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The Foolishness of Hind Sight Bias

Sometimes we are prone to kicking ourselves with hindsight saying, “I did the wrong thing there,” because we assume we should have been able to read God’s secret will. We did what was morally right in the situation. What happened was that we simply had no way of knowing the future.

  • Roger Oliver,
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At this stage of my life, one of my favorite passages is Ecclesiastes 3:10–13.

I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied.
God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives. I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live, and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God.

Your Bible may say eternity instead of ignorance. The words for ignorance and eternity in Hebrew are very close cousins, from the same three letter root. Here, it is more correctly translated ignorance. Besides the linguistic support, ignorance certainly fits the context better. It makes complete sense, don’t you think? And isn’t this the way we experience life?

The passage is introduced with a question in verse 9: “What benefit can a worker gain from his toil?” Growing up with the not-so-Biblical idea of retirement, it is a question that is especially pertinent to a missionary nearly seventy years old trying to manage a Christian school, a church, and a startup business.

What was I thinking when I decided to do this at my age? For one, to eat, drink and find enjoyment in my toil for these things are gifts from God. Looking back on life, there are certainly a lot of things I would do differently if I could do them over. But life, rather God, does not give us do-overs like hopscotch in grade school. He knows what He is doing. He doesn’t tell us the future, but He does tell us how to live.

It’s frustrating enough to make a mistake and kick yourself in the behind for it. But it is worse when well-meaning folks, who should be your cheerleaders, point out all that you are doing wrong. I appreciate your concern, but it isn’t helping right now. What are you saying? That I should just quit because I don’t have the right stuff or the financing, or I need personnel with expertise I can’t afford? How do you get good at something without actually doing it, failing and trying again until you master it?

And then there are the woulda, shoulda, couldas. Yes, I could have done that but I didn’t. It is what it is. Time machines are science fiction. Our limited energy and resources will be better spent thinking about what we are going to do now.

Another example of this tendency is to swear we will never make the same mistake again. I’m going to be sure I don’t do business again with a person like that. Oh yeah? How do you know? Did your experience give you clairvoyant insight into other peoples’ character? Yes, there are prudent precautions and we hope to learn from our mistakes but there are no guarantees. You can be fooled again. And you will never accomplish anything if you don’t risk some degree of trust in other people. Do your due diligence the best you can, pray about it, make a decision and move on it. Then leave the unknowns to God.

Something that is helpful in starting a new venture is to test your assumptions. Any startup is fraught with unknowns. Before you go full bore on a business idea, find a way to test your assumptions. Make something you think people will like and test it in the market. Eventually you have to get out from behind the computer into the marketplace, better sooner than later. Analysis paralysis kills a lot of good ideas before they get a chance to see the light of day.

Why do we agonize so over our bad decisions? It’s simply foolish hindsight bias. We judge our decisions and actions based on our more compete knowledge after the fact, knowledge we did not have when we made the decision.

In a series of talks by R.J. Rushdoony on salvation, I came across a perfect theological explanation of why we do this, why it never work,s and why it is a waste of time and energy that is better spent deciding what to do next. There is a better way to think about this. The talk was titled, “Salvation vs. Insurance.” The following quote is a quote from the question and answer session at the end of the talk.

There is a difference between knowing God’s Word and discerning God’s secret will. Sometimes we are more intent on discerning God’s secret will than we should be. We wonder what God has around the corner for us and how can I be guided by that. And of course, we indulge in a lot of wishful thinking. We can be guided by His Word. His Word tells us the way to walk under His law and the kind of faith we should have in Him. While we need to be prudent and provident and think ahead, beyond that we cannot go too far.

Sometimes we are prone to kicking ourselves with hindsight saying, “I did the wrong thing there,” because we assume we should have been able to read God’s secret will. We did what was morally right in the situation. What happened was that we simply had no way of knowing the future. We have to accept that sort of thing instead of exercising foolish hindsight. We ought to say instead, “I did what was godly and right, I didn’t have the wisdom of hindsight, but God is able to make this kind of mistake work together for good.” Accept it and go on.

We know that God has a purpose in everything. If we say we suppose He has a purpose, we are saying maybe He does, but I can’t see it. It just doesn’t make sense to me, so I don’t know what farfetched idea God has behind this. We wish, very simply, that God would listen to us. We have an idea of how the thing would work out if we were handling it and that is what we want God to do. This is why it is a mistake to worry too much at times about what God’s secret will and purpose is. We know what His revealed will and purpose are and we can be guided by that. The other is what makes us fret when we spend too much time troubling ourselves about it.

What then is the conclusion of the matter? Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 says,

Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man.
For God will evaluate every deed, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

  • Roger Oliver

Roger Oliver serves as a missionary in Puebla, Mexico. He and his wife, Marcy spend most of their time at the Pierre Viret Learning Center, a Christian academy, preschool through high school. Their local church meets in the Learning Center. They sponsor a web page to promote Christian reconstruction in Latin America. Roger is a partner in a furniture manufacturing company. The business exists to provide employment to the families in the community, to help the community become independent, to generate capital for other family businesses and as a venue for vocational discipleship. He retired from the US Army in 1992. He earned his MBA at Syracuse University for the Army and completed a ThM in Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.

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