Why it’s so hard to do the next right thing

The best advice often is easy to believe but difficult to live.

This truth hit home recently when a close friend made what he would confirm was a stupid decision, and I offered up one of my favorite pearls of wisdom: “Trust God and do the next right thing,” which is a slight variation of a famous Oswald Chambers quote.

I love the simplicity of it. In my quest to grow like Jesus, I often find myself falling back on this uncomplicated approach. Our growth depends on our response to the perpetual series of choices we face. How do we make those choices? We start by trusting God. Then we do the next right thing. Rinse and repeat. Maintaining that process doesn’t keep us from failing, but it allows us to react well to both success and failure and to experience growth along the way.

It’s not easy to do. I know, because I’ve lived through many, many of my own failings wherein I was slow to embrace the advice I’m so quick to give.

My friend had broken a trust and damaged an important relationship. Thankfully, he was repentant. He felt shame, guilt, pain and remorse. Some might say those are bad things, but I would suggest they are necessary to move us toward the grace of God. He also was depressed. Self-focused. Overwhelmed. He struggled to get past his mistake and move toward restoration. So, I suggested, among other things, that he stop doing what wasn’t working, then trust God and do the next right thing.

His response: “Not sure I know what that is.”

I realized he wanted to make everything right – to magically transform his world back to the way it was before he erred. That wasn’t possible and he knew it. Still, he had allowed himself to be imprisoned by his mistake. Nothing he could do would fix it, so he didn’t know what to do and, therefore, he did nothing.

The next right thing just seemed way too big to even contemplate.

It’s not. In fact, that’s the beauty of the advice. We can apply it first and foremost with the smallest of things and, over time, it helps us with everything else.

Here’s what I’ve found: The “next right thing” never involves a million complicated actions; just one. …  Breathe. Pray. Ask for forgiveness. Perform an act of service like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. Turn off the television. Read a book. Go to church. Have lunch with a pastor. Go for a run. … But don’t worry about the outcome. That’s why the advice begins with “trust God.” It not only opens us up to discover the next right thing, no matter how seemingly small that thing might be, but it takes the results off our plate and gives them to the One who is eminently more qualified to own them. It allows us to stop asking why so we can start acting in obedience on one small choice after another.

The time to adopt this pattern is now. When we’re overwhelmed by our mistakes – or the pain caused by someone else or by a huge decision or by anything in life – it’s hard to break free unless we’ve already built some muscle from this spiritual discipline. But no matter where we find ourselves, God is waiting to help us move toward something better. We just need to stop doing what isn’t working, trust Him and do the next right thing.

When it’s time to ACT

Sometimes I send myself an email to remind me to do something. It’s usually an idea I want to pursue or a concept I want to include in something that I’m writing. But if I don’t follow up on it quickly, I tend to forget why it mattered in the first place.

This week I was trying to decipher just such a note when I realized the irony of my efforts. The note was two lines. Here it is …

Line 1: “I should. I need to. I want to.”

Line 2: “ACT! Admit. Commit. Try.”

Did I get that from someone else? Or did I come up with it on my own? I have no idea. And what was I thinking or going through when I jotted down those words? Again, I have no idea.

Here’s what I know: There are times when it’s easy to focus on what we should do, what we need to do, and what we want to do – but then to never do it. Like acting on a note you sent yourself that tells you to ACT. Ironic.

I knew, however, that there was some good medicine in those two lines, so I did my best to take it.

Admit what? Maybe that I’m not doing what I should do, need to do, and want to do. Confession is always a good place to start. It sets up repentance, which leads to positive change.

Commit to what? Well, for one thing, commit to my commitment. Sometimes I need to mentally promise to do something so that I’ll hold myself accountable to it. I need to commit to taking something from the “good idea” stage to the “it’s going to happen” stage.

Try what? Something. Anything. Ready, fire, aim! Doing anything – even if it feels unproductive – is the first step toward turning nothing into something. The surest way to go nowhere is to do nothing. A false start is often better than no start at all.

And now you understand what it took to write this blog. There may have been a deeper, more profound meaning to those two lines way back whenever it was that I jotted them down. There might have been some incredible spiritual truth. Whatever it might have been, I’ll never know. But by simply doing what my note suggested, I learned something, I got unstuck, and I got something done.

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Grit: A weapon against enemies of the good

There’s an old saying that we should never let great become the enemy of the good. You’ll see it written in different forms, but they all pretty much draw on the idea expressed by Voltaire: “The best is the enemy of the good.”

So I almost didn’t write a blog this week because I felt certain I couldn’t give it my best. I had several ideas for things to write about, but I was slammed by a variety of projects. I didn’t want to give them less than my best, but I wanted to keep my personal commitment to write a weekly blog. It’s an exercise that helps me grow as a writer and as a person, and that hopefully helps a few readers along the way.

So what to do?

I started by reflecting on Voltaire, and then I made the simple decision to act by writing something. Anything. And this is what I produced.front-cover

Frankly, I don’t know that this blog reflects my best, but then again, I seldom finish anything I write without thinking I somehow could have done better.

In Forging Grit, the short book Mike Thompson and I authored that was published last year, we tell the story of a business leader who survives a plane crash in Nepal and finds himself in a seemingly hopeless situation. He learns about grit from the women in a village and he develops the grit he needs to survive. We define grit as a passion for getting something done and the fortitude to see it through even when obstacles seem overwhelming.

There were no overwhelming obstacles preventing me from writing something this week, but there was one significant obstacle: My initiative. So I needed some personal grit to put down these words. Hopefully they weren’t a waste of your time. They weren’t a waste of mine.

As Helen Keller said, “I cannot do everything, but I can do something. I must not fail to do the something that I can do.”

Are you feeling a bit stuck? Is the best becoming the enemy of your good?  Take Helen’s advice. Show some grit and do the something that you can do.