April 15, 2013
 Looking Inward and Looking Outward
Which Is More Important
In Knowing God's Will?
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This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's book Reach Beyond Your Grasp: Embracing Dreams That Reflect God's Best for You -- And Achieving them.

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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?

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.

College has 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 wouldn’t contribute nearly as greatly to people’s needs or to the work of Christ in this profession as 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 redouble 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 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 Satan’s way of tempting him to turn away from God’s best?

Many of us experience this sort of conflict in our decisions. The choices before us may not contrast as strongly as Chris’s. Yet they leave us just as confused about God’s 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.

We confront 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. 

Advice That Confuses

More often 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: “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 is simply to look for needs and fill them, trusting that God will give us the ability necessary to meet them.

Some Christians even assume that we best fulfill God’s will by taking on responsibility that we’re 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 faith.

This outlook can be reverent and well-intentioned. But does it agree with biblical teaching on guidance? Where does Scripture put the emphasis in understanding 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 be looking 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 devote our life to the needs of others. Paul tells us in graphic language to consider our life a “living sacrifice” (Rom 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 (Rom 12:3 Phillips). God expects us to develop as realistic a self-understanding as possible. We’re called to appreciate the distinctive gifts and personality features he has given us, and to be good stewards of them.

Sensible decisions about our life’s direction, then, can only be made as we match everything we know about ourselves with everything we’re able to learn about others’ needs and about opportunities for service available.

Further, our self-understanding is never achieved merely by looking inward. It emerges only through our involvement with others. If I decide that I’ll never do anything for Christ until I’m certain what my abilities are, I’ll 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 I’m 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. 

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 clearly that we have certain gifts and are strongly motivated to use them. These are the points where we’re 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 God-given potential.

It’s here that the conflict between looking inward and 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 option that barely taps our potential.

And it’s here that I’m 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 Paul’s counsel in Romans 12. Amplifying further what it means to live sacrificially, he exhorts us to be diligent in using those gifts that we’re 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. 

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, for the danger of hardening our hearts to others’ 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 clue. 

How It Applies

I don’t pretend to know God’s 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 shouldn’t assume he is sacrificing a higher calling for a lower one by making this choice. He may be confident he is fulfilling the Lord’s 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 we’re being the individual God has created us to be.

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This article is adapted from Blaine Smith's book Reach Beyond Your Grasp: Embracing Dreams That Reflect God's Best for You -- And Achieving them.

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