hated his job as much as anyone I've known. Though many would
find house painting enjoyable, to him it was
just 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
He didn't have to think long. He shot back, “I'd like to
be an English teacher.”
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 that he never would
have considered in a less-crazed moment.
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 their work.
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 Scripture
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 being”--literally, “kidneys”--was 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 that 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 that 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
that I would otherwise experience are not coming to the
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 energy.
With this in mind, here is a principle that 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 them out.
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 that
respect this insight.
God has made your life to be a gift to others. And a
cheerful giver gives the best gift!