My wife grew up in Africa where the stores had three choices of cereal. That was it. Today in the United States, we have an entire aisle expressly devoted to breakfast cereal—do you want a healthy one, a sugary one, a sugary one that looks like a healthy one? I stand there scanning the mosaic of boxes and I’m overwhelmed. That aisle is a microcosm of our world; every day, we’re faced with a deluge of decisions, both big and small, about what we want to choose. And it’s not always helpful.
Customization can be ideal, but I think we inherently understand that more options are not always better. Strategies that enable us to make fewer decisions have even become the trend. We love to outsource our decision-making: brands like HelloFresh or Blue Apron grocery shop and meal plan for us, fashion subscriptions like Stitch Fix style clothing for us, and Netflix even created a “Surprise Me” button that chooses a show for us.
In addition to the daily, minute decisions we make, we also face more significant and consequential decisions than any generation before us. Do I take this job? Should I marry this person? Should we try to get pregnant? Where should I live? What college should I go to? Traditional and community expectations used to make a lot of these decisions more straightforward (or put them in the hands of others). But in our current age of individualism, we have fewer boundaries and external pressures that limit our choices. The path isn’t always clear, and certainly not as easy to plan for.
In dealing with this reality, we’ve often struggled to be equipped for the task. As someone who has done a fair amount of premarital counseling and raised three children of my own, I’ve been able to advise many at key decision points in their lives. I’ve noticed that there are two ways that most people react in the face of an important decision to be made.
One is impulsivity. It’s easy to lose patience, get overwhelmed, and throw caution to the wind. Making decisions without thinking and with little information can be fine when ordering a meal at a restaurant, but it’s no way to make a big career shift.
The second is analysis paralysis. Quite opposite to impulsivity, this approach is an endless back-and-forth cycle of gathering information, deciding, undeciding, and never truly making a decision. The problem with this is that not making a decision is actually a decision (and it’s usually a bad one).
Neither of these tactics are helping us. If we’re facing more decisions than ever before, and we have less societal constraints to guide us, we need more internal tools and wisdom than ever before to help us make those decisions. We have to find a method of wise decision-making that leaves us with peace and joy rather than a depressive exhaustion that causes us to perpetually doubt the merit of our choice. Luckily, our history has a lot to say about that.
The Tanakh chronicles our ancestors exercising their free will. We see their wisdom and their folly, their obedience and their defiance. But we also see God’s choice to remain continually faithful to us regardless of our choices.
God didn’t force us to obey, to love, or to follow. He joyfully bestowed free will upon us, and our power to choose and His power to guide go hand in hand. He tells Israel this with articulate clarity:
See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess…. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. (Deuteronomy 30:15–16, 19–20; emphasis added)
God sets the options before Israel and advises them in the way to go, illustrating the blessings that come with the good choice and the consequences that come with the bad choice. He doesn’t force Israel’s hand, but implores them to choose the way of life.
When God gave Solomon a choice to ask for anything he wanted, the king famously replied, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (2 Chronicles 1:10). He knew that wisdom and leading from God was the key to making life-giving decisions.
Fortunately, Solomon didn’t keep the gift he received to himself—he authored Proverbs. His wisdom has helped me in the way I go about making my own decisions and in how I advise others. While there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach to decision-making, there are certain practical and biblical principles that I’ve found to be helpful. By implementing even one or two of these tools, each of us can be empowered by our decision-making ability rather than constantly drained.
Ask yourself: How important is this decision? What are the ramifications involved? How much control do I really have in this situation? How much time and energy should I put into this? Some decisions may be between two equally beneficial choices and don’t merit lengthy deliberation. Other decisions carry a great deal of weight and consequence in your life (or the lives of others) and therefore should have an appropriate amount of time and consideration devoted to them. Solomon reminds us, “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways” (Proverbs 14:8).
Ask yourself: What’s most important to me in the midst of this? Sometimes our deliberation comes with stress that causes us to forget the values we hold dearest. Take a moment to reprioritize, refocus, and name anything that may be clouding your ability to make a wise decision. Choices are strongest when they’re built on a foundation of personal conviction.
Ask yourself: Do I need advice from someone else? One of the purposes of a good community is to offer support on just such an occasion. In fact, Solomon urges us to seek advice time and time again: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). Confiding in a trusted mentor, a wise friend, a therapist, a parent, or a spiritual leader can help us become aware of our blind spots and expose us to different perspectives.
Ask yourself: Am I making a rash decision out of anxiety or fear? While these emotions can be helpful prompts to jump out of the way of a moving car or to let go of a searing hot pan, they aren’t helpful fodder for wise decision-making. They can cause us to make poor choices. Make sure you’re in the right headspace: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).
It’s better to make a decision than to avoid it. Resist the temptation to needlessly second-guess yourself. If there’s a significant reason to adjust your choice after making it (and you can), do it! Part of the freedom of making a decisive choice is knowing you can change it—often, a willingness to alter a decision based on new information is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.
You may use the principles above and learn to make more confident decisions, yet still struggle to really be at peace. I think we tend to feel a lot of pressure because of the pernicious subconscious thought that each one of our decisions has the power to control the outcome of our lives.
In reality, we overestimate our ability to control our lives. We control far less than we think we do. We didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t choose our name or the home we grew up in; we have limited capacity to control the health of our bodies, our government, or our climate; and we certainly can’t control the people around us. Acknowledging this truth is a key aspect of peace in our decision-making. This truth allows us to use the wisdom and guidance we have to make a decision, and hand the results over to God. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
Whenever we say the Shehecheyanu, we’re affirming that it is God who is the original and continued source of our life: “Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.” The Creator of our lives cares about the day-to-day, leading us from season to season. He can speak into our minds and consciences in simple, quiet ways that guide us in the way to go and assure us that He’s there, He cares, and He desires good things for our lives. In it all, we can thank Him for allowing us to reach today.