Several years ago, when talking with a college student in my ministry, he confessed feeling distant from God. He asked me what he should do.
I get often get asked such questions: how do I overcome such sins? How do I grow closer to God? And so on. I always find these questions difficult to answer. I almost wished they would ask me my thoughts on predestination or the New Perspective on Paul. My suggestions fall flat with the students, or at least that is how it feels to me.
But almost every time, I suggest that they add in some accountability, Bible reading, and maybe even a little fasting. The person leaves the meeting slightly encouraged, with a list of activities to add into his life in the hopes that his spiritual life improves.
Notice the outline of my approach: a person comes to me with a spiritual problem, and I give them a list of activities that are meant to solve the problem. My first step in solving a problem is to prescribe a dose of new activities.
We do this with many areas of our lives: our health, improving our marriages, improving our parenting, improving our finances, etc. We try to improve problems in these areas by doing something more than we are already doing.
The other day, in the midst of a long drive, I was thinking about what I could do to increase my quality time with my family. More vacations? A new hobby that we can all participate in? Then I remembered an article I’d just read on one of my new favorite blogs, Farnam Street, written by Shane Parrish. In an article entitled “Inversion and The Power of Avoiding Stupidity”, Parrish described one of the “mental models” that he often writes about.
He calls this mental model “inversion.” Here is how he defines it:
It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backwards. “Indeed,” says Munger, “many problems can’t be solved forward.”
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Say you want to create more innovation at your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem by inversion, however, you’d think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today.
Another example, rather than think about what makes a good life, you can think about what prescriptions would ensure misery.
While both thinking forward and thinking backwards result in some action, you can think of them as additive vs. subtractive. And the difference is meaningful. Despite the best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm (iatrogenics). Thinking backwards, call it subtractive avoidance or inversion, is less likely to cause harm.
Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter.
This isn’t a groundbreaking thought. Some of you might have already thought about this; some of you might appreciate a reminder; some of you mihgt have never thought in this way.
But what if we first approached our spiritual problems, relationship problems, and other life problems by first asking:
What are the things I do that create this problem?
What are the things I do that keep this problem around and make it worse?
Or, if you want to think less about problems and more about goals you want to achieve, what if you asked:
What am I doing that prevents me from reaching this goal?
Perhaps this way of thinking won’t completely remove your problem or help you reach your goals. But I suspect it will substantially help. Some of our habits create drag on our attempts to address our problems and reach our goals. Instead of looking for something to propel us toward solving our problems or reaching our goals, what if we first spent time discerning what obstacles stand in the way? Then we can begin by removing those obstacles or guarding against them.
Improving My Time with Family
As I said earlier, I wanted to have better quality time with my family. As I drove back from my weekend camping with my father and my brother, I thought about ways that I could increase my quality time with my family. I thought of vacations we could take, afternoon activities we could do, and hobbies we could take up together.
But what if I first thought about this using inversion? Why not start by brainstorming my habits that reduce my quality time with my family?
And so I did.
I thought of several things. First, when I don’t manage my time management and work commitments well, I end up working longer during the week, working on the weekend, or just being stressed and exhausted when I’m home. I could improve the quality of my family time by setting up better boundaries between my work and my time with my family.
Second, I’ve always had terrible sleep habits; my mother says this was evident even when I was an infant. I don’t get enough sleep, and I end up easily annoyed and frustrated. With three kids ages five and under, quality time with my family depends on me not being easily frustrated and annoyed. So getting more and better sleep can improve my quality time with my family.
Third, even when I’m at home and well-slept, I’ve allowed distractions and hobbies to interfere with my family time. If I turn my phone off –– or, at least, stop carrying it around with me while at home –– I won’t be so distracted. And if I refuse to work on hobbies during the key times when our family is together, that would help.
So, rather than begin by adding a vacation or shared hobbies with my family, I can increase my quality time with my family by first looking at what interferes (or would interfere) with having quality time with my family.
Notice that the way Shane Parrish described this was that we were avoiding stupidity. This is true in this case. If I add a vacation or a weekly hobby to do with my family, those efforts themselves would have been rendered useless by being tired, allowing work to encroach upon my family time, and other distractions.
I think this can be applied to other areas of our lives. Let me explain how inversion can help us address personal finances, spiritual struggles, and Christian ministry.
We all have (or should have) financial goals. Debt repayment, savings, retirement savings, charitable giving, and other goals. We often try to improve our financial situation by thinking of extra actions that will help our financial situation: an extra job, a hobby we can monetize, switching to a higher paying job, improving our returns on our investments, and so on.
But what if we started by listing the things we do or would be tempted to do that hurt our financial situation? We could stop spending without a budget, not tracking expenditures, impulse buys, buying things that depreciate quickly, buying things we don’t really need, not checking in on our progress on our financial goals, among other.
If you didn’t limit these things, then earning extra money would not really help.
As I said at the beginning of the article, I am often asked by people how they are supposed to handle their spiritual apathy or spiritual struggles. And my tendency is to try to suggest that they begin adding in practices that will help their spiritual life: involvement in a Christian community, spiritual disciplines, and so on.
But what if we approached this by first asking what activities interfere with our spiritual growth and have a detrimental effect on our Christian maturity. Perhaps it’s a group of friends who negatively influence you; perhaps it’s a television show you watch; perhaps it’s a job which encourages selfish ambition or greed; perhaps it’s being so busy that you don’t have time for worshipping with a body of Christians or to spend much time with Christians who mentor you in your faith.
What if you began addressing your spiritual apathy or your spiritual struggles by looking for the things you already do that negatively affect your spiritual maturity? Then you could remove those.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met with someone who feels spiritually apathetic, and he’s left the meeting determined to pray more frequently and read his Bible every morning. A week or two goes by, he get busy or his schedule changes and interrupts his new routine, and his commitment to pray more often and read his Bible is left behind.
The newer habits are gone, but the older, negative actions and habits remain.
I think if we started with removing (and guarding against) the things that hurt our spiritual maturity, then we’d have much more success in addressing our spiritual apathy and struggles.
Most churches and ministries work toward a goal. Paul says his goal for his churches was Christian maturity, to present them pure and blameless before God. Many churches and ministries are concerned that their churches are not evangelistic enough. Or there might be a concern that the church doesn’t have a strong sense of community among themselves.
All these concerns are biblical, but one of the difficulties of ministry is finding ways to address these problems. Our tendency is often to add new programs or classes or events that address these problems.
But most churches unwittingly do things that counteract their goals. For example, a church which wants to be more evangelistic might be overloading their members’ calendars with church events. If we don’t give members time in their schedule to invest in relationships with non-Christians, it’s not very realistic to expect them to evangelize. So a church that wants to be more evangelistic can begin by reducing the busyness of the church’s activities and guarding against it. The church might also be emphasizing the role of professional ministers and unknowingly sending the message that true church work needs to be left to the talented and trained professionals. Such an attitude causes the members to think they aren’t well-prepared enough to actually talk with a non-Christian about our faith.
We are creatures of habits, which means that we often get stuck in old ways of thinking or ways of approaching problems. You might not find an immediate application in your life or ministry to which you can apply inversion. But learning different ways to approach problems, especially spiritual problems, is invaluable.
I hope that in your reflection on your life or, if you are involved in Christian ministry, you ministry, you can find inversion helpful.
Join other dedicated readers of Thinking and Believing and subscribe to the email list. You'll receive every new post in your inbox, so you never have to worry about missing a post. Click here to subscribe.