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Sermon illustrations

Decision Making

The Big and Little Choices

The pioneering work of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky has been popularized in recent years by the gamut of notable thinkers, including Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and, in this case, Michael Lewis. Their life’s work focused on the nature of human decision-making. In this short excerpt, Amos Tversky describes the difference between how the mind makes big and little decisions, and how those decisions shape an entire life:

It’s hard to know how people select a course in life…the big choices we make are practically random. The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are.

Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.

Quoted in Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, W.W. Norton & Co, 2016.

The Buck Stops Here

President Harry Truman placed on his desk in the Oval Office a sign that said “The Buck Stops Here.” The sign had to do with a saying that was popular in his day: “Pass the buck,” which meant to shirk responsibility. Some government agencies were notorious for passing the buck, for failing to make decisions and take responsibility for them.

When Truman said “The buck stops here,” he meant, “As president of the United States, I am responsible. I will make decisions. And I will own up to those decisions.” As an energetic and wise ruler, God has pondered the smallest details and largest themes of your life and has made comprehensive decisions about each one.

The Power of Christian Contentment, Baker Publishing Group, 2019, p.46-47.

The Caffeine Study and Self-Deception

In one fascinating study some years ago, subjects were presented with evidence suggesting that there was a correlation between heavy caffeine use and breast cancer. Subjects were then asked to report on whether or not (or to what degree) they found the evidence convincing. In the female population, heavy consumers of caffeine were significantly less convinced than were those who consumed less.

The male population was significantly more convinced than were the female heavy consumers, and there was little difference between heavy and light caffeine consumers in the male population. The studies revealed, in other words, that those for whom the hypothesis was bad news were least likely to be convinced by the evidence. Related studies reveal that we often spend more time scrutinizing evidence for a view if we find it threatening than if we find it benign.

This is especially true if we’re presented with the evidence in public. Apparently, we’re more likely to scrutinize evidence for opposing views if we think we’ll be called on to answer for that evidence. If we believe we’ve been presented with the evidence in private, we’re less likely to give it much attention.

Gregg A. Ten Elshof, I told me so: Self  Deception and the Christian Life, Eerdmans, 2009.

Churchill’s Choice

During World War II, Winston Churchill was forced to make a painful choice. The British secret service had broken the Nazi code and informed Churchill that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry. He had two alternatives: (1) evacuate the citizens and save hundreds of lives at the expense of indicating to the Germans that the code was broken; or (2) take no action, which would kill hundreds but keep the information flowing and possibly same many more lives. Churchill had to choose and followed the second course.

Klyne Snodgrass, Between Two Truths: Living with Biblical Tensions.

Coffee & the Tyranny of Choice

I remember when ordering coffee was easy. There were really only two decisions—regular or decaf, and black or cream and sugar. Today, ordering coffee feels like applying for a bank loan. There are literally thousands of options available. Some celebrate this as progress—the market providing more choices to fit each consumer’s taste. Others lament it for contributing to the tyranny of choice which complicates modern life.

J.R. Briggs, The Sacred Overlap, Zondervan, 2020.

Crisis Intensifies our Search for Wisdom

A life-threatening crisis came to my home when I was only 25. My wife suffered a near-fatal stroke and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors scrambled to keep her alive. Within hours, we were making decisions that face families countless times, every day. Our options included surgery, medical treatment and prayer. To make matters worse, two doctors adamantly called for two radically different courses of action.

One proposed immediate surgery, while the other warned that immediate surgery would be the worst of all options. Both said my wife might die if their course of advice wasn’t taken. A third doctor solved our dilemma by arranging a course of treatment acceptable to both of our first two doctors, and within a few months, that course of action proved to be the right one. Looking back on that time, the comparison is almost too much to comprehend. On Wednesday, my most difficult decision was what to choose for lunch. On Thursday, I needed to make a life-saving decision for my wife! Needless to say, crisis intensified our search for wisdom.

Andy Cook

Deciding Requires a Death

To decide requires a death, a dying to a thousand options, the putting aside of a legion of possibilities in order to choose just one. De-cide. Homo-cide. Sui-cide Patri-cide. The root word decidere means “to cut off.” All decisions cut us off, separate us from nearly infinite options as we select just one single path. And every decision we make, earns us the favor of some and the disfavor of others.

Dan Allender, Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths, Waterbrook Press, 2006, 14.

How to Make a Sacrifice

How do you define what it means to “make a sacrifice?” We say we sacrifice for our family, or sacrifice for our careers. We speak of Jesus sacrificing himself so that we can experience eternal life. Augustine of Hippo, the great North African bishop, defined sacrifice as “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else.” Which begs the question, what are we willing to sacrifice, and
for whom or what?

Every day we make decisions based on our priorities, and those priorities sacrifice one thing for another thing. Sadly, we often fall
into habits, where we no longer can recognize our selfish, self-centered priorities. If sacrifice is, as Augustine once said, “the surrender of something of value for the sake of something else,” then what are you surrendering for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Embodying a Decision

Billy Graham had a weekly radio show titled The Hour of Decision. Normally it was a tape recording of the service and message he’d given at a recent evangelistic rally. And at the conclusion of every message, Graham would issue an invitation for anyone to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, and to do so by getting up out of their seat and making their way to the front, where Graham had been preaching.

Coming forward, Graham would say, was an outward demonstration of this inner desire. He insisted that those so moved would take these physical steps to begin a new spiritual journey. This was, for them, the hour of decision. Billy Graham was tapping into something perhaps even deeper than he knew. Any time a person feels prompted to leave the present in order to embrace a new pathway in life, a decision is required. It’s not a decision just made in the head, or even the heart; it’s something embodied. It requires a physical step forward, leaving behind our desk, or friends, or comforts as we start to walk, vulnerably, into an unknown future.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, Broadleaf Books, 2020.

How We Rationalize By Søren Kierkegaard

In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard describes a “moment” familiar to all of us. It is the “little tiny transition from having understood to doing.” Here’s what he says about it:

…if a person does not do what is right the very second he knows it is the right thing to do—then, for a start, the knowledge comes off the boil. Next comes the question of what the will thinks of the knowledge. The will is dialectical and has underneath it the whole of man’s lower nature. If it doesn’t like the knowledge, it doesn’t immediately follow that the will goes and does the opposite of what was grasped in knowing — such strong contrasts are presumably rare; but then the will lets some time pass; there is an interim called “We’ll look into it tomorrow.”

During all this knowing becomes more and more obscured, and the lower nature more and more victorious…. And then when the knowing has become duly obscured, the will and the knowing can better understand one another. Eventually they are in entire agreement, since knowing has now deserted to the side of the will and allows it to be known that what the will wants is quite right.

Søren Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death (New York: Penguin Classics, 1989), pp. 126-27.

A Life in Decisions

Columbia researcher Sheena Iyengar has found that the average person makes about seventy conscious decisions every day. That’s 25,550 decisions a year. Over seventy years, that’s 1,788,500 decisions. Albert Camus said, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” You put all those 1,788,500 choices together, and that’s who you are.

Taken from John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

I am Done with Great Things

In one of his letters, the philosopher and psychologist William James shares a conviction regarding his focus not on big, grand things, but with the small “almost invisible” decisions:

I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.

The Letters of William James, ed. by his son Henry James (Boston: Atlantic Monthy Press, 1920), 2:90; letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899.

Organizing the World Quickly

The Yalta Conference, helmed by Allied leadership (Most notably Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin) came at the conclusion of hostilities in Europe during WWII. It dealt with a variety of major topics, including the fate of Germany, much of Europe and the ongoing war in the Pacific.

In other words, they had a lot of business to conduct and decisions to make. Early in the conference, Roosevelt mentioned to Churchill he hoped the conference wouldn’t last more than five or six days. Churchill, always a quick wit remarked, ““I do not see any way of realizing our hopes about world organization in five or six days. Even the Almighty took seven.”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Marital Decision-Making

A husband and wife, prior to marriage, decided that he’d make all the major decisions and she the minor ones. After 20 years of marriage, he was asked how this arrangement had worked. “Great! in all these years I’ve never had to make a major decision.”

Source Unknown

The Path of Explaining

In her book, The Next Right Thing, Emily Freeman describes the difficulty in making decisions, including the decision that would eventually lead to her enrollment in Graduate school. After a prolonged period of discussing the options over and over, eventually Freeman made the choice to enroll. And then an interesting conversation happened between Freeman and her spiritual director:

“Our Western minds are trained to go down the path of explaining.

We think if we can understand it, then we can control it.” It’s true, don’t you think? We are conditioned to believe the only reason we should do things is if we know why, where we are headed, and for what purpose. No wonder we have trouble making decisions. If we don’t have clear answers or sure things, then taking a big step feels like a risk at best and a wasteful mistake at worst. If I understand it, then I can control it…

During that period of time when I was trying to make the decision, my focus was on the decision itself, but I also noticed something shifting within me. I felt needy, open, aware, and ready to listen. At every turn, I was eager to hear from God. We know decisions are important because each one carries a consequence. Decisions shape our lives. But what we often overlook is not only how our choices shape outcomes but how they shape us too.

They reveal our character and help to create our character. What if the way we make decisions is equally as important as the decisions we make? What if choice is one of the primary avenues of our spiritual formation? Unmade decisions have the power to either close us up in fear or open us up to love. This is both the burden and the gift of our indecision. We get to choose which one we carry.

Emily P. Freeman,  The Next Right Thing, 2019, pp. 16-17, Baker Publishing Group.

Paul Making Decisions

You’re not getting the sense that Paul got angelic visits every other day and waited for his dreams, visions of his heart, and supernatural messages written out in the clouds to tell him what to do…With few exceptions, Paul planned, strategized, and made his own decisions about the non-moral matters of his life. Paul never sought out special words of knowledge concerning his future…When he gets to a fork in the road, hesitating and pleading with God to know which way to go seems completely foreign to the apostle.

Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something, Moody Publishers.

The Range of What We Think and Do

In this short poem, the psychologist Daniel Goleman (the developer of the concept of Emotional Intelligence (E.Q.)) builds on the work of R. D. Laing’s “knots.” The poem is a helpful reminder that our awareness is the limitation of our understanding. Expanding our awareness helps us avoid painful blind spots:

The range of what we think and do

Is limited by what we fail to notice

And because we fail to notice

That we fail to notice

There is little we can do

To change

Until we notice

How failing to notice

Shapes our thoughts and deeds?

Daniel Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self Deception, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985).

Sophie’s Choice

One of the saddest, most depressing movies I’ve ever seen would have to be Sophie’s Choice. I was a kid when it came out, so I didn’t see it until much later, after I was grown. By that time, I had heard a lot about it. Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for her role as Sophie, a Polish immigrant living in Brooklyn.

Now, don’t get me wrong: it is a superb film, at least as far as the acting and the costumes and the music and the sets go. But the story is beyond sad. Since I can’t really recommend it to you, I might as well throw out a spoiler alert and tell you what Sophie’s actual choice is all about. Through flashbacks of her agonizing memories, we learn the horrible truth that has haunted this woman.

As prisoners at Auschwitz during World War II, Sophie and her little son and daughter learned to do whatever it took to survive. But then, beyond cruelty, her evil handlers issued the young mother a sickening ultimatum. She must choose between her children: one would go to a work camp and the other to the gas chamber. If she refused to decide, then both children would be killed. To save one child, Sophie had to lose the other one forever. She made her choice, and years later the pain finally became so unbearable that she took her own life. As I said, it’s the best and worst movie I’ve ever seen.

Craig Groeschel, Hope in the Dark, Zondervan.

Spiritual Formation Essential to Human Existence

In their excellent book Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton describe the foundation of life as being spiritual in nature. This means we are constantly be “formed” spiritually, whether for good or evil:

We fail to realize that the process of spiritual shaping is a primal reality of human existence. Everyone is in a process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every action we take, every emotion we allow to shape our behavior, every response we make to the world around us, every relationship we enter into, every reaction we have toward the things that surround us and impinge upon our lives—all of these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being. We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image, destructive not only to ourselves but also to others, for we inflict our brokenness upon them.

This wholeness or destructiveness radically conditions our relationship with God, ourselves and others, as well as our involvement in the dehumanizing structures and dynamics of the broken world around us. We become either agents of God’s healing and liberating grace, or carriers of the sickness of the world. The direction of our spiritual growth infuses all we do with intimations of either life or death.

Taken from Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Unmade Decisions Hold Power

It doesn’t matter what the specific decision is. Unmade decisions hold power. They pull, they push, they interrupt where they aren’t wanted and poke us awake at night. They can turn us into strange versions of ourselves. Like toddlers at our feet right before dinner, they follow us around and refuse to leave us alone until we face them head-on and either pick them up or point them in the right direction. If only we knew what the right direction was.

Emily P. Freeman,  The Next Right Thing, 2019, p. 12, Baker Publishing Group.

The Thing isn’t the Thing

If there’s one thing I know for sure in the kingdom of God it’s this: the thing we often think is The Thing is often not the thing but is, in fact, only a thing. We come forward with a Huge Life Decision and we long for answers and direction. But we’ve got absolutely nothing, so we talk ourselves in circles and everything feels muddy and heavy and difficult. We pray and ask for advice and still, nothing rises to the surface as the right direction to go.

What I’m finding to be most helpful more than any list, question, or sage advice is simply to get quiet in a room with Jesus on the regular, not for the sake of an answer but for the sake of love. I cannot promise your decision will be made with ease, but I can say that you’ll remember love is the important thing. And when you have a big decision to make, you need all the love and support you can possibly get. The only place I know to find that for sure is in the presence of Jesus.

Emily P. Freeman,  The Next Right Thing, 2019, p. 24, Baker Publishing Group.

See also Illustrations on Direction

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Decision-Making. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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