Deciding the Big Ones

Acts 16:6-10

"Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the Word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ’Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

This is my final message on the will of God. In my very first message I commented that this series had not been part of my original plan for this year. When I set out my preaching plans for 1993, this series was not on my mind at all. But as this year went on it seemed to me that almost every week someone would come asking for advice. And though they would say it in different ways, the question would always be the same. “Pastor, how can I discover God’s will for my life?” As I heard that over and over again the Holy Spirit began to nudge me, saying, “Ray, what you had planned is not what I wanted.” That feeling evolved to the point where I finally made the determination to do this series.

One day I sat down at my desk and began to scribble out everything that I could think of relating to the will of God. I just sat there for several hours, just writing down sentence after sentence, ending up with several pages of notes. I looked at it and said “How could this be a sermon series?” I sat down again and began to arrange my scribbles and BOOM! suddenly right there in front of me were the 10 subjects that we have taken one by one in this series.

I want you to know that I have been overwhelmed by your response. Almost every Sunday I’ve been stopped by somebody back in the Narthex or in the hallway with an encouraging word. During the week people have stopped to say “Thank you” for preaching this sermon series. I appreciate it because when we started I had no idea what the response was going to be.

The Road Not Taken

In my first sermon I began by quoting the words of Robert Frost in his famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” It ends with the words: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” You make your choices and your choices turn around and make you. What you are today is nothing more than the sum total of thousands of choices that you have made over the years of your life. You are who you are because you said “yes” to this and “no” to that. You are what you are because years ago you decided to do this instead of that. What you are and who you are and the kind of person you are is the sum total of all those decisions you’ve made. Therefore, there is nothing more important than for you to know how to make good decisions.

When Saul was on the road to Damascus, he was struck down by the blinding light and by the voice of the Lord. He only asked two questions. He said, “Who are you Lord?” and the answer came back, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Then he asked a second question: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

That question rings across the centuries in a thousand variations. Should I get married? Should I stay single? Lord, I’ve got a house. Should I keep this house or should I buy another house? You are down in Florida. You are in a ministry. You get a call from a church in West Virginia. The great question on your mind is, “Lord what do you want me to do?” You’ve got a job in Jackson, Mississippi and you get an offer from Little Rock, Arkansas. You’re not sure what to do. Should I stay? Should I leave?

Lord, what do you want me to do? I’m in love, at least I think I am, at least it feels like I am. Lord, if he asks me to marry him, should I say yes? Lord, what do you want me to do? No question is more basic or more critical for the people of God than that question! Lord, what is your will for my life? Lord, I don’t want to make a mistake. Lord, if you speak I want to listen. Lord, I don’t want to miss it. Tell me, Lord, what do you want me to do? Every week during this sermon series we’ve been trying to find the guidelines so we can make a proper answer to that question.

Four Foundational Statements

I want to begin by pulling everything together that I have said in these 10 sermons by giving you four basic statements:

1. God wants to guide you much more than you want to be guided.

Or to say it another way: God is more committed to showing you his will than you are to knowing his will. He wants you to know it more than you want to know it. You may be so confused that you think that is not possible. You may be struggling so much that you can’t even conceive how that statement can be true.

2. When you commit yourself to knowing God intimately in every area of your life, he takes personal responsibility to make sure that you do His will.

When you make the commitment to say, “Lord, more than anything else I want to know you in every area of my life,” then God responds by saying “In that case, I’m going to make sure that my will gets done in your life.” He takes personal responsibility.

3. If you truly want to do God’s will, you will do it.

If you truly want to do God’s will, you will do it. Not just that you will know it, not just that you’ll understand it, not just that you’ll discover it. But if you are truly committed to doing God’s will, he will see to it that you are able to do it!

4. If you truly want to do God’s will, it will be impossible for you not to do it.

If you truly want to do his will in every area of your life, not only will you do it—it will be impossible for you not to do it. That ought to give a tremendous degree of comfort to you. That’s how committed God is to showing us his will. He not only wants you to do it, but if you will truly open your life to him, he’ll make sure you do it.

The Play-Doh Principle

What then is the most important factor in discovering God’s will for your life? The answer rests inside your heart. It rests with an attitude that I’m going to call “guidability.” That’s the ability to receive guidance from God. It’s an attitude on the inside which is open to the Lord.

When was the last time you played with Play-Doh? It’s probably been awhile unless you’ve got a houseful of preschoolers. Play-Doh is fun! When it first comes out of the can its so much fun because its cold and clammy and gushy. It’s gushy, you know how you gush it between your fingers. And it’s bendable and shapeable. It’s wonderful to play with. You can take Play-Doh and you can make a little baseball with it and throw it through a window, as has happened many times. Or you can make it flat like a piecrust. Or you can roll it up and make a cigar. Or you can take that thing that looks like a cigar and bend it into the shape of a little horse. Then you can turn the horse into a rabbit or pig depending on how fat you make it. You can do anything you like when the Play-Doh is soft.

Wanted: Bendable Believers

But what happens to the Play-Doh when you leave it out for 3 days? It dries up, gets hard and brittle. What happens when you try to shape it? You can’t because it’s too hard. There are many Christians who are like that before the Lord. They are hard, brittle and unbendable. They are set in going their own way, they have their own plans, their own agenda, their own desire. They have become stuck in their ways.

Christians like that wonder why guidance is hard to find. When you let your life become hard and brittle before the Lord, even God himself will have difficulty guiding you. That is why there is no principle more important than the principle of guideability, which is nothing more than being soft and bendable and open in the hands of God so he can shape you the way he wants.

We find many examples of guidability in the Bible:

Young Samuel said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening."—Guidability.

David said, “Teach me thy way O Lord."—Guidability.

Solomon said, “In all thy ways acknowledge him."—Guidability.

Isaiah said, “Here am I Lord, send me."—Guidability.

Saul said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?"—Guidability.

My whole sermon series can be wrapped up in one sentence: Guidable people always receive guidance from God. Why is that? Because God always speaks loud enough for a willing ear to hear. Therefore there is nothing more important than being open to receive guidance from God.

How will you find the guidance you need? That’s a tough question because God may speak to us in a variety of ways. We may hear a sermon, read a passage of Scripture, receive advice from our friends, feel some inner sense of direction, have opportunities open or close, or none of these or all of these.

A Most Unlikely Text

But there is a marvelous passage in Acts 16 that pictures for us some of the major ways in which God guides his children. Acts 16:6-10 is the story of Paul and Silas and Timothy at the beginning of the second missionary journey. They had joined forces to visit the churches, preach the Word, and strengthen the saints. It was Paul’s desire to go west and preach the Gospel in the province of Asia. But we’re told that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t let them go west so they went north instead, intending eventually to go northeast into Bithynia. But the Spirit of Jesus told them no, so instead of going west into Asia or northeast into Bithynia they went due west across the top of Asia to the sea port town of Troas, which is where Paul received a vision of the man from Macedonia. From Troas, they crossed the Aegean Sea and began preaching in Macedonia.

You could probably read this text 150 times and you would say, “I don’t see anything in there about discovering the will of God.” Len Hoppe called me early this week and said, “Pastor, I’m going to lead the contemporary service this Sunday. I’ve been reading these verses and I can’t see anything in here. How are you possibly going to get a sermon from this passage?” Well, we’ll see! I am using this seemingly obscure text because it shows us how Paul and his friends, in the course of the ordinary affairs of life, determined God’s will in a big decision they had to make. They had to decide where they were going—north, south, east, or west. Acts 16:6-10 tells us how God made his will clear to them.

I believe the way God made his will clear to them is the same way he’ll make his will clear to us as we face the big issues of life. So, then, how does guidance come? Our text reveals four answers to that question.

1. Guidance comes through obedience in the ordinary.

Verse 6 tells us that “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.” Then they tried to go to Bithynia but they couldn’t go there. So they come to Troas where Paul has the vision. On the very next day they get ready at once to leave for Macedonia, “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Paul was on a mission from God to preach the gospel. That’s the only explanation for his life. That’s why he made one hazardous journey after another. That’s why he kept moving from one province to another. That’s what his team was about. Before they started, his desire was to preach. Their destination was to go places where they could preach, and in between, from the beginning to the end, they only had one thing on their agenda: To preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The only thing that Paul didn’t know was exactly where he was going to do it. He knew what he was going to do, he knew how he was going to do it. The only thing that wasn’t clear was where he was going to do it. Was it going to be in Asia or Mysia or Bithynia or any of a dozen other possibilities? Don’t miss the point: Paul knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it, he just didn’t know where. The guidance he needed concerned where to preach, not whether to preach. In Paul’s mind, he was to continue preaching wherever he found himself.

99% of Life

That leads to a profound insight: 99% of life is ordinary. It’s just the same old stuff day after day. As my friend Jerry Hansen says, “It’s the same old sixes and sevens.” You get up in the morning, take a shower, put your clothes on, eat breakfast, get the kids ready for school, go to work, hope the kids are OK, come back from work dead tired, read the paper, watch TV, try to be nice, try to get supper ready, eat supper, try to sit down, can’t sit down, mess with the kids, flop into bed dead tired, get up the next morning and then what? Do it all over again! That’s the way life is! You just get up, do what you’ve got to do, and when you come home, do what you’ve got to do at home. The next morning, you get up and do it again. That’s very important.

Where do you begin in discovering the will of God? The first step is to do what you already know to be the will of God in your present situation. The way you discover God’s will for the future is to do what you know to be the will of God right now. So many of us live for those high mountain peak experiences, for those emotional moments, for those times when the clouds part and God just seems so real and close to us. Almost as if we could reach out and touch him.

Get Up and Do It!

We wish they could happen every day so when we say “God, show me your will,” what we mean is, “Lord give me some feeling, some insight, some spiritual revelation.” And God says, “I have already shown you my will. Now, just get up and do it!”

· What is God’s will for a student? God’s will for a student is do your homework.

· What is God’s will for a Doctor? Get up and do your rounds early in the morning.

· What is God’s will for a pharmacist? Fill those prescriptions and do it right.

· What is God’s will for a banker? Take care of my money, don’t lose it!

· What is God’s will for an accountant? Take care of those books and do it right.

· What is God’s will for a teacher? Do your lesson plans and come to class ready to teach.

· What is God’s will for a salesman? Know your product, make your contacts, get on the phone and go see

If you are a young mother and you want to know what God’s will is, it has something to do with dirty diapers. God’s will for young mothers is more than dirty diapers but it’s not less than that. God’s will for a secretary is more than typing but it’s not less than that. God’s will for you is more than showing up and doing a job. But it is not less than that.

So many of us want to live on the mountain top of life. Brothers and sisters, that’s not where you really discover God’s will. You discover God’s will in the nitty gritty of the valley every single day. What does the Bible say? “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Why should God show you his will for the future if you are unwilling to do what you know to be the will of God in the present?

That’s all important. What do preachers do? They preach. And that’s what you see in Acts 16—preachers who are willing to preach anytime they get the opportunity. They are just looking for the right open door. They are willing to obey what they know to be the will of God, therefore God is free to show them the next step. We are always looking to the future and God says, “Do what you know to be my will right now and in the doing of my will in the ordinary, I will show you my will for the future.”

2. Guidance comes through suddenly changing circumstances.

So Paul and his team want to go west into Asia but the Holy Spirit prevented them. Question: How did the Holy Spirit do that? The answer is: I have no idea. It could have been the result of various circumstances preventing them. Perhaps the road was washed out or perhaps there was Jewish opposition so they couldn’t get in. The Holy Spirit could have communicated through an inner impression or even a voice from God. A prophet might have delivered the message. We just don’t know how it happened. But somehow they knew they were not to go west.

So instead they go north toward Bithynia. Why? They intended to preach the gospel there. Same purpose now redirected through suddenly changing circumstances. But as they get up north and try to enter Bithynia, “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” Another mystery. The Bible doesn’t explain how this happened. Somehow they knew the Spirit of Jesus was saying no. I tend to think that as they were praying they had a strong impression from the Lord or perhaps someone received a prophecy. But that’s all speculation. Again, it could be a bridge washed out, Jewish opposition, civil war up there, I don’t know. Somehow the Lord made it clear: Don’t go to Bithynia. So they head west preaching the gospel and end up in a place called Troas.

Has God Made a Mistake?

Now what is going on here? God is revealing his will through suddenly changing circumstances. Have you ever had that happen to you? You had your life all planned out. You were going this way. You were convinced that God’s will was this way. Then the phone call came that changed the course of your life. Or the boss called you in and said, “We’re downsizing. We are changing our priorities. You don’t fit our profile here.” Or the letter came that said “You are an excellent candidate but unfortunately our incoming class is full.” Or you ask her to marry you, knowing it was the will of God, but she hadn’t discovered it yet and she said “no.” A suddenly changing circumstance. The investment you counted on for retirement didn’t come through. A suddenly changing circumstance. Like Dave Dravecky, you get cancer. A suddenly changing circumstance. When that happens we think something has gone wrong in the universe. God has made a mistake. This couldn’t have happened this way.

Proverbs 16:9 is one of the most profound verses in all the Bible. “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” What does that mean? It means you make your plans but God determines which way you’re going to go. Who’s really calling the shots here anyway, you or God? You think you are calling your own shots, but the Bible says you make your plans but God determines you are going to go this way because I’m going to wash out the road that way and I’m going to lock the door this way. So even though you wanted to go that way, there’s nothing that way. You’ve got to go this way! That’s what Proverbs is saying.

Listen carefully. What you call circumstance is really the sovereign hand of God in your life. Every circumstance that comes into your life, whether good or bad, all of them together have come down to you from the good and gracious hand of God. They are all ultimately for your benefit and ultimately for his glory. For your good and for God’s glory.

He Can Move Those Boulders!

What does the Bible say? “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverb 3:6) He’ll remove the boulders, he’ll fill in the potholes, he’ll build the bridge you need to cross the raging river. He’ll make the path straight in the way you should go. You may think, “I need to go left” when God knows you need to go right. He will put the boulders in the other roads and he’ll straighten this one out so that this’ll be the only way you can go.

How did Paul decide to go north in the first place? When west was cut off he had to go north. What made him decide to go west at the end? When the north was cut off that was all that was left so he went west and preached the gospel. That’s what I mean by suddenly changing circumstances. Proverbs 16:9 tells us that it didn’t happen by chance. It never does for the people of God. Who is it that opens the doors? It’s God! Who is it that shuts the doors? It’s God! Who gives opportunities? It’s God! Who takes them away? It’s God! He is the one who is in charge. Sometimes his will is seen by nothing more profound than suddenly changing circumstances.

3 Guidance may come through supernatural events.

That happened here of course. When they got to Troas, Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul was in Troas which was in Asia but Macedonia was in Greece—the continent of Europe. In between is the Aegean Sea. What is the significance of the man from Macedonia? If Paul goes to Macedonia he’s taking the gospel from one continent to another continent. That’s a major move of the gospel of Christ.

Why did he get the vision? If I’m reading this right, I think Paul’s heart was so heavy for the people of Asia that he didn’t want to go to Macedonia just then. I think he wanted to get the gospel heavily established in Asia and maybe later go over to Macedonia. And God said, “No! I don’t want you here anymore, I want you in Macedonia.” So he used the vision to get Paul to go where he wouldn’t have gone any other way.

I have already said that sometimes God does speak supernaturally through dreams, visions and supernatural signs. I also said it doesn’t happen very often and I said you had better test it. If you think you have had a supernatural experience or dream or vision, you had better test it. Don’t ever, ever, ever, EVER make a major decision in your life solely on the basis of a supernatural experience you think you’ve had! Test it! Give it the test of time, of Scripture, of counsel and further confirmation.

But, God can do it! That’s what he did here. It’s a vision, but the vision is in line with what Paul has been doing. It’s in line with his call to be a preacher and its in line with the Great Commission call to take the gospel to the whole world. So here is a dream that was completely compatible with the Word of God and with Paul’s previous experience.

4. Guidance comes through wise counsel joined with common sense.

Verse 10 reveals the final principle of God’s guidance: After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Underline the word “concluding.” It means to take all the facts and to arrive at a logical conclusion. It means to discuss among yourselves, to debate the alternatives, to figure out the best way to go, and then come to a conclusion. It’s a word that implies the strategic use of the mental processes. It’s what happens when you put a puzzle together. You put the pieces together to make it all fit. The word was used for taking different color threads and putting them together to make a beautiful pattern.

Verse 10 tells us that Paul, Silas and Timothy talked it over, debated it, they talked about where they had come from, they talked about where they couldn’t go, they talked about the open door, they talked about their abilities, they talked about the man from Macedonia and the vision. When they put it all together they concluded, using good common sense in the process, that God wanted them to go to Macedonia. That’s the final way that guidance comes—through wise counsel and simple, plain, ordinary, garden variety common sense.

The Nike Principle

Notice that once they figured out God’s will, they immediately did it . “We got ready at once.” Once you have determined the will of God, what’s the next step? It’s the Nike step! JUST DO IT! DO IT! Once you’ve figured it out, don’t sit around and talk anymore! Get up and do it!

Why were they so quick to do it? Because God had called them to preach the gospel. He had told them what to do, he had told them how to do it and now he’s told them where to do it. But wait, don’t you see that that brings us full circle, back to where we started? Back to the ordinary affairs of life. The reason they went was because of obedience in the ordinary. Because they were so committed to doing God’s will, they weren’t blown away by a vision, they just fit it in the big picture and said, “OK, now here’s where we go.” Off they went. That’s great!

When they went to Macedonia, did they know what was going to happen? Did Paul know in advance who was going to be there to meet him or what the outcome of the trip would be? No! When you decide to do the will of God, will you know in advance what the results will be? No! Why? Because when God shows us his will, he doesn’t show us the future. What does he show us? The next step! How is God’s will revealed to us? Step by step by step by step!

Seven Crucial Questions

Paul was guidable, therefore God guided him. Thats the message of Acts 16:6-10. The same thing will happen to you! I want to close this message—and this entire series—with seven questions you ought to ask yourself whenever you are facing a major decision in your life.

1. Am I in a place of complete guidability? Am I open to whatever the Lord wants? Or am I so set in my ways that what I’m really saying is “Lord, guide me as long as you go where I want to go!” Are you in a place of complete guidability?

2. Have I studied this issue from every possible angle? Use your mind. Write down the pros and cons. Make a list. Take notes. Research the question thoroughly. Study the decision from every possible angle. Have you done that?

3. Have I sought wise counsel? “In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom.” Many stupid decisions would be avoided if only we would dare to ask advice from others.

4. Do the circumstances point in one particular direction? Sometimes God reveals his will by opening one door and closing another.

5. Is there supernatural guidance I should consider? This won’t always happen. But sometimes there will be circumstances that seem to be supernatural movements of God and you ought to bring that into consideration.

6. Am I willing to take the next step whatever it is? This is crucial because God most often will show you the next step and nothing more. But he won’t show you the next step for you to consider it and then reject it.

7. Am I willing to do God’s will without regard to the consequences? Isn’t it amazing how we keep coming back to that same simple point!

Focus on the Lord—Not the Decision!

I can imagine one objection you might raise at this point. You could state it many different ways but it goes something like this: “Pastor Ray, I’ve been offered a new job and you haven’t told me whether I should take it or not!” I’m in love with two girls. Should I marry Sally or Beth? Or what about Jill over there? You haven’t told me what to do!” “I’m thinking about moving to South Carolina or Minnesota, but Arizona’s looking pretty good to me. You haven’t told me what I should do.”

Yes I have! I have told you what you should do. Your problem is, you’re focusing on the decision not on the Lord. When we focus properly on the Lord the decision will take care of itself. If we believe anything about God, it must be this—we must believe that once we are guidable, he will guide us. If we don’t believe that, then we might as well give up in our search for God’s will.

Let me state this in the form of a long proposition: Once you are open and soft and bendable before the Lord … once you are willing to take the next step … once you are willing to do God’s will … once you are as open as you can be before the Lord … at that point you must believe that when you need to make a decision God will give you whatever wisdom and insight you need at that moment so that whatever decision you make will be in his will for your life. You won’t have 100% certainty but he will literally guide your thoughts while you are thinking them so that as you are open to him, he will guide you to exactly the place he wants you to be!

I believe that if you are truly open before the Lord, truly soft and bendable before him, truly guidable, if for some reason you come to the decision and you make a “mistake,” if you are truly open before the Lord, he will overrule that decision in the long run and guide you exactly where he wants you to be for your good and his glory. If God is God then that must be true.

Life is Like a Roll of the Dice

I call your attention to two other verses of Scripture and then we are done. Proverbs 16:33 says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” The lot was a method of determining God’s will in the Old Testament. No one is totally sure how it worked but it was something like rolling dice. I paraphrase that verse this way: “Life is like a roll of the dice, but God is in charge of how the numbers come up.” Because that’s true, you can trust him to give you whatever wisdom you need to make wise decisions, to bring about proper outcomes so that you cannot only do now, but continue to do his will every day of your life.

What’s most important? Guidability! “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4) Why is that verse true? Because as you delight yourself in the Lord, your desires are going to become his desires and his desires are going to become your desires. As you delight yourself in God, you are going to be changed on the inside so that the things you really want are the things that God wants for you!

Can you discover God’s will for your life? Thank God, the answer is yes! How do you discover God’s will? You discover God’s will today the same way the people of God have always discovered his will: step by step by step.

God has promised to be our guide. We can depend on that. Our trust is in the great faithfulness of our great God. He has said he will be our guide even to the end. Therefore, brothers and sisters, for the last time I will say it to you. If you are truly willing to do God’s will, you will do it!


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