Death and Doctrine, Part 7: Choice and Fleeces

There is a German proverb I like to tell my advisees as they select classes, minors, and majors:

"He who has choice, has torment."

Ah, the existential terrors of making choices!

The reason choices are terror-filled is because we are finite creatures. We only get one crack at life. We don't get the luxury of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day, forever getting a chance to get it "right." No, we live life just once. And this makes choice difficult. Will I choose correctly? Or will I make a mistake and forever muck up my life?

Many people lack the courage to make the choices and suffer the mistakes. Thus, they retreat into infantile patterns of dependency, allowing significant or powerful others to make their choices for them. Or, they stick their head in the sand, waiting for fate to choose. Because if you wait, put off, or procrastinate long enough SOMETHING will happen. And many people prefer this kind of neurotic waiting game, letting the chips fall where they may, over the terrors of making an authentic choice.

Why do we prefer this neurotic choice-avoidance? Because choice implies responsibility. If you choose it, you take the blame. But if Bill or fate made the choice then you can blame Bill or fate.

But in truth you did made a choice. You chose not to choose. You turned your back on your existential freedom and handed your life over to someone else, someone you can blame. You played it safe, but the cost is passivity, inauthenticity, and dependency.

Christians often show this dependency by allowing God to make their choices. Rather than making hard choices, to step out in freedom, to risk the mistake, we pray for signs and "open doors" from God. We lay out the fleece: "God, if you want me to take this new job send me a sign."

Christians often talk about God "opening doors" for them, where God clearly marks and facilitates a choice. But I routinely ask, "How do you know it was God and not the Devil who opened that door? I'm very sure the Devil would have made the choice look like God was behind it."

Now this is a very troubling response on my part. I'm supposed to just nod and allow the person to reap the existential comfort of allowing someone else--God, in this case--to make their choices for them. If I bring up the God-or-the-Devil issue I've just plunged them back into the existential crisis: How do I KNOW I'm making the right choice?

The truth is, you don't know. Choice is risky. And we only get one crack at life. It sucks, I know. So courage is the only legitimate response. Do you have it? And will you take responsibility for the outcomes?

In short, the problem I have with fleeces is that they are using God as a kind of magic. Using God to peer into and divine the future. God as Magic 8 Ball.

It is not that I think God doesn't give signs. He clearly does. My concern here is with a kind of magical thinking that can develop in Christian populations. My diagnosis here is that this kind of approach to God and prayer is deeply motivated by the need for existential comfort, the allures of choice-avoidance.

So here's my take. To be a people of deep, hard won character we have to make choices without signs and support from God. Further, I think God demands this of us, just as we demand it from our children. At some point in moral development we stop making choices for the child and begin to ask, "What do you think you should do?" Forcing the child to make the choice and accept the consequences. Of course, the child resists this. As we do as adults. But to rescue the child from this anxiety is to do a disservice to the moral development of the child. And I ask, would not God be doing the same thing for us? If God gives out signs on a regular basis, constantly rescuing people from hard choices, would God not be turning Christians into dependent, needy, and passive persons?

And if that is so, how can you change the world with a group like that?

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12 thoughts on “Death and Doctrine, Part 7: Choice and Fleeces”

  1. In reality, I'm inclined to agree with you 100%. I live in the south and regularly see the blanket approach to all lifes problems many Christians seem to exercise.


    I read about a study on Christian prayer and coping with hardship.

    I am not a Christian but it is my understanding that involvement in religious activities/communities are treated as positive for mental health by most pychologist and pychiatrist.

    In this study they compared Christians who did not practice their faith regularly in an expected manner and those who did, and how they got through negative life experiences. They also took note of using healthy coping skills any individual, believer or nor, should take.

    They found that the Christian who regularly practiced his/her faith was more prepared to deal with negative life experiences when ALSO using typical healthy coping skills (i.e. not repressing the event psychologically or chemically). This proved to be more healthy that the 'sometimes' believer who also applied healthy coping skills, and I believe the study said it was also more benificial that a nonbeliver who also used healthy coping skills.

    So, while I agree many Christians are big babies. As a pychologist, certainly you must know about this wide area of study and must admit it contradicts your conclusions here.

    And second of all. You say you are sure God does show signs. Please tell me where so I will know where to go to witness them!!!!

  2. I'm not ashamed to admit that your entry immediately made me think of the chorus to Rush's Freewill, most specifically the line "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

    In all seriousness, though (not to say that Rush isn't serious...), you're asking a pretty hard thing here. Speaking as a lifelong churchgoer, it's difficult to think of the Christian life as anything other than trying to grapple with choices by dependence on God. I tend to agree with you that there is a culture of dependence in Christianity, but it's cultivated as a virtue rather than a vice in the sense that we (like children) are incapable of supporting ourselves and need God. Would you say this need (or at least its intensity) for God is what supports this tendency?

    Good post; I've enjoyed this series.

  3. I wonder if our models of God play heavily into this discussion. If we believe that God is a grand master puppeteer who directs events into which we step with relative obliviousness then it would be difficult to accept such a view (i.e., a hands off view of divine activity that allows for risk, courage, etc.). On the other hand, if we hold a fairly deist position, that of little interaction with the world post-creation then we run the risk of falling into eventual nihilism. I wonder if there's a middle way between these two poles, a place where God's action and our action are not in competition but genuinely buoy one another in some form of mutual interdependence. Granted, this requires that we knock God down a few pegs in terms of God's sovereignty/transcendence (at least the way it is commonly understood in terms of the "omni" categories) and perhaps beef up our view of God's immanence. Various theologies have attempted to answer this quandary from process theology's making God basically entirely dependent upon humanity and the more recent trend in radically relational theologies (i.e., folks like Sallie McFague) that paint a picture of some type of power equity model.

    I grew tired in college trying to ascertain God's "will" for my life and decided early on that God's will was fairly basic and the rest was up to me. It's a lot of pressure to put on oneself, but I think you begin to see God's activity (usually in hindsight) in the midst of being independent and are more likely to be courageous in future decisions when you see how God can be faithful in pretty much any decision we make in good faith. Thanks for stirring up a good conversation, Richard. Peace.

  4. Hi Jared,
    I agree that some studies have found positive correlations between religious belief and coping. However, most of these correlations are small and not every study agrees. But the last time I checked the meta-analyses in this literature there is a small but positive effect size between religiosity and well-being.

    Now, given that effect size, how does that interact with my thesis here?

    What I'm pushing at here is less about mental well-being than existential authenticity. Having a rosy, optimistic view of life, one governed by a loving and solicitous Deity, would have some mental health benefits. Optimism is, in itself, a resiliency factor.

    Conversely, existential openness will be correlated with mental "dysfunction." Melancholia, for example. That is, there is an emotional price for kicking away (or at least kicking at) the existential props one is handed by one's culture.

    I think the contrast I am making here is very similar to the healthy-minded versus sick soul typology offered by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

    But thinking this all through, I think you are right that I need to rework the "symptoms" I use to paint the types in the post as well as revisit the conclusion of the post. Highly energized and optimistic people might be very effective in changing the world. But the question I wonder about is what kind of world would they create?

    Hi Brody,
    In a post like this it is hard to nuance stuff. The general point of the post is cut at this topic in a different way. To provoke thought.

    I'm not arguing against a dependence on God or that one should forgo seeking God's will. What I am pushing against is an excessive fleece-orientation. That is, I think most Christians ask "What would God want me to do?" when facing choices. But they work this out internally and when they choose they know they risk making an error. I see this as perfectly healthy. What I'm wondering about are the consequences for a person who consistently refuses to engage in this internal debate and always seeks an external "sign." In short, it is this internal vs. external issue I'm pondering in this post.

    Hi Krister,
    I reached the same conclusion in college. Eventually I decided that for all non-moral choices (e.g., Should I take job X or Y?) God's general response, as best I could tell, was "I really don't care. My will is for you to be Christ wherever you end up."

    I think there is a lot of narcissism involved in this whole "seeking God's will." That is, we believe that God has this grand plan for my life. That I'm this critical cog in a Grand Scheme. Thus, my job is to find this destiny God has appointed for me before the day I was born. Etc. Etc.

    But I think God's response is: "If I need you for a Grand Adventure you'll not miss it. I'll show up in a burning bush. You won't be able to miss me. In the meantime, work for me in the humble circumstances you find yourself in. My Kingdom breaks in in very humble places. Don't worry about finding my Grand Plan and work on simple stuff, like giving a cup of cold water in my name."

    About the "middle path." I think the bible shows the way here. Clearly, we see the story of Gideon and the fleece. But we also have the book of Esther, where people are making huge, life and death choices and God is never even mentioned in the book. In short, we like the Gideon story for bible classes in church but we fail to internalize the lessons of Esther as counter-balance.

    In one sense, this post is my attempt to get the church to wrestle with Esther.

  5. Krister, I, too, grew tired of trying to discern God's will. I think part of my spiritual/emotional fatigued stemmed from grasping to the idea that God had specific plan in mind for me, an individual will. I don't know that I believe that so much anymore. If a Christian is seeking to live as Christ, then he or she is following God's will. I think praying to discern God's will in the mundane matters of life may very well arise from a need for security, or perhaps it's a matter of self-absorption, or both.

    "but I think you begin to see God's activity (usually in hindsight) in the midst of being independent and are more likely to be courageous in future decisions when you see how God can be faithful in pretty much any decision we make in good faith."


  6. Richard, apparently I was typing my response while you were posting yours. It appears we were thinking along the same lines, but you articulated what I was thinking more effectively. Thanks.

  7. Richard

    I am amazed at how much your view here differers with the folk Christian notion of reliance on God and 'letting go' to the will of God. I think you are right that this posture is a move away from responsibility, and that is part of why it has been so appealing.

    From a pragmatic standpoint, I struggle to know what people even mean in terms of how they approach this 'letting go and letting god.' It almost implies a complete shutting off of human agency and letting God control us, a notion that seems highly implausible given my own subjective experience. Thus, given the difficulty (if not impossibility) of pursuing this strategy, I wonder why it has maintained such popularity in Christian circles? You would think that if some type of 'authentic' experience did not exist, then this idea would eventually disappear as people fail to experience what they are told. In other words, I think people experience something when they 'let go,' I am just not confident on what this is. In other words, what is the psychology of this religious experience, and to what degree can we interpret this as 'authentic experience of the transcendent.' I have a hard time taking the cynical standpoint and conclude that individuals are completely aware of the inauthentic nature of this experience and continue to propagate a lie about it (though this could be the case). At the same time, I am not convinced that it is 'god' that they are experience with this 'letting go.'

  8. I have about 35,000 faults, but courage to make choices isn't one of them. I guess I've always been a bit strong-headed in that regard, always known what I want.

    But I wonder also - is our fear to make choices because we only have this one life not limiting? Do we really think that it's just this life and then everything after this age is somehow fixed, and we will have no choice?

    Even within God (I'm a universalist), I don't think it's as simple as being within his circle of will or whatever you want to call it, versus having so called free choice, and that if we are in the first then somehow it means we have less choice.

    I'd love to see you talk about something like this, Richard. (Hell, I love seeing you talk about anything. Most edifying blog, this one :)

  9. Paul,

    I'm perplexed by the notion of "letting go, letting God" as well. I think the idea may stem from scriptures like Matthew 6:34 and Philippians 4:6. A call to not worry, though, is not an invitation to inaction. Furthermore, I suspect praying to discern God's will/personalized itinerary for one's life is spiritually-disguised worry.

    Also, the more I've considered Richard's post, the more I think it might be reasonable to draw a parallel between someone choosing not to choose and the man in Christ's parable who buries the one talent his master gave him.

  10. Hi Sue,
    I've blogged about bit about universalism, free will, and God's activity in our lives. If you care to read it those posts can be found
    here. Go to the posts under Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology Series. Poke around there to see if I'm getting at what you are after. If not, holler back at me.

    Jason and Peter,
    Thank you for your exchange here. The more I think about my post the more I wonder about what I’m trying to describe. I think I know what I'm talking about, but I'm not sure. Know that feeling?

    So I appreciate your thoughts here. Let me add something I've been thinking about. I think a religious surrender can be a good, vital, and authentic thing. But I also think there can be a kind of "surrender" that looks a lot like what I describe in the post. Maybe, to steal something from Bonheoffer, there is kind of “cheap surrender” and a more “costly surrender.” The cheap surrender looks like my post: God as Magic 8 Ball. God as the genie in the bottle. In contrast, a costly surrender wrestles with choice and with God. A costly surrender pushes on God. Yet, in the end, the costly surrender will take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith with "fear and trembling."

    On a different note, in the psychology of religion literature there is a measure of religious coping that assesses people as one of the following:

    Self-Directing: You go it alone and don’t consult or rely on God.
    Collaborative: You and God collaborate in moving forward into your future.
    Deferring: You sit passively and wait on God to tell you what to do.

    My post is about this “deferring” style. The “collaborative” approach looks like Krister’s middle way.

  11. Richard,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog. I read through Freud's Ghost and have found your posts and online book thought provoking. I don't usually have a lot of time to comment, but I have been reading for a few weeks now.

    As regards this post, the "collaborative" way seems to be what Paul means when he talks about us as God's coworkers in places like 1 Corinthians 3:9 and especially in 2 Corinthians 6:1 where he talks about us working with God for reconciliation.

  12. Hi Duane,
    Thanks for taking the time to say hello. I'm glad you enjoyed Freud's Ghost. In a lot of ways, this current series is working through the foundation I built there.

    And I think the connection with "God's coworkers" is spot on.

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