The other day I asked my six-year-old daughter what I assumed was a simple question — “Where do you want to go get ice cream?”
There are two great options in town, and I wanted to let her make the final decision. Instead of the enthusiastic empowerment I expected, this interaction led to a meltdown in the middle of the kitchen with my daughter lamenting, “It’s just too hard to decide!”Our decisions matter because they make up the matter in our lives.
And witnessing her distress, I could relate.
Making decisions can be one of the most agonizing things in our lives. John Maxwell says, “Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”
Our decisions matter because they make up the matter in our lives. And while most of us can easily choose an ice cream parlor without losing sleep, we all must make choices that have dramatic impact on the trajectory of our lives.
The problem is many of us are making decisions out of fear, shame, obligation, or selfishness — and we don’t even realize it. James Bryan Smith in his book The Good and Beautiful God says that we are storied people: We think in narrative, and these narratives [whether true or false, helpful or not] are running [or ruining] our lives.
And his prescription to overcoming these false narratives that are running — or ruining — our lives is to allow the narratives of Jesus to replace them.
As I have worked with people over the years, I have seen five false narratives that drive most decisions:
1. I’m First
This narrative assumes that if there isn’t something in it for me, then it’s not worth it. The main motivation behind decisions is that it feels good to me, makes me look good, or results in something good for me.
“Me” being the key word. The underlying assumption is that life is about getting ahead or getting what’s mine, sometimes regardless of the cost to others. This can feel good at first. But the “I’m first” narrative results in entitlement, which leads to dissatisfaction and impatience when my needs are never fully met. I can begin to assume that I am due more than I have — a bigger office, a better car, a fancier title, or a larger paycheck.
Jesus’ Narrative – Don’t Take the Best Seat in the House
One way to counter the “I’m first” narrative is to assume,“perhaps, I’m last.” Jesus says in Luke 14:8: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.” He says to take the lowest seat of honor and see how the evening plays out.
For those of us tempted to ask, “What’s in it for me?” we can instead ask, “What does humility look like in this situation?”
2. I’m Last
On the other hand, another false narrative that drives many of us is the assumption that we must always be last.
This narrative assumes that we should never benefit from a decision. We must always be selfless. And it only counts if it hurts a little bit. Sometimes we even believe that we should hide what we really want from God because he will simply make us do the opposite. However, rather than true selflessness offered with joy, we make decisions out of obligation with a side of bitterness and resentment.
Jesus’ Narrative – Choose the Better Way
The “I’m last” narrative can seem holy and righteous. However, Jesus shows us more to life exists than selfless sacrifice. When he is visiting his friends’ house, Martha is busy making lunch for everyone. Meanwhile, her sister, Mary, is sitting listening to Jesus. Martha complains to Jesus to make Mary help, and Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha … you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Obligation is a choice that does not bring out the best in us. Choosing the better way is the decision to care for the state of our own soul, as well as the needs of others.
3. I’m Perfect
Many of us hear “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and make it a life motto. Perfection manifests in many ways including pursuit of the ideal body, a praiseworthy career path, a picture-perfect home, talented children, or continual higher-ed degrees.
The problem with perfectionism is that it is, ultimately, the pursuit of external approval and praise. The fear of mistakes can be so crippling that unless we have a natural talent towards something, we find ourselves avoiding new experiences or opportunities.
Jesus’ Narrative – Don’t Strain the Gnat and Swallow the Camel
Too often when the false narrative of “I’m perfect” is driving our decisions, we settle for the outward appearance of perfection — even if we are dissatisfied or unhappy. We can feel as if we are performing our life rather than living it. Jesus has stark warnings about the dangers of perfectionism. He chastises the Pharisees for following the letter of the law without embodying the spirit of it. In a rather striking word picture he says, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24), meaning you pay attention to the minute details but miss the bigger point.
The best way to defeat perfectionism is to continually ask, “What is the point of this?” or “Who am I trying to please?”
4. I’m … Who?
Each one of us has a list of oughts and shoulds. These are things we have been told are important in life, many of which are good things but, perhaps, not the right things for us as an individual. Oughts and shoulds can range from the career path you ought to pursue, the age by which you should be settled down with kids and a house, where you should live, the types of hobbies you should like, or the material possessions you ought [or ought not] to own.Each one of us has a list of oughts and shoulds. These are things we have been told are important in life, many of which are good things but, perhaps, not the right things for us as an individual.
When our decisions are driven by our oughts and shoulds, we are conforming to the expectations of others. We find ourselves living out a script that was already written for our life. And it can begin to feel confining. We don’t bother to take the time to know who we really are or who we were created to be in the world.
Jesus’ Narrative – Leave It All Behind
When the “I’m … who?” narrative takes root in our life, we shape ourselves into the image others expect of us rather than living as an image bearer of God. Jesus calls us to leave behind the expectations of the world in order to pursue life in him. In fact, he says, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). To find our true identity, we submit oughts and shoulds to Jesus and go off script to follow him.
5. I’m Terrible
The final narrative that drives many of our decisions is grounded in the belief that we are sinners and everything about us is terrible. We assume that any passion or desire in our life is untrustworthy at best and sinister at worst. This narrative in particular can paralyze us into inaction because we fear that we are incapable of making a good decision.
Alongside our own belief that we are terrible, we also believe that God thinks we are pretty terrible, too. If bad circumstances come our way, we often assume it is a well-deserved punishment for something we did wrong.
Jesus’ Narrative – Friend of Sinners
While sin is still very much a reality of our human condition, Jesus does not seem as appalled at our shortcomings as we often are. Rather than being sinners in the hands of an angry god, Jesus calls us his own. In fact he tells his disciples this right before his betrayal and death, “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me” (John 15:15). Jesus is our friend who is rooting for us and enables us to become our best selves.
Working with all kinds of people over the years, I recognize we rarely change our false narratives overnight. These narratives have been entrenched in our thoughts and attitudes for years (even decades), and we need God’s help to transform them through the narratives of Jesus.
But, I’ve been privileged to walk alongside individuals who have openly and honestly faced their false narratives. And, I’ve witnessed firsthand how God has freed them from these toxic mindsets to make way for life-changing work in the Kingdom.