In seeking Godís will, is my
responsibility to consider how Christ has made me, then look for
situations that best fit my gifts and interests? Or is it to try
to understand where the greatest areas of human need lie, and do
my best to relate to them? Do I find the will of God by looking
inward or by looking outward?
The issue is
much more than an academic one for many of us. Chris, a
third-year premed student, earnestly wants his life to
accomplish something of value for Christ. Since elementary
school he has dreamed of becoming a medical missionary. That
vocation would allow him to meet critical needs of people and to
share the gospel openly. He has embraced this dream for so long
that it seems like a calling and mandate upon his life.
been a harsh reality check for Chris. Though he has worked hard,
he has done poorly in science courses essential for admission to
med school. He has done well in humanities courses, however, and
superbly in art and drama. Most significantly, Chris has
developed an impressive talent for acting, and has been awarded
the lead role in several school plays.
Now, well into
his third year of college, Chris is concluding that he would
like to enter acting as a career. Yet he fears he wouldnít
contribute nearly as greatly to peopleís needs or to the work of
Christ in this profession as in medical missions. He wonders if
heís giving up on his long-time goal too easily. Should he
simply work harder in his science courses, and redouble his
efforts to get into med school?
For Chris, the
central issue is whether to base his understanding of Godís will
on looking outward or on looking inward. Looking outward tells
him that he should follow a career in medical missions at all
costs, for this seems to be where he can make the most obvious
impact for Christ. Looking inward tells him that he is more cut
out for the field of acting. Is it possible that God is giving
him guidance through this self-discovery? Or is it Satanís way
of tempting him to turn away from Godís best?
Many of us
experience this sort of conflict in our decisions. The choices
before us may not contrast as strongly as Chrisís. Yet they
leave us just as confused about Godís will.
The dilemma we
face so often boils down to this: At one extreme is an option
that appears to be a golden opportunity to help people and have
a ministry. At the other is an opportunity more in line with our
abilities and natural interests. And there seems to be a
frustrating distance between these two extremes.
this inward-outward issue not only in our career choices, but in
many other areas. Opportunities to serve in our churches
frequently seem to pit one option, where the needs are gaping,
against another that better fits our talents and temperament,
but where the needs are less pressing. We face this issue in
some of our avocational choices as well.
than not, the advice we hear in Christian circles is that
looking outward is more important than looking inward. Consider
the popular adage we hear so often: ďGod wants your
availability, not your ability.Ē While this may be reverent
advice on one level, itís too often taken to mean that our
abilities are unimportant to God. Our responsibility is
simply to look for needs and fill them, trusting that God will
give us the ability necessary to meet them.
Christians even assume that we best fulfill Godís will by taking
on responsibility that weíre clearly not gifted to handle. By
doing so, we compel ourselves to trust Christ to make us
effective, they insist, and best position ourselves to act in
can be reverent and well-intentioned. But does it agree with
biblical teaching on guidance? Where does Scripture put the
emphasis in understanding Godís will--upon looking outward or
Gifts and Needs
two concerns are never mutually exclusive. We are always
responsible to be looking outward and inward at the same time.
Scripture prods us constantly to the most thoroughgoing concern
for the burdens of other people. Weíre called to do nothing less
than devote our life to the needs of others. Paul tells us in
graphic language to consider our life a ďliving sacrificeĒ (Rom
Yet in the
same breath he says emphatically that we must have a good
understanding of the life that weíre sacrificing. ďHave a sane
estimate of your own capabilities,Ē Paul declares (Rom 12:3
Phillips). God expects us to develop as realistic a
self-understanding as possible. Weíre called to appreciate the
distinctive gifts and personality features he has given us, and
to be good stewards of them.
decisions about our lifeís direction, then, can only be made as
we match everything we know about ourselves with everything
weíre able to learn about othersí needs and about opportunities
for service available.
self-understanding is never achieved merely by looking inward.
It emerges only through our involvement with others. If I decide
that Iíll never do anything for Christ until Iím certain what my
abilities are, Iíll wait forever! I discover my gifts, and my
whole range of strengths and limitations, only over time, as I
strive to understand the needs of people around me and respond
to them--then do my best to gauge where Iím being most
effective. This will clearly require some bold experimenting.
As a new
Christian, I had no perception that I could teach. Late one
Saturday evening, a pastor from church phoned and asked if I
would fill in for him teaching a college Sunday school class the
next morning. Though reluctant, I agreed to try, nearly certain
my performance would be miserable. By the end of the class,
though, I felt that in spite of many deficiencies, the Lord had
used me. Communication had occurred. And to my surprise, I had
greatly enjoyed the experience.
Our need for
experimenting never ceases. We never reach the point where we
have the right to conclude that we fully understand our
potential or have reached all of our creative horizons. God is
full of surprises and at any point in life--even older age--may
show us that we have capability we had always thought impossible
for us (Ps 92:12-14).
I knew a woman
who, as a middle-aged homemaker, suffered terribly from migraine
headaches. She was asked to assist with a Young Life ministry to
children living in one of Washington, D.C.'s most dangerous
neighborhoods--a task you would imagine
would give a middle-class, suburban woman a migraine. Through
she had no previous experience in social work or cross-cultural
ministry, she agreed to try. To her amazement, she not only was
highly effective, but her headaches disappeared. She
demonstrates dramatically how courageous experimenting can
sometimes shed surprising light on our potential.
takes us through a number of pilgrimages in the Christian life
through which we discover our potential more fully. Yet he also
brings us to plateaus in our self-understanding, where we
recognize clearly that we have certain gifts and are strongly
motivated to use them. These are the points where weíre most
likely to conclude that our life is not reflecting our ability
and motivational pattern as fully as it could. We may envision
certain changes that would bring us more into line with our
Itís here that
the conflict between looking inward and outward can become
especially severe. It may seem that doing what weíre most gifted
and motivated to do wonít meet the needs of others as well as
some other option that barely taps our potential.
And itís here
that Iím comfortable saying we should follow the path of our
gifts. We should feel not merely the freedom but a mandate to do
so. Again, I take my cue from Paulís counsel in Romans 12.
Amplifying further what it means to live sacrificially, he
exhorts us to be diligent in using those gifts that weíre most
confident we possess:
Through the grace of God we have different gifts. If our gift is
preaching, let us preach to the limit of our vision. If it is
serving others let us concentrate on our service; if it is
teaching let us give all we have to our teaching; and if our
gift be the stimulating of the faith of others let us set
ourselves to it. (Rom 12:6-7 Phillips)
As we come to
understand that God has gifted us in a certain way, Paul is
saying, we have a responsibility to invest our life at that
point. Concentrating on what we are best able to do means we
will have to take our hands off of other worthwhile things we
could be doing. This freedom to focus our time and talent is one
of the wonderful benefits of being part of the body of Christ,
where God calls others to carry out what we are unable to do.
That We Have
comfortable saying that as a general principle over our
lifetime, we should give more weight in our big decisions to our
self-understanding than to the more abstract question of the
needs of other people. I say this with caution, frankly groping
for the best words, for the danger of hardening our hearts to
othersí needs in the interest of doing our own thing is always
there. God expects us to be continually pliable, and willing to
go beyond our boundaries for the sake of helping others.
But I say what
I say for the sake of stewardship. For what we can know
about ourselves--our specific talents and potential, personality
traits and physical capabilities--though always a provisional
understanding, is still the most clear and certain knowledge we
have this side of eternity on which to base our important
choices. And there is an abundance of Scriptural teaching
telling us to take this information seriously, as a vital
indication of how God wants us to spend our time.
We must also
recognize in all humility that what we can understand by looking
outward is extremely limited. Our minds are simply too small to
comprehend more than a minute portion of all that God is doing
in the world, or of the opportunities for service that exist.
Even when it comes to judging the results of our own work, we
can see only the faintest tip of the iceberg. We simply cannot
see enough of the total picture merely by looking outward to
judge objectively how and where we will be most effective for
Christ. Our self-understanding will give us the most important
pretend to know Godís will for Chris. He may gain new insights
that throw fresh light on his career direction. Yet if he
continues to believe that he is best suited for acting, he
should feel great freedom to make it his career, trusting that
God will give him a significant ministry within that vocation.
And he shouldnít assume he is sacrificing a higher calling for a
lower one by making this choice. He may be confident he is
fulfilling the Lordís highest calling for him if he bases
his decision on how God has designed his life.
For each of us, the critical question is
how God has gifted and inspired us personally. With a good
understanding of how he has fashioned us, we will be in the best
position to consider how to devote ourselves to the needs of a
hurting world. Ultimately, our life will be of greatest benefit
to others when weíre being the individual God has created us to