[This blog post was originally published at anxiousfaith.org, the site where I write for work. Anxious Faith is a community of people sharing real, raw stories and tackling the big questions around faith and mental health. Come join us on the site or socials (@anxious_faith)!]
There’s a queue behind me heading all the way out the door. People are frowning, shuffling on the spot, trying to peer around me. I know I’m keeping them waiting, but I just can’t decide.
Lemon sorbet? Or chocolate crunch? Will I regret getting the tiramisu? How the heck am I supposed to decide?
Now outside, I put the tiny wooden spoon in my mouth and try to ignore the dry sensation on my tongue. The flavour I chose is good, but not the best I’ve had. Another wrong decision, I sigh. I feel like once again I’ve missed out on a ‘better option’, which is always disappointing.
You might be thinking, so what? It’s just gelato. But some of you will relate to that same overwhelmed, panicky feeling when trying to make decisions in other contexts, too.
I’ve experienced many bouts of decision paralysis in my life–that feeling of being so stuck in between options that you feel genuinely paralysed. Often, they’ve been quite inconsequential decisions (that have felt big at the time), like which movie to see at the cinema, or who to pass the ball to during a game of soccer.
Then other times, I’ve found my inability to make a decision much more detrimental.
There are important decisions we all face that are wise to deliberate on, of course, like what to study, which job to take, and if/who to marry. But what do we do when we’ve prayed about it, written the pros and cons list, and we still can’t choose?
If you’ve ever felt that numbing, frozen sensation of being unable to make a decision, then you know the kind of ‘decision paralysis’ I’m talking about. And while I still find myself faced with that struggle from time to time, here are five things I’ve learned that help me overcome decision paralysis:
1. Often, There Is No ‘Best’ Choice
I spent my final year of high school being peppered with questions about my future. What did I want to do with my life? What degree would I study? Blessed with endless options, I felt paralysed by the weight of that decision. I wanted to figure out God’s will for my life, and I worried that if I didn’t know what that was, I would be disobedient to His calling and “wasting my life”.
I journaled throughout the year asking God to make it clear to me what He wanted me to do after high school. Verses like Jeremiah 29:11 circled round my head: “For I know the plans I have for you…” Great, I thought. Can You please tell me what those plans are?
I know there are many people who’ll say they felt a strong calling on their life to do something very specific. But I also know plenty of people who wanted to serve God with their gifts, but who could have done that in any number of ways. I was the latter.
My mum sat me down one day and said between my overwhelmed sobs: “Maddy, it’s okay. There is no wrong decision. You can honour God in whatever you do, whether that’s working in childcare or as a defence lawyer or a beauty therapist or a surgeon. It’s not so much about what you’ll do, but more about how you’ll go about it.”
I thought about that for some time. At first, I was frustrated that God didn’t have one clear direction picked out for me already. But after a while, I realised that it took the pressure off making the ‘right’ decision.
I found comfort in remembering that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). If I believe that God will work for my good, then I can trust that even if I do make a poor choice, my life doesn’t have to be defined by that one choice.
There are good and bad choices we’ll face in life, yes. But there are often plenty of choices between equally good possibilities. And that’s the catch-22 of having free will—it’s up to us to decide.
So, how do we go about making those decisions that feel paralysing?
2. You Can’t Steer Until You’re Moving
My dad was a captain of a missionary ship, and he would often preach in different places. When I was young, I would sit on the floor in church services around the world doodling on paper and listening to his messages.
I loved hearing his stories, especially when he used his maritime knowledge as metaphors for faith. “You can’t steer a ship while it’s stationary,” he’d say. “It has to be moving.”
I’ve found this principle to be true throughout my life; often, making a decision is better than making no decision.
After high school, I ended up deciding to study a double degree in Law & Arts. But, three years into the degree, I made another decision: that I would drop the Law degree and focus instead on the Arts.
Instead of worrying that I had ‘wasted’ those years, I realised that I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to do if I hadn’t taken a step in that direction first. Rather than beating myself up for having made the ‘wrong’ decision three years prior, I appreciated the time I’d taken to explore my interests and work out what I was really passionate about.
When I’m facing a decision where my columns of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ are at a stalemate, I think of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
I take comfort in knowing that God will direct my steps as I’m submitting to Him and inviting Him into my decision-making process. But He can’t direct me until I take that faith-step and start walking. So, instead of agonising over making the right decision, I find peace in knowing that as I take a step in faith, He will “make my paths straight”.
3. Trust the People Who Know You
I almost got engaged to the wrong man. We’d been together for two years and were planning the natural next step of our relationship, but I felt paralysed in that decision. What if I was making the wrong choice in a life partner?
I went to my parents with that question, as well as my trusted mentor and closest friends. Once I’d given them permission to speak candidly, they all said the same thing: We actually don’t think he’s right for you.
I was surprised that they all felt that way. How had I gotten two years into a relationship without stopping to ask the people who knew me best what they thought?
I was lucky to have people around me who were wise, prayerful followers of Jesus and who boldly spoke the truth, even when it hurt me to hear it. Where I’d been too close to a situation to make an unbiased decision, they’d helped me see things more clearly.
We see King Solomon reminding us of the importance of wise counsel in his proverbs. He writes, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22) and “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers” (Proverbs 11:14).
Inviting others into our decision-making process shouldn’t be taken lightly, of course. It’s not a matter of posting a poll on our Instagram stories asking people to vote on what we should do. Rather, we should seek advice from those who demonstrate godly wisdom in the way they live; from those who know and love us; and from those we trust and look up to.
Years later, I made one of the best decisions of my life: to marry my now husband, Matt, with the blessing and enthusiastic encouragement of those same people. My life would look very different today had I not asked for–and listened to–their advice.
4. Don’t “Follow Your Heart”; Follow the Spirit
It’s in hashtags, on mugs, and plastered all over campaigns: Follow your heart. It can be easy to get swept up in how nice that sounds.
But according to Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things.” So can we trust our hearts enough to follow them? Well, not necessarily. Sometimes our hearts or consciences do help us to decide to go the way that God desires, but we all know that they don’t do that all the time.
We need God’s help–after all, He is the one who “guides [us] with [His] counsel” (Psalm 73:24). To me, this means purposefully asking Him to give us the gift of wisdom by His Spirit. As James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God… and it will be given to you.”
In 1 Kings 3:9-12, we see a God who is eager to give Solomon what he asks for. Solomon says to the Lord: “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” And guess what? “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.” God goes on to give Solomon the wisdom he asked for, and he becomes known as the wisest man to have ever lived (aside from Jesus, of course).
As simple as it sounds, I often forget that I can ask God for His wisdom and discernment. Do you ask Him for that, too?
Like it or not, we will always be faced with difficult decisions, and I know as well as you do that it isn’t always easy to make them.
But I’ve found peace in knowing that God doesn’t want me to be paralysed by choices. He has given me the free will to make my decisions, but He also given me His Spirit, which provides me with the wisdom and discernment I need.
I can trust that as I submit my decisions to Him and take the first step, He will guide me. And, if I’m stuck, I know He’s placed people in my life who can also help point me in the right direction.
At the end of the day, so long as I remain in Jesus, there is no ‘wrong’ decision I can make that God can’t redeem and work for my good. Isn’t that a comforting thought?
As I mentioned above, this blog post was originally published at anxiousfaith.org, the site where I write for work. Anxious Faith is a community of people sharing real, raw stories and tackling the big questions around faith and mental health. Come join us on the site or socials (@anxious_faith)!