I'm really excited about the new Boundless Answers feature. I enjoy reading the new columns every Thursday, and now something that addresses the issues facing young men such as myself only increases my anticipation. Here's my question: How do I find out what God wants me to do with my life?
Thanks for the kind words about our new Boundless Answers feature, and for asking a question that gets right to the heart of the matter. How many times have we all wondered what God wants us to do with our life, and secretly wished for a burning bush or a Balaam's donkey?
There are three parts to answering your question, and you might visualize them as three levels of a triangle. At the bottom, the foundation is this: generally, what does God want from every person? Moving up one level, and more specifically, what does God uniquely want from males (at least in your case)? And at the top, and very specifically, what does God want from you as an individual? This top level is like your fingerprint, something specific to you an individual, a person uniquely crafted and gifted by God to perform meaningful tasks of service to Him and to others.
You must wrestle with all three of these. Skipping one or two, or making incorrect assumptions about any of them, will have impact on the others because they're all interrelated.
In this entry I'll address the foundation, and in subsequent entries I'll tackle God's call for men generally and explore a few tips for discovering your unique giftings as an individual.
The foundation of your triangle, like the foundation of a building, is the most important. If you build on the wrong premise, the other levels will be in constant stress. Everything flows through this level.
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that God first and foremost wants us to know Him, to have a relationship with Him, to bring glory to Him by the way we live our lives, by how we relate to Him and others, summed up best in this Scripture passage: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:37-39; Mark 12:29-31).
As Rick Warren famously said in his multi-zillion selling book The Purpose Driven Life, "It's not about you." Life is about God. God is the Creator of all, and all of creation, including me and you, exists to bring Him glory. This flies in the face of pretty much every message communicated to us since birth (even sometimes within Christian circles), but it is, in fact, the absolute bottom-line of reality. Believing and living otherwise is a never-ending, empty uphill battle.
Parenthetically let me add this. Before we dismiss God as an insecure egomaniac, let's quickly remember that He became one of us, entered into our suffering, and gave His life so that we could experience the primary purpose of our existence — to know Him. He defined Love by His actions. He did not create then abandon. He created and stayed and acted. He loved to the point of death and secured a path for our ultimate fulfillment: eternity with Him.
So, we start with God, not us. If you are making decisions based primarily on what makes "me" happy, then you have your priorities backwards and you will stumble at every turn. God first, then you. That's the order laid out by Christ in the paradoxical Matthew 10:39, "If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me" (paraphrased in The Message).
In the same way that a hiker must orient himself to true north before he can begin his journey, so we must orient (and continue re-orienting) ourselves to the absolute truth that life is not to be driven by what makes us happy, but by what brings God glory. That is life's "true north." Only by doing so will we ever begin to experience the fulfillment and adventure of life. So, the better way to ask your question is this, "How could I live my life in such a way that brings God the most glory?" Now we're asking the right question, and we'll explore more answers next time.
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How do I find out what God wants me to do with my life?
As I said in my previous entry, there are three parts to answering your question, and you might visualize them as three levels of a triangle. At the bottom, the foundation is this: generally, what does God want from every person? Moving up one level, and more specifically, what does God uniquely want from males (at least in your case)? And at the top, and very specifically, what does God want from you as an individual? This top level is like your fingerprint, something specific to you as an individual, a person uniquely crafted and gifted by God to perform meaningful tasks of service to Him and to others.
In my first entry I addressed the foundation, God's call for all people; in my third and last entry I'll explore a few tips for discovering your unique giftings as an individual. But now let's tackle level two, what does God want from you as a male?
Excuse the cliché of a sports analogy, but I really think this'll be helpful. Think of your life as a football game. The first 20 years could be thought of as your warm-ups — you're getting ready for the game. The second 20 years is the first half of play. During your 40's you make a few halftime adjustments, so that your second half — 50 and beyond — is strong and powerful. As a male (as is the case with females too), in each stage of the game, you've been given unique responsibilities, and you wrestle with unique challenges. A man must avoid the two extremes — "boyhood" on one side (immature and irresponsible) and what I call "achievatron" on the other side (robotic, lifeless, working, bill-paying machine) — and climb to the higher ground of manhood, marked by responsibility and adventure.
What God wants you to do with your life as a male is found in neither boyhood nor dead-man walking, but in a life lived with "the end" (eternity, God first) in mind. This includes accepting the responsibility of leading a family (rooted in a marriage you actively nurture), leaving a godly legacy, and having a great time in the process. He wants you to believe in and fight for a noble cause bigger than yourself, and to proactively craft your life adventure, rather than merely wander through life, even as a so-called "success."
During the warm-ups you're going through a few motions, getting a feel for what lies ahead, trying out a few habits, skills and values that will come into play in the first half — such things as purity, work ethic, leadership, service and the importance of faith — while still under the safety, protection and "inspection" of home. During the warm-ups you gradually move out of boyhood and adolescence, typically marked negatively by passivity and irresponsibility, and move into manhood.
In the first half, which is where you are, you should begin thinking more and more with "the end" (eternity) in mind, rather than the "short-term" thinking of adolescence. It's when you prepare for a vocation and/or ministry that will utilize your God-given skills. It's where you pursue and become one with a wife and begin leading a family in a great adventure.
God wants you to leave boyhood, reject passivity and accept the responsibility of manhood, while guarding against the trap of becoming a robotic, bored (and boring), bill-paying achievatron, ground down by responsibility and deadlines.
The theme for the male life is being proactive — proactive in nurturing your faith, in your pursuit of and intimacy with a wife, in starting and leading a family, in living with eternity in mind, in creating fun-filled adventures for you and your wife and family, in pursuing a noble cause, and in leaving a godly legacy that utilizes your unique design and giftings. I'll explore this more in my next column.
As I said in my first entry, there are three parts to answering your question, and you might visualize them as three levels of a triangle. At the bottom, the foundation is this: generally, what does God want from every person? Moving up one level, and more specifically, what does God uniquely want from males (at least in your case)? And at the top, and very specifically, what does God want from you as an individual? This top level is like your fingerprint, something specific to you as an individual, a person uniquely crafted and gifted by God to perform meaningful tasks of service to Him and to others.
In my first entry I addressed the foundation, God's call for all people; in my second entry I discussed a few basics on what God wants from males, and now in my third and final entry let's explore a few tips for discovering your unique giftings as an individual.
I have to be cautious when talking about a person's God-given, unique design, especially in this era of specialization. The purpose is not to paint you into a corner or give you reasons for why you can't or shouldn't do a certain job or task. The purpose is to help you become a better servant — of Christ and others. In other words, don't use this to say, "Well, God hasn't gifted me to take out the trash!"
When Jesus' disciples became indignant because they thought Jesus had favored two brothers for "promotion," He clarified the underlying principle for greatness in the Kingdom of God: "... whoever wants to be great, must become a servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served" (Matt. 20:26-28, paraphrased in The Message). Yes, you are unique in your design, but your design is for service, so first and foremost your attitude must be that of service, no matter what the task.
With service as your foundation, you can begin to explore your God-given gift of unique talents and abilities. You didn't earn nor do you deserve these talents. God has endowed you with them. Some of these "grace gifts" are crafted by God at conception (natural abilities) — you're born with them (Psalm 139:13-16) — while others are given by God at your conversion (spiritual gifts) when you become a believer in Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 2:10, 4:11-12). The spiritual gifts enrich and empower the natural gifts that God has given you.
Discovering these gifts can be a bit of an art form. Of course, experience is one of the best indicators. As you look back over your life, what are the things that have energized you, tasks or activities that make you "come alive"? Alternatively, what are the things that have drained the life out of you? Are there any underlying themes that rise to the surface? The key is finding out what is it about you, and what is it about those tasks and activities, that make for the connection or disconnection. Your answers to those questions will help you begin to recognize some general ideas about your design.
Besides evaluating your own experiences, another way to get an indication of your unique design is by interviewing people who know you best — your family and friends and people you've worked alongside. Ask them what they think your strengths are and what gifts they observe in your life. Many times people see us differently than we see ourselves, and you might be surprised by what you find out.
Finally, there are a number of tools and personality profiles available that apply more of a science to discovering your gifts. These usually have you respond to a list of questions and different scenarios in an effort to narrow down your strengths. One I've recently used and can recommend is the Your Unique Design profile. It's Christian-based and available on-line for a fee. It lists five personality categories that people generally fall into, and helps you measure which combination of those five make up your unique design. Another widely used tool is DISC, which is not Christian-based but very thorough in its analysis. If you use a tool like these, I encourage you to make sure you have someone who is trained to help explain and walk you through the process of that specific tool. (These are given as examples and in no way are an endorsement from Boundless or Focus on the Family).
Remember, discovering your unique design is a lifelong process. The more you do, the more experiences you have, the more you know what energizes and de-energizes you. Don't let any of this put you into a box. Things change. You grow and mature. God equips you for a certain task, and that task is completed, and you move on to another one.
Now, let me balance all of this advice with one more thought. Scripture is full of stories of people called by God for certain tasks; people who, to those looking on from the outside, had little talent or skill for what they were being asked to do. Consider Moses, who was called to lead the nation of Israel but was such a poor communicator he needed Aaron as a spokesperson. Consider the apostles, who were called to evangelize the world but whose only apparent skill was fishing. The Bible recounts story after story of personal triumph in view of what appeared to be ill-equipped servants.
The key to each fulfillment of calling was a willingness to say "yes," and a trust in Him who calls. Maybe people recognize your skills, and maybe they don't. The most important thing is that God knows what you are capable of, and will equip you for the task. All you have to do is take that first step of faith. Stay open to His direction and re-direction, and He will take you on an adventure that satisfies your unique design and surpasses your wildest dreams.
"Hello?" I intoned. "Who's calling? ... I said, who's calling? ... Which Bill? I know three ... Oh, Jill, how are you? ... What do you mean, who am I? Didn't you just call me? ... I'm sorry, I thought you were a different Jill. This is Theophilus ... I said Theophilus ... M.E. Theophilus ... No, there is no Theodoropoulos here ... No, that is not my first name. You must have dialed the ... Yes, I am quite sure I am not Milton Theodoropoulos. I hope you find him. Goodbye."
A sound of suppressed laughter came from the door. I swung around to see Mark Manasseh. "Sorry," he said, "I couldn't help overhearing." His grin widened. "It was pretty funny, though. 'Who's calling?' Sounds like you and I have the same problem."
I waved him to a seat. "What problem is that?"
"Calling. Vocation. I still don't know what God wants me to do with my life. A couple of times I thought He was calling, but it was just a wrong number."
"I see," I smiled. "What telephone are you using?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you discern God's will?"
"Oh, Lord. People have suggested all kinds of methods to me."
"When I was in high school, my uncle told me that whenever he needed to know God's will, he opened the Bible at random, read the first verse that met his eyes, then did whatever it told him."
"So you tried it?"
"Don't laugh. At first it seemed to work. One time I asked God whether I should go out with this really pretty girl named Melissa. When I opened the Bible, the first verse that met my eye was Proverbs 6:25, 'Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes.' So I asked, 'Then who should I go out with?' This time when I opened the Bible, the first verse that met my eye was Isaiah 55:12, 'You shall go out with joy.' So I asked out Joy."
"You shouldn't have asked me not to laugh. What opened your eyes?"
"Two things. First, Joy said no."
"What was the other?"
"Well," said Mark, "one day I happened to ask that same uncle why he'd taken up cigarettes. He said 'God told me to smoke.' First he'd opened the Bible at random and read the 1 Corinthians 6:19, 'Do you not know that your body is a temple ... ?' Then he'd opened it again and read Revelations 15:8, 'The temple was filled with smoke.'"
I hid my smile in my coffee cup.
"That's when I figured it out," he said. "We were taking passages out of context and filling them with meanings God never intended."
"Good lesson. What other methods have people suggested to you?"
"What haven't they suggested? The organist for my church's College Choir is big on miraculous experiences, like when Moses saw the burning bush and when Paul was struck down by a vision on the road to Damascus."
"I don't doubt that God sends visions and performs miracles," I said, "but it doesn't seem His routine way of making His will known."
"That's what I think," he answered. "I told her that not many people see burning bushes or lights from heaven."
"How did she reply?"
"She said 'Maybe they're not looking.' Then she told me the story about how she decided to go into the religious music field. Something about a missing cross pendant that turned up inside a piano. I'm sure she made the right decision, but I thought that was a pretty silly reason for making it. She was reading a private meaning into a coincidence."
"Like when you and your uncle read private meanings into the Bible."
"You implied that you've rejected a lot of different methods for discerning the will of God," I answered, "but so far you've only mentioned two. Depending on how you count, maybe three."
"Yeah. The Random Finger Method, the Miraculous Event Method, and, um, let's say the Striking Coincidence Method."
"So what are all these many others?"
"A deacon at my church mentioned what you might call the Casting Lots Method. I know people tried to find God's will by casting lots in Old Testament times, but it worries me that the New Testament mentions it only once, in Acts 1, when the Church was just getting started. If the Church gave up casting lots, maybe there was a good reason."
"Aren't you going to give me any help here, Prof?"
"So far you don't need it. You're doing fine. What's next?"
"Well, a guy I know who's in seminary advised what he called the Putting Out a Fleece Method. When he needs to know God's will he prays 'God, if you want me to do such-and-such, show me by doing so-and-so."
"Like Gideon did in Judges 6."
"Right. There was some fleece, and Gideon prayed — never mind, you know the story."
"But didn't Gideon's prayer show lack of faith, Mark? In the story, God had already made clear what Gideon was supposed to do."
"That's what the minister for my college group pointed out. So it doesn't seem like putting out a fleece is such a good idea after all — at least not until every other way of seeking God's will has failed."
"My roommate follows what he calls the Open Door Method. In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul mentions he was going to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost because a wide 'door' for effective work had 'opened' to him. So according to the Open Door Method, whenever God opens a door for you, you should take advantage of it right away."
"And does that seem reasonable to you?"
"At first it did, but after thinking about it I've changed my mind."
"Because in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul mentions another door that opened to him in another town. He didn't take advantage of that one, because he couldn't find his partner Titus. So I think 'open door' must just mean an opportunity. Not every opportunity is a sign of what God wants you to do."
"My other roommate follows the Closed Door Method. When an obstacle arises to your plan, assume that God's will is behind it, and back off. But that makes even less sense. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul doesn't say 'We back off from proud obstacles to the knowledge of God;' he says 'We destroy them.'"
"Cut to the chase. Where does all this leave you?"
"There's one method of finding God's will that I'm still considering."
"What way is that?"
"I guess you could call it the Still Small Voice Method. You know, like in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah is fleeing, desperate to know the will of God, and he hears the 'still small voice.' I love that story. I know it almost by heart."
"When the Lord passed by Elijah," I said, "a great and mighty wind tore the mountains in pieces, but the Lord was not in the wind."
Taking up the story, Mark continued "After the wind came an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake."
"After the earthquake came a fire," I responded, "but the Lord was not in the fire."
Mark spoke the conclusion. "And after the fire, a still small voice."
We were silent for a few moments.
"But Mark," I asked, "how is that a method?"
He was surprised. "You listen for the still small voice. Once you've identified it, that's the voice of God."
"What do you take this still small voice to be? A literal voice?"
"No, it's a — well — an inward impression or something."
"And how do you identify it?"
"I suppose it would be like a feeling."
"But there are a lot of feelings, aren't there, Mark? At the times that you're most in need of God's guidance, don't you often have several at once? So if the still small voice is a feeling, which feeling is it?"
"The stillest, smallest one."
"Does that mean the weakest one?"
He seemed confused. "I guess so."
"Then is this what you mean by your Still Small Voice Method? First look inward to your feelings, then see which are strong and which are weak, and finally, whatever the weakest one prompts you to do, do that?"
Mark reddened a little. "When you put it that way — I guess not. But if that's not the method for identifying the still small voice, what is?"
"I didn't say there was a method. You did."
"The story doesn't teach a method for discerning the will of God; what it teaches is that the will of God has to be discerned. The reason God's voice in the story is called still and small is that sometimes — as in this case — it isn't easy to do that."
"I didn't say the still small voice would be obvious."
"For Elijah, the problem wasn't that it was less than obvious, but that it wasn't what he wanted to hear."
"If God's will wasn't obvious to him, it should have been. He had no reason to flee. Yes, he'd been threatened by the king, but by the power of God, he had just won his greatest victory. So why was he running away? What was he doing out there in the wilderness, all alone?"
"That's just what the still small voice asked him."
"Yes, and it told him to go back."
"You're saying there isn't any method?"
I hesitated. "Not what you've been calling a method. Discernment has its own spiritual laws, and of course they have to be followed. If you want to call that a method, you can, but it's not like what you've been calling methods. Those so-called methods are just gimmicks — not ways of discerning God's will, but ways of avoiding discernment."
"So what do I have to do? Become a prophet or a mystic or something?"
I smiled. "The first law of discernment is Preparation. Seek God's help to become the right kind of person inside — develop the right spiritual habits. Otherwise you haven't a chance to find His will."
"Habits like what?"
"The habit of prayer. The habit of faith. The habit of distrusting the desires and devices of your own devious heart. The habit of patience — what Scripture calls 'waiting on the Lord' — because God might guide you only a few steps at a time. The habit of submission in every matter where you already know His will, for He has already blessed us with revelation. The habit of seeking wisdom — learning to know His ways. Most of all, the habit of loving Him with your whole heart, and of loving your neighbor as yourself."
"Pardon me for saying so, Professor T, but that all sounds pretty obvious."
"It wasn't obvious to the people who invented the gimmicks."
"Hmm. I guess not. What's the second law?"
"The second law of discernment is Meditation. In the presence of God, contemplate all the relevant features of the decision. Seek human advice too — the Proverbs say 'plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many counselors they succeed.' Since you want to know how God is calling you, the relevant features of your decision include your gifts and talents, your weaknesses and tendencies to sin, the courses of action available, and the opportunities each one affords to glorify God and serve your neighbor. You come last, of course."
"But that all sounds pretty obvious too."
"Yes. What's the third law?"
"The third and final law of discernment is Obedience. You follow whatever path is wisest."
Mark was silent for a few seconds. "That's all you're going to say?"
"That's all there is."
"But that's not what I came here to find out," he pleaded. "How do I know which path is wisest?"
I looked at him with compassion. "If you have to ask the meaning of the third law," I said, "then you aren't taking the other two seriously."
He didn't understand yet, but I knew he would.