Having lived through the thrill of victory (the late 1990 bull market) and the agony of defeat (the 2000-2002 bear market), many people today are finding it increasingly difficult to know which is the "right" step to take. They wonder: "Is this a good time to buy stocks?"

"Should I sell some of my employer's stock in order to diversify?"

"How much of my retirement plan should I put in stocks versus bonds?"

"If I sell this losing investment and buy something else, will I be better off?"

Since we cannot know the future with certainty, it's obvious that no investment portfolio will ever be perfectly positioned to profit from upcoming events. As the future unfolds, it will always be possible to point to ways we could have made more money than we did -- and some of them will appear incredibly obvious in retrospect! This means that it's pointless to think of the "right" investment portfolio simply in terms of maximizing profits. If that is your approach, you will always be frustrated and second-guessing your decisions.

The "right" portfolio is one that realistically faces where you are right now, looks years ahead to where you want to go, and has a very high probability of getting you there on time. Let's look at some of the characteristics of the "right" steps to take.

• The right investing decision is one that is consistent with a specific, biblically sound long-term strategy you've adopted. One common trait that I find among many of those I counsel is that their current investment portfolio tends to be a random collection of "good deals" and assorted savings accounts. Each investment appears to have been made on its own merits without much thought of how it fit into the whole.

I find savings accounts (because the bank was offering a "good deal" on money market accounts), company stock (because buying it at a discount is a "good deal"), a savings bond for the kids' education (because they read an article that said they were a "good deal" for college), a universal life policy (because their insurance agent said it was a "good deal" for someone their age), a real-estate partnership (which their broker said was a "good deal" for people in their tax bracket), and 100 shares of XYZ stock (because their best friend let them in on this really "good deal").

I want you to become an initiator (one who develops an individual investing strategy tailored to your personal temperament and goals) rather than a responder (one who reacts to sales calls, making decisions on a case-by-case basis). Then you can select the appropriate investments accordingly. The right investment step is the one that you seek out purposefully, knowing where it fits into the overall scheme of things.

• The right investing decision is one where you've taken plenty of time to pray and to seek trusted, experienced Christian counsel. Because your decisions have long-term implications, you should take all the time you need to become informed. Don't be in a hurry; there's no deadline. A good friend once commented to me: "The Christian life isn't a destination; it's a way of travel." Likewise, you're not under pressure to predict the best possible portfolio for the next six months or make next year's big killing. Your goal is to settle into a comfortable investing lifestyle that will serve you well for decades.

You need time to pray, ask for the counsel of others, and reflect. You should consider the alternatives, examine your motives, and continue praying until you have peace in the matter. If you're married, you should pray with your spouse and talk it out until you reach mutual agreement. You're in this together and, rain or shine, you both must be willing to accept responsibility for the decision. This will add to your steadfastness during the occasional rough sledding along the way.

• The right investing decision is one that you understand. This typically involves at least two things. First, it's relatively simple. It's not likely that your situation requires exotic or complicated strategies. In fact, the single investment decision of greatest importance is actually pretty easy to understand. It's deciding what percentage of your investments to put in stocks (where your return is uncertain) as opposed to bonds and other fixed income investments (where your return is relatively certain). This one decision has more influence on your investment results than any other. See our suggestions in First Things First: Picking the Right Stock-to-Bond Mix.