How Can I Know What To Do Next?

One of the most pressing questions humans ask is, “How can I know what I’m supposed to do next?” The question is often phrased for Christians: as “How can I know God’s will?” Both secular and religious authors have written many books to help people answer this question. Interestingly, there’s little evidence that these books have fundamentally changed human beings. After generations of self-help books, people still wonder what to do next.

There are times in life when we simply cannot escape the question of what to do next. We ask questions like,  “What school should I attend?” “What person shall I marry?” “What career shall I embrace?” “What church should I join?” “What religion should I believe in?” “Should I change jobs?”

These are all important questions, so important that the entire course of our lives can be changed by how we answer them. A lot of the time, we can delay making a decision. We can just keep on going in the direction we’re headed. Of course, that is a decision. Not to decide is to decide. We’ve decided what to do. We have to live with the consequences. If I’m offered a job and I don’t take it, thinking that I have more security where I am, that opportunity will probably pass me by for life. There are also times when we have no choice but to decide. There are times when we have to make a decision. We can’t avoid the decision.

In the modern world, the issue of how to decide has become increasingly pressing as the scope of human choices has become more significant. In prior ages, most people had minimal decisions concerning their career (it would be their parents), who they would marry (it would be the person their parents chose), or where they would live (it would be where their family has always lived), what political party to belong to (there were none for most people) or who to vote for (there were no elections), and the like. This is true in very few places in the modern world. As one author put it, “…the individual in modern pluralistic society not only has the opportunity to choose; he is compelled to choose. Since less and less can be taken for granted, the individual cannot fall back on firmly established patterns of behavior and thought. … Such a person must opt for one possibility rather than another. [1]

The inevitability of choice in modern society causes deep anxiety, poor decision-making,  and a sense of dislocation in many people. Stanley Hauerwas says it well,

We are told we live in a morally bankrupt age. People think what at one time was unthinkable; indeed they do what was once inconceivable. We experienced the world as so morally chaotic that we feel our only alternative is for each person to choose if not to create the standard by which they are to live.” [2]

In such a society, it is no wonder that many people feel their lives are falling apart when they face making decisions. It is no wonder that so many people feel deep regret and shame for their past decisions. It’s a wonder that things aren’t worse. In such a situation, it’s worth asking how we can make good decisions about the things that matter most.

Where We Go for Help

Although the conditions of our society make it more challenging to make decisions, and because of the lack of clear, moral guidance, decisions are more likely to be poor. Nevertheless, people have always faced the necessity of making good decisions. This has been true throughout history. The entire wisdom literature of the Old Testament is one long dissertation on making good life decisions. That’s why it’s essential to develop the habit of reading a small section of wisdom literature every day. It can be Proverbs. It can be Ecclesiastes. It can be The Wisdom of Solomon. It can be James. It could be one of many places in the Scriptures where the question of making good decisions is addressed. Yet, there is a deeper truth than just reading appropriate literature.

Romans 12 and Wise Decision-Making

This week, I focus on a tiny section of scripture, Romans 12:1-3. When I was in seminary, we were warned not to preach too much on a single text. Every pastor has their favorite texts, and there’s a tendency to return to them time after time. Our professors warned us against overdoing this. About five years into my preaching career, I reviewed a list of every sermon I’ve ever preached and where it came from in the Bible. It turned out that except for the Christmas and Easter passages, Romans 12:1-2 was the passage I had most often taught or preached on. Here it is:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

The Practical Nature of Faith

If we are going to be able to make good decisions in life, it’s important to understand the difference between practical knowledge and abstract knowledge. Abstract knowledge is theoretical in nature, while practical knowledge always leads to action. Christianity is not an abstract system of doctrine; it’s a way of life. Christian life is all about action. It is about doing. It is about living each day in view of God’s revelation in Christ.

Paul’s letters have a standard structure. One feature of Paul’s writing is a tendency to begin a letter with teachings about God and end the letter with its practical implications for life.  He nearly always does this, and for a good reason: Paul thanks that our faith should lead us to action. This is why he begins the letter with the phrase “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).  The obedience of faith is practical action in everyday life based upon the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Romans 12 begins with the word “Therefore.” Paul is showing that we need to live differently because of all that he has said and all the logical arguments he’s made up to this point about the meaning of Christ. “Therefore” clues us into the fact that the mighty act of God in Christ has implications for our lives.*

It’s easy to believe that if we’ve got our theory right, we will get our practice right. Philosophers warn us that this is not always the case. There’s always a distance between any idea we have and reality. Making good decisions in life is about adjusting our lives to the way the world really is. Of course, to do that, we have to understand the way the world really is. The apostle Paul knows this, which is why he begins by urging the Romans to “offer their bodies as living sacrifices….” In Paul’s mind, God and God’s involvement in the world and our lives is the most fundamental fact. If we don’t recognize this fundamental reality, we won’t be able to make the best decisions possible.

Present Yourself to God

Paul begins by urging us to make a total commitment to the Gospel of Christ.  “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” In a sermon many years ago, I asked the men of our congregation how many prayed before they asked their wives to marry them. Not one person raised their hand. The point was that we sometimes fail to “present our decisions and ourselves to God.”

You can argue that the decision about who to marry is the most critical decision many people make. My life would be completely different if I hadn’t married Kathy. Indeed, no decision I’ve ever made has had a more positive influence on my life. If there is any decision that ought to be lifted up to God, deciding who to marry is the one.

What is Paul urging us to do? He’s asking us to discern the will of God. To do this, we have to present ourselves to God. He doesn’t begin by asking believers to check out a library book and study it. Notice Paul doesn’t begin by saying “Memorize a lot of scripture.” He starts by saying that we should present ourselves to God. This doesn’t mean we won’t study our Bibles. It doesn’t mean we won’t read secular sources of information about our decisions. It doesn’t mean that we won’t ask the opinion of trusted counselors.

 It means that, most importantly, we must present ourselves to God. This means we have to pray. We have to meditate. We have to take time to allow God into the decision-making process that we are about to make. Finally, and this is the most challenging part of presenting ourselves to God, we need to present ourselves to God with an attitude of worship and sacrifice. When Paul uses the phrase “present yourselves as living sacrifices,” he uses a word that means worship. He is saying, “Bring yourself into the presence of God and pray and praise God continually as you make your decision, and don’t be afraid to make sacrifices along the way.”

For the past 50 years, with very rare exceptions, I’ve spent every Sunday morning in church. A good bit of the time, it was a sacrifice to attend worship. I might have rather been somewhere else, like the golf course.  The same thing is true in decision-making. It won’t always be easy or pleasant if we bring ourselves before God in an attitude of total worship as we make decisions. A good bit of the time, we wish we could do something else and be somewhere else.

Occasionally, we’re going to make a decision that we don’t really want to make based on our feeling that God wants us to make it. It’s true in my life over and over again. Some of my best decisions have been made in situations where I felt it would result in a bit of sacrifice. On the other hand, some of the worst decisions I’ve ever made were made under circumstances where I was taking the easy way out – deciding because I thought it would please me instead of pleasing God.

One final element at the beginning of this passage needs to be emphasized. At the end of the passage, Paul urges the Romans to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice precisely because it is their “true and proper” worship. The word in Greek is difficult to translate, and “true and proper” may not capture all the Greek implies.  The Greek word literally means “logical.” [3] It means reasonable. It is the very same root word used in John when he refers to Jesus as the “logos of God,” that is the word of God in human form.

In Jesus Christ, the most profound reason of the universe is revealed. As Paul points out in First Corinthians, at first glance, this deeper reason may not seem reasonable (I Corinthians 1:5-10). Nevertheless, our Christian faith should not lead us to act unreasonably, even though the world may often think that our pattern of decision-making is unreasonable. Instead, our decision-making should be logical and reasonable at a level that most people cannot imagine.

Be Transformed

How is it possible for us to live a life characterized by constant and total worship of God? Most of us can’t do this a lot of the time. This is why Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). My paraphrase of this reads, “Do not allow yourself to become conformed to the spirit and pattern of thought and behavior of our society but be transformed by complete changing your character and the way you make decisions so that you may in every situation discern the will of God in every situation.”

In one way or another, all of us tend to view the world through the lenses given to us by our own society. We internalize a worldview, habitual way of life, and a set of values, not primarily consciously but unconsciously, as we grow, mature, and live out our daily lives. In our society, this habitual worldview inclines us to believe that material things are very important. In our society, this habitual worldview inclines us to think that being powerful, wealthy, and able to control our environment is fundamentally the most essential thing in the world. Against all this, Christians believe that the most important fundamental thing is God revealed in Christ, who is the Truth and Love of God in human form (I John 3:8). Learning to live like Jesus is the most important thing in life–and Jesus did a lot of sacrificing to make our faith and life possible.

What Paul has in mind is that we need a change not in our exterior behavior, though there will be a change in our exterior behavior, but a change in our very being. When Paul says “be transformed,” the Greek word implies that there should be a complete and total transformation in the essential being of our person. [4] In Protestant circles, we tend to call this process “sanctification. In Orthodox circles, they use the word “Theosis,” which means becoming not just like God on the outside but participating in the life of God on the inside. We are transformed, not just by what we believe, nor just by how we behave, but by who we are. This is exactly what Paul means.

Eugenia S. Constantinou puts it this way, “The Holy Spirit illuminates, sanctifies, and actualizes the life in Christ. As we participate fully in the life of the Church, we acquire an orthodox phronema, a mind shaped not by the world but by the Spirit.” [5] As we grow in Christ as part of the community of faith, we acquire a new attitude, a new perspective, a new frame of reference, a new worldview, a new kind of reason, and a new orientation in our lives. This new orientation grows and matures as we embody more of Christ. This is how we learn to make good decisions in the will of God. There is no good decision-making without transformation.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Peter L. Berger, A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1992), 89.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer on Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), 2

[3] Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1959), 150.

[4] William Barclay, “Romans” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 157-158.

[5] Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2020, 77.