November 1, 2009
 My Desires and
God's Will

 When Should I Deny Them? When Should I Affirm them?
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This article is adapted from Blaine's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor).

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Malcolm hated his job as much as anyone I've known. Though many would find house painting enjoyable, to him it was just a means of paying the rent. He sat slumped in the chair across from my desk, bemoaning his lot.

Yet Malcolm was a Christian who wanted God's will. So I stopped him and asked, “If God rolled out the red carpet and said you could be in any career you wished, which would it be?”

He didn't have to think long. He shot back, “I'd like to be an English teacher.”

Malcolm had two years of college behind him. I was confident he could go back, finish and find a job in the public school system. So I said, “You're young enough to do it. Why don't you pursue teaching with all the passion and energy you can muster?”

His reply was unforgettable. “I know that God doesn't want me teaching. I'd enjoy the experience too much. And the affirmation of students would be more than I could handle.” Then he added the clincher: He was certain God wanted him painting houses, for he thoroughly disliked his work!

An extreme example, unquestionably. Yet it reflects a pattern of thinking that I've often observed in Christians and sometimes have fallen into myself. It's the notion that being in God's will means by definition choosing to do something unpleasant. God wouldn't possibly want you in a career that you find enjoyable, it's assumed, for unhealthy aspirations would surely get in the way.

Actually, I know of an example even more extreme than Malcolm's. A student about to graduate from Princeton Seminary decided to enroll in medical school. When an astonished professor asked him why he made this atypical choice, he replied that after considering all the alternatives, he found medical work the least appealing. He concluded, then, that this must be the profession God wanted him to enter.

Instincts Good and Bad

It's not hard to understand how Malcolm and the seminary graduate reached their conclusions about God's will. Scripture has plenty to say about the dangers of trusting our gut instincts. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” Jeremiah declares (Jer 17:9 NIV).

Perhaps the most notorious biblical example of the heart's deceit is David's attraction to Bathsheba. David was so devoted to the Lord that he is held up throughout Scripture as the ideal of a godly person. Yet he not only committed adultery but murder because of his enchantment with this woman. I suspect that David may well have rationalized his actions as being in God's will. Since his feelings for Bathsheba were so strong, he may have thought that God was prompting him through them to do something that he never would have considered in a less-crazed moment.

There was another occasion when David followed his natural impulses and got into trouble. He took a census of Israel. David's action was so repugnant to God that he punished the nation with a ravaging plague (1 Chron 21).

We might conclude from such examples that we're always on shaky ground to follow the instincts of the heart. Yet David demonstrates another and very important side to the story. His call from God to be king of Israel placed him in a role that he thoroughly enjoyed. He found military life stimulating, he thrived on making administrative decisions, and he cherished the opportunity to be a spiritual leader of the people. David did not in any way think of his position as--to use the modern and not quite biblical term--“a sacrificial vocation.” While there were plenty of sacrifices to be made within the position, he relished the role itself.

I'm certain that David's remarkable effectiveness as king was due in large part to the fact that he enjoyed his work so much. Because the job reflected his temperament so well, he was able to pour his full creative energies into it. Saul, his predecessor, had considerably less aspiration to be king (1 Sam 9:21, 10:21-22). His performance in that role was also much less impressive.

The Importance of Motivation

Think back over your life for a moment. Who have been the teachers who had the greatest impact on you? How about the pastors or spiritual leaders? I'm willing to guess it has been the ones who found the greatest enjoyment in their work.

I attended several different churches growing up but was never greatly influenced by any of their pastors or teachers. Many of them seemed possessed with a grim sense of duty and showed little zest for life. I wanted no part of such dreariness. When I began attending Fourth Presbyterian Church in college, the atmosphere was strikingly different. Those on the pastoral staff were exuberant and took obvious pleasure in their work. Their enthusiasm was stimulating, and my spiritual life grew by leaps and bounds.

Those who have been the greatest help to me have almost always been ones who enjoyed their work. Over a lifetime, we will each likely find that we most help others, and do our best work for Christ, when it's a reflection of what we most want to do.

The Positive Role of Desire in Scripture

While Scripture has plenty to say about the evils of the desires of the flesh, it also brings out another and deeply encouraging aspect of human desire that has received far too little emphasis in Christian teaching. It proclaims that God himself creates certain desires within us who follow Christ in order to guide us in certain directions.

In Psalm 139 David talks specifically about God's guidance in his life and how it relates to his own aspirations. He declares, “For you created my inmost being” (v. 13 NIV). The term “inmost being”--literally, “kidneys”--was the most significant word the Hebrews had for indicating the personality. David is saying that God has given him a unique temperament. This meant that God had put within him the inclination to enjoy certain work and roles. In speaking about himself, David conveyed a truth that applies to all people.

Paul makes a similar point specifically about Christians in Philippians 2:12-13, though our English translations often miss the full impact of his language. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work within you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (RSV). Paul urges us here to make responsible decisions--to work out the implications of the salvation that we already possess. We should make careful decisions that accord with God's will.

We are able to do this, Paul goes on to explain, because God is working within us to see that we carry out his will. Twice in the passage he uses the verb work, which in the Greek is energeo--the root of our word energy. Paul is literally saying, then, “God is energizing you.” God is giving us motivation to do what he wants us to do!

Motivation and the Holy Spirit

Scripture pictures this process of energizing as one of the chief functions of the Holy Spirit. Jesus implied this when he termed the Holy Spirit a “counselor” (Jn 14:16). The Greek term meant a military official responsible for giving fresh courage and inspiration to soldiers who had lost heart in the heat of battle.

Interestingly, the most common role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament is that of a motivator. When the Holy Spirit comes upon individuals, he gives them passion and fire to do what God is calling them to do--a far cry from the placid understanding of the Holy Spirit emphasized in much teaching today and in so many of our hymns.

We should expect, then, that if God is leading us to make a major commitment of our lives, he'll give us some passion for what we're undertaking. We'll be motivated for the task. There's something neurotically misplaced about the notion that we ought to follow the alternative we least desire.

Healthy Self-Denial

But how does this possibly reconcile with the frequent biblical admonitions to deny our desires? Part of the answer lies in the quality of our walk with Christ. If I'm taking my relationship with Christ seriously and making an effort to grow spiritually, I can be confident that many of my desires are being inspired by him. I can trust, too, that many desires that I would otherwise experience are not coming to the surface.

This is only part of the answer, however. There is also a rule of thumb which is extremely important to understand. To best explain this, it helps to use the term vocation in its original Reformation sense. Luther and Calvin used vocation to mean not only one's profession but any major commitment or status in a person's life. In their understanding, not only is my job a vocation, but also my family relationship, my involvement with my church, and any other significant investment of my time and energy.

With this in mind, here is a principle that should govern most of our major decisions as Christians: A decision for a vocation should be based as much as possible upon our personal desires. We ought to read them as a vital sign of how God has made us and wants us to direct our energies for Christ. But in the day-to-day decisions made within vocations, we should deny ourselves in every way necessary to be an effective servant to others and to faithfully fulfill our responsibilities. In this case, then, self-denial takes place within our areas of motivation rather than outside of them.

Desires and Major Decisions

When Paul speaks about the vocation of marriage, for instance, he stresses that much personal sacrifice and discipline are needed to be an effective spouse and parent (Eph 5:21-6:4). Yet he also insists that we should marry only if our desire for marriage is strong (1 Cor 7). So self-denial occurs within an area of life where we truly want to be.

Or consider Paul's teaching on the qualifications for a spiritual leader. In 1 Timothy 3 he notes many marks of self-denial and discipline needed by an effective “bishop,” or spiritual shepherd. Yet often overlooked is the fact that he begins his instructions saying, “If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task” (v. 1 RSV, emphasis added). Paul simply assumes that the good spiritual leader will be strongly motivated for the role. Self-denial takes place within that overriding desire.

This same principle applies to other vocations we enter as Christians, to the extent that God allows us freedom of choice. We should follow our desires in choosing them, then deny our desires as necessary to faithfully carry them out.

This isn't to overlook the challenge often involved in determining what our most significant desires are. Considerable prayer, counsel and experimenting may be needed to understand them. Yet as we come to recognize which desires are deepest and most consistent within us, we gain a treasured window into how God has fashioned our life. As he allows us freedom of choice, we should make vocational choices that respect this insight.

God has made your life to be a gift to others. And a cheerful giver gives the best gift!

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This article is adapted from chapter 19 of Blaine Smith's Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds).

Further discussion on this topic is also available in Blaine's Knowing God's Will: Finding Guidance for Personal Decisions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), esp. pp. 176-84.

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