Over the past few days, the governor of Washington state prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle area, the governor of Kentucky called on churches to suspend weekly services, and the governor of New York called in the National Guard to oversee a one-mile containment region in the New York suburb of New Rochelle.
Across the country, schools and colleges are closing their campuses, while in the halls of Congress, senators and representatives are putting themselves under self-quarantine. The stock market has dropped, risen, and dropped again. And all of these massive effects are a result of the smallest of organisms—a virus.
While only a small amount of the population has contracted COVID-19 (at least so far), the virus has infected the entire country with uncertainty. And many of us are feeling overwhelmed.
Types of Uncertainty
Uncertainty can be defined as a situation involving imperfect or unknown information in which we may (or may not) need to make a decision. In his 1921 book Risk, Uncertainty and Profit, Frank Knight distinguished between two types of uncertainty. The first type is when we know the potential outcomes in advance, and we may even know the odds of these outcomes in advance. This type is often called “risk.” However, true uncertainty, according to Knight, is unmeasurable and unquantifiable.
In a sense, all of life is uncertain. As Proverbs 27:1 tells us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” But much of human activity involves mere risk, measurable forms of uncertainty. We know, for instance, that riding in an automobile entails a certain risk of injury or death. Yet because the uncertainty (risk) of auto accidents is quantifiable (and relatively low), millions of Americans drive without fear or concern.
True uncertainty, precisely because it is unquantifiable, can leave us paralyzed and afraid to act. But despite our best efforts to avoid it, such uncertainty is a feature of human life in a fallen world. And the lack of certainty about what the day will bring does not relieve us of our duty to make wise and thoughtful decisions about how we will proceed. In fact, the more power and responsibility that has been given to us, the more complex, difficult, and numerous our decisions become.
King David’s Clarifying Questions
Consider, for example, King David, who was frequently required to make difficult decisions based on the requests made of him. Throughout the book of 2 Samuel we find him using an uncomplicated technique that aided his decision-making: asking simple, clarifying questions. Time and again we find David asking small, simple questions such as, “What shall I do for you?” or “What do you want me to do for you?” (2 Sam. 21:2-4).
At first glance this may seem trivial. After all, who doesn’t ask such questions? But when we look closer we see that David uses such simple questions to collect information necessary for making complex decisiona\s. As the American management expert W. Edwards Deming explained, “The ultimate purpose of taking data is to provide a basis for action or a recommendation.” Asking simple questions is often more fruitful than complex questions in helping us to collect data and clarify our concerns.
How then can we use this technique in our current age of uncertainty? Here are five suggestions.
1. Narrow the timeframe.
In times of uncertainty—whether on a personal level or on a global scale—it’s often helpful to refrain from making decisions that extend too far into the future. Imagine, for example, that we feel uncertain about our immediate future and believe it is an opportunity to change the direction of our spiritual lives. A broad, complex question to ask would be, “What change in my life does God want me make so that I could better serve him?” A simpler question to ask might be, “What could I do this week to better serve God?”
The small question helps us to narrow our focus, in this case from the span of a lifetime to a single week. This frees our minds to think about small-scale solutions to our problem. Asking small questions that help us solve small, immediate problems (e.g., what do I do this week) can often help us to identify how to answer larger questions (e.g., how should I change my life). We might decide, for instance, that the best way we could serve this week is to help underprivileged children. This may point us to the larger change we seek to make, such as becoming a foster parent.
2. Base decisions on what you can affect or control.
A primary purpose of collecting information is to help us make a decision. But we are frequently tempted to confuse information for opinion formation with information necessary for decision-making. For instance, thinking we need to be properly informed, we may spend a considerable amount of time trying to determine for ourselves whether the coronavirus is a legitimate national threat or an overhyped media-induced panic.
While such information may arm us for incessant debates on social media, they don’t do much to help us to actually prepare as individuals. A smaller, more helpful, question might be, “What could I do personally to both prevent panic and prevent the virus from becoming a broader threat?” Narrowing the question in that way can help us see that individual small actions—such as keep calm, avoid crowds, and wash our hands—may be all that is necessary to fulfill our duty to neighbors.
3. Determine what you need to know to act wisely.
One of the simplest questions we should ask ourselves is, “What do I need to know to act prudently?”
As Proverbs 13:16 says, “All who are prudent act with knowledge, but fools expose their folly.” In the Bible, prudence entails (1) careful, wise discernment; (2) avoidance of rash behavior or speech; (3) good management of talents and resources; and (4) showing tact and wisdom in relationships with other people. When preparing to make a decision in the face of uncertainty, we need to consider all four of those factors of prudence, and gather the type of information that can help us to “act with knowledge.”
4. Don’t let uncertainty make you dumb.
Uncertainty can also cause us to forget what we already know. For example, many Christians put money in the stock market as means of saving for the future (Prov. 6:6-8). If you ask them their investing strategy, many will fall back on boring, tried-and-true principles, such as “buy low, sell high” and buy-and-hold until the money is needed. Yet when seeing the balance of their 401k decreasing, they panic, and consider getting out of the market, even if it means taking a loss.
Before making such rash decisions, we should ask the simple question, “What changed?” Did the principles on which we made the investing decision change? Has our time horizon shortened (e.g., am I closer to needing the money now, than I was a week ago)? If nothing has changed except the level of short-term uncertainty, then we should consider whether it would be wise not to make a change.
5. Connect all small questions to the two big question.
The uncertainty of our age must never be used as an excuse to circumvent God’s unchanging commands. That means that in our process of decision-making, every small question must ultimately be connected to two big questions: (1) Does this decision express love for God? and (2) Does this decision express love for my neighbor?
These two questions should remind us we serve both an infallible God and also his fallible creatures. And it should help remind us that our best option in our age of uncertainty is to ask them both the small question of King David: “What shall I do for you?”