The Case Against “Do the Next Right Thing”

Why adding one word changes everything—and not in a good way.

I first heard it in a Disney movie a few years ago, in a song from Frozen 2: “Do the next right thing.” More recently I’ve seen this phrase on posters, t-shirts, and used by addiction recovery groups.

In Frozen 2, “Do the next right thing” is sung by a character in despair over her bleak future: she is trapped in a cave and has just lost a good friend. I was empathetic to her plight … but when she sang that line, my mind instantly rebelled.

What? Somebody got that wrong! Somebody added an unnecessary word! Disney, you ruined it.

Because to me, the original, shorter, and far better phrase was, “Do the next thing”—something I’d said to myself many times over the years. I first heard it from Elisabeth Elliot and Oswald Chambers, two Christian authors who helped form my faith twenty-five years ago. Those four words had helped me get through difficult times of every possible description.

But what’s the difference, really, between saying, “Do the next right thing,” and “Do the next thing”? Does it really matter?

Yes, it does. It matters quite a bit.

Think about the times you’d be likely to tell someone (or to tell yourself) to just “do the next right thing.” It’s likely to be when the listener is in despair, confused, and possibly paralyzed by fear or uncertainty. They are so unhappy that they literally don’t know what to do—so you might say to them, “Do the next right thing.” Here’s what could be wrong with that advice.

When someone is already in a time of great sadness or uncertainty, they often have no idea what the “right” thing to do even is. In fact, this can be part of the problem—that not knowing what’s “right” is backing them into a corner, paralyzing them into inaction or sending them deeper into a confused or despairing state of mind. Sometimes their past is filled with wrong choices, further lessening the possibility, in their mind, that they’re even capable of choosing the right thing. Perfectionistic tendencies add another layer to this struggle. It takes a lot of confidence to trust yourself to simply choose what’s right sometimes, especially if you are relying on yourself alone (or the fallen world you live in) to determine what “right” actually is.

Instead of using the phrase as I knew it, “Do the next thing,” Frozen 2, a product of a post-Christian culture, adds the word “right” with the assumption that we all make our own moral choices to do what’s right—and the definition of “right” comes from our own truth, our own experience, and our own heart. Somehow, without benefit of God’s word concerning right and wrong, we’re supposed to know what the next “right” thing is. And if we don’t, if we’re overcome by despair or indecision, then we’re likely going to end up (ironically) frozen – paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. Because you can’t choose to do the next right thing if you don’t even know what the right thing is.

Contrast this with the original phrase, “Do the next thing.” I first heard this advice from Elisabeth Elliot, who often quoted from this 19th-century poem. She paraphrased it sometimes as, “When you don’t know what to do, do the thing in front of you.” After her husband, Jim Elliot, was killed and she was left in Ecuador to raise their daughter and continue their work alone, she said, “I was faced with many confusions and uncertainties. I had a good many new roles, besides that of being a single parent and a widow. I was alone on a jungle station that Jim and I had manned together. I had to learn to do all kinds of things, which I was not trained or prepared in any way to do. It was a great help to me simply to do the next thing.” She didn’t struggle over wondering what was “right.” She leaned on her strong Christian faith and simply did the next thing.

Oswald Chambers, whose wife compiled his early 20th-century sermons to create the bestselling devotional My Utmost for His Highest, is often quoted as having said, “Trust God, and do the next thing,” (which is a summary of the February 18 devotion).

Sometimes the next thing is to change jobs; sometimes it’s changing a diaper or a light bulb. Sometimes the next thing is to initiate a difficult discussion with a spouse or friend; sometimes it’s initiating a phone call or a board game or a hello to a neighbor. Sometimes the next thing is to take time to cry; sometimes it’s taking time to read the Bible, go on a walk, or shower. Sometimes the next thing is to make a major life decision; sometimes it’s making amends, or a creative project, or dinner.

Whatever trouble you’re facing, whatever answer or insight you are waiting on, here is the important thing to remember: God doesn’t need for you to make the “right” decision. He can work with anything you give him, any life circumstance, any unexpected outcome, or any “mistake” you might make in life.

I know this from experience; in my early twenties, I was faced with a huge, important, life-altering decision and I tried very hard to do the next right thing. Sadly, I chose the wrong thing, bringing pain and turmoil to my life for several years. Did God work with this wrong decision? Or perhaps I should ask, did God do his work in my life despite my bad decision? Looking back, I can say without hesitation, yes, he absolutely did.

Of course it’s often good to try to determine what the next “right” thing is, when you have the mental and emotional capacity to do that. But when you’re feeling especially perfectionistic or overwhelmed (with grief, confusion, lethargy, sadness, worry, illness, exhaustion, the list goes on and on), you can take the burden of needing to do the “right” thing off yourself and “do the next thing” only—trusting God to be able to work with whatever flawed, incomplete, insufficient, or badly timed decisions you might make.

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” —Proverbs 19:21

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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