The Choices We Make

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Our culture celebrates the ability we have to choose – and so we think a lot about choices. We are told every four years that we get to “choose” our leaders (though the choices given to us might not be suitable in either direction). As I look back and think of my preaching over the years I can see a change – and not just a change wrought by my conversion to Orthodoxy. In many ways it has been a change wrought by the fact that I am not a young man any more (though I do not think I am yet an “old” man).

But I can recall a lot of sermons from my late 20’s (I was first ordained and assigned to a Church at the age of 27) that were primarily concerned with choices. The thought that anything was simply a given, or that anything impinged on my freedom was uncomfortable.

As years have gone by and I have watched my children grow up, leave home and settle into their own lives, it seems to me that I have fewer choices – or rather that the most important thing in my day may not have much to do with choice at all.

The vast majority of fundamental things in my life were completely beyond any choice I made. My gender, my nationality, my race, my language, my genetic inheritance – are all matters that I have to live with and come to terms with, but not matters that I choose. Part of the madness of our modern world is that things which do not belong to the realm of choice are being turned into options: do I have this baby; do I want this gender; etc.

Fr. Thomas Hopko is very fond of quoting his father-in-law, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as saying: “Spirituality consists in how you deal with what you’ve been dealt.”

This comes much closer to my present experience. So much of my life has always been beyond my control and only delusion has made me think otherwise. There are fundamental choices – to yield my life to God and acknowledge the fact that He is Lord of my Life. But it is also true that He is Lord whether I choose to acknowledge that or not. The choice I make is whether to remain delusional or to embrace the truth. That is a large choice, indeed, and one to be made moment by moment, but it is still a far cry from the power I once thought I had.

It is interesting to have more than one child. It is certainly interesting to have four, as we do. I can recall that when we only had one, we were able to imagine that this darling little girl was largely “darling” because we were wonderful parents. The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. How is this possible? Because people are different from the moment of their existence. The other two (a boy and a girl) have only ratified this understanding. They belong to God, not me. He created them, even if the “stuff” of their creation was consubstantial with me and their mother.

Of course, as they grow up, they have to learn that their lives largely consist in how they deal with what they have been dealt. And thus we all pray, “Lord, have mercy!”

We are more powerful than we imagine, but not in the ways we imagine. We are utterly weak in matters where we think we are masters. Day by day, prayer by prayer, we feel our way forward. Learning to choose what God has chosen for us and in so doing find the salvation of our souls.

Comments

  1. Reid says

    I once read an article about how chess players think. I have no clue whether the research was legitimate (most such research isn’t), but the results struck me. It seems that as chess players increase in strength from rank amateurs to the level of “expert” (a formal rating in the chess world) they analyze more and more positions (more choices) before deciding on a move. As, however, their strength increases beyond “expert” through the various categories of master and grandmaster, they analyze fewer and fewer positions, relying instead on heuristics (rules of thumb, roughly) that greatly narrow the field of positions they know are worth considering. Thus in the most important sense the strongest chess players in the world have fewer choices than much weaker players. The weak players are weak precisely because they see too many choices.

    I take this as a parable of living wisely before God. As men grow wiser and more righteous they see fewer choices. I sometimes see believers doing something good but difficult (caring for a child in trouble, being faithful through a hard marriage, helping a neighbor in need, keeping a promise with unexpected consequences) and explaining, often sheepishly, “Well, what choice do I have?” Exactly. They have grown enough in wisdom to know that abandoning a child or a spouse, ignoring a neighbor, or breaking a promise is not an option. It is not simply a bad choice. It is no choice at all.

  2. Coroebus says

    Thank you, Reid, for a fine gloss on Father’s post. We are asked not, as the cliche would have it, to ‘make a virtue of necessity’ — but rather to allow necessity to be our guide into God’s will.

    Here’s the paradox: Such acquiescence to His will cannot properly be called a ‘choice’ at all, yet it remains an elemental, lifelong struggle.

    May God help us always to say with all earnestness, “Glory to God for all things.”

  3. Alyssa says

    Father,

    I like the new choice of picture you are using at the top of the blog :)

    Jokers? Yes, there must be a lot of them to go around! I’ve got dealt quite a few myself!

    There have been many, many times during the past 5 years especially when I have felt as though I had/have no choices and everyone around me seems to have an over-abundance of them. But as your post points out, even when it appears that we do not have the same access to choices we still have the most important choice before us, whether we will make peace where we are and be content with what God has given us. Or not.

  4. Fatherstephen says

    I used to play golf frequently but not much in the last 10 years (alas). But one of my favorite golf stories is of the famous Bobby Jones, an amateur, founder of the Masters, and one of the greatest to ever play the game.

    He was afflicted near his prime with a debilitating disease that left him largely confined to a wheel chair and certainly unable to play golf.

    A reporter asked him once, “Do you ever resent God having allowed this to happen to you?”

    His reply: “Son, in the game of golf, we believe you have to play it where it lies.”

    That probably came from Jones’ Presbyterian faith, but it strikes me as wonderfully true (as do many aspects of the game of golf).

  5. says

    I am new to your blog (it was recommended to me by a friend), and I’m glad I found it. Thank you for your thoughtful post on this subject; I found it very meaningful and helpful.

  6. kh.kathryn says

    Father Papa,

    I have to wonder, did you mean to say,

    “The second girl came, and she was darling, too, but not in the same ways as the first. In fact, she was possibly the most darling girl the world has ever seen. (Certainly moreso than the subsequently born, caveman-like boy that we had)”

    Haha. I love you. And I know that the caveman child was pretty darn cute, despite all my plans to destoy him. :-)

  7. Fatherstephen says

    My darling Khouria,

    James, a caveman? He could have a future with Geico. I’ll ask him about this – not.

    papa

  8. Peggy says

    Well, I found your site on a Google search “God please help me to make good choices” and here I am. Thanks, I needed that. This is a comfortable blog site for me, it’s the first one I’ve ever responded to. Lots of insight from all, and a great message – God is good, all the time. Thank you, Fr. Stephen et al.

  9. Michael Bauman says

    Father, the modern world sees “choice” everywhere, but the “choices” modernity glorifies are largely illusory. Even when they have some substance the often come down to ones similar to Adam and Eve. To I buy it or do it because it looks good and would be pleasing? Do I take responsibility? The essence of nihilism is to arrogate the human choice above God’s

    My favorite illustration of the vapidity of modern “choice” is over-the-counter cold medicine. There are really only a couple of formulations for the stuff, yet there are dozens of brands. Each brand touts itself as “the best choice” Some people become quite loyal to a Brand A and refuse to use Brand B even though they are identical except for package color, pill shape and color and shelf-placement, maybe price. Yet even as we are innudated with these fake choices, we are constantly told that the real choice (submit to God’s love or not) is a figment of the imagination or even bad.

    The concept of choice has replaced honor, duty, even love for much of our culture. Some choices have consequences but, in fact, the consequences are determined, not by the choice itself but from whether we are in Christ or in rebellion when we decide and when we act.