hated his job as much as anyone I've known.
Though many would find the profession of house
painting enjoyable, to him it was merely a means
of paying the rent. He sat slumped in the chair
across from my desk, bemoaning his lot.
Yet Malcolm was a Christian who
wanted God's will. So I stopped him and asked,
"If God rolled out the red carpet and said
you could be in any career you wished, which
would it be?"
He didn't have to think long. He
shot back, "I'd like to be an English
Malcolm had two years of college
behind him. I was confident he could go back,
finish and find a job in the public school
system. So I said, "You're young enough to
do it. Why don't you pursue teaching with all the
passion and energy you can muster?"
His reply was unforgettable.
"I know that God doesn't want me teaching.
I'd enjoy the experience too much. And the
affirmation of students would be more than I
could handle." Then he added the clincher:
He was certain God wanted him painting houses,
for he thoroughly disliked his work!
An extreme example,
unquestionably. Yet it reflects a pattern of
thinking that I've often observed in Christians
and sometimes have fallen into myself. It's the
notion that being in God's will means by
definition choosing to do something unpleasant.
God wouldn't possibly want you in a career that
you find enjoyable, it's assumed, for unhealthy
aspirations would surely get in the way.
Actually, I know of an example
even more extreme than Malcolm's. A student about
to graduate from Princeton Seminary decided to
enroll in medical school. When an astonished
professor asked him why he made this atypical
choice, he replied that after considering all the
alternatives, he found medical work the least
appealing. He concluded, then, that this must be
the profession God wanted him to enter.
Instincts Good and Bad
It's not hard to understand how
Malcolm and the seminary graduate reached their
conclusions about God's will. Scripture has
plenty to say about the dangers of trusting our
gut instincts. "The heart is deceitful above
all things and beyond cure," Jeremiah
declares (Jer 17:9 NIV).
Perhaps the most notorious
biblical example of the heart's deceit is David's
attraction to Bathsheba. David was so devoted to
the Lord that he is held up throughout Scripture
as the ideal of a godly person. Yet he not only
committed adultery but murder because of his
enchantment with this woman. I suspect that David
may well have rationalized his actions as being
in God's will. Since his feelings for Bathsheba
were so strong, he may have thought that God was
prompting him through them to do something which
he never would have considered in a less-crazed
moment. "It can't be wrong, when it feels so
There was another occasion when
David followed his natural impulses and got into
trouble. He took a census of Israel. David's
action was so repugnant to God that he punished
the nation with a ravaging plague (1 Chron 21).
We might conclude from such
examples that we're always on shaky ground to
follow the instincts of the heart. Yet David
demonstrates another and very important side to
the story. His call from God to be king of Israel
placed him in a role that he thoroughly enjoyed.
He found military life stimulating, he thrived on
making administrative decisions, and he cherished
the opportunity to be a spiritual leader of the
people. David did not in any way think of his
position as--to use the modern and not quite
biblical term--"a sacrificial
vocation." While there were plenty of
sacrifices to be made within the position, he
relished the role itself.
I'm certain that David's
remarkable effectiveness as king was due in large
part to the fact that he enjoyed his work so
much. Because the job reflected his temperament
so well, he was able to pour his full creative
energies into it. Saul, his predecessor, had
considerably less aspiration to be king (1 Sam
9:21, 10:21-22). His performance in that role was
also much less impressive.
The Importance of Motivation
Think back over your life for a
moment. Who have been the teachers who had the
greatest impact on you? How about the pastors or
spiritual leaders? I'm willing to guess it has
been the ones who found the greatest enjoyment in
I attended several different
churches growing up but was never greatly
influenced by any of their pastors or teachers.
Many of them seemed possessed with a grim sense
of duty and showed little zest for life. I wanted
no part of such dreariness. When I began
attending Fourth Presbyterian Church in college,
the atmosphere was strikingly different. Those on
the pastoral staff were exuberant and took
obvious pleasure in their work. Their enthusiasm
was stimulating, and my spiritual life grew by
leaps and bounds.
Those who have been the greatest
help to me have almost always been ones who
enjoyed their work. Over a lifetime, we will each
likely find that we most help others, and do our
best work for Christ, when it's a reflection of
what we most want to do.
The Positive Role of Desire in
While Scripture has plenty to say
about the evils of the desires of the flesh, it
also brings out another and deeply encouraging
aspect of human desire that has received far too
little emphasis in Christian teaching. It
proclaims that God himself creates certain
desires within us who follow Christ in order to
guide us in certain directions.
In Psalm 139 David talks
specifically about God's guidance in his life and
how it relates to his own aspirations. He
declares, "For you created my inmost
being" (v. 13 NIV). The term "inmost
the most significant word the Hebrews had for
indicating the personality. David is saying that
God has given him a unique temperament. This
meant that God had put within him the inclination
to enjoy certain work and roles. In speaking
about himself, David conveyed a truth which
applies to all people.
Paul makes a similar point
specifically about Christians in Philippians
2:12-13, though our English translations often
miss the full impact of his language. "Work
out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for God is at work within you, both to will and
to work for his good pleasure" (RSV). Paul
urges us here to make responsible decisions--to
work out the implications of the salvation that
we already possess. We should make careful
decisions which accord with God's will.
We are able to do this, Paul goes
on to explain, because God is working within us
to see that we carry out his will. Twice in the
passage he uses the verb work, which in the Greek
is energeo--the root of our word energy. Paul is
literally saying, then, "God is energizing
you." God is giving us motivation to do what
he wants us to do!
Motivation and the Holy Spirit
Scripture pictures this process
of energizing as one of the chief functions of
the Holy Spirit. Jesus implied this when he
termed the Holy Spirit a "counselor"
(Jn 14:16). The Greek term meant a military
official responsible for giving fresh courage and
inspiration to soldiers who had lost heart in the
heat of battle.
Interestingly, the most common
role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is
that of a motivator. When the Holy Spirit comes
upon individuals, he gives them passion and fire
to do what God is calling them to do--a far cry
from the placid understanding of the Holy Spirit
emphasized in much teaching today and in so many
of our hymns.
We should expect, then, that if
God is leading us to make a major commitment of
our lives, he'll give us some passion for what
we're undertaking. We'll be motivated for the
task. There's something neurotically misplaced
about the notion that we ought to follow the
alternative we least desire.
But how does this possibly
reconcile with the frequent biblical admonitions
to deny our desires? Part of the answer lies in
the quality of our walk with Christ. If I'm
taking my relationship with Christ seriously and
making an effort to grow spiritually, I can be
confident that many of my desires are being
inspired by him. I can trust, too, that many
desires which I would otherwise experience are
not coming to the surface.
This is only part of the answer,
however. There is also a rule of thumb which is
extremely important to understand. To best
explain this, it helps to use the term vocation
in its original Reformation sense. Luther and
Calvin used vocation to mean not only one's
profession but any major commitment or status in
a person's life. In their understanding, not only
is my job a vocation, but also my family
relationship, my involvement with my church, and
any other significant investment of my time and
With this in mind, here is a
principle which should govern most of our major
decisions as Christians: A decision for a
vocation should be based as much as possible upon
our personal desires. We ought to read them as a
vital sign of how God has made us and wants us to
direct our energies for Christ. But in the
day-to-day decisions made within vocations, we
should deny ourselves in every way necessary to
be an effective servant to others and to
faithfully fulfill our responsibilities. In this
case, then, self-denial takes place within our
areas of motivation rather than outside of them.
Desires and Major Decisions
When Paul speaks about the
vocation of marriage, for instance, he stresses
that much personal sacrifice and discipline are
needed to be an effective spouse and parent (Eph
5:21-6:4). Yet he also insists that we should
marry only if our desire for marriage is strong
(1 Cor 7). So self-denial occurs within an area
of life where we truly want to be.
Or consider Paul's teaching on
the qualifications for a spiritual leader. In 1
Timothy 3 he notes many marks of self-denial and
discipline needed by an effective
"bishop," or spiritual shepherd. Yet
often overlooked is the fact that he begins his
instructions saying, "If any one aspires
to the office of bishop, he desires a
noble task" (v. 1 RSV, emphasis added). Paul
simply assumes that the good spiritual leader
will be strongly motivated for the role.
Self-denial takes place within that overriding
This same principle applies to
other vocations we enter as Christians, to the
extent that God allows us freedom of choice. We
should follow our desires in choosing them, then
deny our desires as necessary to faithfully carry
This isn't to overlook the
challenge often involved in determining what our
most significant desires are. Considerable
prayer, counsel and experimenting may be needed
to understand them. Yet as we come to recognize
which desires are deepest and most consistent
within us, we gain a treasured window into how
God has fashioned our life. As he allows us
freedom of choice, we should make vocational
choices which respect this insight.
God has made your life to be a
gift to others. And a cheerful giver gives the