On Decisions

On Decisions (/) is third in an ongoing series of meditations on life’s ubiquitous experiences. The first was On Notifications (!), and the second was On Questions (?).

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“I’ve been really struggling with a decision lately.”

“With what?”

“Well, you know how my phone’s screen cracked last month? Lately, the entire thing hasn’t been powering on.  And so I have been trying to decide between simply replacing it with the same model, or going ahead and getting an upgrade.”

“Okay.”

“…and, you know, I’ve been really praying about this one. You know, whatever God wants for me, that’s what I want.”

“…what?”

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The person in the above anecdote may or not have been the same person who told me “Jesus really doesn’t want me to have this Samsung Galaxy Tab III right now.”

It may or may not have been the same couple who, as they held their hands, proclaimed, “If it’s the Lord’s will that we be together…”

It may or not have been the same Chicagoan who, upon learning I’m from Oregon, tells me, “You know, I think the Holy Spirit is calling me to move to Portland.”

(To which I cynically respond, if they had read Blue Like Jazz lately, and they then take my seemingly psychic observation of their recent reading to be confirmation that it is time for them to make the move.)

Folks, welcome to the sort of American Christianity that looks less like gospel and more like a tenet of moralistic therapeutic deism. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

Say what you want, but the issue with this ethos is that God begins to seep into the everyday problems. It soon follows that many of the most passionate Christians out there are suddenly crippled when it comes to decisions that mere mortals have been successfully making for millennia. Decisions such as buying gadgets, falling in love, or moving somewhere new.

 To which I want to wave my hands and yell, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God!”

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Unfortunately, I’m going up against one of the most oft-quoted Scripture passages on biblical decision making.

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
do not depend on your own understanding.
Seek his will in all you do,
and he will show you which path to take.

At first blush, these verses appear to counsel the reader to throw the weight of his decision-making upon the divine.

But I digress — for this comes from the Proverbs. A collection of sayings where piety meets tradition meets common sense. It is a book of wisdom and, as a few verses down the road from the above passage indicate, wisdom is something human beings can grasp for themselves.

Proverbs 3:13-18
Blessed are those who find wisdom,
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.

She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.

We may have to make tough decisions (for, as verse 12 says, “the Lord disciplines those he loves”), but God’s will is not cryptic or overly particular. It is simple: it is for the good.

My hands are still waving. I am still yelling my jeremiad, “People — stop outsourcing all your decisions upon God. Instead, avoid using warped scales of the world to make your decisions: pride, sin, greed and instant gratification. Instead, use the measurements God has given you: love, holiness, wonder and awe. Leave foolishness behind, and grasp tightly onto wisdom.”

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Lukewarm biblical exegesis is not the only culprit. There is another reason, and it extends beyond American Christian subculture to every corner of the globe within driving distance from an airport.

Economics is the theology of the modern age and, for better or worse, the ideology of capitalism currently reigns supreme. What capitalism has believed from the onset, and the world capitalism has created in its image, is that the “invisible hand” will do its work as long as we religiously pursue our self-interest. The gears of the world, we are implicitly taught, are dependent on us choosing to “maximize our preferences.”

Today, we sin when we don’t buy the best things at the best price; do the right work for the right reward; or match our lives to the right people, places and purposes. The corresponding spirituality to this capitalist theology is to simply live a life of no regrets.

We are to make the best decisions, always.

Which, of course, is impossible.

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Instead of critiquing this aspect of capitalism (and there is much in capitalism to critique and to praise), we decide to bring God into our mundane decisions. We use God as a sort of anesthesia to cope with the stress of decision-making, without addressing the root cause of this stress.

When we are done praying and feel the anesthesia wear off, we find we have to make a decision after all, but now our stress has been exponentially multiplied.

Why? In addition to fearing sinning against a world tells us to make the best decisions only and always, we now fear sinning against God, for if we have not discerned the right decision, then it seems we have not truly trusted in God with all our heart.

Or worse, we reject all responsibility for our decisions, and when things turn out for ill, we blame it on the Lord.

Outsourcing our decisions to the divine explodes the possible choices into cosmic proportions.

Which is sad, because when we bring our decisions to the divine, it should put our decisions into perspective.

It is so entirely possible that in a world where God is real, the decision of whether or not we replace our smartphone with the same model or upgrade to a better one (or perhaps even downgrade to a basic phone), is not that big of a decision at all.

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How, then, are we going to remediate decisions?

I don’t have a revolution in mind, but just some simple observations that serve as tips and tricks. Apologies for those of you who wanted something more. Feel free to add to this list:

1. The decision does not always have to be between A or B, but sometimes can be C (or D or E or F or G). 

We often get so trapped between the first two choices that come to mind that we are blinded to the whole range of options out there. This is an obvious point, I suppose, but it is a helpful reminder from time to time. Although knowing there are more decisions out there than we could possibly keep together in our head could be a source of stress, I think more often than not it will help us out of a decision-making rut.

2. When the only options are A or B, it isn’t necessarily good or bad, but sometimes simply good or slightly better. 

We are probably more familiar with the darker version of this reality, the “lesser of two evils” argument. Nonetheless, when only two respectable (or disrespectable) options are presented to us, it is not that big of a deal if we make the less than optimal decision. (It’s not, for example, worth shutting down the whole federal government to have one’s way between a private health care system that probably works and a public health care system that probably works.)

3. Every decision simultaneously comes with regret and excitement. So there will be regrets. 

After making a decision, we will feel excitement when reflecting on the benefits. Likewise we will also feel regret reflecting on the costs. While there is something common-sensical about maximizing excitement and minimizing regrets, we should not aspire for “no regrets.” The temptation then becomes not only to make foolish decisions through distorted cost-benefit analyses, but to flat-out deny that the decisions we make have real costs. Doing so might just make us sick.

4. Sometimes the “big decision” is simply one decision in a series of a thousand or more. 

There are a number of “big decisions” in our life — where we go to school, who we marry, what we believe, etc. These can be particularly stressful, simply because they are bound to shape the trajectory of our lives. But, in the long run, these “big decisions” are only one decision out of many. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” school, the more important decisions will be what classes you take, what extracurricular activities you involve yourself in, how many times you decide to get out of bed in the morning. Regardless of whether or not you picked the “right” spouse, the more important decisions will be every time you to choose to love, listen, and work together. Regardless of what you believe, perhaps what ends up mattering in the end is how you decide to act on those beliefs.

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Clarification: we, of course, may decide not to got to school, decide not to marry, or choose not to believe in anything. But we rarely make these decisions once and for all, for they are always subject to revision as our life unfolds.

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Confession: The person at the beginning of this mediation, the one trying to discern God’s will over a smartphone upgrade, could very well have been me.

Well, it was me, although not involving a smartphone but some other gizmo. Something basic, something I knew would be helpful but I wasn’t sure I needed.

And, as much as I hate to admit it, I have found myself praying over many a simple consumer purchase.

The answer I get, if one gets such answers in prayer, has yet to be “buy” or “don’t buy.”

Simply, “go ahead, make the decision.”

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Addendum: As a twenty-something relatively fresh out of college, I’m sometimes exhausted by the amount of consequential decision-making I find myself making.

The sort of work I do requires strategic planning, unprecedented guesswork, and taking most of the blame when something goes wrong. Sometimes I want to go to work and just pull a lever. Over and over and over again. And, even if it is not stimulating or exciting, at least I know I am creating something good.

But I don’t have that luxury. It isn’t the life I have decided for myself, at least for this year.

Every day, I need to remind myself of the joy there is in simply being free to decide.

If you liked this blog post:

I’m going to ask you to change gears real quick and consider doing me a favor. As many of you know, whether it is self-publishing essays like The Virtue of Open-Mindedness or even this blog project itself, I’m fascinated with the challenge of finding new ways of getting written ideas out there in the 21st century world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. The Barna Group is trying out a new project in “short yet meaningful reads on top issues facing us in today’s complex culture” called “Frames.” Part of that project is something called “the 10th Frame”, where select authors are asked to develop 140-character Tweets into 1,000 word essays (the average length of my blog posts, although these mediations have been indulgently long).

Part of the formula for deciding which authors get to develop their posts into essays is the amount of retweets their concept gets (See where this is going?). There is another stage of the competition after that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

Long story short: I’d love to try my hand at this challenge. And you can support me in that by retweeting the following:

In case the suspense is killing you, this involves reflecting on my life as an activist in a world of climate change, and my life as a youth minister in a world of gentrification. If you want to know more, cross your fingers this tweet gets the judges’ attention.

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On Decisions

6 thoughts on “On Decisions

  1. I SUPER appreciated this blog post! I loved that you talked about moralistic therapeutic deism and how it has impacted our daily lives and the decisions that we make (or rather, how we go about making them). I have oftentimes found myself frustrated by the very same things and am glad that there are other people out there addressing this as well.

    1. Glad you were able to resonate with some of these thoughts, Veronica. Good for the both of us, I suppose, to know we’re not alone. 🙂

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