Decision Making and Technology
I’m sure you have heard Christians around you say things like “I am seeking God’s will about my career move” or “I’m not sure what to do next, I don’t know if I am in the centre of God’s will”. Maybe you have even said these types of things yourself. I know I have experienced the frustration of seeking to do the right thing in a given situation and just not knowing with confidence what is the best way forward. It is part of becoming more Christ-like to consider what God desires in the decisions of daily life, but some of the ways we think about God’s will for our lives can paralyze us when it comes to making decisions.
First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing. There are multiple ways we use the phrase God’s will. It can mean the moral ideals for life – being outside God’s will in this sense involves known sin in our lives. God’s will can also be used to indicate salvation or election – God’s will for the world is salvation of sinners. But most commonly when we talk about God’s will we are talking about a particular plan for the life of an individual.
Some have argued that God’s will in the last sense does not even exist, or at least isn’t proven to exist Biblically. Garry Friesen argues this point in Decision Making & the Will Of God: A Biblical Alternative To The Traditional View. Faced with the frustration that so many people are either spending excessive energy discerning God’s will or being paralyzed so they cannot make a decision Friesen set out to refute the idea that there is a perfect path in life for each individual, as if daily choices are aiming to always hit a bulls eye on a target. Instead, Friesen offers, following the moral will of God as established in scripture and exercising our free will to choose is enough to lead us in the right direction. The moral teaching of the Bible can be summarized as Jesus expressed it as love of God and love of neighbour. Focusing on God’s moral will as the boundary and exercising our free will is a very important corrective to those who are paralyzed by choice. Theologically, we in the Free Methodist Church have an advantage in overcoming decision making paralysis. Our Arminian view of free will that emphasizes the ability of human beings to choose, while not denying God’s sovereign power in the world, releases Christians from getting too caught up in finding the one exact plan for life.
In my own life there has been a process of learning more and more of the teaching from scripture which has helped me to know more of God’s will for my life. Lately, as I have been reading the book of Isaiah I see more clearly the vision of how God wants us to care for the poor and hungry among us. Listen to what God says to his people through the prophet:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.
Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
[Isaiah 58:6b-10, NLT]
The vision set before God’s people here to is to feed and clothe the poor – and I get overwhelmed by that, how am I going to do that? But then God speaks to me in my attempt at self-sufficiency from Isaiah 55:1- 2:
“Is anyone thirsty?
Come and drink—
even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
it’s all free!
Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?
Why pay for food that does you no good?
Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.”
When I heard these words read in a worship service recently I was struck by how God doesn’t always ask us to minister to someone because we have what we need. Often he asks us to do something because we don’t have what that person needs – God has what that person needs. What I have to offer is just spending money on food that does me no good. And most of all, that person I am being asked to minster to needs the presence of God, mediated through me in that particular moment.
Learning more of what God has intended for his people helps me to make good decisions, but essentially this learning process is not an academic process, but a relational development as I encounter God himself. But there are things that get in the way of remembering that decision making and discerning God’s will is based on developing relationship with God. One of those barriers is how mechanical decision making sometimes becomes. For example, it has become assumed that there is a right way to live that fits everybody, a default position. And that this right way is in contrast to a wrong way, an assumption of binary choices. And more subtly there is an assumption that we continue to make progress, knowing better and better about how to make the right decisions. These three things, and I’m sure there are many more, are ways that I have seen a technological mindset creeping into areas of our lives beyond using computers and other technology as tools.
Technical language has slipped into our conversations and technical metaphors are now present in how we describe the experiences of our daily life and our spiritual life. For example, I find myself now using the language of “default position” in normal conversation – “my default position is as an introvert”. But the language of default position is technical language. It’s the factory settings on a machine, the way that would work for most people for most situations. It is impersonal, a default position is not chosen in response to relational knowledge of another person. When this kind of thinking invades into how we think about God and His treatment of us we distort His character. God is a person. And He has the ability to know each of us intimately. He speaks to us with deep knowledge of our abilities, situation, and feelings. When we seek God’s will we need to be seeking the personal God, not a machine with a default position.
One way I have seen default position contrasted to relational discernment is in how I have seen different churches approach the choice of programs to run. In many churches there is a default position: we need to have ministry for each age group, we need to have music in the service, and we need to have a pastor to give the sermon. In contrast to this, the church I’ve been attending while at school in Vancouver has hit some significant struggles and one was problems with the lease of the land the church sits on from the provincial government. The lease cost was going to increase by ten times and this provoked the core of the church to get on our knees and start to pray about what God wanted to do in the particular place, at this particular time with this particular group of believers. And then we all listened – relationally waiting for God’s guidance. After seeing how the decision making process happened in that situation I will never be able to accept the default position for decisions about church ministry again.
Besides default positions technological thinking also slips into our lives through binary thinking. Computers work on a binary code – there are only two choices “yes” or “not yes” (1 or 0). Computers have become very complex since my high school computer programing classes where we told the computer how to make choices, but it is still all a sophisticated network of binary choices that the computer makes. In real life where relationships with real, complicated people are involved in the daily choices and the big choices of life, binary thinking can be inadequate, or even destructive. Thinking relationally doesn’t mean denying an absolute Truth in life. But it does recognize that people are human and life is messy.
I am a student right now at Regent College and among my friends there are many passionate people who are concerned about many important issues like social justice for abused and neglected people, caring well for the poor all around the world, protecting creation as God’s good gift through our behaviour, such as ethical food choices and rejection of consumerism. When I first arrived at Regent I was overwhelmed at the thought of how to change how I was living now that I was aware of all these “right” things I should be doing. If buying clothing produced in just and ethical ways was important for my friends, it must also be necessary and good for me. What finally gave me release from the guilt trip that would result from many of my conversations was the realization that God’s help is the only way I can do these good things. Actually, God’s help is the only way that I can do anything good. So, if God’s help is necessary for success, then I also need to trust God to help me to figure out what the right issues are for me to focus on at any given time. Slowly I know more about where my food and clothing come from. Slowly I have learned to carry a canvas re-useable shopping bag to reduce plastic consumption. And this growth can be generalized to other areas of my life that were marked by binary thinking. Spiritual growth happens slowly, and with God’s help. Slowly I have become more aware of the sinful ways that pride and self-sufficiency undermine my relationship with God and with other people. With a binary view of the world all these things would need to be dealt with right away, but by God’s grace, he brings these things into view as he enables us to learn to choose well.
The third way I see technological thinking creeping into life and decision making is through an assumption of continual progress. Technology is constantly changing and upgrading – getting better. I won’t deny that the new laptop I bought this year is significantly better in lots of ways than the one it replaced. And I am very grateful for this. But we need to be careful about how this kind of thinking is transfered to how we think about people. I have been frustrated on many occasion when “the same old sin” comes up in my life again and again. I tend to see this as a sign that God hasn’t been working in my life, that I have learned nothing about making good decisions. Progress thinking is when we expect others, and ourselves, to continually be building on what came before. Instead, God deals with each of us in a particular time and a particular place. He knows all the details of our life, so seeking a good decision – seeking God’s will, involves being in relationship with God so that we can hear his voice.
One way that I have marked the progress in my spiritual life is by taking the time to read back through my journal. Recently, as I read through it I was struck by how little progress I made . Some of the same compulsions, distortions and fears marked my spiritual life years ago that also mark it a few months ago. I even saw patterns of how the issues in my life were addressed by God, and then I slipped back into the same pattern of fear with a new manifestation. If progress is all that I am looking for then reading my journal would be proof that I have been a dismal failure over the last few years. But I also saw marks of the presence of God in my life – in both the successful moments of moving away from fear, and in the times when I was so gripped by fear that all I could do was cry out to God. So, I am making progress, but not because I am adding tools and skills to my repertoire of decision making knowledge, but because I am learning more and more to lean on Jesus and trust Him in the good and the bad.
Both in technological thinking, or in getting caught up in finding the one perfect will for our life we can miss out on the relational aspect of making decisions in the presence of God. I know I haven’t offered any particulars – pursue this job, marry this person, spend time this way – but I hope I have been helpful in re-orienting how we think about decision making. My hope is that as each of us approaches the decisions that are the choice between two good things we will seek after knowing God, instead of knowing the “right” answer.
Amy Caswell is a student at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. She is also a member of The Free Methodist Church in Canada’s Study Commission on Doctrine [SCOD].