How to Make a Tough Decision
November 7, 1993
Listen to this Sermon
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
These two verses are among the most beloved in all the Bible. Many of us memorized them in Sunday School years ago. In any listing of favorite Bible passages Proverbs 3:5-6 would rank near the top. I’ll bet there are some of you who have those two verses on a plaque in your home somewhere to remind you of their great truth.
G. Campbell Morgan, world-famous Bible teacher of another generation, said that when he was leaving home for the first time to go out on his own, his father pressed a note into his hand. When Campbell Morgan unfolded it, he discovered it contained just one verse of scripture: “In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” Looking back years later, he noted there was that text and no comment. No comment, he said, except the comment of my father’s godly life.
This text is striking in its simplicity. There is nothing difficult about it. It is so simple that it can be understood by the youngest believer and yet it is a comfort to the oldest saint of God. And it is good for all Christians in-between. It has been the hope and encouragement of countless multitudes of God’s people across the centuries.
A Short Course in God’s Will
Because it is utterly simple, we may prove it true any time we like. These words cling to the soul because they speak to a great need we all feel—the need for guidance. After all, there is no question greater than this: What is the will of God for my life? I do not know a Christian who does not wrestle with God’s will sooner or later:
—”I wonder if I should get married. And if I should, should I marry Molly, Mabel, Melba or Marlene?”
—”I’ve been offered a new job. Should I take it or wait for a better offer?”
—”I’ve been accepted at two colleges. Which one should I attend?”
—”Should I go back to school for my master’s degree?”
—”Should I try out for cheerleader?”
—”What courses should I take next semester?”
—”Lord, what do you want me to do?”
Proverbs 3:5-6 suggests the basis on which guidance will come. It is a short course in knowing God’s will for your life. If you will learn what this passage really is teaching, and begin to apply it in your daily life, it will make a profound difference when you come to make those really tough decisions.
I am beginning this study with the assumption that most of us have known these verses for a long time. Sometimes when we know a passage so well, we almost know it too well. We know it so much that we really have never stopped to think about what its words are really saying.
Five Key Words
Not long ago I had a chance to study these verses for the first time ever. As I did, I discovered that five key words unlock the message of this text. Let’s take those key words one by one and see what each one teaches us.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” That’s a word that in Hebrew means “to lean with the full body,” “to lay upon,” “to rest the full weight upon.” In our thinking the word trust means to rely upon or to have confidence in. But the Hebrew word is stronger. It is the idea of stretching yourself out upon a bed or laying on a hard surface. The word means to put your full weight prostrate on something. To trust in the Lord is to lay your whole weight upon him.
“Lean not to your own understanding.” It means to rest upon for partial support. Leaning is what you do when you walk with a cane or grab a walker because you are unsteady. It is used in the Old Testament for leaning against a tree or a stone cliff. You lean on something when you are not strong enough to stand alone.
“Lean not on your own understanding.” The word has to do with your mental faculties. It refers to the mental processes by which you analyze a problem, break it down into its smaller parts, and then you make a decision about what you are going to do. It’s what you use early in the morning when you make a list on a three-by-five card of all the things you have to do that day. You use your understanding to chart out the priorities of each day. Or it’s what you use on Sunday night when you map out the oncoming week. That’s understanding. You use it any time you plan your life or solve a problem. So the word understanding refers to those mental processes by which you look at a problem, you analyze it, and you decide how you are going to solve it. It is also how you set up the order of your life. It is not a bad word. Understanding is simply the decision-making ability that God has given you.
When you take the word “lean,” put it with the word “understanding” and add the negative, you get an idea like this: “Use all your mental powers, but do not lean on them for total support.” Don’t trust in your own ability to figure out your life. Lean instead on the Lord! Rest your weight on him!
I am going to stop and say a little bit more about this word because I think that “acknowledge” doesn’t do full justice to the original text. In the Hebrew this word is an imperative. It is a command. It is the imperative form of the verb to know. You could translate this by saying, “In all your ways know him.”
The underlying Hebrew word means to know deeply and intimately. It’s the kind of knowing that comes with personal experience. It means to know something through and through.
“Do You Know the President?”
For instance, somebody might say, “Do you know the President of the United States?” I would say, “Sure, I know the President of the United States.” What I mean is if the President walked in, I would know who he is. If I were in a room and heard his voice coming over the TV, I would recognize the distinctive voice of the President of the United States. Or if I picked up a newspaper, I might see his picture on the front page, and I would say, “I know who that is, I know that man. That is the President of the United States.”
Now, I don’t really know him. I can’t pick up the phone and call the White House, and say, “Bill, this is Ray. Let’s do lunch this week.” He won’t take my call because I don’t know him personally. I just know him at the level of head knowledge. I don’t know him intimately or on a friendship level.
Singing the Same Song
There is another way of knowing. I know my wife and she knows me in a completely different way. We’ve known each other intimately for 20 years. After being together that long, strange things begin to happen. You will be sitting there thinking about a song. And she’ll start singing it. How does that happen? I don’t know. Or you will be thinking about a question, and before you can ask it, she’ll blurt out the answer. How did she do that? I don’t know. Or you’ll start a sentence, and to your great irritation, she will finish the sentence before you will. When you say, “How can you do that?” she says with a smile, “I know what you are thinking even before you say it.”
Things like that happen to all married couples eventually. When you live together that long, you get to know each other at such a deep level, that you just don’t know each other on the outside, you actually begin to know what the other person is thinking as they are thinking it, you know what they are going to say before they say it, you know what they are going to do before they do it because you have a deep, personal, intimate knowledge of each other.
Seen in that light, we might translate verse 5 this way: “In all your ways know God intimately. In all your ways know God deeply. In all your ways know God personally. In every area of your life know God intimately, deeply and personally because when you know God that way in every area of your life, then he will direct your paths.”
“He will make your paths straight.” That brings me to the fifth word, which in the King James is translated “He shall direct your paths.” That is not bad. But I think the NIV is a little better: “He will make your paths straight.”
It has the idea of a road which appears to be impassable. The road winds through the mountains and goes down into the swamps. It seems to have a thousand switchbacks. As you study it, you discover that portions of the road are washed out, others are filled with potholes, still others with huge boulders. In some places the road apparently becomes a dead end.
It is the road of your life. That’s the road you are traveling right now. As you look at it, it appears to be covered with boulders and rocks. It appears to be filled with potholes. It appears to be a road to nowhere. That’s the way life is. Some of you have come through a week filled with boulders. And you spent your whole week trying to drive around them. And as far as you can see in the future, the road is filled with nothing but potholes and nothing but sewage in the bottom of those potholes. So you’ve come out of the tough week, and you are not looking to the week ahead with any excitement because the road seems filled with obstacles and potholes.
He Will Move the Boulders
Here is God’s message to you from Proverbs 3:5-6. If you will know God in every area of your life, he himself will take personal responsibility to make your way smooth and straight. He will remove the obstacles if they need to be removed. He will fill in the potholes if they need to be filled. He will redirect the detour so that what seemed to be a dead-end turns out to be the shortest way to reach your destination.
All you have to do is trust in the Lord. Lay yourself completely on him for full support upon him. Don’t lean for support on your own human understanding. In all your ways know God intimately. He will take the path of your life which seems to go up and down and around and sometimes seems to curve backwards , and he will make your way straight. That’s the promise of Almighty God to you.
“Bless It All, Lord.”
You are trusting when you are waiting on God to show you the next step you should take. So many of us don’t do that. The Bible says in all your ways know him intimately, know him deeply, know him personally. As a man knows a woman, know God that way. Know him to that depth. Know him to that kind of fellowship and that kind of intimacy.
So often we skip this. When we get up in the morning, and we say, “O God, help us. I’m busy today. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. Lord, I don’t even have time to pray so here’s my list. Bless it all, Lord. I’ve got to go.” We throw our list up toward heaven while we run out the door. What we are saying is, “God, here’s my schedule, rubber stamp it with your blessing.” And we wonder why our days are filled with frustration.
Many of us want to go through life leaning almost completely upon our own understanding. A lot of us are basically control freaks. I number myself among that group. I like to know what’s going on. I like to be in charge of my own destiny. This passage is a warning to all of us control freaks who lay out life the way we want it and then say, “Here, God, you stamp it with your blessing because I am going to go out and do it for you.”
God says, “I don’t work that way. You know me first. Put me first in everything including all your plans and all your thinking and all your scheming. Put me first. And I then will make your way straight.”
We Want a Formula, God Wants a Relationship
Do you want to know the secret of knowing the will of God? Here it is. In everything you do, know God. But we all want a formula. “Pastor Ray, I don’t like that. Give me a formula. Give me three steps.” Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us that the secret is a relationship with God. But we want a formula.
Let’s talk about Joe who has been dating Shirley for nine months. They have a date on Friday night. When he picks her up, she asks the logical question: “Where are we going tonight?” “I don’t know. I want to take you someplace you like. I wish you would give me a three-step formula so I could know where you really want to go on Friday nights.” How would Shirley feel? Angry, upset, frustrated. “We’ve been dating every week for nine months. And you don’t know what I like and don’t like? Where have you been all this time?”
We want to reduce our relationship with God to a formula. Give me three steps so I will know what to do. God says, “Know me. Spend time with me. Put me first in every area of your life because when you do that I will take care of all those details.” Wow! Brothers and sisters, do you understand that this is a revolutionary way of looking at life?
Minnesota or South Carolina?
We’re hung up on the decisions of life. Should I go here? Should I go there? Should I live in Minnesota? Should I live in South Carolina? Should I marry Jane or Sue or Ellen or Sherry? Should I take the job, or should I not? Wait a minute.
Here is the teaching of this passage stated in one sentence: God is much less concerned with what you do than with what kind of person you are. He is much less concerned with what you do; he is much more concerned with what kind of person you are. So when you say, “Lord, should I go to Minnesota or should I go to South Carolina?” you are asking the wrong question. The question is not where are you going to go, but what kind of person are you going to be wherever you go. The question is not: Who should I marry, but what kind of person am I going to be no matter who I marry?
Wasting Energy on the Wrong Questions
While you are wrestling with the question of relocation, God wants to know, “Are you going to be my man whether you go to Minnesota or South Carolina or whether you stay here in Oak Park?” If you decide to put God first in everything, it doesn’t matter whether you do that in Minnesota or South Carolina or Oak Park. And if you are not going to put God first in everything, it doesn’t matter whether you do that in Minnesota or South Carolina or Oak Park.
We focus all our energy on decisions. God says, Know me. And I will take care of the details. We want specific direction. God says, In all your ways know me and everything else will fall into place.
What Difference Will It Make in 10,000 Years?
That is a revolutionary way of looking at life. A few years ago I heard Vernon Grounds say that most of our decisions won’t matter at all in 10,000 years. That blew my mind at first. What a liberating way to look at life. The next time you face a tough decision, ask yourself, Will it really matter in 10,000 years? And 99 percent of the stuff you worried about this week won’t even matter three weeks from now much less than 10,000 years from now. In the year 1994, it won’t matter whether you lived in Minnesota, Oak Park, or South Carolina. But what will matter 10,000 times 10,000 years from now is that you have decided in all your ways to know God, to put him first in everything. That is what will really matter. All these trivial, piddly details that just soak up so much energy will in that day be seen for what they really are—trivial, piddly details.
In light of this text, what is the will of God for your life? To know God in everything. To see him present everywhere and in everything.
Here in the sanctuary, there in the workplace.
Here when we sing, there when we work.
Here when we worship, there when we study.
Here when we pray, there when we play.
Here when we clap, there when we date.
Here when we listen, there when we speak.
God is saying, “I want you to know me just as much out there as you do in here. I want you to know me on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday just as much as you do on Sunday morning at 10:45 AM.” That’s crucial. When you decide to know God in every area of life, he takes charge of the details.
So the most important thing is not just the decisions you are facing. The most important thing is your relationship with God. And the closer you get to God, the easier it will be for God to guide you in the way he wants you to go.
Lord, Here Are My Hands
Knowing God means using all your energies for him:
Lord, here are my hands. Use them to do your will this week.
Lord, here are my lips. Speak through them this week.
Lord, here are my eyes. I am going to be watching for you this week.
Lord, here are my ears. I am going to be listening for you this week.
Lord, here are my feet. I am going to be going for you this week.
Knowing God means taking all that you have and placing it at the disposal of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Rarely Seen in Advance
Our text ends with a promise. “He will make your paths straight.” God is able to remove the obstacles in front of you. He is able to fill in the potholes and turn a dead-end into a short-cut. God rewards those who show regard to him by leading them straight to the right end and removing all the obstacles along the way.
We rarely see this in advance. We mostly see the potholes. The boulders block our view. Many times it seems as if there is no path at all. But he will make a way.
No one can say how he will do it. There are thousands of ways in which God leads his children. He leads us through delays, detours, miracles, the advice of friends, unexpected opportunities, suddenly closed doors, answered prayer, unanswered prayer, inner impressions, and a still small voice in the night. The old hymn says, “All the way my Savior leads me, What have I to ask beside? Can I doubt his tender mercy, he through life has been my guide.”
You don’t see it on this side. On this side you see the problems. But when you know God, he leads you step by step. When the journey is done, you look back and say, “I don’t know how I got from there to here, but I do know this: Jesus led me all the way.”
This verse is true. Thousands of saints living and dead can testify to that fact. He will lead the way. He will remove the obstacles. You will have a straight path for your journey.
The Final Secret
One more thought and I am done. What is the secret of this text? One word: He shall direct thy path. Who is the “he” of Proverbs 3:6? The “he” is the God of the Bible. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God of Moses. The God of Israel. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The God who spoke and a thousand million galaxies sprang into being. The God who has numbered the grains of sand. The God who knows the hair on your head. The God who sees the sparrow when it falls. The God who holds the universe in his hands. That God, the Almighty, Transcendent God of the universe, he will direct your paths. That’s the God who says, “If you will but know me, I will take care of the details. Trust me. Rest your full weight on me. Know me in everything. And I, the God of the universe, will direct your paths.”
If God has said he will lead you, then why are you so fearful? If God has said he will take up your cause, then why are you worried about tomorrow?
No evil can battle if he leads the way.
No enemy can stop you if he leads the way.
No opposition can derail you if he leads the way.
No obstacle can stand forever if he leads the way.
In all your ways know him, and he shall direct your paths. He has promised, and it is so. It may not be easy. It may not be exactly the way you want to go. It may not be what seems to you the shortest way. But he will direct your paths.
All he says is “Know me. Know me deeply and intimately in every area of your life, and I will take care of all the rest.” What is the will of God for your life? The will of God for your life is that you in all your ways should know him because when you know him in every area he has said he will direct your paths.
He promised—and he will not fail—he will direct your paths.