how do we make difficult decisions? #secondguessing

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. – Psalm 138:8

Apparently there is already a lot of second-guessing in the U.K. following the referendum over leaving the European Union. It’s clear that many people already believe they made the wrong choice, and there’s a bit of a panic on. Of course it’s not unusual for people to change their minds – we do it all the time; the phenomenon just comes into clearer focus when the implications are so far-reaching and so many people are involved.

So I have been thinking about how people make decisions. How do I make decisions? There have been several precipitating events: The Brexit story; the bizarre 2016 presidential campaign here in the U.S.; several recent Supreme Court rulings; the ongoing debate over same-gender relations; why I ate a third and then a fourth roll at dinner….

What exactly is at play when we pull the lever to vote a certain way? Or when we unload our point of view during a discussion? Or when we make any one of a dozen pivotal choices during the course of the day?

Looking at myself, I came up with the following (obviously incomplete) list of relevant factors:

  • Intelligence (my essential ability to process information): I feel it’s important to apply the rigors of critical analysis when weighing the options. Thinking at all is – I believe – a widely underutilized resource in decision making!
  • Knowledge (what I actually know about what is going on): Is my knowledge first hand? Or am I getting it from other sources? Are those sources trustworthy? How much information have I gathered and is it enough – and impartial enough – to helpfully inform my choice?
  • Personal experience (this is a type of knowledge): My personal experience as a schoolteacher, for example, influences my decisions regarding the politics of education. The interactions I have had with people, both negative and positive, influence how I think about something the next time it comes up. Other examples include the deep heart-to-heart conversations I’ve had with people of the Islamic faith, my intimate friendships with and love for many people who are gay; the 19 years I spent living in Europe…
  • Bias/prejudice: I (we all) hold personal leanings in favor of some things… and against others. I tend too easily to dismiss people on “the religious right.” I am unreasonably intolerant of activists in the mold of Al Sharpton and Michael Moore. I listen less critically to people who are more like me (that’s not very open-minded!).
  • Cultural milieu: Where I now live affects the decisions I make. My opinions and my natural inclination to maintain the status quo are slanted by the friends I have, the voices I listen to, the community values I have embrace, and my hopes and dreams in this context. I’d make a lot of different decisions if I lived, say, in Bethlehem, attended a Palestinian Christian Church, and worked with a human-rights NGO.
  • Personal history: The fact that I experienced a fairly idyllic childhood; my life as a preacher’s spouse; the positive years we’ve enjoyed with three amazing faith communities; my experiences working with minority families; my work as a men’s ministry advocate; the access I’ve had to political leaders and decision makers… and so much more. These all come into play and impact my choices.
  • Faith perspective: My relationship with God – and the direction I believe God wants me to take, plays a huge role in my decisions. How I read the Bible, what I have read lately, and what understandings/interpretations are currently resonating with me. I pray, I meditate, I talk with Christian friends, and I ask God to guide me in the decisions I make.

CONCLUSION: Then, a lot of the time, our decisions end up a kind of guesswork. This is especially true when it comes to voting. Sometimes the only thing that’s clear about voting is that I feel a civic responsibility to do it! Sometimes all the above factors could be carefully weighed and acknowledged, applying my intelligence and my knowledge to the nth degree. But, still, the answer is not clear…

And my response to this – frequent – dilemma (and it’s the place where I often find myself) is that all we can do is the best we can, with the resources at our disposal… and that is where we hand it over to God. Not fatalistically, but providentially.

Because the difference between fatalism (the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable), and providence, is that providence is the confluence of God’s will for our lives and our faithful commitment to live as disciples, followers of the Living Way of Jesus.

In other words, while we have a responsibility to live as faithful disciples, we also recognize that God is sovereign, and we live forward from this point in the good confidence that we are held in the loving embrace of a graceful, merciful Creator.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9

Sometimes – often – that has to be enough – DEREK


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