September 1, 2010
 Regretting the
Choice That
Seemed So Right

When Is A Decision
Truly a Bad One?
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When Chandra was 39, she left a lucrative job in banking to pursue a counseling career. Long wanting to make this change, she chose to move forward when a psychologist friend promised her a position with his counseling firm once she completed the necessary training. Spurred on by his gracious offer of employment, she enrolled in a masters program full-time, living off savings till she finished her studies.

Chandraís friend indeed hired her once she graduated. But a short time later, he left the practice due to health problems. Without his leadership, the center foundered, other counselors resigned, and within a year it folded.

Chandra lacked the clients and momentum to launch an independent practice, and she was unable to find work with another counseling agency in the Boston area where she lived. With her savings now depleted, she returned to a job in banking, leaving her counseling dream on indefinite hold.

When Chandra shared her experience with me, she said she was certain God had taught her a lesson through the frustrating circumstances that unfolded. He had shown her that she missed his will in attempting to become a counselor. She spoke repeatedly of having made a ďbad decision.Ē As I probed a bit, it became clear that her ruminating wasnít just ventilation or an exercise in self-pity. She was strongly convinced she had made an unfortunate mistake, and she had never questioned this assumption since the doors at the counseling center closed several years before. This conviction that she had failed greatly increased her discouragement, and dampened her zeal to risk a dream again.

Chandra was understandably surprised when I shared my own observation. I felt that her decision to enter the counseling profession hadnít been a bad one at all, and that she shouldnít be worrying about having missed Godís will. She had based her choice on the best information she had at the time--that she had obvious talent and long-standing motivation to become a counselor, plus an exceptional offer of employment. And she was taking a step that would increase her potential to contribute meaningfully to the needs of others. Especially important, she was a serious Christian who earnestly wanted Godís will, and she had prayed seriously about her decision.

Which of us, I thought, faced with her circumstances, would have decided differently?

Of course, had Chandra known how events would transpire, she never would have left banking for counseling. But thatís exactly the point. God seldom tips his hand about our future, and he guides us as much by information he withholds from us as by information he gives us.

He allows us to develop dreams and expectations, and he uses them to move us ahead. In some cases, he fulfills these dreams more-less as we envision them. In other cases, his intent isnít to fulfill them but to use them to draw us to a point where, with the new insight weíve gained, we can now see clearly to take a new direction with our life. Through this whole process he nurtures us with experiences of growth that never would have been ours if we had known the future--for then we never would have taken our venture of faith. But the education we gain through lifeís unexpectedly bumpy paths is critical to our development, and God integrates it into our further experience in remarkable ways.

I obviously donít know Godís intentions for Chandraís future. She may re-enter the counseling field at some point. Whether or not she does, Iím certain that God will use her training and her experiences at the counseling center in ways that enhance her ministry for Christ and are deeply gratifying to her--if she stays open to him and pliable.

This is the lesson from the experience of another friend of mine who, some years ago, left the computer field to become a pastor. Though his congregations loved him, denominational factors made it difficult for him to minister as a church pastor. Finally, he left church ministry and, with some chagrin, took a job with a computer manufacturing firm once again. Yet soon he was granted permission to hold a weekly Bible study at that company, which many began attending. His pastoral background opened doors for ministry at that firm that would have been closed to him before. His is an inspiring example of how God uses the total mix of experiences in our life--the successes and the disappointments--to make us each uniquely effective.

Broken Dreams

When a dream that we follow backfires, itís only human to question our original decision to pursue it, and to wonder if our mind was on vacation then. Many are unduly hard on themselves at such a time--even if they had based their choice on the best information they possibly could have had, and the circumstances that derailed their dream were impossible to foresee. We Christians are more prone to berate ourselves than anyone on such an occasion. Not only do we question our past judgment, but we get caught up in torturous questions about Godís will. The fact that we encounter any problems at all in a major pursuit can make us fear weíve missed Godís will, and this concern deepens our sense of failure.

Dealing with failed expectations is difficult enough. Any of us who has experienced a setback as crushing as Chandraís needs time to grieve our loss and to work through our feelings of disappointment. Yet add to this discouragement the conviction that our original decision was unsound, and our regret can be overwhelming. It can make us doubt that we have the competence now to turn our life around. And the guilt we feel over missing Godís will can keep us locked in place, fearing we lack the potential to follow his guidance successfully.

We should make a keen effort at such a time to imagine ourselves back in the context when we made our first choice. What were our circumstances then? What were the facts as we knew them then? Were we open to Godís will, and did we make a reasonable effort to seek it? If in fact our decision was the best it could have been under the circumstances, we should be gentle and affirming with ourselves now. We should strive to think as positively as we possibly can about that past decision. Rather than assume it was a bungled choice, we should regard it as a wise, competent decision--that in time may even prove to have been brilliant and enlightened.

We should strive also to appreciate the dynamic nature of Godís guidance, and how he brings us to important points in our lifeís journey most often by a circuitous route. In time, weíll likely look back on our current crisis as a vital turning point, which God has used to open up welcome new horizons for us. Such faith-inspired thinking will help us greatly to break the spell of regret, and to better recognize Godís new directions for us now.

Taking Heart at Turning Points

This isnít to say that weíre incapable of making bad decisions as Christians. We find many examples in Scripture where choices made by otherwise godly people are presented as bad ones. But in every such case, the person was either insensitive to Godís leading, untrusting of him, or unfaithful to him--and in a major way. The leaders of Israel were beguiled into making a treaty of peace with Gibeon, for instance, because they ďdid not ask direction of the LordĒ (Jos 9:14 RSV).

Iím not aware of any instance in Scripture, however, where someone made a reasonable effort to understand Godís will and to make a decision responsibly, and yet the biblical writer judged that choice as incompetent because of the results that took place. There are plenty of instances where individuals themselves questioned the sanity of decisions that God in fact had led them to make. Moses was so exasperated at Pharaohís initial refusal to let the Jews leave Egypt that he thought he had made the mistake of his life in petitioning the ruler to let them go. And when the Israelites faced challenges in their desert march, they concluded they had erred horrendously in leaving Egypt, even though they were initially ecstatic to break free of slavery there.

Yet never do we find a biblical writer (or God through that writer) passing judgment on someoneís good-faith decision due to problems that arose. The obstacles people encountered in such cases always had a higher purpose. Sometimes God used these setbacks to strengthen their faith, their trust in him and their resolve to stay committed to a challenging course of action. This was clearly his intent with all the difficulties the Israelites endured en route to Canaan, which never on any occasion were an indictment on their original decision to leave Egypt.

In other cases, God used hindrances to signal that, however enlightened someoneís initial decision was, he or she should now take a new direction. We find several instances of Godís guiding in this manner in Acts 16. Paul is twice hindered from entering regions where he wants to minister--Asia and Bithynia--then ends up in Troas briefly, only to be redirected to Macedonia. He manages initially to ignite a church in Macedonia, but after a brief time is compelled by unfriendly town authorities to leave. In each instance, Paul interprets obstacles as Godís sign, not that his ministry goals are wrong, but that itís now time to look for greener pastures.

Any time you or I take a step of faith but then encounter a significant setback, we face the task of determining Godís intent. Is he merely testing our faith, and not wanting this problem to deter us from forging ahead toward our goal? Or is he showing us that we should now take a fresh direction? Discerning Godís will in such a case can be no small challenge. Being confident our original decision was sound doesnít relieve us of the need now to pray earnestly and to draw once again on everything we know about understanding Godís guidance.

But how we think about that past decision can make a radical difference in our ability to hear God now, since the concern that we blew it can weigh us down to the point of distraction. Fortunately, we may be freed forever from the fear that a past decision that we made responsibly with an open heart to Godís will might now have to be judged misguided. This fact alone--that we are not compelled to have second thoughts about that decision--is tremendously liberating in itself. It can save us from the slippery slope of regret, and allow us the mental energy to confront our current situation creatively and optimistically. This is enormously good news for any of us who are inclined to comb over our past and to condemn ourselves for what we cannot change.

How Badly Can We Miss Godís Will?

An issue remains, and it can be a thorny one. The perspective weíre suggesting on past decisions is encouraging if we know that we were open to Godís will in a given choice and did our best to make it responsibly. But what if the opposite was true? We rushed our decision, without regard to what God wanted? Or we failed to trust him adequately, following the course of least resistance, instead of taking on challenges that would have been healthy for us? Or we knew full well that God wanted us to take a certain path, but in rebellion we chose another?

And what if the decision in question was a pivotal one, which forever affects our life in a significant way? Have we irrevocably missed Godís perfect will for the rest of our life? Are we compelled now to live with his second best?

Some well-meaning Christians will answer that, yes, Godís second-best is all we can settle for now. I once read a popular book on knowing Godís will in which the author spoke with regret about an early vocational decision he had made. God had called him to be a missionary when he was young, he explained, but he chose instead to become a physician. Now, writing his book much later in life, he lamented that he had forever cast himself out of Godís perfect will by following a medical career, and that he was only in a position now to experience Godís second-best options for him.

The authorís humility in speaking so freely of his own failure was refreshing. Yet his view of God was tragically small. Would the all-powerful God whom he served, who loved him so greatly, really let him get away with a mistake of this dimension?

Abraham failed profoundly in seeking to have a child by Hagar, and he and his family suffered consequences thereafter. Yet his sin didnít deter God from bringing about the most important aspects of his plan for Abraham: Sarah still bore a child in her old age, and Abraham still became the father of countless descendants.

David sinned even more greatly when he sought a tryst with Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed in war. The consequences in this case were especially severe: God slew Bathshebaís son whom she bore by David, in spite of Davidís earnest pleas that God spare the child. That punishment, plus rebuke from the prophet Nathan, drove David to sincere repentance and deep sorrow over his lapse. But Scripture never implies that from this point on David had to live with Godís second best for his life. God still fulfilled his major promises for David. Most interestingly, God even worked Davidís most serious mistake into his plan. Bathsheba became his wife, and it was she who gave birth to Solomon, the son who succeeded David on the throne. ďShe bore a son, and [David] called his name Solomon. And the LORD loved himĒ (2 Sam 12:24).

At first, it seems surprising that God allowed Bathsheba to have this supremely positive role in Davidís life. Wasnít God being overly permissive here? And wasnít David left thinking he had benefited from his sin and from now on could presume upon Godís grace? I suspect, though, that the effect upon David was quite the opposite. Godís action was undoubtedly extremely humbling to him--an extraordinary reminder of just how thoroughly God was in control of his destiny.

This unspeakably far-reaching role that God plays in our lives as believers is best described by Paul, when he notes that God chose us to follow Christ ďbefore the foundation of the worldĒ (Eph 1:4). This means that our sin doesnít take him by surprise, and doesnít fatally broadside his plan for our life. He knows when and how we will fail before we ever do. He makes no promise to protect us from the unfortunate results of our sin. But when we sincerely repent and seek his forgiveness, we put ourselves in position to experience his best for our life from that point forward. To say we have forever removed ourselves from Godís perfect will in this case is to paint too small a picture of God, and to miss the authority he takes for working out his plan for us.

When we know we have truly failed Christ, repentance is exceedingly important, and we should give it serious attention. Yet, as time moves on, he doesnít wish us to be sidelined with regret, but wants us to focus on the future, not the past--and to take heart that he will work even our most heinous failures into his perfect plan for our life.

Indeed, to embrace that hope as a matter of deepest faith is one of the best decisions we can make.

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