In the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, Jaron Lanier, founding father of virtual reality and a computer scientist, offers the following insight regarding the “product” of “free” internet:
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product…Changing what you do, how you think, who you are.”
The documentary offers a number of scenarios illustrating the ways in which the small decisions we make online everyday can lead to real-world changes, big and small. These decisions have the power to alter the course of our lives because, as Ryan Holiday writes, while “viral content may disappear, its consequences do not—be it a toxic political party or an addiction to cheap and easy attention.” It changes the way we use our time. It changes the way we think about the world. Our small choices open us up to the influence of those who desire to see us change our behavior in “gradual, slight, imperceptible” ways that will benefit them regardless of whether it benefits us.
In 1966, Alfred Kahn wrote an article entitled “The Tyranny of Small Decisions: Market Failures, Imperfections, and the Limits of Economics.” In the article, Kahn described a phenomenon in which broad scale allocations were made based on the sum of individual transactions. He argued that while a majority of consumers may make the same small, individual decisions, consumers as a whole might be against what the sum of those decisions produce on a larger scale. For instance, at one point he notes,
“Suppose, 75 years ago, some being from outer space had made us this proposition: ‘I know how to make a vehicle that could in effect put 200 horses at the disposal of each of you. It would permit you to travel about, alone or in small groups, at 60 to 80 miles an hour. But the costs of this gadget are 40,000 lives per year, global warming, the decay of the inner city, endless commuting, and suburban sprawl.’ What would we have chosen collectively? If there is a change that we might have refused this offer had such a ‘big’ decision been presented to us, then our having reached the same result gradually by a series of individual purchases is a product of the tyranny of small decisions.”
Having never been much of an outdoorsman, I would almost certainly lament the loss of a nice, air-conditioned car, particularly if the alternative involved riding a horse. While I would assume that many of us would surely decline the offer of “some being from outer space,” I would also assume that we seldom consider the broader implications our small decisions have for the body of Christ and its members. Instead, as Kahn notes, “we have a situation in which a series of apparently free, individually welfare-maximizing purchase decisions, made in the context of a given way of life and given alternatives, has such a cumulative effect on those parameters that subsequent choices can no longer be made in the same atmosphere … In a real sense the decision is less free that it was.”
If nothing else, Kahn’s insights regarding the market economy remind us that we are not isolated individuals making decisions in a vacuum. Our choices have consequences for others and the choices of others can have consequences for us. But do we think about our decisions or the decisions of others in that way? As we make our individual decisions, do we ask the sort of questions capable of minimizing, if not eliminating, this so-called tyranny of small decisions? What might it mean for the body of Christ to develop a space where such questions are more natural … on in which we “have the sort of slow, deliberate dialogues that reflect our deep conviction that discerning the Spirit is crucial to offering faithful testimony”? (Thinking Christian) How can we begin to free ourselves from the tyranny of small decisions and deliberate with the broader body of Christ in mind?
It seems to me that these questions are crucial in the digital world in which we live. We are not only inundated with information, but are assaulted by a variety of forms of fake news when we should really be viewing reality through the Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and made a way for us not only to spend eternity with Him, but to empower us to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). If the body of Christ and its individual members speak about the world in the same way as the world speaks about itself, how is it that those who believe in Christ will be able to demonstrate that they:
“are being made into a people whose journey is a sign to the world that God has not abandoned the world to its own devices but is present as a people on the move, a people moving out from their old ways and means, ordinary people who have been given the extraordinary authority to be part of the divine assault upon the realm of evil …”William H. Willimon & Stanley Hauerwas
The simple answer is that a church unwilling or unable to, as Vanhoozer and Strachan write, “seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was doing in Christ for the sake of the world” is unprepared to offer comprehensive faithful testimony to the God who “so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So, what must we do to stand as witnesses to God and all he has done? First, we need to ask new questions and entertain new answers. A few years ago, I was weighing in at a chubby 250 lbs. Despite my regular exercise regimen and reasonable diet, I could not seem to lose the weight. I had resigned myself to being “big boned” for the rest of my life until my wife recommended a weight loss program run by the hospital where she worked. I entered the program and quickly realized that my inability to lose weight was largely related to factors I simply didn’t understand. For instance, I didn’t realize how much the human metabolism could drop after forty. I didn’t have a good sense of how many calories I needed to eat in a day, so I had been unintentionally overeating. After ten weeks on a heavily restrictive caloric diet, I’d lost 50 lbs, which I have largely kept off three years later (and counting!). The point is that had I continued to use only the information I had at hand, it isn’t likely that I would have figured out how to drop the weight.
When we can’t or are unable to ask new question or consider new answers, we limit our field of vision. In doing so, we run the risk of missing the possibilities God provides and tying ourselves (and, at least at a perceptual level, God) to our existing way of doing things. We run the risk of confusing our partial story of God with one that is complete. We lose sight of what Jennings has recently referred to as the “fragments” and lose sight of the ways God may be bringing us toward other members of Christ’s body because fragments press us into “communion, the working and weaving together of fragments in the forming of life together.” Our incompleteness highlights our need for God and others. Asking new questions and remaining open to new answers is no simple task, yet it is crucial for the body of Christ to stay curious about what God is doing through others in the world.
We are living at a time when new ideas are being advanced and not all of them should be adopted without deep theological reflection. The goal for the church is always to understand well the identity of God and to align ourselves with Him in recognition of His sovereignty, benevolence, and wisdom. So, while it may seem dangerous for us to engage with different perspectives, we cannot ignore the challenge that comes from an unwillingness to admit that God will not allow the status quo to remain forever. It is our privilege to embark on the “adventure” of faith “in which we constantly seek further understanding.” (Thiselton) As we deepen our knowledge of God and develop a more robust communion with our “fellow heirs, members of the same body” (Ephesians 3:6), the way we understand the world will change. As the members of the church attend to the task of finding God by finding one another and allowing the “fragments” to cultivate communion, we will be far less likely to make the sort of tyrannical small decisions that lead us away from one another.
Second, in addition to asking new questions and considering new answers, we must refuse to be driven by the urgencies of the world. Perhaps more to the point, we must not adopt the world’s means of determining (a) what constitutes an urgent matter or (b) what range of actions are appropriate and allowable given the urgent matters that need to be addressed. Allowing the world, which operates in a state of ignorance and denial of God, can be tempting when the alternative is standing boldly in allegiance with God. As Moltmann notes, “Temptation then consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us.”
As Christians, we are given the opportunity to calculate urgency in a manner different from the world. We are also given a new range of actions that are appropriate and allowable given the matters we deem urgent. Our God is the God who brought Israel “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:12). He did not intend for Israel to be the new Egypt, but for Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). There was no need for Israel to work without ceasing, to steal, or to covet. It is not so much that Israel had no material concerns, but that Israel’s way of life was to demonstrate trust in the Lord to provide, to distribute, and to order. In a similar way, Christians are to be a distinct people within the world confronting the challenges we face not with overwhelming competence or unassailable wisdom, but with a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
In Golden Son, Pierce Brown’s young hero Darrow describes his mentor Lorn au Arcos as follows: “He is as he always told me to be — a stone amid the waves; wet, yet unimpressed by all the swirls about him.” Being “wet, yet unimpressed” is a helpful picture of the way Christians might approach life in this world. We are not immune to the pains and challenges of the world. After all, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Yet, even as we experience the storms of this life, we remain unimpressed with their fury having embraced the truth that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). We need not allow the storm to cultivate urgency within us. Rather, in Christ reality has been reframed so that we can take the time to participate in the urgent activities of worship, prayer, disciple-making, honoring one another, studying the Scriptures, and engaging in lament. We can take the time to engage in such activities because the urgent task for the church does not lie in solving the problems of a given nation or the world, but in showcasing “through the church the manifold wisdom of God” before “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).
As we refuse to be driven by the urgencies of the world, we will find that our small decisions will not exercise any sort of tyranny over us. It is not that denying the urgencies of the world will magically make life in this world easier. We may not have health or wealth. Yet, Christ’s “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Instead, as we see the world as it truly is, we begin to recognize that “the problems of the world are not ours to solve, but to navigate faithfully” (Thinking Christian). In seeing our battle is not “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12), we can avoid the sort of small decisions that do not contribute to that battle. We can avoid the sort of decisions that drive us apart rather than brining us together as we, unified with Christ, demonstrate to the world what it means to live as one who knows God.
As believers in the world, we are still susceptible to small, tyrannical decisions. We won’t always understand the consequences of our actions. It is not impossible that we will leave the world more broken despite our efforts to live faithfully within it. Even so, our most tyrannical small decisions are often of less consequence than we think. That is, of course, not to say that we should not take time to discern God’s will or to consider how our choices may be forming us and others. It is to say that the body of Christ is not identified by its perfection, but by its ongoing confession of sin (1 John 1:9).
We are surrounded by formative influences. As was noted previously, our current technology mediated information environment has been constructed to influence, if not flat out manipulate, our behaviors. Allowing the world, or even Christian culture, to drive the question we ask and to determine the range of potential, appropriate answers, we become increasingly less capable of “linking together fragmentation of faith to cultural fragments and both to hopes of resisting the reductive fragmentation of life…” (Jennings) When the world defines our urgencies, our choices become limited and we are weighed down by “sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). To move beyond the tyranny of small decisions, we have to reform the spaces we occupy so that our small decisions are not “individually welfare-maximizing purchase decisions,” but decisions that lead us to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). It will lead us to be shaped into women and men who are committed to being and making disciples as we love God with all our heart, with all we are, and with all our resources (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is Vice President and COO of Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind. He also writes a regular blog at nextgenchristians.com.
“Making Decisions. Being Disciples.” originally appeared in Worthwhile Theology Magazine. Download a free copy today!