I wanted to share this last week’s sermon from John Ortberg at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. MPPC is going through a series called FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), and I know this question is one that I’ve had conversations about so I hope it’s helpful! (You can click here or on the image to watch the video.)
It’s also an excuse to repost one of my favorite — and, personally, most regularly challenging — quotes about Jesus’ relationship with women, from Dorothy Sayers:
Perhaps it is no wonder that women were first at the cradle and last at the cross. They had never known a man like this man. There never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made sick jokes about women; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took women’s questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out a certain sphere for women; who never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took women as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its point or pungency from female perversity. Nobody could get from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything funny or inferior about women.
A couple weeks ago, I was with some new friends, and we were introducing ourselves, and the cue was
What do we need to know about you to know you?
That’s another way of asking, “Who are you?” If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond? How would you identify yourself?
By your job?
By where you’re from?
By whether you’re married or single, a parent or a grandparent?
By how old you are?
By what you like to do?
How would you talk about your identity, about who you are?
Psychologist James Marcia proposes that there are four statuses (not stages) in identity development:
Identity diffusion is when a person is unable or unwilling to explore or commit to any particular identity. The least complex and least mature position. Apathy.
Foreclosure occurs when a person embraces clear commitments, but they’re just inherited from parents or culture, chosen without serious thought or exploration.
Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a person wants to be.
Achievement occurs when a person resolves their explorations, works through crisis and make clear commitments.
According to psychologists and sociologists, young people nowadays are taking more and more time to commit to who they want to become, more time to cultivate an identity. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, who work at the Fuller Youth Institute and interact with a lot of adolescents and teenagers, write:
The breadth of peer relationships that young people experience means they get a wider variety of feedback about how they are perceived. Because friends’ opinions matter so much during adolescence, the result is a delay in identity formation. Quite simply, kids receive inconsistent and too much feedback in response to what they say and how they act, so they often postpone committing to who they want to become.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some great conversations with the guys in my small group about what it means to follow Jesus—what it means to be a guy who follows Jesus, what it means to be a 20-something or a 30-something or a 40-something here in DC who follows Jesus, what it means to be a single person or a married person who follows Jesus. All of these conversations revolve around that issue of identity—of who we are.
Because here’s what I think:
who we are determines how we live.
Who you are will determine:
how you respond when something bad happens—whether it’s small like losing a key or stubbing your toe, or whether it’s big like having your heart broken, losing a loved one, getting sick;
what you feel called to, what you are willing to do, and what you will do even if you don’t want to do it;
what you do with your money, what you spend it on, how much you give away, and whom you give to;
what you spend your time doing and who you spend it with;
how you engage in friendships and in dating relationships;
how you think about marriage and whom you choose to marry.
Who we are determines how we live.
But the thing is, many of us don’t know who we are. That “delay in identity formation” feels like it applies not just to teenagers nowadays, but also, still, to some of us: there are so many voices clamoring for our attention, so many opinions, so many perspectives, so many people telling us so many different things, and because we want people to like us, because we want people to affirm us, because we do what we think they want us to do, we end up not knowing who we are, and so we end up not knowing how to live … at least not with consistency and stability.
Pastor and author John Ortberg says,
The soul without a center finds its identity in externals.
Maybe you’ve tried to find your identity in your work, in romantic relationships, in how many people you’ve slept with, in athletic ability, in your families, or in educational achievement.
Maybe you’ve crafted an identity: a work identity—the hard worker, the one who gets things done; a relationship identity—the smooth talker, the one who’s hard to get; a social media presence that doesn’t quite match reality because you only post about the good times; an online dating profile in which every picture of you is flattering or you say you love sports (which is technically true but honestly you’ve watched more sports than you’ve played sports); a LinkedIn page that makes you sound a lot more accomplished than you are or feel—especially because now people can recommend you for the skills they think you’re good at.
Maybe you’ve distracted yourself so you don’t have to figure out who you are (at least that’s what you’re telling yourself): serial dating, assuming every time it breaks down that it was the other person’s fault; sleeping around or just “hanging out” so you can get some sort of affirmation—they may not love me but at least they like having me aroundand that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
If we don’t know who we are, we won’t know how to live with consistency and stability and integrity. That word “integrity” carries notions of wholeness, of not being divided. That is the kind of life Jesus lived—where his words and his deeds lined up—and that, I believe, is the kind of life Jesus invites us to live with him.
And so, in talking about our identity, I want to talk first about Jesus’ identity—who Jesus was, who Jesus is—because who Jesus is has everything to do with who we are, and in three ways in particular:
we are humans, created in the image of God, created to show God to the world, and Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest image of God, the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever seen—so if you want to know how to live fully, look at Jesus;
we are redeemed by Jesus in order to work with Jesus to reconcile all things to Jesus—so if you want to know your purpose in life, Jesus is pretty important to that too;
for those who have made the decision to become a Christ-follower, to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord, we are called to be like him.
So knowing who Jesus is, is an indispensable part of knowing who weare.
Let’s look at Luke 3:21-23:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.
Many of your Bibles probably label this passage as “Jesus’ baptism,” but the funny thing is, the baptism is not the main point here. Matthew and Mark, in their gospel accounts, spend more time narrating what actually happens at Jesus’ baptism; Luke just says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”
John the Baptist was calling people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of cleansing and entering into a new way of living. People were coming to John to repent of their sins and be baptized, and Jesus was baptized, too. Only … he didn’t have any sin; he didn’t sin—that’s part of why, according to the Christian story, Jesus was able to be the One to save us, because he was without fault, because he never did anything wrong, because he lived life as truly and as fully as a human being was created to. So why, you might ask, did Jesus come to be baptized when he didn’t ‘need’ to be baptized? This is what Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote—and I like this a lot:
In the life of each of us there are certain definite stages, certain hinges on which our whole life turns. It was so with Jesus, and every now and again we must stop and try to see his life as a whole. … When John emerged the people flocked out to hear him and to be baptized. Throughout the whole country there was an unprecedented movement towards God. And Jesus knew that his hour had struck. It was not that he was conscious of sin and of the need of repentance. It was that he knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God.
Jesus was saying, “This is my life-direction. This is the time to make public my identification with what John has said, with what John is doing, and, more importantly, with what God is doing at this time and in this place.” It was a hinge-point in his life, a juncture at which he sensed God’s calling to a new chapter.
Luke tells us Jesus was about thirty years old. Thirty meant something for the people of Israel: thirty was
how old you had to be to become a priest;
how old Joseph was when he entered the service of Pharaoh (in Genesis 41);
how old the prophet Ezekiel was when he was called to ministry;
how old David was when he became king.
Now, you may be thirty—or you may not be. Either way, maybe you’re at a juncture in your life where you’ve sensed God calling you to step out in faith: maybe to trust in him for the first time, maybe to commit your finances to him by giving to the church or another organization that’s seeking to see the kingdom of God here on earth—more of up there down here, maybe to commit your future to him by breaking off a dead-end relationship situation or by making a lifelong commitment to somebody.
Wherever you are, I pray that your ears and your heart will be open to what God is saying, and that, like Jesus, you’ll respond and move into that.
Throughout his gospel, Luke presents Jesus as a man of prayer, pointing out many incidents when Jesus would withdraw to commune with God. That’s all prayer is: taking time to talk with God about what we’re doing together.
I want to be a man of prayer; I want to be in constant contact with the One who knows what’s going on—because much of the time, I don’t! I want our church to be a place of prayer, a place where people commune and communicate with God. I want our community to have a culture of prayer: in the midst of the busyness and activity of DC, I want The District Church to be and be known as a haven of consistency and stability and integrity and peace—“the rest of will that results from assurance about how things will turn out,” as Dallas Willard puts it, because it knows and trusts the One who, in all things, is working for our good. That’s why prayer is important; that’s why, even though I think I’m terrible at praying, I keep working at it, I keep trying to grow in it, I keep asking God to help me be a better pray-er—and even that is praying!
So Jesus, after he’s been baptized, prays; after this definitive moment in his life, he talks with God … and “heaven was opened.” The opening of heaven was symbolic of God’s revelation, God’s showing of himself to his people; it was an indicator that God was about to do something big. After hundreds of years of silence, a voice comes calling in the wilderness; John comes as a prophet of the Lord, having received the word of the Lord, to call all people to the Lord. That’s a sign that something is stirring. And now, after the baptism of Jesus, heaven is opened. Something is happening. Winter is coming. (That’s a Game of Thrones reference, in case you didn’t get it.) The King is returning. (That’s from Lord of the Rings … and from the Bible.) God is about to do something amazing.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happens as Jesus is praying. There have been times in my life where I’ve wondered why I haven’t heard from God, and then he reminds me that I haven’t been listening, that I haven’t been spending much time with him lately. It’s hard to hear when you aren’t listening; it’s hard to have a conversation if you aren’t willing to make time for it.
the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.
Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God. It’s a sign that he has been chosen by God for a mission, an indicator that he has been commissioned by God for a task and equipped by God for this purpose. It was the Spirit of God that would enable and empower Jesus to do everything he did—signs and wonders; words of truth and love and grace. It was the Spirit of God that would raise Jesus from the dead. And that same Spirit of God, if you put your trust in Jesus, that same Spirit of God lives in you. That same Spirit of God is part of who you are, part of your identity. That same Spirit of God continues to be at work in and through and with you and the larger body of Christ—the Church—to bring life to the world. None of what we want to do—seek the renewal of our city; live good, Christ-imitating lives; love God and those around us with integrity—none of that is possible without the Spirit of God.
And yet so many of us try. So many of us try to change the world/ourselves/other people through our own efforts, apart from God. But God is already working, by his Spirit, in and through people who have dedicated themselves to see God’s renewal on earth—and sometimes even through those who haven’t. What we’re asked to do is be a part of that, to partner in that, to open ourselves up, to trust in Jesus—to trust that what Jesus says is true, to trust that what God says is true.
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the foundation of Jesus’ identity: Son of God. Beloved by God. Pleasing to God. The language harks back to Psalm 2, the royal psalm, where God says to the king, “You are my son …” It harks back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in 42:1:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
This is who Jesus is: Son. King. Beloved. Servant. Chosen. Spirit-empowered. Justice-bringer. This is who Jesus is, and this is what Jesus is about. Who he is determines how he lives.
I don’t think this was the first time he had heard the voice of God. I don’t think this was the first time he realized that he had a higher calling. In Luke 2, we read about him spending time at the Temple as a boy and telling his parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)—he was twelve; it was another hinge-point in his story.
We don’t hear from him for another 18 years, during which time he is presumably taking up his father’s trade as a carpenter in Nazareth, being faithful in the mundane, being faithful in the small things—plugging away at work, taking care of his family, loving his neighbors—just as he would later be faithful in the big things. Next week we’ll hear about the temptations Jesus faced before he began his public ministry, and there as well he was faithful because he knew who he was. Or to put it another way, he knew whose he was. Because God had told him: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
You know, Jesus is the only person in the New Testament of whom God says, “I am pleased with you.” That’s because even at this point in his life, even before he embarked on his public ministry, even before the public acclaim and the crowds flocking to hear him speak and see him do miracles, even before all of the celebrity, he was completely faithful—he had loved God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength; and he had loved his neighbor as himself—throughout the course of his life thus far; and that’s why God said to him, “I am pleased with you.” Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about making it his goal in life to please God.
I also want to please God; I want to be faithful; I want to do things that make God happy. But I also do things that I know don’t please God—that’s where repentance comes in; that’s where forgiveness comes in; that’s where grace comes in.
Let me be clear here: I don’t try to please God in order to earn his love; I try to please God because I already have his love. Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. For instance, I don’t do things for my wife so that she will love me; I do things for her because she loves me. It’s a very fine line, but it’s a crucial distinction.
God loves us—more than we can ever know—and nothing can change that; but that doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us—especially when we do things that run counter to what he knows is good for us, or when we turn away from him, or when we hurt ourselves or other people. That’s why it does matter how we live. That’s why it does matter whose we are.
Pastor and author Jo Saxton writes:
Contrary to the many mantras of our day, our identity is not found deep within us: it’s given.
It’s given by God, our Creator, the One who made us in his image, the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, the One who knows what’s best for us. It should not be a surprise, then, to discover that what God says about us and who we are in relation to God are the most foundational aspects of our identity. And yet … global activist Lynne Twist says:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. … Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. … This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.
What these voices, this culture, this world, maybe even our loved ones, have said to us about our identity is that we are not enough, that at the foundation of our identity exists a lack, a not-enough, and therefore we must strive—for affirmation, for acceptance, for all that we don’t yet have.
But because of what Jesus did on this earth, because of what Jesus did on the cross, because of what Jesus did in overcoming sin and death, the Apostle John is able to write, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). Because of Jesus, God says to those who say yes to him: “You are mine. I love you.” And then as we get to know him, we learn more and more how we can please the One who not only loves us but the One whom we love in return.
The words that God spoke to his Son:
You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.
These words grant identity; these words speak of home; these words tell you where you belong and whom you belong to. We seek those words too; we desire to hear them; we glean affirmation from them. We wish we heard them more often.
Maybe from your father or your mother: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from your husband or your wife: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from an ex or a significant other: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from an older brother or sister: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
In some form or other, from some person or other, we seek these identity-affirming words—“You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”—because we want to know who we are and whose we are. But the only person who will tell it to us in a way that will bring lasting peace and assurance to the very core of our beings is God. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of other people tell it to us; the only person whose voice carries eternal weight in this regard is God.
When I was in college, I recommitted my life to Christ; and for the first year or so after that, when I would pray, what I sensed God saying to me most often was “I love you.” And I would be puzzled; I’d say to God,
I know that! Everybody knows that. Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Tell me something new! Tell me what to do!
But the same thing: “I love you.” Day after day: “I love you.” Week after week: “I love you.” And one day, I realized that God was telling me he loved me so often because that was the most important thing about who I was, and that was the thing that was most easy to forget.
When something goes wrong, when something bad happens, when someone gets mad at you, when someone hurts you, when things don’t go the way you want them to go, when things are out of your control, or even when things are going really, really well—any time, any place, the thing that’s easiest to forget is also the thing that changes everything: God loves you. You belong to God.
Marguerite Shuster, a preaching professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote about a Christian kindergarten teacher she knows. In her class there was a young girl, whose parents were in the middle of a vicious divorce. “Climbing into my friend’s lap, the girl said, ‘Tell me again that Jesus loves me. I keep forgetting.’ The girl knew in her head that Jesus loved her, but she still needed to hear it from the outside.” C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
People need more to be reminded than to be instructed.
God loves you. Whatever hand 2014 has dealt you; whatever hand your life has dealt you; whatever has happened to you, in spite of your best efforts; whatever this week has thrown at you; whatever today has dumped on your doorstep—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Even if your work colleague hates your guts, even if your students don’t pay attention to you, even if the patients you treat couldn’t care less about you; even if you aren’t sure if you’re in the right job or the right place or the right relationship or the right marriage—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Because Jesus is who Jesus is, we can be who we were made to be. God says to you, “You are mine. I love you.”
Maybe you aren’t seeking God, or you wouldn’t call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you too know that longing for affirmation, which you’ve sought
in the arms of the next guy or the next girl,
by throwing yourself into work,
by crafting an identity that people think is you but you know, deep in your heart, is not even close to being true, and certainly not close to where you want to be.
Your Creator God longs to be in relationship with you; the One who loves you and cares for you, desires to call you his own. The God who knew you even before you were born yearns to establish you in the unshakeable, consistent, stable foundation of his love.
In Creation, this God made all things to be good, with a purpose; after we turned away at the Fall, he sought us; he sent Jesus to show us the way—to be our Way and our Redemption; and he desires that all would know him, that all would love him, that all would discover the life and beauty and power in the connection for which we were all made—the connection with the one true God, the God who said to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” the God who whispers to us, sometimes with tears and sometimes with great barreling laughter, “You are mine. I love you.” And he longs for us to join with him in the work of Renewal, which is that all might know him and that all might be made right, and as we do this, the Father may one day say to us too,
Well done, good and faithful child. With you I am well pleased.
 Powell, Sticky Faith, 56; quoting from “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status” and “Identity in Adolescence.”
Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.
– Dallas Willard
In the spiritual life God chooses to try our patience first of all by His slowness. He is slow: we are swift and precipitate. It is because we are but for a time, and He has been for eternity. …
There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God. Let it overshadow our souls, but let it not disquiet them. We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and the lightning, in the cold and the dark.
Wait, and He will come. He never comes to those who do not wait. He does not go their road.
When He comes, go with Him, but go slowly, fall a little behind; when He quickens His pace, be sure of it, before you quicken yours. But when He slackens, slacken at once: and do not be slow only, but silent, very silent, for He is God.
– Frederick Faber
Going slow is difficult for me. Especially since I’ve learned what it means to put my faith into action, and I just want to do it. Especially in a church that’s committed to the work of justice and the renewal of our city, and there’s so much to do. Especially in a city where your value is often based on your activity.
But in these contexts, going slow, even stopping, and learning to listen are particularly important. Because it’d be real easy to think when you’re busy and active that it’s what you do that matters, rather than who you are and who you are becoming.
Who you are and who you are becoming are far more important than what you do.
Remember to sabbath.
Build your life on a foundation of love and devotion for God.
Spend time tending to your soul by spending time with God — quality time.
Make time for things that give you life — whether that’s with friends or on your own (or both).
Build in habits of rest and silence and solitude and prayer.
William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery activist and parliamentarian — I’m guessing he was probably fairly busy — said,
Of all things, guard against neglecting God in the secret place of prayer.
Doing good is good. Doing good is important. But doing good won’t last long if we’re disconnected from God because we’ll constantly feel stretched thin, worn out, and burned out. We weren’t made just to do good. We were made to live with God — to do life with God (and part of that involves doing good).
And doing life with God means we have to move at God’s pace — James Houston wrote, “The speed of godliness is slow.” So slow down a little; don’t miss what God’s doing.
“How do I know?” is one of the most common questions that comes up in counseling, in prayer, in conversations.
How do I know what God’s calling me to?
How do I know if I’m supposed to be with this person?
How do I know if I should marry this person?
How do I know if I should try and have kids, or adopt, or foster?
How do I know if I’m supposed to be in this city?
How do I know if I’m in the right job or if I should look for a new one?
How do I know how I should spend my time and with whom and doing what?
It’s probable that you’ve asked one of those questions at some point in your life. It’s possible that you’re still wondering.
Here are three quotes that have shaped my understanding of calling. First, from C.S. Lewis, who describes the process of discovering your calling like this:
All of the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it, tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, “Here at last is the thing I was made for.”
And then author and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote,
the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
And finally, civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Though they could be interpreted as being in opposition, I don’t think they are; I think they’re all true, just maybe not the way we may automatically think.
I grew up in the church, where people talk about “discovering God’s will” and “discerning God’s plan” and “asking God what he desires,” and I developed the image in my head of God’s will or calling on your life being like a map or a blueprint. You had to “discover God’s will,” as if that meant figuring out where on the map you were and then navigating along God’s route to point X; or “follow God’s will,” as if there were certain instructions on how to construct a godly life and if you skipped a step, you’d end up with a wonky product.
And so, for much of my life, I was kind of anxious:
What if I miss what God’s will is?
What if I end up doing a job that God doesn’t want me to do?
What if I don’t answer God’s calling on my life?
What if I don’t marry the person God wants me to marry?
If I fall off the path, what happens to the rest of the journey?
If I skip one instruction—even accidentally—can I go back and fix it or am I screwed for the rest of my life?
I wonder how many others have that image of God and of his will; I wonder how many others feel or have felt paralyzed because of that.
Imagine one of my sons calls me on the phone and asks, “Dad, what’s your will for my college major?”
I would say, “Son, I have raised you to this point in your life so that you can make that decision.”
“Yes, Dad,” he replies, “but I want to do your will, not my own will. So, please tell me what major to choose.”
“Son,” I’ll say, “I’d be glad to help you think this through. For example, we can talk about how much you hate history and calculus, and how much you love writing and business. I think I can help you eliminate some options, but I really want you to decide this.”
“Dad, don’t you love me? What if I make a mistake? I just want to do your will!” he says.
“But, Son,” I’ll reply, “it is my will for you to make this decision. Again, I’m glad to talk with you and help you think it through. But my will is for you to grow up, be a man, and make a life for yourself by making decisions, hard decisions, like this one. And believe me, whatever happens, whether you major in business or art or physics, whether it goes well or not, I will be with you. You can count on that, no matter what.” The point is that he lives with my guidance, but not my domination, because he’s my son, not my lawn mower.
And all of a sudden, the anxiety-inducing image in my head of God as a blueprint maker was done away with, and I learned about an important distinction, a distinction that may make all the difference: it’s between your general calling and your specific calling. As Kyle Lake explains:
A general will [or calling] applies to everyone equally;a specific will [or calling] applies to everyone individually.
When we ask, “How do I know what I’m supposed to do?” or “How do I know my calling?”, what we’re normally referring to is the second one, the specific calling. That’s the one we get most obsessed with, most concerned with, and most worried about.
The thing is, though, while it may be tempting to think that we’re starting from scratch—you feel like you have no clue what to do or where to begin—what God has left for us in Scripture, what God shows us most commonly in the Bible, what we have in abundance in what we call the word of God, is God’s general calling.
This is what God has said already, what he has said to generations past, and what he continues to say through these pages to our generation and to future generations. And when we follow these words, when we do what God asks of us in Scripture, then I believe we discover what Buechner calls “our deepest gladness,” what Howard Thurman describes as the thing that “makes you come alive.” Because this is our Creator God, speaking words of life to us, speaking words that will bring life to us if we listen and obey.
Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”—general calling.
Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself”—general calling.
Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—general calling.
Genesis 1:28: “He made human beings in the image of God,” we should treat each other as such—general calling.
Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O human, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—general calling.
In the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus says, “Follow me” (4:19) and “Make disciples, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (28:19) —general calling.
I could go on and on, and oftentimes when people ask me what they should do with their lives, I want to say: “Read the Bible first. You never know what God may say in there. You never know how what God has already said may impact your life. You never know who you’ll encounter there … Jesus, for instance.”
Now, I’m not saying the Bible is where you to go to solve all your problems, nor am I calling it a manual to follow literally and step-by-step in order to build the perfect life. Many of the contemporary issues we face the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. But if you want to know what God has already said, read the Bible.
Here’s one thing you’ll find in the Bible:
God offers far more instruction on whom we are called to be than on what we are supposed to do.
This is not to say that what we do doesn’t reflect or have an impact on or any relation to who we are, but the thing is, as author Os Guinness reminds us in The Call:
We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that unless you’re operating within God’s general calling, you’re unlikely to discover God’s specific calling. Unless you’re seeking to follow Jesus, to take up your cross, to be filled with the Spirit, to be living a holy life, to doing justice and being kind and walking humbly with your God; unless you’re treating the least of these as if they were Christ himself, putting the needs of others before yourself and putting God above all, it’s going to be really hard to discern what specific thing God may be calling you to.
Dallas Willard goes one step further; he writes in Hearing God:
people also often seem to lack desire to receive God’s word merely for what it is, just because we believe it is the best way to live. This is shown by a disregard of the plain directives in the Scriptures. Sanctification from sexual uncleanness (1 Thess 4:3) and a continuously thankful heart (1 Thess 5:18) are among the many specific things clearly set forth in God’s general instructions to all people. It is not wise to disregard those plain directives and then expect to hear a special message from God when we want it. … Anyone who rejects the general counsels of Scripture is in fact planning not to be guided by God and cannot then rely on being able to be delivered from their difficulties by obtaining God’s input on particular occasions.
The hope of God isn’t that we’d just always be asking him, “What do I do now?” and then doing it and then asking him again and then doing it and then asking him again (ad infinitum). The hope of God is that we’d grow into mature believers, we’d answer his call to follow, we’d be becoming the kind of people who are always learning from their Master and Lord, and to be children who reflect the family likeness. So please don’t let the fact that you may not yet know God’s specific calling on your life stop you from doing what he’s already asked you to do.
And how will you know what he’s already asked you to do? By spending time reading the Bible. Maybe you’re in a season where your Bible spends more time on the shelf than open in front of you—or maybe you have the app on your phone and it’s actually on your home screen, but it’s more to make yourself feel better because you know it’s there. Kind of like me with my Nike+ running app—just because it’s on my home screen doesn’t mean I’m getting any fitter! After a while, you get tired of feeling guilty and you’re either going to use it or you’re going to move it to a folder.
Let me encourage you to use it—the Bible (app), that is.
Take time in God’s word every morning: reading, reflecting, praying, studying.
Learn the vocabulary of God; learn the character of God.
You may not have a Damascus Road experience every morning, but one of my friends calls this “winning the first battle of the day” for a reason. I would guess that if we surveyed (1) folks in our church who read the Bible first thing in the morning and then moved to email and Facebook and Twitter and the news and (2) folks who did things the other way around, that first group would say their days are a little more centered. I want us to go to the word of God before we go to the words of others—because here’s what I think:
news + email + Facebook + Twitter – the word of God
= empty, jealous, hopeless, angry.
And I don’t think God wants an empty, jealous, hopeless, angry life for us. I think he wants much more for us than that.
I was almost thirty when I figured out that God was calling me to pastoral ministry. It was here at The District Church where I finally felt like all the strands of my life came together, all the threads were woven together—my passions for theology, music and justice. It was here that I finally came to know in truth and not just in theory that God doesn’t waste an experience. It was here that I was finally able to see that, while the journey had seemed for me a wild careening from one to another, it all flowed within the broad brushstroke of what God intended for me—and that God’s general calling and his specific calling, at least in my case, weren’t all that far apart.
Of course, I can point to all these things with hindsight. When I was going through these things, over the course of twelve years, I felt frustrated and uncertain, going from passion to passion—finding something I was interested in and then realizing I didn’t want to do it with all of my time—law, and then music, and then theology, and then politics and advocacy. I was trying to be faithful at every step and not sure how it would all fit together—not sure if it would all fit together; I didn’t know what I’d end up doing with my life. Anne Lamott describes her journey as a “series of staggers” and a “lurch” rather than leap of faith—and I can say that, in the moment, much of my journey of discernment has felt like that, too.
John Ortberg, author and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says that it wasn’t until almost thirty years into church ministry that he got a sense of God’s confirmation that he was doing the ‘right thing.’ He says, in “God’s Call Waiting”:
I never got marching orders. Partly, I think, it may have been because God knows that I will grow much more as a person if I have to figure things out and exercise judgment and make a decision and accept responsibility than if I just got a postcard and followed directions.
That’s how God’s worked in my life, too—not as a divine blueprint-maker but as my heavenly Father. Within the general calling of following Jesus and being a disciple who makes disciples, who studies the word of God and learns the character of God as revealed in Scripture—the character God seeks to cultivate in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit—God has more often than not allowed me to choose …
because I’m his son, not his lawn mower;
because he wants me to grow up and become a mature and responsible citizen of his kingdom;
because he wants me to learn what it means to love fully and to follow whole-heartedly.
I want to leave you with a couple of practical things you can start doing this week:
Read the Bible—get in the word of God, not just at decision times, but at all times. Learn what God’s already said, read how’s he interacted with his people before, see what he’s already asked you to do, cultivate a sense of who God is and what he might be saying. Read the story of Jesus: know his character, his actions, his words—it’s awfully hard to follow someone if you don’t really know them!
If you want something more specific, read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This is one of the parts of Scripture where, every time I read it, I’m grounded again in God’s reality, in God’s vision for life, in God’s kingdom. So, every day this week, try reflecting on a verse or passage a day from the sheet. What might God be saying to you through it? Take time to write down your thoughts in a journal or talk through it with friends. Start with the word of God before you go to the words of others.
Every single one of us has a calling on our lives, and it’s more important than what we do and who we marry and where we live and what job we take and how many kids we have.
The calling is to follow Jesus, to find a life more true and more real than we could ever imagine.
He had Abraham take a walk, Elijah take a nap, Joshua take a lap, and Adam take the rap.
He gave Moses a forty-year time out, he gave David a harp and a dance, and he gave Paul a pen and a scroll.
He wrestled with Jacob, argued with Job, whispered to Elijah, warned Cain, and comforted Hagar.
He gave Aaron an altar, Miriam a song, Gideon a fleece, Peter a name, and Elisha a mantle.
Jesus was stern with the rich young ruler, tender with the woman caught in adultery, patient with the disciples, blistering with the scribes, gentle with the children, and gracious with the thief on the cross.
God never grows two people the same way. God is a hand-crafter, not a mass-producer.