Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Economic practice…

I recently finished a book about Behavioral Economics called Misbehaving by Richard Thaler.  I read such books, so you know both, to learn something new and to impress my econ-trained wife!  Misbehaving had numerous good stories and insights, though one just became personally relevant.  Let me explain.

First off, ask yourself: How well do people make shopping decisions? One classic answer is that, by and large, people shop rationally, i.e. get the most value for the lowest price. Thaler thinks, however, that we’re not always so efficient. Indeed, we make irrational decisions constantly, he says, but fortunately, not randomly. We are predictably irrational; say, regularly grabbing the first bag of chips we see rather than comparison shop waaay back in the chips aisle.

Sound familiar… Nevertheless, critics have responded, “Who cares? People might behave irrationally when buying chips. But for big stuff with much at stake, like buying a new roof, people will behave rationally.” Which also sounds plausible. But as someone currently purchasing a new roof, I find Thaler’s rejoinder convincing. He further suggests that because we buy chips more frequently than roofs, we get good at such decisions. Like practice for soccer players, the more we do it, the more efficient we can become.

Conversely, most rarely “get good” at roof shopping because it’s so seldom done. That’s how I currently feel. We made a hail insurance claim and know that the insurance company and contractors have both more experience and self-interest. Whose information to trust? How much time to spend on this unfamiliar decision? Thus, I feel less like the self-maximizing rational actor of classic economic theory. I’m more like Thaler’s bumbling amateur making the best of a situation, with much still at stake.

Hence, why I read such books!  I’ll let you know if that helps.  But for now, apply that idea to spirituality.  In particular, consider forgiveness.  Maybe close your eyes and think about what forgiveness really means, why it really matters….

Did you think about a BIG sin? Betrayal? Abuse? Violence? If so, you’re not alone. It’s how many Christians understand forgiveness, egged on by their preachers. We tell powerful stories, hear dramatic testimony of people begging forgiveness for something HUGE. Their subsequent transformation into Redeemed Sinner inspires folk, convinces folk that grace is real.

But isn’t that equivalent to a roof purchase? After all, moments when grace is massively needed aren’t how most experience forgiveness. We deal with simpler stuff more often- ignoring a spouse’s impatient comment, giving a pass to a tired kid, saying, “That’s alright,” when a co-worker apologizes for insensitivity. That list is loooong! But I worry that because many reserve the term ‘forgiveness’ for just The BIG Sins, they consider themselves unpracticed at grace, ignorant of forgiveness’ full dimensions.

At worst, this leads some to overinflate their sinfulness, like equating white lies with abuse. Which are certainly not the same, but such ‘sin inflation’ is common in many churches. People are told that God forgives sin, that everyone sins, but the only forgiveness stories told are the BIG, dramatic ones. A + B, therefore, = We’re All Depraved Monsters.

But, again, such dramatic stories are outliers, right? Not the common experience of daily, faithful living, suggesting that most Christians are well-practiced at forgiveness, or can become so. I find that idea empowering! It means that, a) practical spirituality can produce a HUGE testimony to grace, when viewed over time. Are you a Christian who’s maybe never had a dramatic conversion, but have worked for decades to get better at forgiving? The grace you’ve accumulated and shared is impressive. Well done!

It also means, b) when people struggle to accept or extend forgiveness for BIG things, it’s not necessarily because they’re irredeemable. Like roof purchases, most folk don’t often encounter that need. We’re typically amateurs, who might need time to find and accept other’s wise counsel. Just don’t give up on someone if s/he doesn’t come around immediately.

Call that the Behavioral Economics of Forgiveness. If you find other implications, let me know. In the meantime, remember that simple graces aren’t irrelevant. They’re building blocks for daily spirituality. So practice often, and practice well.

Grace and Peace,

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