By H. Wallace Goddard and Barbara Keil
“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.” -Winston Churchill
I have a good friend who often hesitates to make decisions or commitments. She wants to keep her options open to continue evaluating her choices. In her mind, this will enable her to avoid making mistakes. While she is right that it is a good idea for us to do our homework when making choices, her fear of making the wrong decision sometimes prevents her from making any commitment at all. She loses out on opportunities and experiences that would benefit her. This decision rule could be called the “safety first” rule.
Another good woman I know strives to do her best in every aspect of her life. As she evaluates how to invest her time and energy, she constantly challenges herself to the highest standards. She becomes overwhelmed and depressed when she feels she doesn’t live up to those standards. Her decision rule could be labeled, “anything short of perfection is failure”.
The dangers of our decision rules
All of us have underlying principles that come into play when we make choices about how to approach our lives. I’m going to call them “decision rules”. Decision rules are mental maps made up of personal beliefs or preferences that make us likely to think or act in certain ways. Often we think our decisions are based on wise and rational choices. But frequently they can be an expression of our fears, worries or hopes. There are many factors that contribute to decision rules, for example: the desire to be accepted, be in charge, feel loved, be successful, etc.
We all have unspoken decision rules but we almost never examine them. We usually aren’t even aware that we have them. As a result of not understanding the decision rules we are applying, we often make decisions and then wonder why they turn out badly.
Decision rules can be limiting and cause us to behave ineffectively. For example, someone who has been hurt in a prior relationship may adopt the decision rule to never fully trust anyone again. This might seem to serve as protection from future hurt. But a lack of trust will limit that person from fully entering into a loving relationship even with a deserving individual.
Even decision rules that seem founded on correct principles can become problematic when applied by our “natural man” mindset (see Mosiah 3:19). “I will always speak up for the gospel” can be a good standard when it leads us to seek missionary opportunities. But it can become ugly when we use it to excuse contentious arguments with nonmembers or members. The decision rule “I will surround myself with others who share my beliefs” appears to be a reasonable choice, but could cause us to miss out on opportunities to serve those outside of our ward community.
Rewiring our thinking
When a car does not perform optimally, we bring it to a mechanic who opens up the hood and looks at the inner workings in order to diagnose and fix the problem. Sometimes when we are not operating optimally we may need to “look under the hood” and examine our decision making process. We may need to change some parts.
How do we discover the decision rules that guide our lives? Consider the areas of your life: relationships, work, use of time, spiritual progress, growth opportunities, service, use of financial resources, current challenges. What are the problems that recur in your life? What decision rule might be behind the behavior that you know to be counter-productive?
What are the faulty decision rules that have held you hostage?
We might also ask ourselves in what ways we commonly break commandments. Maybe we get angry or justify unholy behavior. The desperate squeak from our consciences is evidence that we need to do more than try harder; we may need to change the rules that govern our behavior.
The person who is regularly timid may need to experiment with some courage. The person who worries about having everything in perfect order may choose to be selective about that perfectionism. The person who feels hurt by the comments of others may need to get outside his or her own view. The person who makes excuses for bad behavior may need to begin accepting accountability.
As we examine and challenge our decision rules, we can progress toward greater goodness. Yet sometimes when we analyze and diagnose our faulty thinking processes, we get into an endless loop. We may discover we have implemented yet another flawed decision rule: “This behavior cannot be changed.” We are using imperfect instruments to repair a defective system. Our attempts at self-repair often end in confusion and despair.
Rewiring by the Master Mechanic
We cannot sort out our minds and set them right when our fundamental problem is that we are fallen. We are all struggling entry-level mechanics with elementary tools in our repair cases. Yet the repair of fallenness requires a Master Mechanic. I recommend we patiently allow Him to tinker with us and our thinking. He will repair a fault here and a misunderstanding there. He will keep improving us. If we become unduly impatient and take over the job, we are likely to create a mess. If we patiently allow Him to tune and repair us, we will become what He is: a Master Mechanic.
To help the Master Mechanic fix our wiring, we should gladly submit to His diagnosis and repair. If we hold back because we like doing things our own way (this is a version of pride) or we don’t like to get help (this is self-sufficiency) or because we worry about what we will be asked to sacrifice (fear), then we remain broken and dysfunctional. We drag our way through our lives never functioning quite right and never really improving.
How do we get Him to rewire us? Little by little the Spirit will point out our ways of thinking that need fixing; our fears, worries, reluctances, lack of faith, shortsightedness, misjudgments, etc. As He reveals the need, we open our minds to a new way of thinking. We align ourselves with His guidance for our lives instead of our faulty decision rules. He will work to set us right.
The ideal decision rule
When Jesus had to make what was His most critical choice, He voiced the decision rule that guided every aspect of His life. “Not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:39)
This, of course, is the ideal decision rule: to turn our hearts, minds, and energy over to Him. We set aside our preferences and prejudices. We turn to Him and ask for His counsel. How would He have us view the situations we face? What would His advice be to us regarding how to approach our thoughts and actions? This only happens when we make the fateful decision to accept His decision rule: What would God have me do?
My friend who has been paralyzed from committing to new experiences because of a “safety first” decision rule is gradually learning to trust the Lord as He leads her towards embarking upon new growth opportunities. The woman who previously felt depressed due to her “I must be perfect” decision rule is learning that He does not require perfection to love her. As we continue to seek the Lord and His guidance rather than leaning on our own understanding, we will infuse all our decisions with His perfect wisdom.
Like most spiritual progress, we cheerfully do all we are able, and then we turn ourselves over to God. We try to re-program our thinking while knowing that it is ultimately God who will change our hearts.
If you’re interested in strengthening your marriage, may like a copy of Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, the gospel-centered marriage book by Brother Goddard.
Also, Brother Goddard has a 2-talk CD set: “The Heart of a Healthy Marriage and a Happy Family.”