Big Decisions and Our Biggest Concerns

A friend has asked recently about whether he and his wife ought to keep possession of a luxurious cottage they inherited in lake country. Having grown up on a lake myself, and having married a woman whose family enjoyed a summer cottage, I’m immediately inclined to the strongly affirmative.

He’s asking me, though, because of my job as a theologian and ethicist. So here’s the response I gave him in that register:

Dear Chris,

Houses are tools by which we do certain jobs in order to achieve certain goals. My house shelters my family so that we will be safe, together, and comfortable, among other goals.

You and your wife likely are already thinking this way, but may I urge you to consider afresh (1) what God has asked you to accomplish with your wealth; (2) how you then plan to accomplish those goals; and (3) whether retaining the lake house is, in fact, the best tool for that job.

I worry that I can always find a good, “Christian” reason to do almost anything I want to do. So it has helped me to step back, prayerfully check in with God, and ask, “Okay, what are my chief goals? How can I best achieve them? And, now, is this particular thing/mode/activity/habit/purchase the best tool of all the options I can find to do one or more of these jobs?”

All the time your parents spent on that cottage is impressive, and not to be trivialized. But don’t fall prey to the “sunk costs” fallacy: “Well, they spent so much on it so far, we’d better keep investing in it.” That was then, this is now. What was right in one context might not be optimal in another. And that’s the challenge: Not just to “avoid doing bad, stupid things” but to “do the best thing you can,” to maximize shalom, as you know I like to say.

You previously had talked things over with your parents and spent time there as an adult, so you have a good idea of what you will have to spend rehabbing it, restocking it, scheduling it, maintaining it, protecting it, and so on. Here’s a hint: If you feel that the phrase “in order to justify it” occurs to you at the end of the previous sentence, then maybe you’re not picking the right tool for the job.

Tools shouldn’t need justification! Goals need justification. Jobs/strategies need justification. But then the best tools/tactics simply emerge as “what the job requires.” Justifying a tool is to go at it all backwards. And it’s usually a sign that you’re justifying something else, some other value that you prefer to remain out of the light.

So may you enjoy God’s freedom in this decision: the freedom to keep the house or to sell it, and, if you sell it, to do then what seems right to you to do with the proceeds. Just make sure you’re referring to first principles, to life goals, to the Big Things that Matter Most, and I am sure your wife and you, in whom I have great confidence, will decide rightly.

With love (and with a little envy balanced with a little relief that this is not a decision I have to make!),

John

One Response to “Big Decisions and Our Biggest Concerns”

  1. Kim

    John,

    I think that’s a helpful framework – since we don’t want to hold onto things that prevent us from accomplishing our vocations. My question is: why are their own individual vocations are the only ones in view? What about the needs of the community? Is this something that can be held “in common” for the shalom of their community? Perhaps this is what you meant by maximizing shalom. Personally, I’ve been struck by how much leisure divides the rich and poor in our churches, and I’ve been impressed by several examples of wealthy christian friends (although it is only a few) who have purchased vacation homes as places for community hospitality. Notably, these are the same friends who have a diverse network of relationships up and down the economic scale. How do the needs of one’s community fit into moral discernment? Vocation is one lens – we can’t meet all the needs of the community on our own, and we’re called to our particularly contributions through our own gifts and skills – but I’m having trouble imagining a vocation that would allow a yes to the vacation house without a corresponding yes to the community.

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