Do you agonize over big decisions or get anxious about the future? Are you afraid of commitments? Do you change your mind a lot? These tendencies may be an indication of a lack of prudence. In the previous reflection, we saw how counsel is the first step of prudence, whereby we gather the information necessary to make a good decision. But this is not enough. Two other acts are necessary: judgment and decisiveness.
A person wrestling with a decision might stare at pros and cons lists, seek advice from dozens of friends and spiritual directors, and pray in the chapel for hours about it. But in the end, he must come to the moment of decision. And at that crucial point, he must1) judge wisely (judgment) and 2) firmly put his decision into action (decisiveness). To the extent that a person fails to judge rightly or to carry out a good decision, he lacks in the virtue of prudence.
Wise Judgment: Protect Your Kingdom
Judgment is the second aspect of prudence. After collecting the data to make a good decision (counsel), one then needs to weigh the evidence carefully, like a judge. Good judgment leads a person to do the right thing in the right way and at the right time.
King Rehoboam in the Bible was someone whose failure in good judgment had devastating effects on a whole nation. When he assumed the throne as Israel’s king, the people requested that he lower the heavy taxes that his father, the previous king, laid upon them.
Rehoboam sought counsel from the wise elders in the land, who advised him to heed the people’s request and thus build loyalty among his citizens. But Rehobaom followed the advice of his youthful friends, who said he should raise taxes to show the people that he is even more powerful than his father. Rehoboam sought counsel, but he did not judge wisely. And his foolish decision to raise the taxes had dire consequences: The people rebelled, and 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel broke away from his reign, marking the tragic division of God’s people and the end of the unified Kingdom (1 Kings 12).
You may not be the king of a great nation, but you probably have other people who will be deeply affected by how you live your life, for the choices you make will impact your spouse, family, friends, and coworkers. Thus, a lot is at stake in your ability to make good judgments.
Begin with the End in Mind
The person with wise judgment follows the principle "begin with the end in mind." When making a decision, he first considers his goal and then discerns the best means for achieving it. Corporations do this with mission statements, strategic plans, goals, and objectives. Athletes do this with training schedules. Human beings should do this with their lives. Without a target clearly in mind, we are going to live our lives off the mark. As the saying goes, "If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time."
Stephen Covey, in his famous book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, asks us to imagine our own funeral, where the people closest to you will stand up and say a few words about you: a family member, friend, coworker, and someone from your church. Covey then asks:
What would you like each of these speakers to say about your life? What kind of husband, wife, father or mother would you like their words to reflect? . . . What kind of friend? What kind of working associate? What kind of character would you like them to have seen in you? . . . What difference would you like to have made in their lives?
These questions get us to think about our overall goals in life: What kind of life do I want to live? What do I want to achieve? Above all, what kind of person do I want to be? It is easy to be carried away by the busyness of life and never consider the direction we’re going. We might spend a lot of time and energy seeking things that do not really matter (higher income, more recognition, social status, etc.), and this keeps us from focusing on what is most important (God, family, friendship). However, having the big-picture questions of life at the forefront of our minds-questions like the ones proposed in Covey’s funeral scenario-is like having a compass. It can help keep us on the right course in life as we weigh our smaller, daily decisions in light of our ultimate goals.
The third act of prudence involves decisiveness, putting our decision into action. No matter how much we seek counsel, weigh a decision, and make a judgment in our minds, if we fail to execute our decision, we do not have prudence.
There are many reasons we do not carry out a decision well. Sometimes, after making a judgment about what to do, we hesitate, have second thoughts, and delay in execution. Maybe we fear failure or change. Or perhaps we become overwhelmed by the risk involved. In all these cases, our emotions take over and keep us from staying on the right path of a good decision.
Other times, after actually starting to carry out a decision, we withdraw from the good purpose we set out to pursue because we experience difficulties or suffering in it. Pontius Pilate, for example, knew that Jesus was innocent and that it was out of envy that the chief priests accused Him (Jn.18:38; Mt. 27:18). Pilate wanted to release Jesus, but when faced with a riot breaking out and people threatening him, he gave in to the crowds and handed Jesus over to be crucified (Jn. 19:12-16). He withdrew from doing the right thing. Or a parent may know their child needs to be disciplined for misbehavior. But when the child responds with a temper tantrum, the parent might be tempted to imprudently withdraw the punishment in an attempt to appease the child and maintain "peace" in the home.
Sometimes we are simply indecisive. We are afraid to plant the flag with our lives, so we put off making decisions. In order to keep our options open, we avoid commitment in case something better comes along.
Some Christians might even spiritualize their indecisiveness, saying, "I just need more time to pray about it. God has not yet shown me what to do." Although taking time to prayerfully think through a decision is important, in some cases, a person’s never-ending "discernment" process really is covering up a hidden weakness: a lack of decisiveness and a fear of commitment.
Don’t Be Anxious
There are other tendencies that have the appearance of prudence, but actually are vices opposing prudence and inhibiting us from making good decisions. For example, anxiety over temporal things might appear to be prudent, since one should be concerned about basic human matters such as one’s career, paying bills, and raising children. However, we can become so preoccupied with these things that they cloud our vision and lead us to make poor decisions. In fact, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the manner in which we pursue the things of this world can be sinful in three ways.
First, our worries over temporal things are sinful if we seek them as an end-as our main goal in life, our reason for existence. Many people, for example, make their careers, financial security, or possessions-not God-the number one thing in their lives.
Second, our worries over things of this world can be sinful if they distract us from pursuing spiritual things, which ought to be our chief concern in life. We can be so swept away by the cares of this world-making sure our finances are in order, our kids are on track for the right college, our remodeling project is planned out well-that we fail to give nearly as much attention to making sure our spiritual life is in order.
Third, our concern for temporal things is sinful if we have much fear that we will lack what we need. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us a litmus test that serves as an internal gauge alerting us if we are overly solicitous about things of this world: "Do not be anxious about your life" (Mt. 6:25). Anxiety is like the "check engine" light in the car turning on-a warning that something in our soul is not functioning well. We may not be trusting enough in God to provide for us or we may be placing too much attention on things of this world, and not enough on spiritual goods.
Anxiety over the Future
We also can be inordinately worried about the future. Having good foresight, of course, is a part of prudence. But we do not know for sure what may come in the future. And when we are needlessly anxious now about things that are only a possibility in the future, it can distract us from present responsibilities.
Above all, we must remember that every concern has its own time. God will always give us the grace we need to face whatever trials may come in the future. However, that future grace is not given in the present. God’s grace is always right on time. Thus, if we worry about the future now, we "shoulder a burden without having received yet the grace that God would give us to carry it."1Such fruitless worrying will only increase anxiety, since we do not have the grace yet to face those troubles of the future. As Jesus said, "Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Mt. 6:34).