June 22 2017
Have you heard of the sunk cost fallacy? We’ve been talking about one manifestation of it this week in the office, and it got me thinking about the ways we fall victim to it in our spiritual lives.
To start, let me see if I can give a quick explanation of the sunk cost fallacy. The basic idea is something your mom likely told you (or maybe your dad, because this sounds like dad advice): don’t throw good money after bad.
The reason you and I needed to hear that advice is because that’s exactly what we tend to do. Let me give an example (and this isn’t the one we’ve been talking about at the office this week, but it’s an easier one to relate).
Let’s say you decide that you want to buy a small powerboat. You think about all the fun you could have on the water, towing the kids behind on an inner tube, finding quiet spots at the edge of a lake, fishing, and just generally enjoying the beauty of God’s creation.
Boats are pretty expensive, though, so you know you’ll need to buy one that’s not exactly new. So you scour Craigslist and finally find a boat that seems to work well. You’re flush with excitement, ready to hit the water and see your dream come true.
But you quickly realize something: it’s not as simple as you thought. Because it’s an old boat, the speedometer doesn’t work properly. The engine probably needs a tune-up. The trailer lights have stopped working for some reason and need to be replaced. And it turns out that one of your kids doesn’t really want to go out in the boat and will put up quite a fuss at the idea of heading out the door.
Wow, those are some pretty specific details! That’s because the situation isn’t hypothetical: it’s what our family has experienced over the past two years.
So, here’s the dilemma we faced: we’d already put money into the boat, I’d done as much work as I could figure out on it, and I really wanted to reach the idyllic picture that had grown in my mind.
But getting there wasn’t going to be easy. The maintenance costs would continue to add up, not to mention the emotional cost of building the habits that would be required for proficient boating. (Side note: if you’ve ever been to a boat launch on a sunny summer day, you’ve seen the depth of human depravity first-hand. Seriously, people: relax.)
My argument to keep the boat was exactly the sunk cost fallacy. We’d already made the commitment, I’d already spent time and money on it, blah, blah, blah. But I had to realize something: making the dream come true was going to consume more capital (real and emotional) than I could fathom spending. It just didn’t make sense anymore.
I was sad, but we sold the boat.
The sunk cost fallacy doesn’t just come up with respect to monetary things: it’s all over our lives. You stay in a career that you know isn’t great; you stick with a relationship that is toxic and isn’t changing; you keep eating even after you’re full; and so on.
You do this because you fear loss—we all do. You fear it more than you value the potential gain from doing something differently. Your investment of that time, energy, effort, emotion, and money has to feel “worth it.” You can’t walk away, even when you know you should.
Ultimately, the sunk cost fallacy is a spiritual issue because it’s about stewardship. You have a finite amount of resources, and your call as a disciple of Jesus is to invest those resources wisely—and “wisely” here means “in a way that moves the kingdom forward.”
We value the idea of perseverance—and sometimes perseverance is what’s required—but I think that there are times when God calls us to walk away from things. That’s where discernment comes in. The only way you know the difference between godly perseverance and sinful stubbornness is through the Holy Spirit’s wisdom.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to confront our fear of loss and walk away from something—even if doing so is painful. He calls us to trust in his guidance and provision, stepping out in faith to allow him to do amazing things. And those are the moments when your faith grows.
So, here’s the question: what’s your powerboat? What’s that thing that you’re pretty sure isn’t productive, but that you keep pouring resources into anyway? What’s that thing that the Holy Spirit keeps asking you to put down, but you don’t because you’re afraid?
Are you willing to confront the fear of sunk cost and make a bold decision?
If you need help exercising discernment, the best place to do that is in the context of a believing community. Come out to prayer night tonight and let us pray about it with you. Talk to a trusted friend. Ask for help.
If you read this and decide to take action, let me know how it goes, either in person (prayer meeting tonight or the Sunday service) or via email. I’d love to hear your story.