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I was convinced that though I wanted to do one thing, the Lord was calling me to do another. As a follower of Jesus, I quickly attributed my conviction and subsequent decision to the Holy Spirit. I assumed the Spirit had lovingly and wisely directed my steps.

But was it the Spirit? Perhaps it was something else, maybe even science? More specifically, nudging?

Until recently, I had not considered science a motivating factor in decision making. That is until I read the works of Cass R. Sunstein. He introduced me to the world of behavioral science, a relatively new field of the study of human behavior through systematic experimentation and observation. Behavioral scientists study the realities which drive our decisions and subsequent behaviors.

Since my first encounter with Sunstein, I have read much of what he has written. I have also taken in works by a handful of other behavioral scientists. In the process, I’ve learned about a multitude of factors which influence the decisions we make and their subsequent behaviors. I’ve become familiar with choice architecture, bias, default, noise, reciprocity, availability heuristic, framing, the compromise effect, and more.

I have been especially intrigued by the behavioral science behind nudging. According to Sunstein, nudges are tools to achieve behavioral change. They are interventions that preserve freedom of choice but steer a person in a particular direction. Seems like a good tool for someone making disciples, doesn’t it?

Some nudges are educational, like calorie labeling on menus which help us make informed and healthful decisions about meals. Others are architectural. They involve designing a context to make it more likely that we will choose one option over another. The grocery store employs more architectural nudges than we can count, including those strategically-placed impulse options at the checkout counter, as do most of our subscription services which employ an opt-out default rather than an opt-in.

Nudges work because many realities, besides the Holy Spirit, drive our behaviors. We are influenced by the person who communicates information, by incentives, by what others do, by what is novel or relevant, by what makes us feel good about ourselves, and by what is less risky. These drivers, as well as others, nudge us during the decision-making process.

Now back to the matter at hand. I once made a decision to leave one position for another. At the time, I was convinced the Spirit guided my decision. But now I wonder if I’m giving the Spirit more credit than deserved?

Let’s break it down.

Science teaches that my decisions are influenced by realities which have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit or Scripture. On one hand, this is good. After all, we are complex human beings, created in the image of God, who respond well to realities like the incentives of eternal life, an abundant life, and long life.

On the other hand, we are broken human beings who don’t always think straight. In fact, many factors negatively impact our ability to make good decisions. One of those factors is surely bias. I have written about it here. Another is noise. But there are many other factors, including our sinful dispositions, which prompt us to favor one thing, person, or group when compared with another.  

Scripture teaches, 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 (Proverbs 3:5-6 NIV). 

It also teaches that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). On one hand, this is great news. We may enter every decision-making process confident that the Spirit will lead us according to the good and perfect will of our Father in heaven. On the other hand, even though we are temples of the Holy Spirit, we remain sinful saints whose hearts are prone to wander from the God we love. Therefore we tend to hear what we want to hear so we can do what we want to do. We then compound our errors by occasionally attributing decisions to the Spirit that had less to do with the Spirit and more to do with several other realities.   

What do we do? How do we discern what’s right?

First, I suggest we recognize that our understanding is limited and disordered. In addition, it’s subject to many natural subliminal forces identified by behavioral scientists. This explains the need for spiritual directors, counselors, mentors, and friends willing and able to speak truth into our lives. Consult them.

Second, I suggest we recognize the science of nudging while praying for the nudge of the Spirit. By that I don’t mean to place the Spirit and science in opposition to each other. After all, as noted earlier, all truth is God’s truth. I am suggesting, however, that we will make better decisions—decisions aligned with the good and perfect will of the Lord—if we recognize the forces within us that may hinder us from discerning the guidance that comes, as promised, by the Spirit. Stop and observe.

Third, I suggest we remember and affirm that the Spirit nudges in many ways. Like centuries of Christians before us, we believe that the Spirit guides us directly through the inspired Word of God which instructs, convicts, corrects, and trains us in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16). This direction comes as we not only read the Scriptures but meditate on them. The practice of Lectio Divina comes to mind. Read and meditate.

Fourth, I suggest we recognize that the nudging of the Spirit is not limited to Scripture, as heretical as that sounds. Surely, all nudges from the Spirit will be consistent with Scripture, but the Spirit directs our steps as we willingly submit to the wisdom of others and even, when seemingly out of nowhere, someone innocently speaks a word that redirects the course of our lives. I’m thinking right now of the person who casually told me about Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. That simple word prompted an inquiry that led to my enrollment at that school. During my four years there the Lord transformed my life. Listen.

Finally, I restate that that while the Spirit nudges in many ways, the nudges should harmonize because they come from one source: the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Spirit will not nudge us in a way that contradicts Scripture. I fear we need that reminder as too many people blame decisions and subsequent unbiblical behaviors on the Spirit. Seek confirmation from Scripture.

Here’s the bottom line: as followers of Jesus Christ, we long to follow wherever he leads. That is more difficult for us than it was for Peter and the other apostles who walked and talked with Jesus. But our Lord has not left us without help. He has sent the Spirit to guide and direct our steps.

So, when facing decisions that have the potential to greatly impact our lives, let’s make sure we are being nudged by the Spirit. Let us consult, observe, read, meditate, listen, and seek confirmation as we seek to follow Jesus with our heads, hands and hearts.

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