply pray for God to honor our plans and establish them; rather, it is the idea that we submit our entire life’s action to God, so that even if our human plans are subverted we can recognize an even deeper plan at work in our lives.”
That’s what Proverbs is saying, right? “Commit your work to the Lord and your plans will be established.” “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Plan, and do the best you can in planning, but recognize that there is a God, and there is a God who with wisdom rules this world, and the Lord establishes your steps.
(2) Here’s the last thing; we’re almost done. Not only is there this God, this King who rules over all; not only is he there, but you can know him. He guides us, and you can know the Guide. Part of wise decision-making, part of this journey, part of this pilgrimage, this voyage of life we’re on is knowing the Guide. It’s not actually being the captain of our own souls and the masters of our own fate. It’s recognizing that there’s someone else steering the ship. We make the best decisions we can, but we do it as we stay in tune with God, who is our Guide.
Let me end with Proverbs 3:5-6. Many of you will know this by heart. It says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” There you have it again, the ways and the path language.
Notice what he says there. “In all your ways acknowledge him.” Really, the idea of the word here is know him. “In all your ways know him.” It’s not just acknowledge, “Yes, I recognize that God’s there.” No, it’s that you know him. In all your ways know God. Lean on God, trust in God, know him. Know him in deep and personal ways. If you know him, he will make your paths straight.
So the question for us is this: Do we know and trust this God? Do you know him? Do you know God? Are you walking with God? Are you trusting him?
I tell you, if you know God, then even when your plans go crazy, even when your decisions fall apart, even when your best efforts lead to bad outcomes, you can rest with confidence that a loving and wise God cares about you, is still working behind the scenes.
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace.
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”
Let me close with these words from St. Patrick. This is a wonderful prayer, St. Patrick’s prayer. I think it’s a fitting way for us to conclude this morning.
“I will arise today through God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to life before me,
God’s shield to protect me.”
Gracious, merciful God, we humbly bow in your presence this morning to acknowledge you as our King, as our sovereign, as the one who is guiding all things, but also as our Father, as the one who cares for us and who loves and who we can trust with everything in our lives. We just confess our need to renew our trust in you this morning, and we pray that you would help us to do that now. You have demonstrated your love for us in countless ways through the guidance you have given, through they ways that you have provided, and especially in the gospel, through the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So this morning, with an eye on your goodness as well as on your sovereignty, your providence, and your power, we submit our lives to you, and we pray that you would make us wise, that you would help us make godly decisions, make good decisions. Help us in our planning, help us be thoughtful, guard us from being impulsive, help us to be humble enough to seek out counsel and advice, not just act in isolation. Especially, Lord, help us to walk the right path, headed in the right direction, towards your eternal kingdom.
I pray that you would draw near this morning. Whatever the specific needs of our lives are, you know our hearts, you know the things that we need guidance in. Lord, would you draw near this morning and through your word would you direct us and help us?
As we come to the Lord’s table, may we come this morning as pilgrims who need to be nourished along the way, and who are nourished at the table of the Lord, as we feed on the broken body of Christ, the shed blood of Christ; by faith, as we look to his finished work, may it nourish us, may it strengthen us, may we believe the promise of your word that Christ has made to us, not only redemption and sanctification and righteousness, but he has also made for us wisdom. He is our wisdom. So may we grow in wisdom as we feed on Christ today. So draw near to us in these moments at the table, continue to lead and direct us; we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.