We all have choices to make. Some that will decide the next hour, others that will effect our lives many years to come. Making these decisions can be extremely difficult. Often we look in hindsight at a wonderful choice, or a disastrous one, but in the cloudy future uncertainty and commitment can be a scary duo.
Knowing that my decisions now may impact the future of myself and others, I often feel decisions as a crushing burden, but maybe some of these ideas will help. I will be examining these choices from rational choice theory and a few of its limitations, then how I think Christians should approach decision making.
Finally I will examine how one might seek to know the will of God and how one ought to reason regarding decisions.
Rational choice theory
Rational choice theory sets up the ideal choice maker as seeking an ideal option and executing it. Under this theory, actors define their goals according to their values. They then produce their action options and rank them. This requires a lot of knowledge to achieve in not only the specific area of choosing but also in cause and effect. However, the optimal option will be ranked number one under this view.
Assuming this to be correct, if I have all the knowledge I need it should be quite possible for me to choose the 'right' choice by going through the process described. I should be able to sit here at my desk and write down what I seek, whether it be what I should do to get the best grades, who to talk to, or even decisions as large as who to marry.
I can tell you just off my experience - that this model does not always apply, and theorists such as Richard Lebow and Robert Jervis (even just within political theory) have put forward some ideas as to why. Potential problems with the theory lie in several of the assumptions and limitations, I will focus on two of them.
Procrastination of decision making is the first, and is seen in the limitations of Rational Choice Theory. This is when the actor fails to actually make the decision. You may have exactly the optimal decision in mind, and yet be unwilling to make the choice. Often this occurs when there is a value clash.
You may have experienced moments like this even in the simple case of deciding when to study. I live in a very fun community and I love to spend time with my friends, and there are many times in which I need to study to continue enjoying university, but sometimes these values of friendship and scholarliness clash. When this happens it can be extremely difficult to choose either option, and procrastination ensues, achieving neither objective to the full potential.
One of the assumptions
The second issue comes from one of the assumptions. Can we ever have enough high quality information to really create and rank all of the action options? We don't know the future, and we may not even have good knowledge of the past either.
It seems that we cannot know for sure if one option will be the best just by looking at the options available. I take the train to the university rather than the bus, I value their reliability, however, the bus is often faster. I am using a strategy of risk reduction, but if I knew that the traffic would be minimal tomorrow I would have access to information about the optimal choice.
In the absence of this information, I choose a sub-optimal option. The risk and uncertainty in any decisions is difficult to manage, but when the consequences are irreversible and life changing, it can seem almost impossible.
This difficulty is so great that prior many of the more serious decisions I have had to make, have had weeks of bad dreams, each setting out parts of the problem.
There might be a more useful way of approaching problems, even ones that are this hard to deal with.
A Christian way
If we set our values in a Christian way, looking to God's glory as primary, we find a better starting point. It won't always be easy, but the example of spending time with friends or my course readers can be evaluated more effectively from this standpoint. Which will lead to God's glory most?
Being upright and exemplary in my studies may glorify God when people see that these people who follow God are exceptional, they might wonder about God because of his people's character. Spending time with my friends might also further this goal, engaging in fruitful discussion to strengthen fellow Christians or point toward why Christ Jesus is worth following to non-Christian friends.
It is not a complete solution to the problem, but it is a step in the right direction.
So what about the second problem of limited knowledge, is there some way that Christians should act differently towards this as well? There may well be. If God is omniscient (all knowing) and in control of all things as Christians like myself believe, knowing that God seeks glory for his son, it follows that what he has revealed to us may be sufficient knowledge to base our decisions on.
This is to say that God's will is revealed in scripture (The Bible) to such a degree that we might know God's will in our own decisions by looking to it. We may never have insufficient accessible knowledge.
Furthermore, if we set God's glory as our highest goal, then the right decision may not even be the one with the best appearance but rather the one that honours God in our own heart. We can reason for the right goal (God's glory) using this knowledge of God's will that is so easy to access, and the very process of this can achieve our ends. Submitting to God, putting his will first, brings glory to God in itself.
So next time you and I have these choices to make, remember the Lord and reason in a way that is glorifying towards him.
Alex Gillespie is an undergraduate student from Wollongong now based in Sydney studying philosophy at Sydney Uni.
Alex Gillespie previous articles may be viewed
Alexander Gillespie is an Arts Honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Particular fields of interest include Nineteenth-Century migration history, conceptual philosophy, social policy and ecclesiology. He currently lives in Sydney with his wife and enjoys researching and writing.