Looking for Signs: How do I Make a Decision?

sign decision

We are all looking for signs, aren’t we?

I laughed when I saw that photo, but it also resonated with me. I often want a sign that I’m on the right track. That I’m doing the right thing. That I’m making the best decision.

While God gave signs to Gideon, Hezekiah and Abraham’s servant, God doesn’t always give people signs. I have personally received very few. When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign he said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 16:4). Though the Pharisees were testing Jesus in that passage, he implied in the preceding verses that they had been given signs but did not pay attention to them.

So what does that mean for me, for us, when we are making decisions? Sometimes the answer is clear, and we just need the courage to follow through and pay attention to what the Lord has been showing us. We need to accept uncomfortable paths and trust God in them. But other times we genuinely can’t figure out what to do. There isn’t a clear-cut “right” or “wrong” choice, yet the decision is important. What do we do then?

In those cases, I have found George Mueller’s decision-making process, which is strikingly similar to Ignatius’ technique centuries earlier, very helpful. George Mueller was an evangelist who founded numerous orphanages in England in the mid-1800’s. Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish priest who founded the Jesuits in the mid-1500’s.

Both men saw that the key to making a godly decision is to first get our hearts to a place of indifference, where we aren’t attached to our own will. Indifference does not mean apathy about the outcome but rather a willingness to submit to God.

George Mueller says this:

“I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever that may be. When one is truly in this state, it is usually but a little way to the knowledge of what His will is.”

Ignatius believed we needed to be indifferent to all created things too, and that indifference meant that we shouldn’t necessarily seek health over sickness, wealth over poverty, honor over dishonor, or a long life over a short one. Indifference requires we let go of our need for comfort and honor. It means trusting that regardless of the outcome, God’s grace will be sufficient. It is similar to Jesus’ prayer of relinquishment in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Yet not my will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36).

This place of indifference, getting my heart into state in which it has no will of its own, is more challenging than it seems. My definition of a good decision is the one that will lead me to the greatest happiness and success as I define it. Too often, when I say I’m searching for God’s will, I’m really asking God to validate the decision I want to make.

After much prayer, when I can truly submit my will to God’s will and subordinate my kingdom to God’s kingdom, I am ready to move on.

George Mueller’s next step was to pray and ask God for wisdom. Mueller believed that because the Spirit and the Word will always be in concert, we should look to Scripture for guidance. Ignatius would further suggest we make a list with the pros and cons, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance.

Both these things have been helpful for me. First, I go to Scripture and ask God to show me through the full counsel of his Word what to do. I write down verses that I feel are applicable. Making a list with the positive and negative aspects of each choice has also been helpful as it provides clarity.

When I pray about the list, I imagine choosing each of the options, one at the time. I sit with each choice, often for a day, as if I had made that one. As I sit with each one, I pay attention to how I feel. Do I feel a sense of peace and closeness to God? Or do I feel agitated and distant from God?

Mueller says after you have asked God for wisdom, you look around to see how God is answering you. You pay attention to circumstances. And you wait for a sense of peace.  

It could be the peace you sense after you sit with one of the choices or it could be something unexpected that makes the choice clear. It could come from reading the Word, or providential circumstances or the counsel of a trusted friend. Any of those could be your confirmation, which both Mueller and Ignatius say to look for at the end of the process.

I have used this method in my own life and it has led to greater clarity. I even used it with my younger daughter, Kristi, when she was deciding where to go to college. She was torn in two very different directions.

The most challenging part, as with any decision, was getting to a place of indifference. She had always seen herself at one of the schools. Her sister and good friends were there. She had even sent her acceptance in.

Though this school seemed like the perfect place for her, she still felt vaguely uncomfortable.  Something inside of her was still wrestling.

To help her with the decision, we prayed for guidance and spent time reading Scripture together. Then we made a list of the pros and cons of both schools. I asked her to pray for God’s direction and to sit with each option for a day to see if either one brought a stronger sense of peace and closeness to God or a greater sense of agitation and distance from him.

The process brought unexpected clarity. Kristi reversed her earlier decision and chose the college that was more unfamiliar and farther away. She was still nervous about the future, but she felt an inner sense of peace.

How do you make decisions? Do you look for signs? Have you ever tried a process like this?

If you’re wrestling with an important decision right now, I’d encourage you to prayerfully try this method. I’d love to hear if it helps bring clarity.

Dancing In The Rain

The Story Behind Billy Graham’s Prison-Built Casket

Today’s post is from Byron R. Johnson, distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, and co-author of the book The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation (2016).

Billy Graham preached to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries. He met with at least a dozen presidents and heads of state. Graham appeared in the top ten of Gallup’s most-admired men in the world 61 times, far more than any other person. Ronald Reagan is his closest competition, making the list 31 times. So why is the celebrated Graham going to be buried in a plywood casket built by prisoners in Louisiana? The answer helps us understand a key facet of the man’s character.

In addition to having an effect on presidents, and millions of everyday people across the world, the Graham family also had a big effect on those the Bible says should not be overlooked: prisoners. The Graham family has been connected to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola, a maximum-security prison once known as the bloodiest prison in America. Most of the prisoners at Angola are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole—meaning they will eventually die and be buried in the Angola prison cemetery.

Franklin Graham preached at Angola, and George Beverly Shea sang there. In fact, Shea sang to more than 800 prisoners at Angola in 2009. He was there to perform and to give to the prison an organ he had received from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association earlier that year for his 100th birthday. The Graham family would donate funds to help build a couple of chapels at Angola.

Graham died last Wednesday at 99 years old, and despite his fame and profound global influence, this humble religious leader will be buried in a simple plywood box built by an unlikely person. Richard Liggett, a convicted murderer, led a team of prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary that built caskets for both Graham and his wife, Ruth, who died in June 2007 at age 87.

Liggett meticulously built coffins for many fellow prisoners before dying of cancer in March 2007, nearly 31 years into his sentence. Liggett would tell then-Warden Burl Cain that of everything that ever happened in his life, the most profound thing was to build the coffins for Billy and Ruth Graham. Franklin Graham purchased the coffins after seeing them during a visit to the prison in 2005.

The plain wood coffins are made of plywood and were lined with mattress pads made from Walmart comforters covered by fabric. They are adorned with brass handles and a cross on top and are said to cost $215. According to the former warden of Angola, the Graham family also asked that all of the inmates who worked on the coffins’ construction have their names burned into the wood.

I have a particular interest in Angola, because I led a Baylor University research team in completing a rigorous five-year study of the infamous prison and the Angola Bible College that has attracted so much attention from Christian and correctional leaders over the last the two decades. The Bible College, founded in 1995, and the 29 inmate-led congregations at Angola, have played a critical role in transforming one of the most violent and corrupt prisons in America into one that has become an unlikely model for other states. At least a dozen other states have launched Bible colleges as a result of the Angola experiment.

Graham received many honors during his lifetime, including the Templeton Prize in 1982. At the award ceremony, Sir Geoffrey Howe introduced Graham and stated, “It is with the Bible that he has armed himself above all else. His characteristic refrain, ‘The Bible says . . .’ exposes both the foundation of his preaching and the explanation for his extraordinary combination of humility and authority.” The former British Cabinet member’s observations were spot on. Graham’s Angola casket is a fitting reminder of the evangelist’s connection with some of America’s most forgotten people.

The life and work of Billy Graham will be celebrated in a conference sponsored by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, on November 6 and 7, 2018. It will feature addresses from Ed Stetzer, Grant Wacker, and Anne Blue Wills.

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