The battleground for every decision we face is the mind. That is where we wrestle with the pros and cons, weigh the potential consequences of each alternative, and ultimately make our choices. The impressions which weigh the heaviest and linger the longest in the mind will usually determine the course of action we take. What goes on in the mind is crucial!
That is why we must be sure our minds are controlled by God’s Spirit. Remember Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians? “Don’t be unwise,” or “Don’t be without your minds.” And in the very next verse he charges, “But be filled with the Spirit.”7 We cannot trust our impressions if our wills are not so yielded to the Holy Spirit that he dominates our minds. But when he is in control, we can expect our thoughts to be his thoughts.
Since the mind is the high command headquarters where all decisions will be made, it must be not only controlled by the Spirit, but also programmed with the Word. We have dealt with that principle extensively. As Paul put it, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom.”8
But there is a third matter which vitally affects the mind as it grapples with the decisions of life. It must be in tune with the Lord. If we want him to lay his convictions on our minds, then we must be on his wavelength, and the line of communication between us must be kept open. If we want to be certain that the impressions on our minds are from him rather than from some other source, then we will need to talk to him about them. The subject before us is prayer.
The Apostle James said it beautifully: “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.”9 Wisdom—that is the major commodity we need as we stand at an intersection in our lives and ponder which way to go. Wisdom from above—we get it by asking God for it.
The central theme in the context of this verse is the suffering in a believer’s life.10 James wrote his book to Jewish Christians who had been driven from their homes and scattered among the nations. At that very moment they were being persecuted for their faith, and that meant decisions for them to make. Trials almost always present us with decisions. Where shall we go? What shall we do? With whom shall we talk about this problem? How shall we find help? And along with those questions comes the nagging question of why God allowed the trial in the first place. Why does he let ungodly people get away with so much while his own people suffer so?
Where can we find wisdom to handle the pressure of perplexities like these? Ask God for it. It’s just that simple. Ask God for it!
How can we know what to do when God takes a precious loved one away from us, or when we face a long and serious illness in the family, or when we lose our job, or when the car breaks down, or the baby gets sick, or the neighbors get huffy, or the money doesn’t arrive on time? We ask God for wisdom. If we want to know his will, we need to ask him.
While this verse in its context refers to trials, it establishes a broad and basic principle that relates to every decision in life—a principle found elsewhere in Scripture as well. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”11 Whether it is one of the major decisions of life like the choice of a vocation or a mate, or one of those less consequential issues like where to go for lunch or what to cook for dinner, we are invited to ask God for wisdom.
Jesus did. Follow him as he faces one of the most serious decisions of his life. There were multitudes who numbered themselves among his disciples, but he needed only twelve of them to be with him continuously and to receive the intensive training necessary to carry on in his absence. Whom would he choose? “And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles.”12 If Jesus needed that much time in his Father’s presence when he faced a major decision, how much more do we.
Read the Psalms and listen to King David cry out to God for guidance. “Lord, lead me as you promised me you would.”13 “Show me the path where I should go, O Lord; point out the right road for me to walk. Lead me; teach me; for you are the God who gives me salvation. I have no hope except in you.”14 “Tell me what to do, O Lord, and make it plain because I am surrounded by waiting enemies.”15
David must have recognized the dangers of barging ahead with his own plans without consulting the Lord. And no wonder. There had been a vivid object lesson of those dangers some years earlier in Israel’s history, and David was probably familiar with the story. As Joshua led his people in the conquest of the land, the inhabitants of Gibeon tricked them into making a covenant of peace. That treaty would bring grief for years to come, and the Scripture tells us how it happened: “So the men of Israel took some of their provisions, and did not ask for the counsel of the Lord.”16 We cannot afford to make that kind of mistake if we want our lives to count for Christ.
Paul Little told an interesting story from his undergraduate days as he sought the will of God for his life. He had been running around to meetings, talking to people, reading books, and looking for some magic formula that would reveal God’s will with sudden and dramatic certainty. Then at an Urbana Convention one of the speakers asked, “How many of you who are concerned about the will of God have spent five minutes a day asking him to show you his will?” The truth hit him with tremendous force and set him to praying.17
Ask yourself that same question. Are you seeking the will of God in some matter? Would you be willing to spend at least five minutes every day talking to him about it? That may be the very thing he is waiting for.
Maybe you are facing a significant decision in your life right now. You’ve been frantically seeking direction from one source after another. You feel yourself getting anxious and apprehensive about it. Your worrisome attitude is not only hindering your communion with God, but it is also short-circuiting your ability to think clearly about your options. Why not heed the advice of the Apostle Paul? “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”18 Talk to God about the decision. Share your thoughts and feelings with him. Thank him for his promise to guide you, and enjoy the peace of mind which he alone can give.
Since prayer is such an important element in knowing the will of God, we should also pray faithfully for one another as we face life’s decisions. Such intercessory prayer is illustrated in Paul’s relationship with the Colossians. When he heard how they had been growing in Christ, he wrote, “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”19 And he assured them that his friend Epaphras had joined him in his request. “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.”20
Guidance is a worthy matter for mutual intercession. We ought to follow the example of Paul and Epaphras by standing with one another before God’s throne of grace as we seek his mind. Solicit the prayer support of your friends. And as you pray, remember also the decisions they face.
Maybe some are wondering why prayer is so important, since God has already promised to lead us. The only answer we need to offer is simply that he told us to pray. And godly people obey. But there are probably many reasons why he requires it. For one thing, prayer is an admission of need. God wants to be sure we understand how helpless we are in our own wisdom. As long as we neglect to ask him for guidance we are implying that we know what is best for our lives and that we can handle our decisions without his help. But our human reasoning powers alone are far from sufficient to grapple with the immense decisions that confront us through life.
Solomon made that clear when he established his basic prerequisites for divine guidance: “And do not lean on your own understanding,” he warned.21 On the other hand, when we ask God to lead us, we are acknowledging that we are incapable of successfully directing our own future and that we need his help. That is exactly where he wants us to be—fully aware that apart from him we can do nothing.22
God may have another reason for asking us to pray as well. Prayer is the communion of our hearts with him, the time when our minds are fixed on him. What more opportune time could there be for him to put his thoughts in our minds than in the quiet, meditative moments we spend in his presence? Some Christians might find it difficult to hear the voice of God if he did try to speak to them. They’re moving in the opposite direction. They seldom spend any time talking to him. They ignore him for days at a time. They live far away from his fellowship. But when we cultivate the consciousness of his presence, we become more sensitive to his gentle prompting in our spirits.
God may clarify his will for us while we are actually praying. Convictions begin to form, issues begin to crystallize, and the fog begins to lift as the will of God comes into clear focus. If we have listed the advantages and disadvantages of a particular alternative, or the reasons why we would like to go in a certain direction, God may rearrange our priorities or transform our desires even while we pray. While Peter’s guidance to Cornelius’ house came in the form of a vision rather than an impression upon his mind, it did come while he was in an attitude of prayer.23 And there was no doubt that it came from God.
The impressions God puts in our minds through prayer are not impulsive and irresponsible notions that send us scurrying off in one direction today and back in another direction tomorrow. They are deep convictions that form in our souls as we commune with God. And if they are truly from him, they will become deeper and firmer as we continue to wait patiently upon him in prayer.
God does attach one major condition to praying for his will, however, and we need to explore it. Right after the exhortation to ask God for wisdom, James adds this note: “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord.”24 The necessary condition is faith. It was also Solomon’s first condition for enjoying divine guidance—“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”25
One thing we need to believe is that God will surely answer our prayer and direct our path. The temptation to doubt may come if God delays, but it is interesting to note the tense James used in his exhortation to pray. He said literally, “Keep on asking.”26 God knows the best time to reveal his will, but he wants us to keep asking until that time comes. Christ’s imperatives are likewise in the present tense: “Keep on asking; keep on seeking; keep on knocking.”27 We cannot give up because we do not receive an answer as quickly as we think we should. Faith requires persistence.
Then we must also believe that God is at work within us, changing our desires and fashioning them after his own. That may be difficult to believe. Most of us have learned to suspect our desires of being selfish and sinful. And with good reason. We know our own hearts. We’ve observed how many times we have acted out of selfish motivation. And we remember God’s warning through Isaiah that our ways are usually not God’s ways.28 But that need not continue to be true, for “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”29 We need to believe that God is exerting his power in our lives, helping us to want the same things he wants.
Have you yielded your will to him? Do you sincerely desire his will above all else? Well then, what do you want to do? Where are you mentally? What do you find yourself thinking about? That may be the very thing God wants for you. Believe it as you earnestly pray for his wisdom.
Of course, we may still be doubting the sincerity of our own surrender. Do we really want God’s will more than our own? Did we really mean it when we yielded ourselves to him? Make those doubts themselves a matter of prayer. Admit to God that you have certain likes and dislikes; tell him about your desires and your will. Then pray again what Jesus prayed in the garden, and mean it from your heart: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”30 Then believe that he will put his desires in your heart. And when the settled assurance of God’s will does come, don’t let Satan destroy it with doubts. God said he would lead. Believe that he has, and joyfully do his will.
Frequently associated with prayer in the Scripture is the practice of fasting. Does fasting have anything to do with prayer for God’s will? It did when the Spirit of God told the prophets and teachers at Antioch to separate Paul and Barnabas apart for missionary service. Those directions were given “while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting.”31
Fasting also played a part in the revelation of God’s will to Daniel. He had been studying the prophecy of Jeremiah, seeking to discover God’s plan for the nation Israel, but he could not fully understand it. So he set his face to seek the Lord “by prayer and supplication, with fasting.”32 While he was still praying, God sent the angel Gabriel who said, “O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding.”33 The result of Daniel’s prayer and fasting was the unique prophecy of Israel’s seventy weeks, outlining the future of that nation for years to come.
Nowhere is the believer today commanded to fast, and it certainly earns us no merit from God. But when knowing the will of God is so urgent that we want to give ourselves totally to the Word and prayer without even taking time to eat, it shows that we are deeply serious about it. And God honors that degree of devotion.
Fasting also helps us keep our minds on the purpose before us. It does not do that by eliminating all thought of food. I can assure you of that from my own experience. When I have fasted, the sensations in my stomach made me think about eating. But every hunger pang reminded me also of why I was fasting—to ascertain the direction God wanted me to go. Thus it helped me keep my mind on that goal.
But more important still, fasting clears our minds to meditate freely on the things of Christ. The blood that is normally required to digest our food is available to sharpen our minds and increase the effectiveness of our thinking processes. If you want to apply your full mental faculties to communion with God when you face a crucial decision, fast and pray. It is no magic oracle that provides quick and easy answers. It is no substitute for preparation of heart or knowledge of God’s Word. But the Spirit of God may use it to contribute to your understanding of his will.