What on Earth Was I Made For?
I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people. (Nora Watson)
One of the fundamental desires we humans have is the desire for significance. We want – we need – our lives to count for something.
This is a longing that increases as we get older. In the movie About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays the role of a recently retired insurance middle manager. This sobering story charts Warren Schmidt’s struggle to find significance and meaning in life. Despite the well-intentioned efforts of his wife and fellow workers he feels useless and redundant. Soon his wife dies and his only daughter, who has made a life for herself in another city, marries a man whom Warren despises.
He is alone and desperately unhappy. But he finds some solace in the sponsoring of a small boy in Tanzania. Though he has never met the child, Warren begins to write letters to him, expressing his frustrations and deepest emotions about his life. In one letter he says:
I am weak and I am a failure. There’s just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die. Maybe in twenty years. Maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.
Once I am dead and everyone I knew is dead as well, it will be as though I never existed. What difference has my life made anyway? None. None at all.
Shortly after, Warren receives a letter from the Catholic sister responsible for the care of the sponsored boy. She explains that even though he cannot read, the small six-year-old orphan keeps his letters and thinks of him every day. He is grateful for Warren’s help and it has enabled him to get medical attention for an eye infection. Enclosed is a picture, drawn by the boy, of Warren and himself. The movie finishes as the realisation begins to sink in that maybe something of his life has mattered.
Warren Schmidt is right about his life. Much of it has counted for little. His relationships with his family, workmates and friends are largely broken and dysfunctional. Retirement has only accentuated the dismal lack of meaning. And yet, in the midst of all this gloom, there is something positive. Warren is able to appreciate and understand the difference that small acts of kindness can make to the lives of others.
Sadly, Warren’s deep angst is a common experience for many of us. We too long for significance and yet so often we stumble through life with serious questions about our lives. Do they really count for anything?
The book of Esther in the Bible provides a fascinating true-life contrast to Warren Schmidt. It tells the story of the Jewish girl Esther, “drafted” into the harem of Xerxes, Great King of Persia. Eventually she becomes his Queen. It all seems like a fantasy come true…
But a storm is brewing. Esther’s adopted father Mordecai has aroused the hatred of a powerful noble. Haman is advisor to the King, and Mordecai has refused to pay homage to him. Haman is furious and turns his anger on Mordecai and his people. He is determined to rid the land of all Jews. Haman’s goal becomes nothing less than their total annihilation.
Up to this point Esther has kept silent about her Jewish background. But now Mordecai turns to her for help. He implores her to intervene and try to influence the king in order to avoid impending disaster. Initially she is reluctant, fearing for her life, but Mordecai is emphatic. He sends her a message…
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 13-14 (NIV))
The story ends well. Esther takes the risk and gains an audience with the king, where the evil intentions of Haman are exposed. The king’s response is rapid. He orders Haman hanged on the very gallows he has erected for Mordecai. The Jews are saved. Mordecai is elevated to Xerxes’ second-in-command. And Esther, once a poor Jewish child, having saved her people, continues to live as Queen of the super-power of her day.
Esther is not alone in her experience of divine destiny. Down through the ages countless men and women have risen to the challenge of particular tasks that seemed to be part of their destiny. That towering figure of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, is another example.
Full of caustic wit and glaring personal weaknesses, nonetheless Churchill was “made” for the challenge of leading Great Britain through the desperate days of World War II. His morale-boosting strength of character and his magnificent oratory impassioned and inspired a nation to stand against the evil of the Nazi empire.
Churchill was 66 when he became Prime Minister. All his life, he said, seemed “mere preparation” for the Herculean task of leading a nation at war. As he wrote in his memoirs, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour, and for this trial.”
Discovering your SoulPurpose – yeah, right!
Inspiring as these true stories may be, they often have the opposite effect for many of us. Frustratingly we end up thinking that this level of meaning and significance is simply the preserve of a fortunate few. We may not feel exactly like Warren Schmidt, but we certainly don’t imagine ourselves as an Esther or a Churchill.
Heroes like them may have “seized the moment” and lived out what they were made for. But for the rest of us, stuck firmly in everyday life, there are no such paths to glory. The daily challenge – and the daily drudgery – more than fill up our day, thank you. It’s often hard enough finding time and energy just for that.
And anyway, where would we begin? Our day-to-day jobs seem mundane, meaningless and disconnected. At least, that’s the discovery that has led to the writing of this book. As we have talked with hundreds of Christians through the years we have found, sadly, that plenty feel that way.
Yet this is not how God intended it to be. He made all of us for a purpose. That’s why there is a yearning in our hearts to live significantly.
The truth is that God has called us. Called us! This is our destiny – to discover how we can turn God’s purpose for us into a reality, in the way we live and work.
God’s calling is not simply to work in a particular job or profession. Before all else, the call of Jesus is to follow him. We are invited to enjoy his friendship. To share a relationship with him – and with others. The fact that God desires us to know him intimately must be a cause for great optimism and hope. Clearly he rates us astonishingly highly – and that high regard is quite independent of anything we might do or achieve. First and foremost, he values us simply for being us. As far as God is concerned, we all have real intrinsic worth.
However, God does also call us to join him as partners in his work. In fact, his intention is for every part of life to be meaningful – not just employment, but all the work we do, as well as our relationships, our rest, our enjoyment, our learning...
It all counts. Sometimes we develop romantic notions of finding the one thing we were created for. But it would be foolishly simplistic to think we could ever reduce our lives to a single function. We are called to life “in all its fullness”.
Of course it’s easy to say we were made for more than just a single task or challenge. That there needs to be a rich diversity in our lives. But too often that’s the very problem! How do we hold together all the mad complexity of what we’re involved in? The key is the biblical concept of “calling”. Our calling is all about the very reason we were made by God.
Unfortunately, in Christian circles the word “calling” has come to be misunderstood, and often applied only to our job. As you will see in this book, God’s call to us goes vastly beyond that. So we’ve coined a phrase that we will use consistently – SoulPurpose.
What is SoulPurpose? Well, if it was in the dictionary, it might read something like this:
It should be plain from what we’ve already said that discovering your SoulPurpose means more than just finding the one perfect job that fits you best. We’re on about something that gives cohesion to the whole of our lives – the peculiar mix of paid and unpaid work we each do, as well as the relationships we develop and the whole range of activities and interests that are us. It affects everything.
At the very core of this is our relationship with God. This is where our identity lies – not in any particular job or career. Inevitably the types of work, leisure and relationships we are engaged in will change from time to time. These days even careers are no longer for life. When our SoulPurpose is too closely tied to a particular role, if we ever lose that role we are likely to become seriously disoriented and distressed – as Warren Schmidt’s life demonstrates.
In order to grow and maintain a clear sense of SoulPurpose for yourself, we believe you need five particular components in your life. We’ve identified them as Connection, Fit, Service, Balance and Encouragement. The absence of some or all of these components seems to us the reason most people struggle to experience a strong sense of destiny and significance.
SoulPurpose makes a connection between God’s work and your work. What you are doing in your small corner of the universe fits neatly into God’s cosmic purposes.
Easy to say! Of course, to make it happen the first step is to understand what God is doing. Now to be sure none of us knows the mind of God, but what we do have is a Bible chock-full of examples of God at work … and Jesus as our prime model! Understanding God’s purposes, then, in the world God made is an achievable goal. And when you have consciously seen how you can work alongside God you will come to appreciate how you are participating in something of far-reaching significance.
Whatever you are doing and wherever you are, as you begin to understand and put into practice your SoulPurpose, your faith and your life will gain a real sense of direction. This can even happen if the situation you live or work in falls woefully short of your dreams. A SoulPurpose will stimulate you to make your life increasingly creative and satisfying.
Our SoulPurpose is inextricably linked to our own uniqueness. The Psalmist saw it:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:13 (NSRV)
In making you the way you are, God has taken exceptional care. He wants you to reach your potential by using and developing the mix of temperament, gifts, talents, skills, motivations and yearnings that go to make up the person that is you. You have a unique “psychological DNA” that marks you out from every other human. As you work your way through this book you will identify the building blocks of that DNA. They are the ingredients that equip you for your life’s work. Assembled together (as they will be if you make the most of the exercises in this book) they will give you clues to how you “fit” into God’s broader purposes.
In fact, they will give you a glimpse of your destiny.
Os Guiness notes: “God normally calls us along the lines of our giftedness, but the purpose of giftedness is stewardship and service, not selfishness…Giftedness does not stand alone in helping us discern our callings. It lines up in response to God’s call alongside other factors, such as family heritage, one’s own life opportunities, God’s guidance, and our unquestioning readiness to do what he shows.” 
So part of your journey calls for self-discovery. How am I made? How has God put me together? What situations has he placed me in?
The process of getting to know yourself is therefore incredibly important. The better you understand yourself – your unique combination of gifts, abilities, passion and personality – the better you will understand how and where you “fit”; that is, the role in which you can best use your strengths. Be clear that your “fit” is not just what you do. It is also who you are – the values you hold, the dreams you nurture, the kindness and compassion you offer, the energy and enthusiasm you harness.
Service is a given. It’s half the reason we’re here. Just as it’s why Jesus came to earth. Finding our SoulPurpose means learning to be of service to others. It means finding our significance through investing in God’s wider purposes and in the lives of other people.
(We’ve chosen to use the word “service” rather than “ministry”, because unfortunately “ministry” has been hijacked. It has come to reinforce the false idea that sacred and secular are two different parts of our lives. As a result ministry is used to refer only to certain set forms of “religious” service. Diakonia – the Greek word which is translated “ministry” – can just as easily be translated “service”. It refers to any kind of service which is motivated by the love of God. )
It’s encouraging to be where we “fit” most comfortably. But do remember that God often pushes us out beyond our comfort zone. So always be ready to see your “fit” tempered by the call to serve. This may mean that sometimes the need of a situation is so great that you won’t have any choice but to respond, even if it means venturing outside the logical boundaries of your “psychological DNA”.
That’s usually not easy. We always feel at risk when we’re doing things that don’t come naturally to us. But then, often those nervous ventures produce new levels in our growth. Learn to welcome them when you’re sure they’re the right step. But as a general principle, don’t make the mistake of wasting your life in places or tasks that just don’t suit you at all.
We are not one-sided beings. We are complex creatures. As we said above, God made us for far more than just a single task. So you need to establish a balance in your life which enables you to express your SoulPurpose not just through your “job” (whether paid or unpaid, whether at home or in an office or factory) – but also through a mixture of domestic, voluntary and church work, and in ways that include relationships, rest and recreation. In short … every aspect of your life.
Balance is needed to get all those parts into a healthy harmony. This balance will never be easy – but you’ll find in the chapters ahead helpful guidelines for achieving it. And it will never be final, either. It will always need fine-tuning. In fact, at certain definable stages in life it will need to be renegotiated.
Finally we also need to understand that living out our calling was never meant to be a solitary task. For discipleship is not a solitary word. It was designed to be lived out in solidarity with a supportive community.
This is our dream for the church – a group of committed companions who want to see each other equipped and supported as they live out their faith in the world. While in this book we won’t specifically address the issue of how we support one another, it is an assumption that permeates all of the chapters that follow. In fact, we have designed those chapters so that groups of people can read and discuss them together – as it were, fellow pilgrims on the road, helping each other discover their SoulPurpose.
Os Guinness, The Call (Nashville: Word, 1998) page 46.
Now, let’s put all that together. In our SoulPurpose our plans will be connected into God’s plans, so that we are part of his wider purposes. Our role will be mainly dictated by how our strengths fit the needs we identify around us. Comfortable in our fit we will be able to offer genuine service (following the example of Jesus) to the world that God made. Because it is now a fallen world we don’t expect that service to be easy, but we will be helped by consciously keeping in balance all the ingredients that go to make up our lives and work, and by the encouragement and support of our fellow-Christians, the Body of Christ of whom we are a part.
Your own, unique SoulPurpose? A life plan that you can identify, and then use to transform your living? Is that just a fantasy? Is it wild optimism? We don’t think so. We are convinced that it’s within the grasp of every person. It is not elitist – only for those with extraordinary talents and opportunities. Neither is it limited to the few who have the freedom to spend their time doing whatever they want. Most of us do not have that luxury and life is not like that.
That is because God’s intention has always been for our SoulPurpose to centre not on what we do, but rather on how we do it and who we become.
If you yearn for more than you are presently experiencing, you can be sure that this is a sign that you were created for more. The hunger for significance is not a sadistic attempt by our Creator to push us to the brink of despair and frustration.
Rather, it’s a call to destiny – a pointer to a greater measure of purpose and fulfilment.
SoulPurpose can shape your life. Read on if you want to find how!
A personal meditation
If the level of meaning and significance in life was a scale of 1-10, with Warren Schmidt being 1 (almost no sense of significance) and Esther and Winston Churchill 10 (an extraordinary sense of significance), where would you place yourself? Why?
What are some of the hopes and dreams you have for your life?
Who were some of your early role models and heroes? What was it about them that caused you to admire and try to emulate them?
Do you regard yourself as a person with a destiny? In what ways?
What specific hopes do you have that reading this book will help you discover more of your SoulPurpose?
We listed five important components to growing a sense of SoulPurpose. Rate yourself from 1 to 5 on each of these areas (1 = seriously struggling; 5 = doing really well).
Encouragement (both receiving and giving)
Which of these components do you most need to learn and grow in?
3. For each of us our SoulPurpose is worked out through five overlapping spheres of involvement – the marketplace, community, church, family-and-friendships, and leisure. (See the diagram below.) The time and energy each of these spheres demand of us, will vary greatly from person to person – and from season to season. Some of us invest most of our effort in the marketplace: in the worlds of business, law, education and industry. Others are able to give a majority of their energy and time in the family, in the community, or in the church.
The boundaries between these spheres of involvement are not very distinct. They blend and overlap. Many of us are involved in all five of them – but to varying degrees. Discovering the right balance (or mix) is something that will differ from one person to another, and likely change throughout our lives.
Step 1: Using the diagram below, create segments in the circle proportional to the amount of time and energy you give to each sphere of involvement. For example, if you operate a retailing business, the marketplace segment on your diagram will probably take up more than half of the circle. If you are employed in a shop it may take up a quarter or third of your circle.
Step 2: List all the activities you’re involved in on a regular basis, grouping them in the appropriate segment.
Questions to reflect on:
Which spheres of involvement dominate your time and energy?
Are you able to see ways in which these activities and relationships are connected to what God is doing? Do you see these tasks as having significance and value?
Look again at where most of your energy and time is spent; has this always been in the spheres that currently dominate? Are you content with how your energy is being spent?
Feedback from friends; personal reflections in a small group
Different exercises, activities and questions will suit different groups. Throughout this book use those that are appropriate to your group.
Share the results of the Self-Discovery exercises with the members of your group.
How much is the Christian journey an individual responsibility, and how much should a group (a church, a family, your group?) be responsible for the well-being of its members?
In what ways do you feel supported and encouraged by others in your journey to discovering your SoulPurpose?
What forms of encouragement could this group of yours offer its members?
Discovering your SoulPurpose is an expedition into unchartered territory. Through the following pages you will explore a wide range of issues. But always the focus will be on how you will discover and pursue your SoulPurpose. That is the goal.
So are you ready to embark on this journey of discovery? It’s not the jungles of South America or the crevasses and peaks of the Himalayas that we’re asking you to explore. This odyssey is much more intriguing. It will take you deep into the most fascinating person in your life – YOU!
There’ll be opportunity to explore dimensions of your make-up, plumb new insights as to who you are, and (we hope) find fresh and life-changing handles on how to embrace your growing sense of SoulPurpose. Be ready for a riveting journey.
On any daring adventure it’s kind of useful to have a map. So here’s a sketchy one to help you find your way around these new and exotic landscapes. We’re sure that as you journey you’ll be able to fill in more details than we’ve been able to show.
Section A – Stage 1 (What on earth was I made for?) introduces the concept of SoulPurpose. (Hey, you’re already halfway through this section of the journey!) These two chapters are critical preparation for your trek. A chance to clear a bit of the undergrowth out of the way and to take a look at where you’re heading.
Here’s an interesting question. Will God give you explicit instructions, laying out precisely what you must do at each point as you follow the route? (Truth is, if you think he’s going to show you just exactly where to put each step … well, you might find yourself making pretty slow progress.) But don’t get nervous. Chapter two may excite you with the discovery of just how much responsibility God is willing to hand over to you, the choices he puts in your hands.
Section B – Stage 2 (Uniquely ‘ME’: a workbook) forms the core of our wanderings. This is quite different terrain to what you’ll experience on the rest of trip. It’s a pretty detailed guide book.
Remember, the subject matter in these parts is YOU. So a word of advice – if you want to get the maximum value from this section, you’ll need to do some hard work. Can’t just be a bystander or hanger-on here. These investigations aren’t much good if the principal character isn’t prepared to do some digging! We’ll help of course, but it isn’t enough just to read. The exercises and reflections are where the real discoveries will be made. That’s where you’ll discover yourself.
We’ll begin by getting you to unpack and tell your unique story (chapter three). Then we’ll look at your personality (chapter four), knowledge, talents and skills (chapter five), spiritual gifts (chapter six) and finally your values, desires and passions (chapter seven). Put simply, Uniquely ME is about what makes you tick; how God has “hardwired” you.
That might mean that you’ll dwell a little longer in this stretch of the journey than in some of the others. And you might have cause to return to these parts from time to time, to fill in some missing sections of your map.
Section C – Stage 3 (Holding it all together) A key to the journey of discovering our SoulPurpose is gaining some sense of how each part of who we are fits together in a co-ordinated and intelligible way. This section might be a little strenuous – it’ll require you to climb a challenging peak or two. But don’t worry, it will be worth it. The view from the top is not only inspiring, but also helpful. It should teach you some useful skills – like juggling all those jobs and demands you have to cope with (chapter eight); and reducing the frantic busyness of your life (chapter nine).
So slow down a little on these slopes. It would be a shame to go for a tumble here. Take time to rest and look around along the way.
Section D – Stage 4 (Growing Points) We’re all at different stages in our life. How do they affect our SoulPurpose (chapter ten)? And what about the changes and transitions we all have to go through – adolescence and midlife and the golden years? They will have a big impact on your growth and development (chapters eleven and twelve).
How long you stick around these parts will depend on their relevance to your life right now. If you’ve recently been through a crisis or major change, or are finding things very different to what you’re used to, then this place may be a good point to camp for a while. Or if you’re journeying easily and are not bothered by current changes in your life, it may be a part of the map you’d prefer just to mark for now. You can come back to it later.
Section E – Stage 5 (Living in the light of the world’s needs) will bring you to the end of your journey. (At least for now. When it comes to your life, there will always new lands to explore.)
But by this stage you may feel a little overwhelmed. When you’re surrounded by the awesome grandeur of the creation that is You, you just might be tempted to feel a touch self-important. As if this epic journey is mainly for your own enjoyment and gratification.
Chapters thirteen and fourteen remind us why we’re on the road. We’re learning to understand ourselves so that we can live for the ultimate Guide, Jesus. We’re training to work with him. As we’ll discover, our SoulPurpose is inextricably linked with who he is, and with his invitation to roll up our sleeves and join him.
Right through the book we (the writers) will be telling you about our own travels through these parts. We’ve spent some long days and nights camped out at various locations along the way, and have learnt much about the terrain and how to travel well. But bear in mind that we don’t consider ourselves experts. Each of us frequently returns to parts of the trek to learn more and reflect. This is an odyssey that can be done more than once in your life, because there’s always so much more to discover. We are, after all, incredibly complex creatures.
So we’re inviting you to journey with us. Make sure you do it at your own pace and in a way that suits you. Best if you can make up a party of fellow travellers – perhaps four or five friends who know you well and who can help you along some of the trickier stretches. That’s why at the end of each chapter there are questions to chew on with others. (A good cup of coffee around the campfire will probably help.)
Oh, and a final word – sometimes you may feel the need for help from a professional guide. While the quality of guides varies (you must understand this is a growth industry) all of us need expert help from time to time, so don’t be afraid to ask. Again, there are some suggestions scattered through our notes as to where and to whom you can turn.
So … are you ready? Let’s get started, then!
The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. (Frederick Buechner)
God has plans for us. God has made us for a purpose. We have a calling. We have a SoulPurpose.
But just where do we fit into God’s purposes? What does God want us to do? – the question that consumes the energy of those who want to make their lives count for God. This one great problem for Christians has generated endless seminars, books and sermons. “Are you in the centre of God’s will?” “Five easy steps to finding God’s will.” “Discover your spiritual gift.” We’ve almost made an industry of guidance!
Of course, the drive for purpose and significance is a basic instinct amongst humans. So as Christians we have no trouble believing that God wants to use us for his purposes. We are special. We are unique. We are deeply loved by God. We are called. Therefore he has a purpose for our lives.
So we are right to look for direction and purpose. The question is – are we asking the right questions and are we looking in the right place?
“God has a wonderful plan for your life,” declares a well-known tract. The lesson is, it seems, that we need to find God’s will for our lives and then live by it. Under this teaching, God’s individual will for us is often described as a road map, or a blueprint. All of life is planned. We simply need to discover what church God wants us to attend, who he wants us to marry, which job he wants us to take, where he wants us to live, etc., etc.
And how do we find God’s will for us? The blueprint model generally teaches that we look for “road signs” such as circumstances, inner witness, “fleeces”, “open and closed doors” and wise counsel. When we do this right we’ll find ourselves there in the very “centre of God’s will”.
It doesn’t require too much thought to see that this model is inherently flawed. Yes, I know who God wants me to marry (or at least I fondly imagine that I do) … but what happens if that person chooses someone else? Am I then ”stranded” with no hope of fulfilling God’s will for me? Thinking of God’s will as a blueprint, or detailed road map for our lives, simply does not take into account that there are many circumstances in life which are outside our control and yet affect the choices we can make.
And what about my failures? Whenever I make a mistake or a bad choice, does that wreck the whole plan? Is my life for God doomed to mediocrity because I missed out somewhere along the line? – or more accurately, because I keep messing up on a regular basis all the way down the line! Does God have an infinite number of backup plans?
Another problem with this model is that it can easily lead to “divination” – employing “supernatural” methods to somehow work out God’s will. This is simply not biblical.
The blueprint approach suggests that God has every last detail of our lives mapped out, and expects us to play complicated guessing games to find out where our next move is.
There is a much healthier way of approaching this question of leading. Rather than thinking of God as having a “wonderful plan” for our lives, it makes much better sense to think of him having a “wonderful purpose”. A plan ties us down to precise demands; a purpose provides us with direction and a goal. A plan is unforgiving. Make an error at the beginning – while you are laying the foundations perhaps – and all the following work and effort could be wasted; the whole building might collapse because of that one error. In contrast, as Paul Stevens points out, a purpose is like a stream that flows to a distant sea. The stream may be diverted from time to time. It may even wander aimlessly in swamps for a period. But it can also recover its way further down the valley and still has the potential one day to become a great river.
So what is God’s purpose for us? Fundamental to this is the concept of God’s will. Bruce Waltke suggests that God’s will is for you “to be a mature man or woman of God … He wants to see your character develop. He wants you to draw close to Him and be changed.” Furthermore, “God’s will is that you be holy, wise, mature, joyful, prayerful and submissive.” There is no secret code required to discover this. God’s will for us is as plain as the scriptures.
“One does not divine God’s will. One lives God’s will as one comes to know Him through His Word. This concept of growing close to God so that you can live out His will, or live to please Him, is consistent throughout the New Testament.”
God’s intentions for us are clear. But what about the many decisions in life (large and small) which are choices between two or more good options. Does God have a fixed agenda in these matters? Does he have anything to say at all about each point of decision?
Yes he does … but so should we.
Gordon Smith makes the point that rather than try to “find” God’s will, we need to learn how to make wise choices by discerning God’s direction. Smith uses the analogy of a figure-skating pair on ice to describe how God leads with us. The person who follows the lead still has a choice and still contributes to the shape and form of the dance.
In a similar vein, Annette remembers a Life Boys’ poster that used to hang in the Sunday School hall of her church when she was a child. The poster showed a boy (in full Life Boys’uniform, of course) with his hands on the ship’s wheel. Standing behind him was Jesus (flowing robes and all). Jesus had one hand on the shoulder of the boy as if to steady him. His other arm was outstretched, fingers pointing into the distance. The boy’s gaze was also fixed on that point far ahead. All very dramatic! But it strikes us that the picture got it pretty right. We need to take hold of the wheel of life … we are active participants in the course we follow … but God is right beside us, providing encouragement and strength for the voyage, and helping us keep our eyes on the goal.
Clearly, God does want to provide direction in our life choices. However, it’s a growing partnership, where we have freedom to make the calls as we understand more and more of his heart for us. God treats us with astonishing respect. We are not just pawns in some great cosmic game of chess. We are junior partners with the Master of the Universe.
For when it comes to our decision-making, God too has a purpose. And that purpose is not just utilitarian, getting us to find the right answers. God certainly desires that we make good choices, but he has a much bigger scheme. He uses these times of choice to grow relationship, trust, character and maturity into our lives.
Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion?, page 78.
Waltke, p. 86.
Waltke, p. 86.
See Gordon T. Smith’s book, Listening to God in Times of Choice (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), page 22.
First and foremost, decision-making for the Christian is a relationship issue. Often the reason we have so many problems discerning God’s leading is that we just aren’t close enough to him. We cannot clearly sense God’s heart if we are not consistently developing an intimate friendship with him. Gordon Smith comments:
“We can be discerners only if we are pray-ers. We discern the voice of God within the context of relationship. If that relationship suffers, so will our ability to discern what is best.”
The more we walk with Jesus, the more we understand his intentions for us and the world. We pick up his heartbeat. Our hopes and aspirations become more closely aligned to his.
When faced with a decision it is worth asking ourselves the question, “What is more important to God – that I get this decision right, or that I honestly attempt with his help to make the best possible choice?” At the end of the day (we believe), God is more concerned about our heart relationship with him, and with our growth as people, than anything else.
For that reason we suggest that decisions are really an issue of trust. We need to trust God, that he will not trash us when our human inadequacies mean we miss the mark. The Psalm-writer had no doubts on this issue:
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion to those who fear him.
He knows how we were made;
He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103: 13-14, NRSV)
Why do we construct this ugly picture of God as being intent on smacking us into line? God’s whole objective is to make us more like himself. We need to trust that his love – just like a human parent’s love – will be what guides him in this aim.
Perhaps some of our pre-occupation with decision-making shows that we want to control our future and make things comfortable, safe and predictable. But the reality of life is that what lies ahead is unknown. It’s that very uncertainty which forces us to trust God.
For example, have you ever thought what it might be like if you knew the future? Suddenly your decision-making would be a simple matter. You could always get it right. Very comfortable, of course … but a bit like playing every game of tennis knowing that you would always win. Where would be the satisfaction? Where would be the tingle of excitement? The whole challenge of sport would trickle away. Each game would become predictable … and boring.
But it’s worse than that. If you were always destined to win, why strive any more? Why subject yourself to all the training and discipline? Why strain to outdo all competitors? In short, why go to any trouble to develop your talents and skills? You would have no incentive to make yourself better.
The same applies to our living for God. If we knew what lay ahead each time we faced a decision, why strain to understand the issues? If we were always bound to get it right, what growth would we achieve?
The reality is that we don’t know the future – good or bad – and it’s best that we don’t. James comments that planning for certainty about tomorrow is nothing less than presumptuous (see James 4: 13-17). Jesus also promotes a trust approach in his Sermon on the Mount, where he says:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now; and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time arrives." (Matthew 6:24, The Message)
As Gerald Sittser puts it: “The will of God concerns the present more than the future.”
So perhaps our longing to know the right solution in advance is misleading us. Much better to step out in faith with God, knowing that he will be with us whatever the results of our choice.
In thinking about where we fit in God’s purposes it’s easy for us to focus on what we are called to do. But God is also concerned about who we are called to be. And this is a question of character and integrity. The people of God are called to be like God as well as to join in his work. God uses the process of decision-making to grow character in our lives.
One of the difficult things about character is that mostly it is forged in the midst of challenge and struggle. Moral integrity grows as our character is tested. And this is a process that takes time. 2 Peter 1:5-9 (NIV) says:
“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, kindness; and to kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if any of you do not have them, you are short-sighted and blind.”
People who seek to express God’s character, will also find it easier to experience God’s leadership in their lives. God’s priorities are clear in these words from the prophet Micah:
“He has showed you, O people, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, NIV)
Micah has no doubts about our priority. It’s our relationship with God – and our desire to become like him in thought and action.
You may be a little fuzzy at times about which gifts you’ve been given. You may be uncertain about which roles you’re best fitted for. (The following chapters will help you deal with these issues.) But you don’t ever need to be confused about the character you should strive for. You’re called to become more like Jesus. You’re encouraged to let the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22, NIV)
If we get these priorities right, then the small choices we make each day to follow God and to become like him will make it much easier to decide on the bigger issues. As Gerald Sittser notes: “How we choose to live each day creates a trajectory for everything else. Perhaps that is why the Bible says so little about God’s will for tomorrow and so much about what we should do to fulfil his will today.”
Everyone knows that adolescence is a critical period. Here is where young people begin making decisions that have serious consequences for their lives. Less well-known is that parents too have tough learning to do at this time. For years they have been responsible for the behaviour of their children. Now, during the teenage years, those parents will steadily lose control of their children. Teenagers are moving from childhood to adulthood, from dependence to independent maturity.
Two things are important: (1) the teenager must learn to make wise decisions; (2) the parent must learn to hand over responsibility for those decisions. If the teenager fails, maturity will never be reached. If the parent fails, the teenager will be shackled in a childlike dependency.
Those of us who are parents know that the key is progressively allowing our adolescents to make their own choices – even if that means we must sometimes watch them make mistakes. That’s the only way they can grow, learning what works for them, learning the consequences of poor choices, and learning the reward of good choices.
“Letting go of the apron strings”, handing over the “control button”, these are essential to growth. It can be painful to stand back, but even more painful if we don’t allow the maturing process to take place. Of course, one of the keys is laying the foundations for young people to make judgement calls for themselves, and this starts much earlier than adolescence. Good parents use all of childhood as a preparation for the time when their children will leave and become independent, mature adults.
Consistently the Bible refers to us as God’s children. The question is: what stage of development does this image bring to mind for you? Many of us seem unable to disentangle ourselves from the “small child syndrome”. Our view of discipleship is of a little baby or toddler who is unable to do anything of real substance for him/herself – or for others. Totally dependent on the father or mother, in every way.
Yet the New Testament consistently calls us to mature. Paul scolds the Corinthians: “I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.” (1 Corinthians 3: 1-2, NIV) The writer of Hebrews shakes his head sadly: “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature….” (Hebrews 5: 12b-13, NIV)
A constant cry of the New Testament leaders to their people is, “Grow up!”
With this in mind, we need to see the imagery of childhood as a process of growth and change. God does not want us to remain babies. He wants mature disciples, able to make wise choices, in dependent obedience to Him.
Making choices is a wonderful opportunity to grow some of this maturity. So when we puzzle over what God wants us to do, could it be that God is working on a different plan altogether? Rather than deliberately making life difficult for us by veiling the answer, it may be that he is grooming us to take responsibility for our own decisions. He may be willing us to exercise our freedom and choose our own path – confident that whatever we do, we will serve him and he will bring about his purposes in and through us.
Is there risk involved in this growing-up process? For sure.
Will we sometimes make bad calls? Definitely.
Will God love or use us less if we get it wrong occasionally? We firmly believe, no. We are convinced that what God wants from us is not mindless obedience, but mature co-operation.
A common myth in Christian circles is that the paths we ought to choose are usually the ones we least want, the ones we long to avoid. (You know how it goes: “I dread the thought of being a missionary in China, so I bet that’s what God will tell me to do!”) As if the less we like it, the more determined God is to make us do it. A sort of punishment for our unwillingness. Or a grim belief that it’s only the toughest and most unpleasant tasks that will make us truly submissive to God.
What a grim picture of life with our Father in Heaven! Whatever happened to the loving Father that Jesus constantly talked of?
No question about it – for all of us there are times when we need to take the harder, more difficult road. But we are convinced that God’s primary concern is for us to concentrate on and excel at what we do best.
Seldom is the future God has prepared for us completely divorced from our past, and alien to how we are wired. Throughout this book you will be given the opportunity to reflect on the journey you have already travelled. For it’s our past (and our present) which will offer the best clues to our future. Although there may be changes ahead for us, it is still essentially the same person we take into the future. And although there may be some things God is inviting us to leave behind, it is the essence of who he has made us to be that we need to understand. With that knowledge we are in the best position to achieve the God-given potential he has placed within us.
Discerning the shape God has made us is critical for seeing where we fit into God’s landscape. The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
We have been shaped by God, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God has prepared for us. (Ephesians 2:10)
God has taken great care in shaping us. We are his workmanship. The Greek word used (poiema) could as easily be translated “masterpiece” or “work of art”. Imagine that. According to Paul, if we want to find out the type of work God has prepared us for, we need look no further than how he has put us together.
We like what Keith Miller and Bruce Larson have written about this: “All that we’re meant to be! God’s dream for us is so vastly greater than the largest dream we have for ourselves. But what is his dream for us? I believe he has given us clues to what that dream is. And the longings and yearnings buried in each of us often provide those clues. It is like being on a cosmic treasure hunt. Follow one clue and it will lead you to another…and then another…until you find the treasure himself. For to find God and his ultimate will for us, is to find ourselves. This is the discovery for which all of creation stands on tiptoe – to see God’s sons and daughters coming into their own.”
Decision-making is a challenging matter for nearly every Christian we know. It’s not made any easier by at least two differences between us and Paul’s first readers.
The world we live in is very different from that of the early Christians. Over half of the people in the Roman Empire were slaves or servants of some description, and had little control over much of their destiny. Most of life’s circumstances were dictated by the decisions of the master of the household. Yet Paul’s counsel to Christians in slavery is somewhat surprising. He didn’t instruct them to ask God how they might gain freedom. In fact, in one case he recommended to a runaway slave that he return back to his master!
There’s no suggestion that Paul thought slavery an ideal system. However, his point to Christians caught in it was to seek to do God’s will in the midst of their far-from-ideal situation. That is, they were to work diligently for their masters, obeying them, working as if they were serving God.
This should help us to see that “circumstances themselves do not determine whether we are inside or outside the will of God. We decide that by how we respond to God in our circumstances.” The key is learning to do God’s will wherever we are.
An important difference between us and Paul’s first readers is that we live in a modern world which prizes individual and democratic liberty. We are blessed with a wonderful gift of freedom and choice – but it brings with it unexpected complications. We simply have too many choices! We are like small children let loose in a toy shop, told by our parents that we can have any one of the thousands of toys on the shelves … but only one!
No wonder we often find it so difficult making decisions. We are swamped with options and it can easily leave us unable to make a choice. Add to this our incessant busyness … and we have a powerful mix capable of overwhelming and immobilising us when decisions need to be made.
Is over-choice any harder to live with than lack of choice? For our immediate purposes the answer doesn’t matter. What is important is that this is the situation many of us find ourselves in. And – says the Bible – our capacity to do God’s will is not dependent on our circumstances.
The second difference between us and those first Christians is even more subtle. We moderns suffer from a lack of community. Our lives of faith should be inextricably linked with those of our fellow believers. Paul makes this clear in his description of God’s people as a body with many different parts. The parts are only useful when working in combination with the rest of the body.
But in our intensely individualistic culture it is easy to become disconnected and separated from others – from people whom we need, and who also need us. When we set out to make decisions, the focus of our questions is likely to be, “What’s right for me?” This question is not in itself wrong, but we only too easily forget the balancing questions. Like … “How do I fit into what the Body is doing?” And … “What is my role/part?”
Answering all these questions will be greatly assisted by strong relationships with other Christians. In fact, it is our belief that without intentional community we will struggle to find our place. For we need others who know us well and hear our heart. They are able to give us important perspectives on how they see God’s purposes being worked out in our lives.
Not only that, but as we learn to work together we’ll discover new things about our particular contribution. It’s also distinctly possible that where we are called to work as part of a team we’ll discover the exhilaration of realising that the “sum total is much greater than all of the individual parts put together”. Our gifts may only make sense and be maximised for good in the context of community.
Of course, ultimately each of us needs to take responsibility for our own choices but the support and involvement of others can make a big difference.
There are times, even now, when I try to work out how I ended up as a car dealer. It happened so fast and seemed such a radical departure from what I had been doing.
Why was it that I took the initiative to buy a couple of vehicles from the local auction and then sell them on? What caused me to investigate importing direct from Japan … and to go there a couple of months later (with a guy I hardly knew) and buy 30 vehicles? What gall! After all, I knew so little about cars.
Thinking about it, I recognise two forces at work. One was my own determined initiatives, the other an outside propelling force. The picture that comes most readily to mind is a small yacht being swept along by a strong wind. I felt pushed in a certain direction, but also I was working hard to direct the yacht the same way, though I didn’t quite understand where that would lead me. This inadequate picture captures for me something of the dynamic involved – a somewhat mystical collusion between God (the wind), and Wayne (the sailor), jibing and heading in a particular direction to a part of the ocean where I’d never been before and couldn’t even imagine.
Did God’s power “overwhelm” me into starting a car business? No. Was it just me directing the decision-making? Not at all.
Did God “orchestrate” the opportunity? Maybe, though it seems a rather meaningless question. Ultimately, through a series of mini-decisions, I sensed that this was a good choice and took the plunge. What gave me the confidence to do so? Support and encouragement from a colleague who knew me well, an inward burst of adrenaline, and excitement … and also the belief that if it proved to be a bad call it would not be the end of the world, but rather a chance for God to work his purposes in my life.
Looking back, the opportunities I found myself drawn/directed to were ones that appeal to me and that fit me well. My family (parents and grandparents) had been in business – though not selling cars. My maternal grandfather, in particular, was an entrepreneur and salesman. That I had similar motivations and abilities had never really entered my head./em>
But it seems that my venturing brought to the surface what was latent. If I had known myself better, I would have seen a pattern in my earlier experiences which pointed to this being a good fit. My eye for a “good deal”, my attention to detail, the enjoyment I gain from relating to people, the pleasure I get from doing something in a way that is different to the norm, arithmetic and administrative skills – all these aspects of who I am fitted me well for the challenge.
The uncertainty and lack of confidence I felt during those early months was sometimes extreme. It was certainly not plain sailing. I was on the edge, moving at a brisk 25 knots in some challenging seas. Frightening and exhilarating, both at the same time. There were moments when I genuinely thought I had made a bad call, and I don’t know exactly what gave me the confidence to keep at it, short of a sense that God was there in the adventure with me.
In hindsight (a wonderful gift!) I could see the rightness of it all. But that’s no help when you’re in the midst of the decision-making! Even so, it was a period of real growth for me – in my trust, my character, my taking on responsibility for my own decisions, and in the development of my unique “fit”. I’m so grateful the opportunities came and that I was bold enough at the time to grasp them.
Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), page 20.
Keith Miller and Bruce Larson, The Passionate People (Waco, Texas: Word, 1979), page 14.
Think back to the last major decision you made in your life.
How did you come to your decision?
What factors influenced you?
In retrospect, how can you see God’s part in the decision?
What did you learn from the process?
Are there any important decisions you’re confronted with now? Write down a short list of the factors (either derived from this chapter or more generally) that can assist you to make a good decision?
Feedback from friends; ideas to discuss with a small group
Looking back over your life, what has been your greatest difficulty about finding guidance?
Describe to your friends a time when (especially now that you look back on it) you felt confident you made a good decision. Try to identify some of the reasons you feel happy about it. (Was it just that things turned out well in the end!?)
If you can, try to share about a poor decision you have made at some time. What happened that made you feel it was a bad choice? How has God used this to “grow you”?
What is your reaction to the following statement by Gordon Smith? “We see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12 KJV), which means there will always be an element of uncertainty in our choices. In this life we will not have absolute, ambiguous peace and rational certainty that we have divine guidance… The presence of sin in our lives complicates matters further. What makes discernment so difficult is that we can never really trust ourselves, especially our motives… By not overstating our certainty, by qualifying our statements and not making absolute our sense of divine guidance, we are not negating for a moment the presence and witness of God to our hearts. We are merely affirming our own human limitations and humbly accepting our potential for self-deception.”
Parker Palmer writes: “Let your life speak … Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Think about a recent decision you have made. In what ways did your knowledge about how you have been shaped by God contribute to your decision-making?
As a group, draw up a scheme to help you when you face your next major decision. Identify and list the factors you will try to take account of.
The following books are all worthwhile and challenging reads:
Gerald Sittser, The Will of God as a Way of Life (Zondervan, 2000)
Gordon Smith, Listening to God in Times of Choice (IVP, 1997)
Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Vision House, 1995)
Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Multnomah, 1980)
David Runcorn, Choice, Desire and the Will of God (SPCK, 2003)
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 2000)