This is Part 9 in a 12 Part series. The premise is this: "Two men in their in their late 20’s walk into a coffee shop around 7:00 a.m. In college they had been good friends, but over the past few years had gotten out of touch. Having lived in the same dormitory for three of their four years at City Christian College, they still had many fond—and a few not-so-fond memories—of their time together in college. Just by accident (or so Michael thought) they had run into each other in a hardware store and had set up a time to talk over breakfast. This is their ninth breakfast together.

If you want to read this series of conversations from the beginning (you don't have to start at the beginning), please see Part 1.

Michael: I’ve started looking for a church over the past couple weeks.

Jim: You never said anything about that.

Michael: I didn’t want you to get too excited and start thinking I was getting my life together.

Jim: Don’t worry … I wouldn’t do that.

Michael: Thanks a heap. Betsy’s really glad that we’re looking. It’s been a couple years since we’ve been really connected. I used to be a real church-goer for the first year or so out of college. I mean, every Christian knows you’re supposed to go to church.

Jim: But I thought you did go to church—you know—Central …

Michael: Oh yeah, that church. I do … I mean, I did. I go there occasionally, but I’m not very involved. It makes it easier when I talk to people like you to say that I’m going to such-and-such a church than to say that I’m not going to church at all.

Jim: I see.

Michael: Sometimes you feel like you’re in the doghouse if you don’t go to church at all.

Jim: I’m sorry if I’ve categorized you ...

Michael: Don’t worry. I fit your categorizations.

Jim: (ignoring) So, have you found a church you want to be involved with yet?

Michael: We decided to try something a little different—something a little less boring. We’ve begun visiting Apostolic Spiritual Encounters Church.

Jim: I’m sure it’s not boring.

Michael: It’s not. And I like it. I think we’ll keep going there.

Jim: Some people from that church serve alongside us on the Northside. They seem very committed.

Michael: There’s only one problem. I’ve got this new acquaintance who is quickly becoming a friend. His name is Jeff. He seems to really love the Lord … and witnesses to his friends … and loves to worship …

Jim: But?

Michael: But last Sunday, he said that God had led him to tell me that I was supposed to leave my job at Graphics and Design. Actually, he’s always saying things like that, though not always to me.

Jim: What did he say God wants you to do?

Michael: He thinks I should start working with you down at Love for the City.

Jim: You’re hired!

Michael: But I’m not going to do it … at least not now. It’s not a very good idea. I mean … you’re doing a great work and all … but it’s not the place for me. At least I don’t think so.

Jim: Whatever …

Michael: I don’t want to talk about the Northside right now. But I do want to know what you think of Jeff’s comment.

Jim: It depends on whether it’s from God or not.

Michael: Is this sort of thing normal for a Christian? I mean, are Christians always supposed to be getting messages from God about what they’re supposed to do? I sure would love it if God would talk to me the way Jeff says God speaks to him.

Jim: People have different ideas about how this works out in the Christian life.

Michael: Obviously.

Jim: The issue, as I see it, is this: Are we supposed to make decisions according to wisdom or should we look for special guidance from God?

Michael: That’s the question.

Jim: Proverbs tells us that we’re supposed to seek after wisdom in every area of life.[1]

Michael: So wisdom is obviously important.

Jim: Definitely. But Paul describes the believer as one “led by the Spirit.”[2] This description may be broader than simply the internal processes in decision-making, but also probably includes those as well. The Bible also presents many examples of God giving specific guidance to individuals for specific situations by various means.

Michael: But it’s got to be one or the other, right? If you’ve got a decision to make, either you’re going to get a message from God about what to do, or you’re going to look at all the options and try to make a good decision. Right?

Jim: Why does it have to be one or the other?

Michael: Because if God tells you what to do, you don’t have to waste your time trying to figure out whether it’s wise or not. If God says to do it, there’s a pretty good likelihood that it is wise!

Jim: Are you sure it isn’t sometimes one and sometimes the other and sometimes the working together of the two? The Bible gives illustrations of both. If both wisdom and guidance are in the Bible, then they probably work together somehow.

Michael: … both wisdom and guidance …

Jim: But God-given wisdom must be at the base of the process, because—as you’ve just observed—direct guidance will always trump the process of wisdom. I didn’t say that direct guidance will work against wisdom. But, if guidance for a specific situation comes, and its source truly is God, then you have tapped into the source of wisdom and do not need to go through the normal processes of searching out wisdom.

Michael: But what if the source isn’t God?

Jim: Well, that’s a different matter altogether.

Michael: I still don’t see how these two can actually work together.

Jim: James 1:5 brings the two together. It says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” It’s interesting that the phrase, “If any of you lacks wisdom” assumes that every Christian has been given by God a certain measure of wisdom to use in making the everyday decisions of life. This wisdom can’t just be general wisdom, otherwise the verse would be saying, “If any of you feels a little dumb, let him ask of God…” James is speaking of the wisdom to live out the life that God has planned for us.

Michael: Which includes wisdom to make decisions about real situations ...

Jim: Right. On the other hand, it’s interesting that this verse doesn’t limit us to the wisdom we already possess. It doesn’t say, “God has already given you enough wisdom—you simply need to employ it when you decide something.” Though the verse assumes that everyone has been allotted enough wisdom to make everyday decisions, you will encounter situations where you are short on wisdom.

Michael: And then you are to ask God to increase your wisdom.

Jim: That’s right. The increasing of wisdom is itself an inward work of God, moving our hearts and minds toward one decision rather than toward another—including the evaluation of additional input. Notice that a couple verses later James says that the one who asks for wisdom without faith should not “expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.” It is clearly a supernatural increase of wisdom. But such wisdom is not wisdom that is separate from the wisdom with which God has already endowed you or from any outside counsel you might receive; it is an augment of that wisdom you already have.

Michael: It seems that you believe that God does sometimes put things into our minds.

Jim: Yes. Or into our hearts. That’s what Nehemiah meant when he spoke of God putting into his heart the plans for rebuilding and restoring Jerusalem.[3]

Michael: But how significant a place does wisdom play in decision-making?

Jim: I would say that the basic process of making a decision comes through wisdom. Wisdom is definitely the starting point. No one asks whether God thinks it’s a good idea to drink a glass of water on a hot day. Everyone knows that it’s wise to drink lots of water when it’s hot. But it is not always as immediately clear what you should do when you have to give an answer about a marriage proposal or a job offer.

Michael: I still don’t see how they work together.

Jim: This is one of the mysteries of spiritual maturity.

Michael: Great … another mystery.

Jim: It’s only mysterious in that those who have little experience in walking with God can’t easily understand it. But it’s not so hard for the believer who has experience walking with God to understand. The person who grows closer to the heart of God begins to think thoughts that are more in line with the Spirit of God.[4] He increasingly views life more the way that God does, because he has spent time in the presence of God. Now, when such a person makes a decision, is he making a decision according to wisdom or is he being led by God?

Michael: I’m not sure.

Jim: The closer we come to the heart of God, the more the path of wisdom and the path of guidance come together. One of the problems is that most of us still hold to many of the world’s values—think only of how many Christians view money and security—and therefore don’t naturally respond to a given situation the way that God would respond to that situation. But the more time we spend with God, the more likely we are to respond as he would.

Michael: It’s a bit like knowing what your wife is going to order from the menu before she orders it.

Jim: Something like that. I just referred to Nehemiah as an example of someone receiving a message from God into his mind. He says clearly that God had put it on his heart to build the walls and to assemble the people. But this message was no deviation from what any aware Bible student living at that time could have and would have known about God’s heart for the city of Jerusalem. The “putting,” rather than a message given to a person who wasn’t expecting it, was more like a confirmation of what righteous Nehemiah already suspected. It was the “Yes! This is from the Lord …” In some situations, what we internally sense is more like a “No! There’s something here that is not right.”

Michael: So you think that Jeff didn’t get a message from God?

Jim: I’m not saying that he didn’t. The Bible does give a place for prophetic words, but it also teaches that they’re not given to everyone.[5] What I’ve been talking about now is more the normal way that God leads us—all of us.

Michael: Say it again.

Jim: He leads us primarily through our growth in wisdom and understanding of God’s ways in the world. But the source of this wisdom is the Spirit, who increases our wisdom when we pray and who works with our consciences to confirm whether or not we are making a good decision. Separately, in particular situations, God sometimes does give a direct word through dreams or prophetic words, but this is something different than the regular process I’m speaking about.

Michael: I’ve known people who are so mystical that they act as though the Lord talks with them face-to-face like he did with Moses. Sometimes Jeff seems that way to me. On the other hand, many of us who face a decision don’t even consider whether this decision is what God wants. We simply choose a good-looking option. You obviously think that both are important.

Jim: That’s right.

Michael: Now, back to that other question. How do you know that God is the one confirming in your heart that something is right or wrong?

Jim: Again, the answer is tied to the ongoing experience of a close relationship with God. I believe that the longer you walk with God, the easier it becomes to discern that it is God rather than your own psychological makeup that is involved in confirming that a decision is good. Even answering this question bothers me a bit because it seems to put the emphasis on the inward work of God in our feelings or conscience. Even a surface reading of the journeys of Paul in Acts reveals that he wasn’t one to sit around meditating for weeks about whether or not it was God’s will for him to move into a new city.

Michael: That’s at least partially because he often got thrown out or pressured out of a city.

Jim: True. But he also chose many of the places that he visited. Most of those decisions were good ministry decisions that fit into God’s general assignment for Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. That is, most of those decisions were based primarily upon God-given wisdom. But, there also seems to have been times in Acts where Paul experienced an inward check by God about a region or situation he was about to go into.[6]

Michael: A lot of Christians use the phrase, “I just don’t have a peace about it.” What do you think of that?

Jim: I think it’s simply another way of saying that God sometimes confirms in the heart of a believer that a decision or situation is right or wrong. The Bible says, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.”[7] You and I are told to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”[8]—assuming, of course, that sometimes believers do not let Christ’s peace rule in their hearts. The one who walks in fellowship with God possesses a solid peace that is not easily affected by outward circumstances. It can, however, be affected by personal sin or by moving toward a situation that God knows will harm his life. Many Christians testify that God sometimes uses this peace or lack of it to confirm whether they are moving the right direction.

Michael: Sometimes?

Jim: Yes, sometimes. As we’ve discussed before, God may occasionally override the entire decision-making process through a prophetic word or some other direct means of guidance. But he usually asks us to exercise God-given wisdom according to biblical themes while we stay open to correction by the Spirit.

Michael: So, what do you think of Jeff’s idea, if you don’t mind me asking again?

Jim: Do you believe it’s wise according to God’s way of looking at the world, or not?

Michael: Such a decision might be wise for some people, but I’m not sure about for me. Of course, if you’d like, we can talk through the details of it later.

Jim: If it’s not wise, then it probably is not what God wants you to do. At the same time, you yourself know that you haven’t had a lot of experience waiting on God in your recent spiritual history. It will probably take you longer than others to make a biblical and wise decision while at the same time waiting for a correction by the Spirit. You would be advised to find wise, Spirit-filled counselors to discuss this with and listen carefully to their advice.

Michael: One more question. What if God wants us to do something, even if it doesn’t seem wise?

Jim: Whatever God wants is, by definition, wise. But God usually does not act contrary to the principles of wisdom taught and illustrated in the Bible. Let me suggest a rule of thumb that I sometimes use in such situations. The principle flows from the truth that God usually will act according to the general guidelines he has already offered us in the Bible. The rule of thumb is this: If a person regularly claims to have messages from God, you can assume that 90 percent of those are going to line up exactly with the pattern of biblical wisdom. Comparing the pattern of such “messages” with what is wise is a good control.

Michael: Well, the Bible does tell us to seek wisdom.

Jim: If someone regularly “hears” God telling him or you to do things that don’t seem like wise decisions, then he’s almost certainly not hearing God right. Jeff might think the only way decisions are made is through a direct word from God. Do you think Jeff understands the biblical admonitions to seek wisdom and apply that wisdom to every area of life?

Michael: Probably not enough.

Jim: One ought to be able to arrive at the same decision nine out of ten times merely by humbly and prayerfully seeking to apply biblical principles to specific situations.

Michael: At least you’ve given me plenty to think about.

Jim: Most of the things that you think God is saying ought to square with wisdom most of the time.

Michael: Except when God tells Abraham to go to a far away place that he’s never seen.

Jim: That’s right … except when God calls Abraham or you to go ...

Click here to read Questions Over Breakfast #10: Christians in the World: A Triumphal Church or a Persecuted Minority?

[1] Prov 2:1-5.

[2] Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18.

[3] Neh 2:12; 7:5.

[4] 1 Cor 2:11-15.

[5] 1 Cor 12:29.

[6]See Acts 16:7; 27:9-10, 21. Acts 16:6 says that they had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” whereas 16:7 says that “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them.” The change in language implies a difference in means—probably a prophetic word or dream in the first instance and an inward check or circumstance change in the second. Separately, the language of Acts 27:9-10 and 21 contrasts with the mention of a word from an angelic visitor in 27:23-26. The first appears to have been an inward “check” and the second a direct revelation.

[7] Isa 26:3.

[8] Col 3:15.