When the Sherlock Holmes Precept Doesn’t Work

For The High Calling book club on
Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This week, Laura Boggess leads our discussion on the introduction through chapter four. Join us!


My son has read the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes stories and told me this quote: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Holmes was talking about sleuthing—figuring out events that have already happened. If you eliminate all the impossible scenarios, you can narrow it down to just one possible solution. If it was impossible for the guy to come in through the window or the door, he must have come in through the chimney. Mystery solved.

Sure, this worked for the famous fictional sleuthhound figuring out what happened at a crime scene yesterday. But our dear detective assumes (1) we are capable of considering all the possibilities and (2) we know what “possible” contains.

I’ve erred in applying the Sherlock Holmes Precept to the future, or to current circumstances. I consider a difficult situation and count the possible outcomes on my fingers: either A or B will happen. When I get really creative, I can turn up a few more fingers for possibilities C, D, and E. But then, that’s it. All scenarios are bad, and I conclude that I’m in a hopeless situation. There’s no way out.

I think of Martha who said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think of the community of Israel saying in the wilderness, “If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt … But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” It’s a hopeless situation. There’s no way out. My brother is dead. We’re going to starve in this desert.

My wise friend David Brown of The Navigators said, “If you’re choosing between Crummy Option Number One and Crummy Option Number Two … well, God can count to three.”

I count the possible scenarios on my fingers. But God won’t be limited by my Sherlock-Holmes thinking.

It’s elementary: God is more than I know.


7 thoughts on “When the Sherlock Holmes Precept Doesn’t Work

  1. Yes, always God is more, alleluia amen!
    Living dependently on him, remembering we are but dust, alive by his grace common to all the living whether or not they acknowledge him, we can sing!
    This week we have break and are watching Foyle’s War, have you seen it? Not Sherlock, but quite nice, really. Ok, we have some minor complaints about writing in the minor characters, but the major characters are lovely and the wit of solving the mystery is good. Set in World War 2 Britain.

      • Ah! It’s six seasons, Brit tv, so 90-100 min episodes, 3-4 to a season. Netflix or local library? Pop some corn and watch with your guys and write me what you think of the minor characters. Enjoy!

  2. I love this, Monica! We are experiencing a resurgence of interest in Sherlock, thanks to Masterpiece Theatre’s excellent series. And this is such a great way of thinking of how to widen the frame :). God’s got it, right? No matter what “it” is. He’s got it.

  3. I’ve been watching the BBC’s “Sherlock” reboot, and it just shows me over and over how many things I can’t imagine. But I did like when Sherlock got foiled by Moriarty, mainly because he could not imagine such evil. That I can do.

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