Choosing the Best
The peanut butter aisle of a major grocery store presents the average shopper with a great moral dilemma. From the wide variety of options available, how does one select which jar of peanut butter to purchase? The discerning shopper has to be able to select between multiple brands and different price points. Furthermore, the all-important crunchy or creamy decision needs to be made. As the shopper makes his or her final choice, other factors must be taken into account–size, value, taste, quality, ingredients, and nutritional information can all sway human will one direction or another. Subconsciously, a person may be influenced by Skippy’s marketing campaigns or drawn to the bright red lid on top of a jar of Jif. Budget-minded shoppers are moved by weekly deals and manufacturer’s coupons. After briefly deliberating, the shopper selects, from amongst a host of options, the peanut butter that best suits their needs and criteria.
While the process of choosing peanut butter may seem to be a trivial and humorous example, the truth remains that human beings are presented with a variety of choices to make each day. In order to act, our will must be moved by some aim, goal, purpose, end, or rationality. When we act, in both big things and small things, we ultimately choose what we perceive to be the best option for us. As Aristotle argues, every human act and purpose aims at some good. When the multitude of individual human actions are considered collectively, it becomes clear that each single action is part of the larger pursuit for a greater good. Aristotle defines the final end to which all human choices and actions aspire as “the good or the best of all things.”1 Even on the peanut butter aisle at the local grocery store, we strive for the best, or at least what we determine to be the best in the moment.
Re-training the Will
Human decision-making, while aiming at “the best of all things,” often errors in judgment. We make choices without having access to all relevant information and with a narrow perception of reality. Returning to the peanut butter example, a shopper might pick the best peanut butter based on maximizing cost, taste, and nutritional value, only to come home and find that the best peanut butter is rancid or moldy inside. On the grocery store aisle, the customer cannot see inside the package so the choice is made within certain limitations. Furthermore, human decision-making often determines what is best within narrow confines. One shopper might determine that lowest cost is best to the detriment of quality and taste. Another shopper might determine that quality is best to the detriment of a limited monthly grocery budget. In all of these examples, the human will stives for the best but falls short–sometimes due to extenuating circumstances and sometimes due to the weakness of human will itself.
If the nature of the human condition is to strive to live the best life possible according to human wisdom, then the Christian life is living the best life possible according to the wisdom of God. This, however, requires a significant re-training of human will and the powers of reason. In order for us to live the best life possible, God must teach us how to discern what is truly best and consistently choose the best. As Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2b NRSV). God has to reshape our minds to be able to correctly identify the good in the world around us so that our will can choose what is truly best in the moment.
Living the Best
In today’s culture, certain prosperity preachers are fond of saying things like, “God wants you to live your best life now.” While the prosperity gospel is a gross distortion of the truth of Christianity, the prosperity preachers are right about one thing: God does in fact want people to live the best lives possible. Jesus himself said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10b). There is no better life than the abundant life of Jesus. However, Jesus makes this statement in the context of teaching about himself as the “good shepherd” who cares for the sheep of his flock.2 Sheep, as many people know, are notoriously dumb. Sheep need the guidance of a good shepherd in order to live abundantly. On their own, they go astray or find themselves in places of trouble (Luke 15:3-5).
Every day human beings aspire toward the best, whether we are buying peanut butter or houses. Our human reason assesses the situation and presents our will with a choice that is determined to be most ideal. Whether we are choosing an outfit for the day or a spouse for life, we attempt to make the best choices. However, we often fall short in reaching the best. In order to live a full and abundant life, the Scriptures teach us that we need God to guide us, teach us, and strengthen us. On our own, we are forced to make choices from within our limited understanding and resources. Within the grace of God, we are freed to make choices on the basis of God’s unlimited wisdom and goodness. The Good Shepherd is ready, willing, and able to lead us into the life that is truly “the best of all things” as defined on God’s terms, not our own. We must be open, on our end, to have our minds and wills transformed by his power so that we can choose the best.
(1) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1.1
(2) Read the whole context of John 10:1-18.