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May 1, 2012

Is God's will for my life going to make me unhappy?

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Some Christians think that God’s will for us is always going to be contrary to our own. It is always going to be opposed to what we would like to do. Indeed, some Christians think that God’s will can actually be identified by this signature, if something is of God, they reason, you are not going to like it. Such thinking is based on a serious misrepresentation of God’s true heart. The fact is that our happiness is important to God and his calling on our lives will always be in accord with our deepest identity and our true self.

One of the most insightful and it is certainly one of the most frequently quoted comments on Christian vocation is by Frederick Buechner; he wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What he meant is that God generally calls us to what we need to do and what the world needs to have done. In order to discover our personal calling then, we must be acquainted with God’s heart for the world and we must also be in touch with who we are. Vocation emerges where these two deep realities make contact.

Think of two intersecting lines, if you will; one who you really are and the other a need in the world that touches the heart of God. You see, both parts of the equation are musts. Suppose someone really enjoys shooting beer commercials for television. This may seem to be working well for them, but they are still wide of the mark on what the world needs to have done. We do not need more beer commercials. On the other hand a medical doctor in a leper colony in some needy part of the world is definitely doing something that the world needs done, no doubt about that, but suppose they hate the work, they dread getting up each day and they are becoming more depressed all the time. They feel like a square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole. The work is good but they are not a good fit for it. Clearly, they have still not discovered what they need to be doing.

A Christian’s personal vocation, therefore, will consist of passionate, enthusiastic, motivated involvement in something of useful service to the world. The great early church leader Irenaeus said that the glory of God is a person fully alive. Now, if we agree with Irenaeus, that the glory of God is a person fully alive, then this formula, this Buechner formula, is also key to glorifying God. Invariably God’s call involves service, yet, because the specific form of our service will be a match or tailored to our personal inclinations, our personal aptitudes and abilities, it will tend to be energizing rather than draining, even if it also happens to be difficult at times.

Buechner's insight into the elements of a personal calling might profit, I think, from just a little bit of slight tweaking or editing. For the sake of greater precision, let’s substitute the word passion for gladness and substitute the word need for hunger. Well, when you change those two word pairings our revised statement now proposes that our calling in life lies where our personal passion, the thing that deeply moves and energizes us, intersects with the world’s compelling need. This term “passion” may better express what unique individuals bring to the equation. Using gladness, that risks leaving the wrong impression that discipleship is always upbeat and cheerful, when in fact it can also be costly, difficult, and even tearful. It tends, after all, to imitate the pattern of the suffering, death, and resurrection experienced first by Jesus, but meant to be followed in his disciples’ experience as well.

As a Christian the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who grew up in the European country of Denmark, Kierkegaard was shocked by God’s demand, the one recorded in Genesis that Abraham should have to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. It is quite a disturbing story, isn’t it? Abraham ended up not having to follow through on the execution of his son, but Kierkegaard never got over his sense that God’s call, then and now, can seem unreasonable and even outrageous to our way of thinking. Responding well to God’s call, though it is the key to our fulfillment, can still be difficult. It requires us to swim upstream, in some cases to be fools for Christ. God’s calling will be a good fit for our gifts and abilities and especially for our passion, but it will just as surely move us beyond our comfort zone.

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