why I’m not all that interested in making godly decisions

OK. Controversial headline. Copywriting tick.

But what the heck am I talking about? How can I not be all that interested in making godly decisions?

I mean, I’m a Christian, right? And a Christian, moreover, who serves as a leader among Christians — encouraging people to take Jesus seriously.

In part, it has to do with the fact that most of the ‘big’ decisions in my life have already been made. Or at least the decisions we’re all told are the big ones: I’ve got a job (or three). I’m married — and now have a child. And I’ve decided where to live — at least for the moment.

More significantly, though, I’ve started to notice that most of the important decisions I make — the ones which show how serious I really am about Jesus — tend to happen in a split-second, without giving me any time for conscious reflection or deliberation.

I’m talking about the way I react when someone cuts in front of me in traffic. Or when my ideas are derided or sidelined.

In these moments, it’s hardly even useful to talk about ‘making decisions’. They’ve got more to do with habit and instinct.

Samuel Wells draws the same conclusion in his fascinating book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. In his opinion (page 75), “Learning to live well is about gaining the right habits and instincts, rather than making the right choices.”

Backing this, Wells appeals to common observation and experience: “If one has the right assumptions and instincts and habits, many of the things others might experience as crises of choice will pass without one being aware of them.”

I’ve started to think of this in terms of moral and spiritual muscle memory.

Which is why I’ve become less interested in making godly decisions. By the time I hit the moment of agony and crisis, the decision has almost always been well and truly made.

I’m realising I need to pay more attention to how I’m training my desires and instincts. Forming my character. Giving myself the kind of regular moral and spiritual workout that will give me this ‘muscle memory’.

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2 comments

  1. I’m very positive toward this idea, Swanny. Andrew Cameron talks about ‘pattern recognition’ in Joined Up Life, as a way of talking about how we observe our circumstances and then know how to act morally. Though I’m not sure he says it explicitly, I’m convinced that this often occurs subconsciously/instinctively, or at least quickly.

    It reminds me of something Chuck Colson said (he was indicted and imprisoned for his role in the Watergate scandal). He said that you’re kidding yourself if you think you can cut moral corners in your life, over and over, and then when the big one comes, the big moral choice, that you’ll show integrity. He said, it ain’t so.

    Moral muscle memory. That’s going places.

    Incidentally, this probably can also be informed by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I know next to nothing about it, but the whole notion of reinforcing or breaking down neural pathways which lead to certain patterns of behaviour seems to be a scientific equivalent to the ‘moral’ perspective you give here.

    Thoughts?

    1. Hi Ben,

      Interesting thought about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I’d need to think through the connections more — I’ve tried to harness something like it when talking with people about managing their emotions as Christians…

      I was also thinking I’d like to develop my thoughts by bringing them into conversation with the whole indicative-imperative structure of NT ethics — you know: ought — ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’ — grounded in is — ‘this is who you are (by God’s grace in Christ)’. I reckon I need to work out ways to ‘work in’ my new, God-given identity in Christ so that I’m living and reacting out of it (rather than my old identity).

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