When is a Decision God’s Will, and When is it Yours?
This past Saturday morning, I sat at home in front of my laptop and sobbed.
Instead of gathering in a New England sanctuary with hundreds of others who shared my sorrow, I watched my best friend Cindy’s memorial service online * – the growing pile of tissues on the floor a silent testament to my leaking eyes and aching heart.
Two days prior, I cancelled my reservation to fly to Hartford for the visitation and funeral. I had come home from our family trip to Florida the week before with an unwelcome souvenir – stomach flu. It departed as quickly as it came, so I kept my commitment to teach a women’s retreat the next two days near Charleston, South Carolina, only to have another opportunistic infection seize my lungs and take my voice – a viral double-header.
It wasn’t a difficult decision not to travel to New England - it was an agonizing one. How could I not be present to honor my longtime friend?
Friendship is built on loyalty and commitment. I tested negative for Covid, so why should I not make the trip regardless of how I felt? I would regain my health, but cancer had taken hers. The least I could do was to show up.
Please know I’m not seeking pity here. There were countless family members who were unable to be at the side of desperately ill loved ones during the pandemic. Many could not even hold funerals. They had no choice to be present at that time, yet I did now.
And I chose to stay home.
Do you struggle with difficult decisions, too? When there is no clearcut right-or-wrong, how do we know when a certain course of action is God’s will or our own? Can they be one and the same? Jesus himself taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”
Author and missionary Amy Carmichael once wrote, “When it comes to seeking guidance from our Father, I have told the family here that there are three important points:
1. The Word of the Lord in the Bible
2. The Word of the Spirit in our hearts.
3. The circumstances of our lives, which have been arranged by God.
“All three must point one way. It is never enough for any two of them to be taken as showing God’s will. If the voice is God’s all three will agree.”
Yet what about the many times when we’re faced with decisions about situations not explicit in Scripture: To stay or to go? To take this job or that one? To pursue one course of medical treatment and not another?
What if we get it wrong?
Amy again: “Oh, you do understand, friends, that no experience in the life of a believer - once placed in the hand of God – is ever wasted? Our sovereign God works through flawed human instruments to whom He has given the power of choice. Sometimes those choices are mistaken, but divine sovereignty permits those mistakes.”
Despite having returned from Florida a bit wobbly, I made the 600-mile round-trip to Charleston to serve at that women’s retreat last week. It was a small gathering – just 25 women or so – but the Lord was mighty in our midst. I may have been the speaker, but this vibrant group of southern women taught me what true intergenerational friendship looks like. Though I lost my voice, I found something much greater.
On the drive home, I prayed nearly non-stop about whether to cancel my Southwest flight scheduled for just 36 hours later. A nurse advised me that once 24 hours passed without a fever, I would not be putting others at risk if I were to travel.
But would I be well enough then, I fretted, to keep my most important commitment to Cindy: to teach this week at reNEW, the spiritual retreat she founded for women in New England who are called to teaching and writing ministries? Cindy invited me to join the faculty in 2020, and after three years of Covid-delays, we were finally going to serve at this event together.
Now that she no longer could, it was even more important that I be there.
Radio off, I drove back to North Carolina in silence, desperate for God to tell me what to do. I have always prided myself on being what I’ve thought of as conscientious: Keeping my word and not missing important events I’ve committed to attend. Showing up whatever the personal cost. Being there for my friends.
Yet as I prayed those very thoughts, God’s Spirit spoke directly to mine: You’ve prided yourself on keeping commitments. That sort of pride has a dark side if you refuse to consider the circumstances that have changed since then.
The words of the apostle James, memorized long ago, came back to me:
“Look here, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.’ How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.’” James 3:13-15
Our omniscient Lord knows we need to make plans based on our present circumstances – what we know at the time – but what none of us can determine is the future. Lord willing, we will keep each commitment He intends us to.
My beloved friend Cindy had an ambitious schedule of ministry events this spring – none of which she was able to fulfill. Those decisions were no longer hers to make.
But what about the choices we still have daily?
1. When you have difficult decisions to make, pray fervently for God’s will to become clear. Unless it’s an emergency requiring immediate action, continue to pray until you sense a change in your own spirit – a settled peace.
“Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, “This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left.” Isaiah 30:20-21
2. Once the decision is made, release the consequences to God. As my cousin Jan pointed out to me, the shadowy side of priding ourselves on keeping commitments is FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. Pride always involves an element of fear.
3. When you cannot be there physically, you can still be present via intercession. “Let your prayers do the work,” Jan advised me.
My decision not to fly to New England turned out to be the right one.
I was no stronger by the day of the service, and if I had insisted on attending, I might have unwittingly transmitted the virus to others. I watched the livestream of the service instead and felt fully present with Cindy’s family every way except physically.
I have rested and regained my voice these last few days, so I plan to keep my pledge to God and to Cindy to fly to upstate New York and serve the women at reNEW, Lord willing.
The next time you are faced with a difficult choice, may you too hear a voice right behind you saying, “This is the way you should go – walk in it.”
- Maggie Wallem Rowe
[For those of you who knew Lucinda “Cindy” Secrest McDowell, here is the link to her Memorial Service which took place on April 22, 2023, at First Church of Christ, Wethersfield, CT.]
“Make me walk along the path of your commands,
for that is where my happiness is found.” Psalm 119:35