March 7, 2024

The Danger of Outsourcing Your Inner Compass

The other day I was thinking about what to do next: go to bed, read, write… what was the “best” option, when I remembered how, in a past life, I probably would have prayed about it.

When it comes to making decisions, Christian teaching can be summed up in 6 words: “lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)1. Pair those words with the revered teaching of Brother Lawrence2 and you can understand why a person with this worldview might pray to decide if they should do the laundry first or make breakfast. Like talking to yourself, but weird.

While thinking about this, it struck me how this is nothing more than outsourcing your responsibility to make your own decisions. Instead of knowing your individual needs, relying on your own life experience and self-knowledge to make a decision–any decision–it’s the equivalent of asking dad what to do. Except that dad doesn’t exist, so whatever you do is whatever your psyche thinks you should do, which is actually you making the decision, except that now the reasoning is outside your conscious awareness.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

– Carl Jung

fundamentally broken

Christians are taught the doctrine of “original sin” – that they are inherently broken. The central tenet of their theology is an inability to trust themselves, because without Jesus they are worthless sinners, incapable of doing anything good on their own. This is not hyperbole; the way I’m stating this is mild compared to, I don’t know, average worship song lyrics.

Christians are not only taught not to trust their gut, but to avoid anyone that might provide unsanctioned data. So if trusting yourself, knowing yourself, and listening to your gut are unlicensed skills, how do they make decisions? They “pray about it” and read a book written before the existence of germ theory.

Let me state this as clearly as I can.

When you are explicitly told:

  • you cannot trust yourself
    • you should lean on god for understanding
      • god’s understanding = the Bible
        • the Bible has a billion interpretations
          • you don’t have time/ability/energy to determine which interpretation is “correct”

…the natural result, for many people, is to rely on a third party for the “correct” interpretation and instructions on how to live your life. Your inner compass is a transplant, and it opens you up to infection by charismatic leaders who know how to manipulate interpretations to their own benefit.

This is why so much of Christianity is a cult. This is why there’s a new story every week about another child-molesting youth pastor or a coverup of decades of abuse by a senior pastor. When power dynamics are at play, this is always an issue. But Christians are explicitly taught not to have self-confidence or a sense of their own inherent value. They are broken; only Jesus gives them value. So if something bad happens, it must be their fault. They internalize the shame and pray harder, all while being preyed upon.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here.

What I’m getting at is that knowing the “right” thing to do often requires trusting your gut. This means leaning on your experience as a human navigating life. Hopefully, on a varied range of experiences that give you more data. When you make mistakes and recognize them as your own and learn from them, when you do something that doesn’t feel right so you course-correct next time… you are developing a sense of who you are and what matters to you. This is what it means to grow up. This is how you develop an internal compass.

If you are constantly outsourcing the criteria for your decision-making to the churchgoer who volunteered to teach Sunday School that week, whose internal compass do you have? What if you leave your faith? Do you leave the compass?

This abdication of a moral center to an outside authority would be a step towards explaining the unholy marriage of Christianity and right-wing politics in America. Someone who believes, at their core, that women are not objects to be abused would not so quickly reshape their compass around a rapist. Anyone who took to heart the words of Yeshua/Jesus: “…whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” 3 can immediately see how the application of this principle is in stark contrast to encouraging and legislating hate against children. I can’t believe I have to say this, but dehumanizing people leads to violence against those people.

This is the danger of outsourcing your inner compass: it becomes a small thing to direct your anger to wherever the talking heads point next, because you are adrift and easily manipulated. A rudderless boat is easy for others to steer.

This isn’t a solely Christian problem, or even a spiritual problem.

Let’s step away from the horrific, moralist aspects of this for a moment and realize that the idea of an inner compass also applies to much more mundane decisions.

You go to college because your parents want you to. You become a lawyer because it seems like a good idea. You have kids because you’re at that section of the board in the game of life. But this is real Life, and you’re the only one who can live yours. As a society, too much of what we do is on autopilot, and we need more introspection happening at every age, around every decision. This is true regardless of your personal history with religion.

At the end of the day, you cannot outsource the responsibility for your decisions and the impact they have on real people. Every choice you make is filtered through layers of lenses, ideas, assumptions and beliefs you’ve picked up about the world. If you’re going to be held accountable for the results of your actions, wouldn’t it be a good idea to audit where they’re coming from?

become an expert on your own life

So what now? What if you grew up with a toxic ideology (or not)? What if you want to trust yourself, but have no idea what it even looks like?

  • Get curious. Where did that idea come from? Who told you what to believe about this topic? As long as you’re alive, you’ll be asking these questions, and that’s not only ok, it’s good. None of us exist in a vacuum. This is step one.
  • Read books. The number of resources available, for free, at your local library are unfathomable. But don’t read them for the answers… read them for perspectives. Hearing how others have navigated changing beliefs can help validate your ability to navigate your own.
  • Meditate. I know… it’s thrown around like a panacea, but there’s no better tool to start learning how to observe your own thoughts.
  • Find a mentor. You’re not alone. There’s always someone else who’s a little farther down the path and can help you see that your feelings are valid.

If you take nothing else from this, try sitting with yourself the next time you have a decision to make, and ask yourself what you want.

Not god, not your parents, not your pastor, not your partner. Then ask yourself why, and don’t be afraid of the answer. Too many people have grown up without ever learning who they are, and maybe it’s time you find out.

“People who trust themselves allow themselves to adopt the role of “expert” in their own lives. Like all experts, those who develop trust with themselves move with confidence, not certainty.”
“When you trust yourself to lead your own life, not only are you secure enough to hear other people’s perspectives, you’re secure enough to actively seek out those perspectives.”
“When you trust yourself, you focus on being curious about what you need instead of being suspicious about who you are.”
“Trusting yourself is not something that happens to you; it’s a choice you make and support through action.”

– Katherine Morgan Schafler, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control


  1. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6) ↩︎
  2. “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of GOD’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.” (Practicing the Presence of God) ↩︎
  3. “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
    “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
    “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
    “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    (Matthew 25:40-25) ↩︎

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