Cleaning the Garage

Here’s something from a college Ethics course I taught some years ago: a case study in how we do decision-making. I hope you find it useful.

Most of us are informal Stoics. We view decision making as an exercise in logic and choosing. That, in turn, sets up our view of ethics—that we become good people by making good choices. But what about the heart, the center of our affections? The Bible treats the heart as the single motive center of the soul. But do heart desires—what we love—actually shape our choices?

Let’s consider a husband. He’s watching a game on television when his wife asks him to help her clean out the garage. Her goal is to rearrange things so both cars can fit inside when the winter snow arrives. He pauses and responds, “Sure thing, Dear.” He sets up the recording for the rest of the game and joins her in the garage.

There are different views about how souls make decisions. So what happened in the pause between the wife’s request and the husband’s response? Let’s consider some possibilities.

1. The rational soul. H (for husband) considers his wife’s request. It’s reasonable since the weather is sure to turn for the worse in a few more weeks. He and his wife are both prone to catching colds so it will help if they avoid the bad weather. A clean garage with room for both cars parked inside is a reasonable step to take. And the present time is as good as any—she’s already at it and the game can be recorded—so H gets up and helps his wife. It all made sense.

2. The volitional—will-based—soul. H considers his wife’s request. He knows it makes sense but overcoming the inertia of reclining in a comfortable couch with a drink in hand while watching a great game is challenging. But he knows the garage project is both a good idea and a family necessity. The only question is, “now or later?” So with a surge of willpower he gets up and joins his wife in the garage.

3. The affective model. H groans inwardly when he hears his wife’s request. She’s been on him about the garage for weeks and mentions it whenever he’s watching a game—a pastime he knows she despises. But he also knows that Tim wants him to go fishing the following Saturday. And there’s no way he’ll be able to talk her into that trip if the garage project isn’t done today. Argghhh! So he quickly concludes, I’ll do it now and get her off my back! Then I can use the garage cleaning as a bargaining chip for the fishing trip next Saturday. H then gets up and heads to the garage.

We may read these scenarios in different ways. Some of us might assume, for instance, that the mind, will, and affections operate like a ship’s crew. The affections are quarreling among themselves until the commanding officer—the Will—brings order with a clear, well reasoned command.

But does the Bible support this picture? Constant Bible references to the heart point to the affective model, as in Proverbs 4:23, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Indeed, the idea that either our rationality or volition—or a combination of the two—is somehow affection-free is nonsense. Every decision is desire-based: shaped by what we value most. And without desires to guide us we would never do a thing.

Consider, for a moment, the “rational” scenario we used. We can argue that H valued the status of being a wise man and husband—perhaps through family training as a child; and with ongoing support of his wife. But if we go below the surface even his apparent rationality was still sorting options on the basis of his desires: of being able to watch his game—eventually—while still valuing his wife’s concern. He also valued good health: the main motive in this illustration. So even this approach is a value-based scenario.

So, too, is the “volitional” vignette as it features competing desires. The “inertia” that held H in the couch was the double desire of watching the game and enjoying his comfort. The “inevitable” status of the garage project is given as the motive force, and “willpower” is the faculty that produces H’s action.

But the language of this illustration actually hides the real motive: by labeling H’s external behavior—getting off the couch—as an act of the will we lose sight of the value-sampling that was actually in play. A number of unstated motives might have been present: fear of his wife’s anger; concern for his status; personal guilt over the mess in the garage; and his pattern of making his wife park her car outside. Or even a real affection for his wife that is stronger than his desire for the game. Calling it “willpower” only avoids noticing the true motivations.

This is nothing new! As far back as 1521 Philip Melanchthon in his Loci Communes Theologici voiced Martin Luther’s belief about the battles we face in each moment of every day: “internal affections are not in our power, for by experience and habit we find that the will cannot in itself control love, hate, or similar affections, but affection is overcome by affection.” So that life consists in ongoing competitions among our many desires.

With that insight in play how does our love for the Lord make a difference? Is he a strong desire or a modest ideal? Do we always include him: “Lord, how can I please you in this moment?”

If we’re a bit weak here let me suggest giving God more heart exposure. Or, as the psalmist put it, “Taste and see, the Lord is good.” You can be sure he’ll win lots of hard-fought heart battles if he’s given half a chance!



  1. Brenda

    Ron, don’t forget the cardinal rule for a happy marriage. “Happy wife, happy life.”

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