September 1, 1997
 Looking Inward and
Looking Outward

Which Is More Important
In Knowing God's Will?
    
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In seeking God's 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?

This issue is much more than an academic one for many of us. I was reminded of this recently when a friend told me of the struggle her son is going through in deciding his career direction. Chris, a third-year college student in pre-med studies, has a heart for people and earnestly wants his life to accomplish something of value for Christ. Since elementary school he has dreamed of becoming a medical missionary. This area of work would allow him to meet critical needs of people, and to share the Gospel openly as well. He has locked into this dream for so long that it seems like a calling and mandate upon his life.

College has been a harsh reality check for Chris. Even though he has worked hard, he hasn't done well in the science courses that are essential for med school. He has done well in humanities courses, however, and superbly in art and drama. Most significantly, Chris has discovered a strong talent for acting, and has played the lead role in several school plays.

Now, well into his third year of college, Chris is concluding that he would most like to enter a career in acting, and he has the skill and zeal to do so. Yet he fears he wouldn't make nearly the contribution to people's needs or to the work of Christ in this vocation that he would in medical missions. He wonders if he's giving up on his long-time goal too easily. Should he simply work harder in his science courses and re-double his efforts to get into med school?

For Chris, the central issue is whether to base his understanding of God's will on looking outward or on looking inward. Looking outward tells him he should follow a career in medical missions at all costs, for that seems to be where he can make the most obvious impact for Christ. Looking inward tells him he is really more cut out for the field of acting. Is it possible God is giving him guidance through this discovery about himself? Or is it Satan's way of tempting him to turn away from God's best?

A Common Conflict in Our Decisions

Not a few of us experience this same conflict at various times in our own decisions. The choices before us may not contrast as strongly as they do in Chris's case. Yet they may leave us confused about God's will in a similar way.

How often it seems we face this dilemma in our major life choices: At one extreme is an option that we believe is a golden opportunity to help people and have a ministry. At the other extreme is an opportunity more in line with our natural gifts and inclinations. And so often there seems to be a frustrating distance between these two extremes.

We confront the inward-outward issue not only in vocational choices, but in many other areas. Opportunities to serve in our churches so often 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.

Advice That Confuses

More often than not, the advice we hear in Christian circles is that looking outward is more important than looking inward in finding God's will. Consider the popular adage that we hear so often: "God wants your availability, not your ability." While this may be reverent advice on one level, it's too often taken to mean that our abilities are unimportant to God. Our responsibility before him is simply to look for needs and fill them, trusting that he will give us the ability necessary to meet these needs.

Some Christians even assume that we best fulfill God's will by taking on responsibility we're clearly not gifted to handle. By doing so we compel ourselves to trust Christ to make us effective, they point out, and we put ourselves in the best position to function by faith.

This outlook is obviously reverent and well-intentioned. Yet does it accord with biblical teaching on guidance? Where does Scripture put the emphasis in seeking God's will-upon looking outward or looking inward?

Balancing Gifts and Needs

Clearly these two concerns are never mutually exclusive. We are always responsible to look outward and inward at the same time. Scripture prods us constantly to the most thoroughgoing concern for the burdens of other people. We're called to do nothing less than sacrifice our life for the needs of others. Paul tells us in graphic language to consider our life a "living sacrifice," in Romans 12:1.

Yet in the same breath he says emphatically that we must have a good understanding of the life that we're sacrificing. "Have a sane estimate of your own capabilities," Paul declares in Romans 12:3 (Phillips). We are to develop as realistic a self-understanding as possible. We're called to appreciate the distinctive gifts and qualities God has given us and to be good stewards of them.

Sensible decisions to invest ourselves, then, can only be made as we match everything we know about ourselves with everything we're able to learn about the needs of others and about opportunities for service that are available.

Further, our self-understanding is never achieved merely by looking inward. It only emerges through our involvement with others. If I decide that I'll never do anything for Christ until I'm certain what my gifts are, I'll wait forever! I discover my gifts, and my whole range of strengths and limitations, only over time, as I do my best to understand the needs of people around me and respond to them, then do my best to gauge where I'm being most effective. This will clearly mean some bold experimenting.

As a new Christian, I had no perception that I could teach. Late one Saturday evening a pastor from my church phoned and asked if I would spell him in the college Sunday school class the next morning. Though very reluctant, I agreed to give it a try, nearly certain my performance would be miserable. By the end of the class, though, I sensed that in spite of many deficiencies the Lord had used me. Communication had occurred. And to my surprise, I had greatly enjoyed the experience.

The need for experimenting never ceases in our lives. We never reach the point where we have the right to think we've fully understood our gifts or reached all our creative horizons. God is full of surprises and at any point in life-even older age-may show us that we have the capacity to do something we had always thought out of our range of potential (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'd 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 was not only highly effective, but her headaches disappeared. Her experience demonstrates dramatically how courageous experimenting can sometimes shed surprising light on our potential.

Following Our Gifts

God, then, 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 that we clearly have certain talent and are motivated to use it. These are the points where we're most likely to conclude that our life is not reflecting our gifts and motivational pattern as fully as it could. We may envision certain changes that would bring our life more into line with our God-given potential.

It's here that the conflict between looking inward and looking outward can become especially severe. It may seem that doing what we're most gifted and motivated to do won't meet the needs of others as well as some other alternative that barely taps our potential.

And it's here that I'm comfortable saying the emphasis should be given to our gifts. We should feel not just a freedom but a mandate to follow their direction. Again I take my cue from Romans 12. Amplifying further what it means to live our lives sacrificially, Paul exhorts us to be about the business of using gifts that we're 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 our gifts will mean that we 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 the work we are unable to do.

The Light That We Have

I'm also 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 to express the thought, for the danger of hardening our hearts to the needs of others 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 of ourselves-our gifts and abilities, personality traits, energy levels, etc.-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 invest our lives.

We must also recognize in all humility that all that 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. Even when it comes to judging the results of our own work, we 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'll be most effective for Christ. Understanding our own gifts and creative interests will give us the most important clue.

How It Applies

I don't pretend to know God's will for Chris. He may gain many new insights into his potential in the months and years ahead that throw new light on his career direction. Yet if he continues to perceive that acting is the vocation he is most gifted and motivated to be in, he should feel great freedom to follow that career, trusting that God will give him a significant ministry within it. And he shouldn't assume he is sacrificing a higher calling for a lower one by this choice. Chris may be confident that he is fulfilling the Lord's highest calling for him if he is living his life in light of how God has designed it.

For each of us, the critical question is how God has gifted and energized us personally. With a good understanding there, we'll be in the best position to consider how to invest ourselves for the needs of a hurting world. Ultimately our life will be of greatest benefit to others when we're being the individual God has created us to be.

Note: In an upcoming article, we will look at examples of people in Scripture who were called by God to fulfill certain roles, and note how their callings fit their individual gifts and temperaments well.
 

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