8 Ways to Make Hard Decisions Wise and Well

Many of our smaller decisions and most of our significant decisions - even those decisions that require us to choose between two equally good options - involve the ability to notice what brings a sense of life and freedom to our most authentic self in God.
Ruth Haley Barton

What do you do when you have a difficult decision to make?

Are you a swashbuckling pirate wielding a sword? Or more of a retreater, pulling the covers over your head hoping the world will just go away? Maybe you fret or flee or simply sit down and make a list.

Then what?

I have found myself at different times doing all of these things. We are constantly making decisions in our relationships, in our faith and in our work, tiny ones and tall ones, simple ones and complex ones.

Just in the last year, I had several tough decisions to make. My church family experienced a dark betrayal in leadership and had to find a new shepherd, my oldest daughter moved across the country with her family and I wanted to be a helpful and healthy mama in the process, and at work, we had several stressful decisions that challenged our leadership and community.

During this same time, I had several friends making hard choices of their own - two at work, two in geographical moves, one in parenting, one for her health and one facing his surprise divorce.

I certainly did not have any easy answers for anyone, but I was walking near my friends. I found myself taking stock of just how we make hard decisions. What are the parts that go into our decision making? How can we do it well and wise?

1.Be still.

No really, get still enough to hear and feel your own breathing and the breath of the world. Fill your lungs. Listen and rest in God's hand.

If you fall asleep, then rest may have been what you needed. When you have a decision to make, there is wisdom in the notion of "sleeping on it". It helps our brain to build more rest and stillness into our days. Being rested helps us listen well and gives us energy. We can think deeper and be ready for the heart work ahead.

Expect your stillness to be challenged or interrupted. Reset and try again. Try not to throw up your hands in frustration. Hard decisions are frustrating by nature. Conflicting desires crash into one another. Sparks fly within you and all around you. The resulting smoke and fire leave things hazy rather than clear.

Before your decision-making process is over, you will need to come back to this step.

2.Get creative movement.

At some point, we must overcome getting stuck. We have to take our rest with us and get moving.

I have discovered if I take a walk, a run or a bike ride, it clears my head, expends some compressed energy and gives me perspective. If I can get outside among the trees, flowers and sky, even the dreary rain or snow of winter, all the better. When I get sweaty, get wet or feel the wind, I am reminded of all in this great wide world that our God holds in his hand, even my smallness.

You can also exercise creative muscles by gardening, painting, cooking, drawing, writing, taking photographs or playing a musical instrument. The point here is to get our body or hands, not just busy, but actively doing something that opens us up. We are looking to free up interior space we will need for our hard decision. I find I need both inside and outside help to make difficult decisions into wise ones.

"As artists we look to God's own creativity, beginning with his hand in nature, because nature is God's great revelation of himself, his richness, his complexity, his great power and glory. The hints and clues to his nature are everywhere."
Luci Shaw

When we see how big, beautiful and powerful God is, we become small in comparison, but never insignificant. We take that perspective into our process.

3.Pray for wisdom and community.

I might have suggested this as a first step, but I usually find when my head is swirling and my heart is heavy, I need to make room inside first. Of course, what I am really making room for is Jesus himself.

Now with some space inside, I can cry out for wisdom and grace, grit and fortitude. Now, I can invite Jesus into the fine details of my hard decision and hear what he will say.

Now with some stillness and creative movement, I can rally a few wise, trustworthy friends and mentors alongside the spirit and character of the living God. Wisdom will always include healthy community and people wiser than me. Our best decisions are not made in isolation. Even though ultimately we are the ones who make the final choice of how to act, where to go or how to get there, we do it with all the support and wisdom we have garnered over a thousand days.

4.Learn something about yourself.

As we make decisions and choose paths, what we are really doing is becoming. With God's help and a whole lot of vulnerability, in the process of making hard decisions, we are becoming more wholehearted human beings made in God's likeness. That likeness is the one we were designed and called by God to be.

Take a strengths or personality test to actually see and name what is already tucked inside you. We all have natural reactions and ways of seeing and doing life that we may not even be aware of. Once we get a clearer view into our own design, we can see the bridges and the gaps within us and make better decisions about all sorts of things: patterns in our marriages, our parenting, our friendships and our work.

Making hard decisions can bring out our weakness or worse, our adolescent side. When I become two- or twelve-years-old again, I know I need perspective. What I appreciate about these assessments is that they both acknowledge the ways we are crafted (yah!), but never leave us there without growth (ouch!).

Just when I need my healthiest, grown-up self to navigate the choppy waters of a difficult choice, I find my deficits magnified. I am more fatigued and sooner. All of these surveys have helped me notice when my strengths become weaknesses which is bound to happen under stress, fear or grief, and which hard decisions bring in spades.

Here are the books and assessments that have helped me along the way. If you are new to these, just try one. If you have done lots of personality tests, try a new one.

StrengthsFinder test

StrengthsFinder book


Free Myers-Briggs type Personality Test

Core Value Index

Free Enneagram Assessment

Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

5.Learn something about otherness.(the other person, a new possibility and most of all, God's Otherness)

After you dive into your own design, it helps to observe how others tick. Taking a moment to to see from another's perspective can shed light on many decisions we make. Most of the assessments listed above include descriptions of how to collaborate with people of different designs and bents. We need to know each other and work well together with kindness and healthy boundaries.

Besides taking other people into account, during hard decisions, I usually have to dig deeper into who God is. What I mean is, when I face choices that challenge my footing, I find myself returning to solid ground, that bedrock where foundations are laid. God is fully faithful, creative, consistent, wise, trustworthy, near, full of grace and grit, and holy. He is completely Other and I need his Otherness.

To get outside of our own perspective, it helps to ask great questions of ourselves, others and our God.

What is the goal of this decision?

What are the steps to getting there? Is there a pattern that needs to change to accomplish the decision?

Who is willing to do the grace-filled work this requires? (the answer is always me)

In making this hard decision, what is it that I am afraid will happen? (say this out loud to a trusted friend)

God, who are you calling me to be during this decision, and afterwards?

If I ever sail through a tough time of change, conflict or uprooting that requires nuanced choices without asking hard questions and wrestling with my own black heart, I have probably missed an opportunity for growth and transformation. It should be heart-wrenching to surrender under God's surprising hand as he shapes us.

The more I see, really see, the shape of God's heart and the qualities of his character, the wiser my decisions can become. During this year of hard decisions, I have enjoyed leaning into a few of God's first qualities like hard work + rest, creativity and light-shining in darkness.

Two books are my perennial favorites, classic books that have shaped my understanding of God's Otherness straight from Scripture. These authors take me beyond only my personal experiences as a way of thinking about God to who he truly is.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

Knowing God by J.I. Packer

Few things in life shape us as deeply as the process of making gritty decisions with integrity and vulnerability, especially ones that honor God.

6.Make a habit of reading good healthy books about heart, wisdom and hard things.

Read your bible with all the honesty, vulnerability and faithfulness you can muster.

God's word really does shine on our steps and light our trails, especially when we can engage with the the whole Trinity as a pattern in our life.

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."
Jeremiah 6:16

Before that makes reading your bible sound all too simple, remember that wrestling out a painful decision with God is just fine with God. He can take our honest questions, grief and anger. That is why we have the book of Job, Lamentations and the Psalms.

As always, Eugene Peterson has something good to say here,

"Don't hesitate to put the psalm (or any other passage of Scripture) under the searchlight of your disbelief! The reason many of us do not ardently believe in the gospel is that we have never given it a rigorous testing, thrown our hard questions at it, faced it with our most prickly doubts."

Complex decisions take grit, courage, creativity and stamina. A painful crush of time is usually included in tough choices, sometimes pressed and quick, and other times long and drawn out.

If we keep the bubbly water of God's word flowing into our hearts, eventually we will start to see patterns of who God is and how he works. We won't figure him all out, which we can mistakenly make our goal, but we will begin to recognize his fingerprints and feel his heartbeat.

The more I see, really see, the shape of God's heart and the qualities of his character, the wiser my decisions can become. During this year of hard decisions, I have enjoyed leaning into a few of God's first qualities like hard work + rest, creativity and light-shining in darkness.

This reading and wrestling is not a quick study for decision making, but more of a long obedience in the same direction.

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Hall Barton

Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud

Boundaries by Townsend and Cloud

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown

While you are building a solid foundation of wisdom, the most practical thing I have found to help me make decisions is to make a list.

7.Make a list and then connect it to time.

This can be as simple as a blank sheet of paper with your goal written at the top. If you are deciding between two options, write those under the goal as headings for the columns to come. Draw a vertical line down the center and write out a list of pros on one side and cons on the other. One thing to remember is that no matter how long the lists become on each side of the page, it isn't necessarily true that the longest list wins.

Some people make spin-off lists, that is lists of their lists. Ask me how I know.

I find a valuable process happens in pen and paper list-making. Something about seeing my monkey brain all written out, scratched over and doodled around helps me see a little clearer. I like to draw circles around things that rise to the top and jot down Bible verses that apply to certain points. Keeping a train of thought going long enough to see what station it pulls into and having a record of those tracks helps me keep my place in the process and share it with my people.

At some point, we give weight to the items on our list so our list is smart. You might do this by numbering the items in order of importance. In the tougher choices, we might have competing objectives and a timeline. This is where the value of prioritizing comes in.

To reveal an order you can ask a few questions,

What can I not live with or without in this solution or resolution?
What is a deal breaker for me?
Who else is affected by my decision?
What is my true end goal?

Here is where I can get surprised. I might get this far down my list only to realize, my goal is lacking in depth or range. I sometimes see my current steps are not made for my true goal. No one wants to wake up to find they have fallen short in their aim. This means stopping for some soul searching to discover my true end goal. When I get my true goal at the top of my list, it may change everything: the order of my list or even the list itself. That can be frustrating, but we are getting closer to a better decision!

When it comes to connecting our goal to time, we may have a calendar deadline to work with, but sometimes to reach our highest good goal, more time is what we need. We might get bold enough to ask for it or at least ask, "What's the hurry?". Even if we do not get extra time in this decision, we can learn something about making our next tough choice.

Looking further out in time can also inform our wisest decisions in a current moment. For example, in parenting we might ask ourselves, "Do we want a happy child right this moment or a child with strong character throughout life?" In friendship or dating, I might ask myself, "How can I act now for the best ending regardless of whether we stay close or part ways?" On a team, I might ask myself, "What is my contribution, my sacrifice and my cooperation that challenges me and benefits the whole team?"

8.Distill a decision-making principle to run as a filter.

When we are faced with a gritty decision, it helps to find some measurement for making a wise one. This is no easy task, because often we are attempting to measure immeasurables. However difficult, I believe this can be done. Since most choices have a beginning, middle and end, remember to look at each part, both for yourself and others. And here's the clincher - all while trusting in God's character.

Here are a few decision-making filters that have worked for me.

Start well and kind, end better and be teachable in between.

Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

With the help of the Spirit, bring life and healthy communication to the moment and to the end result.

As you pass through life, consider your wake.

What I mean by wake is two fold: be awake and watchful to how you move through the world, but also that boating term referring to the ripple effect left behind when a boat passes through the water. Difficult decisions churn up the waters no matter how they end, but what I do not want in the aftermath of my decisions is destruction, debris and broken things left behind.

I may have to take one or more of these statements, turn them into a question, apply to my decision and go back to number 1.

And this. Grace.

Always Grace.

Grace for becoming more fully all you were designed to become and for making a little better decisions every time. Let's learn from our mistakes, dust off our behinds and try again with more wisdom, well-being and intimacy with God than before.

*Some, but not all, of these resources are affiliate links which builds community and rises all the boats.