Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.Malcolm Gladwell
Once we discover our yeses—where passion meets mission—we then must test them to see if they work. (This is what Dave Evans and Bill Burnett call "trialing" in Designing Your Life.)
But first, let’s take a look at the process of making decisions.
One of my mentors, the late psychologist and Princeton Seminary professor, James Loder, represents the type of thinker whose interests spanned Jean Piaget to John Calvin, Niels Bohr to Søren Kierkegaard. He was both one of the most brilliant men I’ve met with flights of intellection that would simply stun and who would also shed tears as he spoke about his and others’ “transforming moments” with the Spirit, times when lives were forever altered in God’s direction.
Jim Loder co-wrote a book with physicist Jim Neidhardt on the integration of theology and science, The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of theSpirit in Theology and Science, where they describe a five-step process of discovery or discernment.
1. Incoherence (even conflict, where things don’t quite add up—and we’re searching)
2. Search for resolution (where we’re looking around trying to figure out how to solve the incoherence)
3. Construction of new meaning (when the resolution begins)
4. Release of energy with the discovery of the resolution (We can think here of Archimedes running naked from the Greek bath house shouting “eureka”—which means “I found it”—because he had discovered the theory of the displacement of water.)
5. Verification (I’ll return to that in a moment.)
In Loder’s understanding of these “transforming moments,” we interpret or verify our insight in this fifth step, particularly integrating our current resolution with the past and projecting its implications into the future.
I’d like to reflect on these five steps of discovery or discernment.
First of all, conflict or incoherence can be good. Sometimes we notice—and it can hurt when we observe this fact—that there’s a conflict between what we believe and our life in God’s calling, or we want to refine it. Loder helped me to see conflict as a necessary part of human development, as the fuel that moves us forward to greater growth. More specifically, we find our yeses because of this incoherence.
Second, I believe our intuition or imagination is powerful. Our intuition often grasps the right answer before we have the specific steps to prove it. But our intuition is inexact. And that’s why testing is key.
Loder and Neidhardt analyze Albert Einstein’s great intuitive leaps that lead him toward his theories of special and general relativity, theories that define physics almost a hundred years after Einstein’s discoveries. They describe Einstein’s use of imagination as “a jump of imaginative insight: a bold leap, an informed, speculative attempt to understand, a ‘groping’ constructive attempt to understand." Einstein talked about how his intuition guided the process and provoked him to ask more questions.
When we are searching and testing, we sometimes find that great imaginative insight, that “bisociation”—where we bring two ideas that seemed incompatible together—and we work to interpret our lives accordingly.
Third, discovering almost always includes continuity with the past. New insights have a connection with our past. They create a narrative that makes sense. It’s the story God is writing in our lives. If it doesn’t have continuity, then it’s not a real solution. If we’ve heard God direct us in the past, the future will make sense with what has gone before. Each chapter builds on the chapter beforehand. It’s a new chapter, but the story has continuity.
Finally, verification or testing is essential. And this is the key concept for this section of my book. As Loder writes of science, “many beautiful physical theories are simply wrong. The steady-state theory of the universe was indeed aesthetically very pleasing to the human mind but it could not account for such key astronomical observations as the background (black-body) radiation." We have to test our great insights and see how they work. Big bang cosmology (which is implied in Einstein’s theory of relativity) could account for cosmic background radiation as the echo of the initial creation of our universe. Thus it makes better sense.
So now it’s up to you to test your specific yeses. And this is partially how I understand Paul’s words to “work out your own salvation” (Philippians 3:11). (By the way, it’s clear that this is not working for our salvation because the passage continues with “God is at work among you.”) “Working out” our salvation means that we work out the implications of your salvation. We’ve already declared our big Yes to God and now we work out what that means for us particularly. How does a yes affect the twenty-four a day life as it’s really lived?