Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker argues that Wall Street's recent meltdown may not have been due to a lack of regulation or a lack of information, but a surplus of overconfidence. He looks at the pros and cons of overconfidence for world affairs and economics, and concludes:
From an individual perspective, it is hard to distinguish between the times when excessive optimism is good and the times when it isn't. All that we can say unequivocally is that overconfidence is, as Wrangham puts it, "globally maladaptive." When one opponent bluffs, he can score an easy victory. But when everyone bluffs, Wrangham writes, rivals end up "escalating conflicts that only one can win and suffering higher costs than they should if assessment were accurate."
That got me thinking about faith and overconfidence. And about Paul's ambivalence about "confidence in the flesh" in Philippians 3, where he says God "put no confidence in the flesh, though I myself have reasons for such confidence." Is overconfidence simply a danger for faith? Or is overconfidence the essence of faith?
A few hasty conclusions:
In all of these statements, by "overconfidence" I mean "irrational confidence" or "confidence not warranted by observing the current circumstances." If, instead, you take "overconfidence" to mean "an overestimate compared with the actual outcome," then that changes everything.
- Because of the curse of sin in the world, we know and can even expect that mighty financial systems and other empires will collapse under their own greed (or "bluffing," to use Gladwell's term). So faith rightly leads us to "put no confidence in the flesh."
- Because of the curse of sin in the world, we can't generally adopt a blithe, chipper optimism about the future. We know that death, disappointment, and despair are inevitabilities. In a way, we are called to have underconfidence about life in a broken world. This is a wise alternative to the fatuous can-do overconfidence we're sold by commercials, candidates, Wall Street, and even health-and-wealth pastors. Reinhold Niebuhr called this Christian Realism
- Prayer, nonetheless, often requires overconfidence. "Ask and it will be given to you"; "Say to this mountain, 'move from here to there'"—this is not a call to rational assessment.
- God's intervention in the world and in our lives is extraordinary, unexpected, and unpredictable, giving cause for occasional overconfidence. Ten years ago, having confidence in the prospects of peace in Northern Ireland would have been a bad bet. But it happened. To me, peace in the Middle East right now seems nearly impossible. Maybe it will be for generations to come. But maybe not.
- Spiritual formation often requires overconfidence. I once listened to a Tim Keller sermon in which he quoted an illustration, I forget from whom, that when you see an acorn under a stone, you predict the stone will win that showdown. Long term, however, the outcome is counterintuitive but certain: a mighty oak will toss the stone aside. Keller said the same is true of sanctification—it looks like it will be a blowout (sin over goodness), but in the end it turns out to be a blowout the other way.