Making Decisions (part 1)

Note: Author Kevin DeYoung has recently given his readers a helpful little book titled Just Do Something. The next few posts are informed by some of his arguments (with a good dose of my own perspective worked in). You can purchase his book here.

Decision making seems more difficult than ever. And the evidence suggests recent generations are postponing big decisions until later in life. Kevin DeYoung writes:

Consider this one statistic: In 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men completed all the major transitions into adulthood by age thirty. These transitions include leaving home, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having a child. By 2000, only 46 percent of women completed these transitions by age thirty, and only 31 percent of men.

But it’s not just in the big questions that so many are struggling with indecision. Just try to get someone to commit to a social engagement that’s a month away. Almost surely your friend “will get back to you.” Keeping our options open is now a way of life. Committing to a course of action, even if it’s as minor as attending a dinner party, is difficult for many of us who are under age 40. Why do we often have such great difficulty making decisions?

We have a bewildering number of options.

Social scientist Barry Schwartz, in his article “When It’s All Too Much,” writes :

“Modern life has provided a huge array of products to choose from. Just walk into any large supermarket or drugstore looking for hair-care products, and you’ll likely be confronted with more than 360 types of shampoo, conditioner and mousse. Need a painkiller? There are 80 options. How about toothpaste? You have 40 types to pick from.”

For much of human history, a young man’s occupation was determined by his father. You did what he did, or he chose an apprentice for you. My local state university, on the other hand, offers 135 undergraduate degree options.

According to the most reliable biographies of Jesus’ life (the four canonical gospels), he traveled at most 70 miles away from his hometown during his adult life. My peers, however, are considering not just which state they want to live in, but which continent they want to live in! Some good married friends of mine were raised in Germany and New Zealand, respectively, and met in New Jersey! And nearly everyone knows couples like this. Does this mean that my “soul-mate” could be on the other side of the planet? How will I ever wade through all the options of whom to marry?

We are looking for perfect fulfillment.

DeYoung captures the mindset of my generation well when he writes:

We figure we should be able to find a great job right out of college in a great location that provides the same standard of living our parents have right now, and involves us in the world’s troubles in a way that would make Bono proud. We want it all—all we need is for God to show us the way.

One of the byproducts of having so many options to choose from is that we expect more from the decisions we make. If there are 1,000 job options, then at least one of them should be amazing, right? If I choose carefully, I can have the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect home, the perfect friends, and the perfect church — that is, if I don’t die before I finish making it through all the options. We have loaded unrealistic expectations on many of the decisions we have to make. Further, as social scientist Barry Schwartz notes, for many people an overwhelming number of options leads to an anticipation of disappointment with the decisions we will make, causing us to put off decision making altogether.

We fear making a decision that will disappoint God.

This is the crux of the matter for many Christians when it comes to making decisions. Ask a committed, church-going young adult what her ultimate goal is in the decisions she is making, and she will likely respond “to do God’s will.” That’s kind of what being a Christian means, right? What could be more noble than that? But the way in which “doing God’s will” is commonly understood can lead to a lot of stress for many well-intentioned believers. How do I discover God’s will? What if I make the wrong decision? Will I disappoint God? Will I mess up my life? Will I be unhappy? Why won’t he just tell me what to do?

In the next post we will survey what the Bible has to say about God’s will, and how this relates to making decisions.

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