Several years ago I read the book Why CEOs Fail by David Dotlich and Peter Cairo. The authors detail 11 behaviors that often derail the careers of executives, the fifth of which is excessive caution or the inability to make a big decision.
We probably all have worked with someone who sits on every decision. This type of person is bound to fail because a leader has to take some kind of action. It was management scholar Peter Drucker who said, “Wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”
Some people have the greatest difficulty in making decisions. I remember a bishop who found making decisions positively painful. He was a caring pastor, a compassionate human being and a devout Christian who loved and was loved by his clergy. But for some reason, he found it excruciatingly difficult to make decisions.
When you think about it, most choices before us are not matters of good and evil or right and wrong. Most choices are between two or more perfectly plausible alternatives. You choose a treatment for cancer-there are several options-but which one is right for you? You apply for a job, you’ve got several possibilities, but which one will satisfy the desires of your heart? You want to spend your day volunteering at a soup kitchen, but should you spend it instead with your family? You find yourself inundated with appeals for money, all from charities worthy of your support, but to which should you contribute, and how much? There are endless choices in life; choices that are good, better and best. So how do you make the right choice?
In our lesson from Acts, we find the disciples having to make a decision about a replacement for Judas. Two men met the proper qualifications to be considered. Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Both men had been with Jesus since the earliest days of his ministry. Both were worthy of being apostles. So, how would the choice be made between them?
First of all the disciples prayed about it. The decision was too big and too important to make alone. I suspect that all of us, faced with an important decision, have turned to God in prayer for guidance. That’s good. It’s always helpful to take our needs to God, so long as we don’t confuse our will with God’s will. Often, when confronted with a decision about something we want-say a particular job-we have a tendency to say something like, “Dear God, I’ve been offered this wonderful job. I think I should take it. Don’t you?” Sometimes the wiser response is to continue discerning with our hearts for the promptings of God. The important thing is to go to God in prayer and be open to wherever God leads.
The apostles prayed and then they acted. Now we might not agree that casting lots is the right way to go about making an important decision. It seems no better than flipping a coin. But in this case both candidates were qualified. Neither choice was a bad one.
The apostles could have debated all day. But why bother? They really couldn’t go wrong. They had prayed about it and now they needed to move on. So they cast lots and Matthias was chosen. The important thing is that they acted. They didn’t dally in endless debate.
Every good decision entails the willingness to act. I like what Theodore Roosevelt had to say about decision-making: In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
Most of the decisions we make each day are not crucial to our lives, whether to eat at a restaurant, go to a movie, or take a particular vacation. But once in a while there comes a decision that is of the utmost importance. Should I go to college, join the military or do something else with my life? Should I marry this person or even get married at all? Should I change jobs, or even careers? Should I change parishes or even denominations? At what age should I retire? And if I do retire, what should I do with the remainder of my life? Should I have an operation to save my life, even though it’s a risky procedure, or should I forego surgery and just live with my condition?
Every decision may carry deep implications for our future and perhaps the future of those we love. It would be easy if the alternatives were black and white but often, they are varying shades of gray. And so we dither…and we fume…and sometimes do nothing at all, which is also a decision.
May I suggest a method for making decisions?
First, look to who you are as a person. You have to know yourself to know what you should do with your life. Rick Warren, the author of the best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life, suggests we find our SHAPE–an acronym for spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality type and experiences. Until we know our SHAPE, we may keep taking the wrong jobs, finding ourselves in the wrong relationships and going down paths that are not meant for us.
When teens and young adults ask me what they should do with their lives, I tell them that you can be reasonably certain of your calling when you engage in something meaningful and significant that will have a positive impact on the world and you find the point of intersection that answers two questions: What you do best and what do you enjoy doing? God, you see, has constituted us in a certain way to match a certain purpose. When we know ourselves, we begin to know our purpose.
Second, look to your circumstances. Get all the information you can about the choices confronting you. Do you remember Detective Joe Friday in Dragnet? In making an investigation he would always ask people for the facts- “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Good decisions are always based on an accurate assessment of the situation. It’s no good to do the right thing in response to the wrong circumstances. Yes, the Christian life is often a leap of faith, but faith is always based on sound reasons that can be articulated and justified.
Third, look to others. Talk with people you trust about your options and most especially, your spouse. Let them share with you their observations, ask you questions, pose alternatives, and help you see the issue from a variety of perspectives. St. John of the Cross wrote, “God will not bring clarification and confirmation of the truth to the heart of one who is alone.” Open your heart to someone competent and compassionate. Listen to what is being said, even if it is not what you want to hear. At the very least, you need to take into account the comments of the people who love you and whom you love, because they know you and have your welfare at heart.
Fourth, look to God. “Pray as if everything depends on God,” counseled St. Augustine. Lean on God. Depend on God. Trust God. Open your heart to God. Be willing to follow God wherever God leads. Cultivate the attitude in Frances Ridley Havergal’s much-beloved hymn: “Take my life and let it be / consecrated, Lord, to thee; / take my moments and my days, / let them flow in ceaseless praise.”
Once you have looked to yourself, looked to your circumstances, looked to others and looked to God, then act courageously, trusting that because you have sought God’s counsel, and because you believe you have made the best decision of which you are capable, the matter will work out for the best. St. Ignatius Loyola suggests that you should feel inner peace or a sense of rightness about your decision.
Does all this mean you’re guaranteed to make the right decision? No. There is no infallible way of guaranteeing your decision is the right one. The mind can be misled. The heart can be deceived. What you believe to be God speaking to you may simply be a strongly held ego preference. Still, because you sincerely asked God’s help, and because you acted courageously, God will help you make the right decision.
This is the meaning of faith. You venture out as Abraham ventured out, as Joshua ventured out, as David ventured out, as Ruth ventured out, as Elijah ventured out, as Mary and Joseph ventured out, as St. Paul ventured out, with only a faint glimmer that your decision is the correct one. Along the way, you may have to adjust your decision. But the Bible promises that those who trust in God will ultimately prevail.
When I was a philosophy major in college, I encountered St. Augustine’s Confessions. It was a book written by a seeker like myself who was searching for some deeper meaning to life beyond comfort and success. What especially caught my attention was Augustine’s prayer: “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee.” Here was a man desperately searching for truth and finding it in Jesus Christ. Reading Augustine turned my life upside down, and as a result I renewed my Christian commitment.
I shared my renewed faith with a wise Jesuit priest. He took me by surprise when he said, “So what are you going to do now?” I didn’t understand his question, so I asked him what he meant. He replied, “What difference is Jesus going to make to your life? How will he affect your values, your priorities and your way of living?”
“What do you suggest?” I asked him.
This Jesuit then said to me in words I shall never forget: “Gary, always act for the greater glory of God and the salvation of your soul. You fill in the details, but keep that fundamental commitment.”
In the next several months I pondered what it might mean for me to live such a life. No doubt I made my share of mistakes, but steadily I tried to guide my life according to the life and teachings of Jesus, and to live in the world in such a way that I would bring glory to God and save my sense of self. It was an important step in a journey that would eventually lead me to becoming a priest.
Every day we have to make decisions. Most of those decisions may be small and inconsequential. Other decisions may have a major impact on our lives and the lives of the people we love. We may be able to postpone some decisions but eventually there comes a time when not to act is the worst decision possible.
Here’s the formula: Look to yourself. Look to your circumstances. Look to others. Look to God. Ultimately, if you act for the greater glory of God and the salvation of your soul, you can’t go wrong.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster in London, Ont.
Text – Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
* David L. Dotlich and Peter C. Cairo, Why CEOs Fail (Jossey-Bass, 2003).
* An excellent book for Anglicans on decision-making is by Debra K. Farrington, Hearing with the Heart, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
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