Have you ever struggled with something that you just couldn’t find an answer to? Maybe it was a big decision that would affect people you love. Perhaps it was conflict with another person, and you just couldn’t see eye to eye. Or it might have been a big leap of faith—something was stirring inside, leading you toward an uncertain future.
Those can be scary times in our lives, because generally we humans don’t like change and we’d rather not take risks. Whether the change is big or small—starting a new job in a new industry or simply trying to get used to a new pair of shoes—we tend to resist things that make us uncomfortable, that take us into new places, that don’t have certain, safe, familiar endings. We like it when things go the way we expect them to. Smooth, secure, no surprises.
Sometimes when we’re mentally working really hard on something, we end up feeling worse than we did when we started. Our thoughts and feelings get all knotted up together. Some folks say it helps to write it down in black and white—should I move or should I stay?—and on one side of the page, we list all the reasons it would be good to move, and on the other side of the page, we write out all the reasons it would be good to stay. We’ll be able to see the “right” decision, this thinking goes, by the length of the list. The side with the most entries is the one we should choose.
The problem is, most people don’t make decisions like that. Even the most analytical among us will wait for that “gut feeling” that says we’re on the right track. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California published research a few years back that showed that our brains need those gut feelings in order to make solid decisions. He studied people who’d had brain damage in the area that controlled their emotions. Everything else functioned normally, but they simply couldn’t feel their feelings. They could do everything any other logical person does every day, except one: They couldn’t make decisions. They found it next to impossible to make even the simplest choices: should I wear the blue or the brown shoes today? The part of the brain that would give them the “gut feeling” was offline, and it was like they’d lost their compass and couldn’t find true north. They didn’t know which way to choose.
In 2011, researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst took this a little further, testing out the advice that mom always gave you when you were struggling with something big: Sleep on it. Instead of going around and around with a problem, how about just letting it go, relaxing, getting a good night’s sleep, and seeing what happens? Often people report that in the morning, the clouds have parted and an answer now seems obvious. Their “gut sense” is working. There’s a feeling of clarity, and all is right with the world. The researchers’ project showed that mom’s advice proves out in science: sleep did in fact help study participants make decisions and even improved the choices they made.
Years ago I was in a quandary as I tried to decide whether the time was right to sell our house in Columbus and move to Indianapolis. We lived in a 120-year-old limestone farmhouse in the middle of 50 acres of popcorn fields—it was a beautiful spot in a nice town, and we had three cows on our five-acre pasture, so you know I was happy. But the kids and I were spending more and more time running up to Indianapolis for various things, and my youngest son would be starting school the next fall. Something was telling me it was time to move. And yet the task seemed overwhelming to me. That decision would bring much to do and lots of uncertainty, and I didn’t feel ready for that. I prayed and I prayed about it. I made lists. I struggled and wore myself out. Finally it occurred to me that I was trying to push myself into a decision I obviously wasn’t ready to make, so I decided not to decide.
And then—on a trip up to Indianapolis a week or so later—we were driving north on Interstate 65, when I saw in the western sky, a beautiful rainbow in the evening clouds. It wasn’t technically a rainbow because there’d been no rain—it was what’s sometimes called an iridescent cloud, a circumhorizontal arc (a meteorologist must have come up with that term), or here’s my favorite name for it: a sun dog.
But whatever you call it, it was more than a pretty sight to me in that moment. Instantly I thought, “It’s okay to put the house on the market. God’s already got this all worked out. I just need to trust it.” It was a gut knowing. I no longer had any question. The decision had been made.
It’s as though after I stopped struggling with the decision about the move, there was space enough—in my mind and heart—for a new idea. The sight of the rainbow connected me instantly to a sense of God’s possibility. I felt peace. I knew it would all work out. The next day I contacted a realtor and a couple of months later we were moving to Indianapolis, in time for the start of school.
Stopping the struggle is the important part, I think. We need to be able to interrupt our thinking long enough for other options to get through. God’s range of possibilities for us—for all of us, in any situation—are unlimited in every sense of the word. God’s answers to our dilemmas—if we allow God to answer them God’s way—aren’t dependent on time and space, they don’t have anything to do with our bank balances, and they aren’t reliant on other people to do what we want them to do. God’s possibilities vastly overflow any tiny human limitation. Our only job is to stay open to those possibilities, listening to our leadings and watching for the rainbows.
A year or so later I was listening to classical music on the radio when the thought struck me that all notes in the universe already exist—they exist in this moment, the full range of them, higher that we can hear, lower than we can feel. The fact that all notes, vibrations of every frequency already exist is a work of God’s creation. It’s the realm of God’s possibility for sound. Likewise, there is a vast, unlimited range of color—the full spectrum of which we can’t see with our limited senses, but nevertheless, it exists. Science tell us so. That unlimited spectrum of color is God’s possibility in the visual domain. We see but a fraction of what’s possible—but it’s all still there, seen to us or not, the mind-blowing splendor of God’s magnificent expression of life.
Talented composers and artists—the Beethovens and the Michelangelo’s—draw from God’s possibilities to shape their own creations based on what they hear or envision within. Maybe they have a “gut feeling” when the music or the sculpture is just right. That could be kin to the “gut feeling” we get when we make a decision that feels right to us. Perhaps that deep instinct is something in the soul that smiles when we’re in harmony with the good God has in mind for us.
It was with this idea in mind of the vastness of God’s possibilities that I reflected on the New Testament story we heard today. It’s the well-known story of Jesus during his time of testing in the wilderness. Matthew says that Jesus has been fasting for 40 days and nights when “the tempter” came and offered him different ways to meet the needs he must have had: he was hungry, he was vulnerable and tired, he was probably lonely and yearning for something more, after 40 days alone in the wild.
It’s interesting that our translation uses the phrase, “The tempter.” Scripture tells us the Spirit led Jesus out to be tempted by the devil. And it might be Satan himself who is talking to Jesus and offering him these things. He does say in verse 10, “Away with you, Satan!” Of course, Jesus also says the same thing to Peter in chapter 18 of Matthew when he tells Peter he is being a stumbling block to him because Peter rejects the idea that Jesus would eventually be killed. I think it’s also worth considering that “the tempter” here could be Jesus’s own internal, doubtful thoughts. Jesus was without sin but he also was fully human, and we all have that struggling, quarrelling voice in our head that tempts us to justify our behavior, to take the easy way out, to sidestep the difficult thing we know we should do, instead of the harder, scarier, or embarrassing right thing to do.
For Jesus, the time in the wilderness was a seminal time. He got to see clearly the pattern of his thinking and desire. He learned he could answer his call truly, with a whole heart, even when he was in distress. That would be important for him to know, later. He got to see, intimately, what was and wasn’t influencing him as he envisioned his future ministry. Did he want to live in a great mansion and have all the riches of the world? We do have people seeking that today. Did he want public acclaim, the rest of the world thinking he was right and true and good? Certainly, we still have that desire in our modern world. Was he in it for fame, personal power, influence, wealth? He needed to know these things without a doubt—to be clear of heart, to be fully in tune with the realm of God’s possibilities. When he used his divine gifts in accord with God’s light, the masterpiece he created surpassed the genius of Beethoven and Michelangelo. It was a work of love so vast and so alive that it is still continuing to heal and save and bless today.
Our work of love unfolds on a smaller scale, but we also can learn to stop struggling with our decisions and open to the possibilities God has for us in our normal, everyday lives. Maybe we take a deep breath and check in with our “gut feeling.” Maybe we say a prayer and ask God to help us understand what’s best or just calm our anxiousness. Perhaps we just stop the hamster wheels in our heads for a little while and sit in silence, remembering that there may be a whole realm of solutions we haven’t seen yet because we haven’t remembered to give God a chance.
The full, colorful spectrum of everything we need is present in the here-and-now, even though we may not see it in a given moment. God’s provision, God’s guidance, God’s faithfulness is unfailing. Beauty, safety, abundance, life, connection, and peace are already here. We’ll find them in our relationship with God. That’s the key. No matter what wilderness we may find ourselves in, we can choose to tune out the voice of the tempter—inside or out—and listen instead to the loving truth of God’s leading within. When God is our source, our struggles dissolve, decisions almost make themselves, and our “gut feeling” becomes the soulful knowing that the rainbow is truly meant for us.
- OT: Genesis 9: 13-17
- NT: Matthew 4: 1-11
- Antonio Damasio research: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/528151/the-importance-of-feelings/
- Sleep on it research: https://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/%E2%80%98sleep-it%E2%80%99-excellent-science-based-advice-umass-amherst-sleep-study-finds