500 years ago Ignatius suggested we make decisions this way.

7 min. to read.

I’ve been weighing a big decision. The details aren’t important. It’s like many big decisions you’ve faced. It’s complex, with many moving parts. There are pros and cons, which make it hard to know the right path.

You’ve been there, I’m sure. Having an unresolved decision on your mind can be stressful. But how do you finally make the decision?

Is it just about what feels right? Is the right choice the one that pleases the most people? Is the right decision the one that feels most comfortable or avoids the most conflict? Is the right thing the Godly thing, and is the Godly thing even that clear in this particular case?

Not only is the decision itself stressful, but the process of making the decision can become stressful too! So, how can we make these decisions and get on with living?

Four Rules for Making a Great Decision.

Recently I’ve been reading some of the writings of our ancient Christian brothers and sisters, folks who centuries ago thought long and hard about the way we follow Jesus. There’s really interesting and relevant wisdom there.

In The Spiritual Exercises, a little book about spiritual growth by Ignatius, written in the middle 1500s, I came across a plan for decision making that cuts right through the fog we often find ourselves in.

Ignatius offered four rules for “making a sound and good election.” Turns out these are excellent principles for helping us decide.

1. How would Jesus’ love guide me?

“The First Rule. That love which moves me and brings me to choose the matter in question should descend from above, from the love of God.”

Ignatius understood that when we make decisions, we choose one path or another because of love. He also used the word “attachment.” We have desires and preferences. Regardless of how we logically support our decisions, in the end, we make a decision because we are emotionally moved in one direction or another.

So, Ignatius’ first rule for making decisions is to determine whether the love in our hearts moving us on the matter is Godly. In this case, do we love what God loves? Is the attachment in our heart good for us and good for spiritual growth? Or is it a “disordered affection” (another phrase from Ignatius) that is more about self, or pride, or a sense of security?

For a follower of Jesus, it seems fitting that as best as possible, we act in ways that reflect the kind of love we see in Jesus.

2. How would I counsel a stranger?

“The Second rule. I will imagine a person whom I have never seen or known. Desiring all perfection for him or her, I will consider what I would say in order to bring such a one to act and elect for the greater glory of God…then, doing the same for myself, I will keep the rule which I set up for another.”

Ignatius also understood that it is far easier to see clearly when it comes to the decisions of other people. Our own internal stories, justifications, and fears can make the path to a good decision cloudy and confusing.

So, Ignatius suggests that we imagine a stranger facing the same decision. Then, imagine that we want the best outcome for that person. We want to advise them in a direction that’s not just easy or comfortable, but one that’s good for their lives and growth. Because we don’t have the same worries and attachments in our heart that they have, we may be able to see more clearly. What would we counsel them to do?

Then consider, why would we do something different than what we would counsel this other person to do?

3. How would I decide if I knew I had no more second chances?

“The Third Rule. I will consider, as if I were at the point of death, what procedure and norm I will at that time wish I had used in the present [choice.]”

One of the chief obstacles to good decision making is short-term thinking, and one of the traps of short-term thinking is that we always assume we’re going to have more chances. If we don’t get this decision right, we can just try again. If we make today’s choice because of expediency, or pragmatism, or to avoid discomfort, we expect that in the future we’ll be able to set things right.

Ignatius knew that one of the best ways to look past this trap is to contemplate what this decision would look like from our death-beds. Looking back from our last moment, when there are no more second chances, how would we wish we had chosen?

4. How would I decide if this one decision had to represent my character before God?

“The Fourth Rule. Imagining and considering in what condition I will find myself on judgment day, I will think how at that time I will wish I had decided in regard to the present matter.”

There is one point of reference even more profound than the death-bed. Ignatius asked his students to consider themselves standing in front of God, in that moment of ultimate truth where all our self-justifications and excuses evaporate like mist in the sun. There, in that moment, how might they wish they had made this decision?

Now, of course, not every decision is life and death. Not every choice is a matter of salvation. And yet, every decision we make—no matter how small—builds our life and character. At the moment, a small decision may seem trivial, yet every choice, even the small ones, have a trajectory. Our lives are built from a thousand seemingly trivial decisions. This is where our character comes from. This is how our integrity (or lack of integrity) comes into being.

The trajectory of a choice becomes much clearer if you consider it in this light: What if this one choice was the full representation of my character? What if this one choice was the one God asked me to explain?

Consider this when you make a decision.

Life is full of decisions. Not a day passes without us having to make one. And these decisions—even the smallest ones—shape who we are becoming. Sometimes facing these decisions can be stressful. How are we to choose? Especially when the right path isn’t immediately clear?

Nearly 500 years ago, Ignatius saw this same struggle in the life of the people he offered spiritual direction to. And so he suggested these four principles, each of which can cut through an enormous amount of confusion:

  1. How would Jesus’ love guide me?
  2. How would I counsel a stranger?
  3. How would I decide if I knew I had no more second chances?
  4. How would I decide if this one decision had to represent my character before God?

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6 thoughts on “500 years ago Ignatius suggested we make decisions this way.

  1. So simple yet so hard. The simple part is remembering to put God first in my thoughts, plans, actions and daily living. The hard part is actually doing it. No.3 really hits home: how would I decide if I knew I had no more second chances.

    Thank you.

  2. I love the spiritual exercises and this particular post made me smile – as on my most recent retreat I was using this to reflect on ways forward at this time. One of the best things I’ve ever done was the full spiritual exercises – good to find this post speaking to me 5 months after you wrote it.

    1. Hey Rachma, sorry for missing your comment! I’m so glad you found this and that it was meaningful. Blessings, and thanks for reading and commenting.

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