November 2017 Print

Cost Benefit Analysis

by Robert Morrison

In the worlds of business and regulation, we often hear of so-called cost benefit analyses, in which decision makers weigh the advantages (benefits) and disadvantages (costs) of a proposal to determine the best path forward. A business leader such as a CEO will use the cost benefit analysis not only to forecast the most profitable decision for his company but also to evaluate past decisions so as to learn from them. The CEO of a corporation must defend his decisions to his board of directors, shareholders, regulators and the general public. If he does well, he will receive the praise of his superiors and possibly a raise. If he does poorly, he will risk losing his career.

Cost Benefit Analysis

We may be surprised if we hear during a retreat that St. Ignatius advocates for a careful cost-benefit analysis when we face life decisions. Like the CEO, we have limited resources: our time, energy, material goods, and talents. Whereas the CEO must render an accounting to his company’s board of directors, we must appear before our Lord to answer for how we have used the resources He has given us.

St. Ignatius provides us with an image of that fateful moment when God will judge how we have used the spiritual and material goods He has given us. “The time will be that at which you breathe your last sigh. Represent to yourself your relatives and friends examining your lips and heart to find a breath or a beat that may yet give token of life. While they are still asking whether you belong to time or eternity, you are already before the tribunal of your Judge. And where is this tribunal? In the room where you have just expired, beside your deathbed, before your corpse, before those who surround your inanimate remains and who assist at this terrible scene without desiring it and probably without thinking of it.”

If at that moment Our Lord offered us one more week on Earth to serve Him, how would we spend it? Consider the example of Venerable Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres: “Standing before the Throne of God, she was judged blameless and given a choice: to remain in the celestial Glory of Heaven—or to return to earth to suffer as an expiatory victim for the shocking presence of Satan’s influence that she was given to foresee would occur among the faithful in the 20th century. Much disturbed, Mother Mariana chose the latter.”

If this blameless soul voluntarily chose to delay her entry into heaven so that she could suffer for love of God and the faithful of our age, what will we wish when we see clearly the consequences of our blameworthy lives? She was given the option to enter heaven at that moment; will we merit to enter even purgatory? But God likely will not grant us this extra week. Instead He has granted us the time between now and when we breathe our last breaths. Even if we have been blind until the eleventh hour of our life, we can still amend if we recognize that we have been squandering our scarce opportunities to store up treasures in heaven.

Weighing our Options

Given the importance of the choices we make in this life, it should come as no surprise that Our Lord has instructed us on key aspects of how we ought to weigh the competing interests. In the Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord tells us to “lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven…for where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.” Whereas the CEO of a company must maximize profits with every cost-benefit analysis, we must do our best to store up treasures in heaven. Heaven’s currency is the only one that will count on judgment day. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre put it succinctly: “[E]very act and every thought which are not Christian are without saving value, without merit for salvation.” A CEO would be a fool to squander his company’s resources in pursuit of an unprofitable endeavor, but we are even more foolish when we waste our limited resources in the matters of our eternal salvation.

Christ also tells us “no man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or he will sustain the one and despise the other.” We cannot serve God and mammon. Here it seems that the critical point is that if we think we can serve both God and mammon we end up serving mammon. In that case we do not store up treasures in heaven and very likely end up with less enduring success in the world than if we had served God alone.

Finally, we must seek “first the kingdom of God, and His justice” and then God will provide for our material wants. If we seek first the material needs of this world, we will not be serving God. What does it mean to seek first the kingdom of God? In his first chapter of Christ the Ideal of the Monk, Dom Marmion quotes “a soul who had understood how God is everything”: “I will refuse nothing to Jesus Whose love urges me. You know how eloquent is the voice of Jesus. Besides, no one is foolish enough to give up the whole for the part. The love of Jesus, that is the whole; the rest, whatever one may think, is but a negligible quantity, despicable even, in contrast with our unique treasure.” We sometimes act as though we believed that we have done quite a lot for God and need some time for ourselves. How do we suppose a CEO would fare if he told his board of directors, “I have made some very wise decisions with the resources you have given me to complete the project and think I have earned the right to use the remainder of the project’s budget to remodel my home”?

Contending with Life’s Challenges

Armed with Our Lord’s loving words, all ages have had to contend with these challenges in their various forms. God gives us the saints as examples of those who have wisely chosen to store up treasures in heaven. St. Paul said he had given up the enticements of the world for the greater glory of God and considered them but dung, but how do we fare? It is worth considering the unique challenges presented in our time that conspire to make us choose dung over heaven.

Clamor and Distraction. Without doubt, we can say that the level of noise, pace and distractions of the modern world far exceeds that of any other age. One prominent culprit, among many, is the so-called smart phone. Each little device is like an all-you-can eat buffet of the most discordant foods, most of which are unhealthy, that follows us everywhere we go. When we consider that St. Ignatius emphasizes that we ought to make decisions at peace—away from noise—we can see the problem caused by constant noise. How do we listen to God if we choose to listen to the noise?

Comfort. Our Lord assured us that if we seek first the kingdom of God we shall not be left wanting for food, drink, clothing and shelter. But He did not promise us that He would sustain the relative luxury that even the poor take for granted today. Two problems arise when we insist on pursuing undue comfort. In the first place, we may believe that a holy life simply cannot deliver what we mistakenly believe to be the minimum level of comfort. We can see the consequences of this in the all too common decisions to unnecessarily limit family sizes or avoid the traditional penances. The second problem is one that affects our entire spiritual life: too much comfort makes us weak, so that we judge even ordinary Christian duties to require “heroic virtue” that cannot possibly bind us in conscience.

Worldliness. Our Lord makes it clear that neither He nor His disciples are “of the world” despite being in it. Owing in part to our perceived need for luxury (masquerading as minimum comforts), we sometimes decide that we must engage with the world on its terms. Our decisions to follow the world’s lead on technologies and entertainments often flow from a fear that we, or our families, will be left behind if we do not. We buy into the world’s narrative about all the bad things that follow from being too different. But Our Lord has said, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?”

Expanding Duty of State. One of the great aids to making correct decisions is a proper appreciation of our duty of state. If we are following our duty of state with charity, we no doubt store up treasures in heaven. But the modern world encourages us to expand our conception of the duty of state to include anything that plausibly supports our careers or other responsibilities. We may reasonably believe that to perform our duties at work we need to be alert, personable, and punctual. The problems arise, though, when we allow the world to dictate the terms of these ancillary duties. So, for instance, we might say: “I needed to go out bowling with my work colleagues on Friday. Unfortunately I had to miss First Friday devotions and got home too late to say the Rosary. I need to be alert for work so I caught up on my sleep Saturday, missing First Saturday devotions as well.” Alas, the world will take as much ground as it can get in the battle of what constitutes our proper duties of state.

Selfie Culture. An appropriate symbol of our times is the obsession with taking “selfies” and sharing them on social media. While this can be relatively innocuous, an increasing number of people act as though the purpose of their lives is to document a series of experiences so that the world may deem them to have worthy and fulfilling lives. Even if we avoid this extreme, the spirit of the trend threatens to distort our decision making process by putting a thumb on the scale in favor of options that the world will “like.” We should instead make decisions to please God—Who always sees us as we are—even if it means “unfollowing” the world.

Live as a Consistent Catholic

We may reject versus populum Masses because of their focus on man rather than God (among other reasons), but if we do not preserve an ad oreintem focus with respect to how we order our lives, so to speak, we may find upon judgment that we have been monumental fools. We ought to consider whether we can say with St. Ignatius: “Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine; dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and Thy grace. With these I am rich enough, and I ask for nothing more.”

If it seems to us that St. Ignatius’s words are too hard, perhaps we should reconsider our spiritual cost-benefit analysis. What returns do we expect this modern world to give us on our limited resources that Our Lord wants us to instead devote to doing His will?