Repent, Believe, Follow

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION about what it means to truly follow the way of Jesus. There are, unfortunately, nearly as many explanations of this critical theology as there are people who believe in it. Certainly, this is not what Jesus intended to happen in the Body of Christ. We see this in the numerous denominations, dogmas, philosophies, and factions present in the church today. Admittedly, most believers are making an honest attempt at presenting Jesus in a manner that attracts non-believers to Him. There is, however, a percentage of ministers and laypersons whose focus is on culture rather than Jesus.

Some in the ministry believe the best way to attract others to Jesus is to downplay the ugly side of His ministry: the wrath of God, the wages of sin, the nature of a fallen world, the dark side of the human heart. They think that zeroing in on these vitally important doctrines will cause new believers to lose heart, and block non-believers from coming in from the cold to hear the truth. Instead of shouting the truth of the Gospel from the mountaintop, they create “warm and fuzzy” messages, start coffee clatches at church, and ply the common man with “lights and music.” They create an atmosphere of pageantry, of pomp and circumstance, rather than proclaiming critical points of doctrine.

Truly, this is a matter of spirituality—how we go about following Jesus in word and in deed. The way of Jesus is about loving and saving the world. It is personal, not disembodied, abstract, convoluted, fleshly. Many churches in the United States today are glaringly impersonal: programs, organizations, discussion panels, techniques, general guidelines—about information rather than knowledge. For me, accumulation of information is not synonymous with the acquiring of knowledge. Facts don’t lead to change. Knowledge does.

Many who consider themselves “followers” of Jesus today seem to embrace the ways of their surrounding culture as they go about their daily living “in the Name of Jesus.” This is quite dangerous. It is as if they are going along with the world at work, at school, in the marketplace, while espousing the way of Jesus only while at church or in the company of other believers. It is as if they see Christianity as a religion and not a relationship. In other words, many are Christians in name only. They are “fans” of Christ, but not “followers.” Personally, this is a fairly recent change for me that came about through humility and complete honesty. It is a critical prerequisite to becoming a disciple of Christ.

Jesus presents us with a different way; one that is separate from the world, not a supplement to it. It is grounded in a personal relationship that can only grow through true repentance. Ah, but what does the word repentance really mean? If you want to discover an interesting but troubling truth about most mainstream Christians today, ask them to explain what it means to repent. Some will tell you it means reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs. They believe it simply means saying to God, I am sorry. Please forgive me! But a literal translation of the Greek μετάνοια (“metanoia”) indicates a transformational change of the heart. It involves turning away from a life of sin and not going back. It’s “doing a 180.”

Jeremiah 35:15 says, “I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your doings, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me” (RSV) [Italics mine]. Personally, I did not take this step for decades. Typically, I made a profession of faith, but acted in a manner that was not consistent with my profession. In the vernacular, I “talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.” And isn’t the way of Jesus in reality a walk?

In essence, failing to walk out our profession of faith is wrong thinking and wrong living. One of the most stinging rebukes I’ve experienced was when my younger brother said, “I can’t stand you and I don’t trust you. You are nothing but a hypocrite!” Ouch! At the time, my reaction was one of anger. But my brother was right. I understood the what of following Jesus, but I had yet to practice the how. I was living a fleshly life like the rest of the world. My behavior was chock full of justification—ruled by anxiety, depression, selfishness, and chronic pain. My defense mechanisms, despite holding an undergraduate degree in psychology, included denial, rationalization, and projection. I justified my behavior because of how others had behaved toward me.

These excuses are ways of the flesh, involving coping strategies common to culture but not a proper part of the way of Jesus. Much of these mechanisms are terribly destructive. They are highly ineffective in promoting lasting interpersonal relationships. I know this because of the impact they’ve had on my life—divorce, loss of numerous jobs, no true close friends, estrangement from my family. Such behaviors are often useful in getting ahead in a secular world (albeit with considerable negative consequences relative to human connection), but not in the community of Jesus. They frustrate any attempt to become part of the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus Way

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Take a second look at what you just read. He said He is the way, sure, but He didn’t stop there. He also said He is the truth and the life. This statement is made up of three distinct parts. To ascribe to one of these three concepts is to invite failure in our Christian walk. The Jesus way is predicated upon to the truth He gave us about the life we can have through Him. Follow me for a minute here. Merely having information about Christianity (the way) will not produce truth in our everyday activities. Consequently, we will never achieve the life we can have in Him. Reading about the life we can have in Jesus is useful only in a “quiz bowl” competition on the Bible. We’ll get the question right, but we will miss the means by which we can come to know the truth about the information, and, therefore, live in a manner that is victorious.

In other words, the Gospel gets only partial attention in our churches today. The concept of Jesus as the way is the most frequently evaded metaphor among Christians today. This is because we don’t always hear the entire truth. Jesus, in His statement we read in John 14:6, sets out in plain language that the way comes first. We cannot know the truth, and then appreciate and live the life, without first entering into the way. This crucial step can’t be skipped if we are to become disciples of Christ. The way of Jesus is the only means by which we can obtain the ability to practice and come to understand the truth of Jesus Christ. This involves living Jesus seven days a week—in our homes and workplaces, at school and in the marketplace—not just on Sunday!

This is how the “local” church (our part in the Body of Christ) demonstrates the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus. We are told to leave everything behind, take up our cross (personal sacrifices needed for complete service), and follow Him. But what does it mean to follow Him? What do we need to give up in order to make this commitment real for us? I believe Jesus was stating an imperative: in order to follow Him we must live an authentic, committed life for Him and through Him. The beautiful life Jesus lived—marked by a passionate love for and unwavering obedience to God and a compassion for people—must be learned and practiced. It must not be theoretical (head knowledge); instead, it must be demonstrated through action (heart knowledge). We cannot live like Jesus without following Jesus.

More Than Mere Consumers

It seems the American way is the way of consumerism. I am not casting aspersions on our wonderful system of democracy, nor am I putting down the idea of open markets, free enterprise, and equal opportunity for success. Our country needs to return to the concept of providing equal access for obtaining an education and earning a fair living. These are, without a doubt, opportunities that are unique to the United States. Further, this is completely different from wealth. Equal opportunity leads to a level playing field for the accumulation of wealth. Opportunity begets wealth. It is not proper to take wealth from those who have obtained it and give it (without merit) to those who have not worked for it.

Perhaps this is why many of our churches today seem to be churches of consumerism. It is not appropriate, however, to market our churches in the same way we market and promote goods and services. When we approach “church” in this manner, we risk getting off message. This is typically not an intentional diversion. Rather, it is a symptom of using the wrong message (indeed, the wrong mechanism) for growing our congregations. It puts emphasis on “congregation” (the size of a church’s membership) rather than on the Body of Christ. Congregation is not the same thing as church.

Today’s churches, especially the so-called mega-churches, increase membership through marketing. Leaders of these types of congregations believe the quickest and most effective way to get people to come to services is to identify what they want and give it to them—satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the Gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, warm feelings, and the like. I see this specifically as a problem with the ministry of Joel Osteen. He promotes “the best life now,” saying, “everyday is Friday” (whatever that means), and tells his followers they need only stop seeing themselves as sinners, losers, damaged goods, hopeless and helpless. It’s not the concept that’s wrong; it’s the approach. This method leaves sin and repentance out of the message. Whenever we water down the Gospel, making it less harsh (in other words, more “palatable”), we step out of the way of Jesus.

The End of Me

“Follow me” is one of the greatest commands spoken by Jesus during his earthly ministry (see Mark 1:17). This statement, however, is preceded by the commands repent and believe (see verse 15). The Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, He is the Kingdom. It is what Jesus revealed in His ministry. Our access to the Kingdom can only be obtained through repentance—a decision to leave one way of life (one reality) and enter another. It requires a complete change of mind and heart. In my own experience, I was unable to appreciate any victory over sin (especially over active addiction) until I came to believe, completely and entirely, that there is only one way to achieve it: the way of Jesus. My hope is you are able to grasp this sooner rather than later. It will revolutionize your life.

This requires what Kyle Idleman (2015) calls coming to “the end of me.” But what does this mean? In a nutshell, it means “death is life.” The Bible says life’s real prize is hidden. We have to know where to look for it. Paul wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, RSV). It indicates that to live the life that is hidden in Christ we must first die to ourselves. Jesus made this clear when He said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, RSV).

Idleman writes, “Death is nobody’s favorite word. We tiptoe around it with nicer names. Someone passed on. They’ve gone ahead. They crossed the river” (p. 194). He says we tend to do whatever we can to live in denial of our eventual death. Perhaps you’ve heard the lyrics from Joe Diffie: “Well I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead… prop me up beside the jukebox if I die, Lord I want to go to heaven, but I don’t want to go tonight.”

Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matthew 16:25-26, RSV). Jesus was not speaking of our physical (literal) death, but was speaking of a spiritual reorientation of our focus. To die to self is to set aside what we want and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming openhearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. We cannot serve God or others while enamored with ourselves.

Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, RSV). Focusing on ourselves is easy. It’s what we all do in the flesh. It’s part of our fallen nature. The moment Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and partake of the forbidden fruit, they put self-knowledge ahead of fellowship with God. As a result, their walk with the Father was forever changed. It is only through adhering to the command of Jesus to follow Him that we can ever hope to put God and our fellow man ahead of ourselves. This concept is, as I stated at the beginning of this article, found only through repenting (turning away from self and our sinful ways), believing that Jesus is the way to the Kingdom of God, and following Him.

True (spiritual) life is found only through the laying down of our physical (carnal) life. We are not wired to turn from our physical world and embrace the metaphysical. Indeed, we cannot grasp spiritual concepts merely by thinking about them. We can begin by taking steps each day to surrender. We cannot hope to comprehend the way of Jesus without denying ourselves. Jesus said, plainly and simply, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, RSV).

Jesus is our way to God. Moreover, Jesus is God’s way to us. God comes to us in Jesus, speaking the words of salvation. Those words necessarily begin with one simple but crucial step: repentance.

References

Idleman, K. (2015). The End of Me: Where Real Life in the Upside-Down Ways of Jesus Begins. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publications.

Perdew, Baylock, R., and Phillips, K. (1993). Prop Me Up Beside the Jukebox (If I Die) [Joe Diffie]. On Honky Tonk Attitude [CD recording]. New York, NY: Epic Records

Regarding Christian Theology and Psychology in Treating Mental Illness

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.           —Frederick Buechner

GOD CALLS PEOPLE. It might not be the calling of Abraham to leave the land of Ur and go forth into wilderness he knew nothing about, or the calling of Moses, confronted with the command of the burning bush, or the calling of Isaiah who encountered the glory of God, or the calling of the apostle Paul to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles—but an awareness of “call” is both mysterious and powerful. And it is always a demonstration of love and an initiative from God.

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Certainly, it is helpful to understand that God calls the Christian in three distinct ways:

  • First, there is the call on your heart to be a Christian. The God  of creation invites us to respond to His love in numerous ways. This call comes through His Son Jesus, who invites us to be His disciples. This tends to open the door for our service to others in His name. Everything about us is understood in light of this primary call on our life. Every aspect of our lives flows out and finds meaning in light of the fact that we are a called people. The entire body of Christ is made up of the called.
  • Second, for each individual there is a specific call—a defining purpose or mission, a raison d’être. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense. We cannot begin to understand this second calling except in the light of the first. In other words, when we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus.
  • Third, there is the call that we face each day in response to the multiple demands on our lives—our immediate duties and responsibilities: the call to be present to our children when they are in a high school musical, or to help our local church when they host a baseball camp featuring retired greats from professional baseball. Or to take a homeless veteran to Denny’s for a hot lunch and talk to him about the Gospel and options for getting him off the street. These activities represent the immediate tasks placed in front of us by God—our tasks for the day, if you will.

We are all called to work. We want that work to be meaningful, joyful, and significant. We want to know that the work we do is good; that in word and deed we are doing something that is fundamentally positive and worthwhile. Each person brings beauty, creativity, and significance to the table. We all add to the community. It does, indeed, take a village, but we speak here of a village of believers—the Body of Christ. And yet we must never lose sight of the inherent value and potential of the individual person who is loved, called, and empowered by God to do good work.

Older notions of vocation and career development assumed that people wrestled with matters of vocation as early as young adulthood. It has been commonly assumed that vocational counseling was provided in high school for those seeking to pick a career. But in a more accurate understanding of vocation, we learn that vocational questions follow us throughout the course of our lives—and that perhaps vocational counseling needs to be presented to us at each transition throughout our lives. The questions remain the same: Who am I? Who has God called me to be? What should I do next? Of course, our answers to these questions can change at different stages of our lives. We naturally think differently during adolescence than early adulthood; likewise during early-to-mid adulthood, and mid adulthood into our senior years.

ORIGINS OF PSYCHOLOGY

Clearly, psychology did not emerge directly as science. This presents a rather challenging problem: Where to start? Ancient civilizations surely studied one another to determine who was reliable and trustworthy, and evidence suggests they attempted to record and interpret dreams, mental illness, and emotions. Was this an early form of psychology? Or did psychology start with the first systematic explanations of human cognitive experience, which can be traced back to the early Greeks? Plato and Aristotle, for example, established elaborate theories that attempted to account for memory, perception, and learning. Maybe this was the starting point?

Early adherents understood it was difficult to consider psychology a hard science in the traditional sense given that experimenters cannot “observe” the workings of the mind or “measure” emotions. Many initially considered psychology to be a specialized branch of philosophy—a sentiment still held by some. They based their conclusion on several factors. First, they had a difficult time accepting subjective reports as evidence. Second, can unconscious inference be considered a coherent—logical and consistent—concept? Rene Descartes gave us the concept of dualism—the position that mind and body are in some categorical way separate from each other and that mental properties are in some respects non-physical in nature. Certainly, this concept plays at least a part in the idea of nature versus nurture.

Physiology and brain research led to applying scientific methodologies to the study of human thought and behavior. Wilhelm Wundt began applying experimental methods. Edward B. Titchener founded psychology’s first major school of thought, which he applied to studying human consciousness. William James outlined his theories in his classic textbook The Principles of Psychology. He focused on how we interact with one another in our everyday lives, using methods such as direct observation, feedback, impression management, and body language  to study the human mind and behavior.

Prior to the psychology of Sigmund Freud, early psychology stressed conscious human experience. Freud changed the face of psychology by proposing a theory of personality based upon the unconscious mind. Although Freud’s theory had a huge impact on psychology, social science, art, education, and business, skepticism eventually set in. Admittedly, it has many followers to this day. Psychology changed dramatically, however, with the advent of behaviorism, which rejected abject reliance on the conscious and unconscious mind. In a nutshell, behaviorism looked at classic conditioning and reward versus punishment.

 PSYCHOLOGY VERSUS THEOLOGY

Many are surprised to hear that Christian Theology and psychology are compatible. In his book God’s Psychiatry, Charles L. Allen notes that the word psychiatry comes from two Greek words: psyche and iatreia. The word psyche really means “the person,” and is translated as “breath,” “soul,” “mind,” “reason,” and the like. The word iatreia means “treatment,” “healing,” “restoration,” and so on. If we put the two words together, we get the term “the healing of the mind,” or, perhaps more specific to Allen’s intention, “the restoring of the soul.” This can mean medical treatment per se, or it can refer to ministering to the soul. Allen wrote, “…the very essence of religion is to adjust the mind and soul of man, and we have long ago learned this…”

Psychology and theology are both concerned with philosophical anthropology. It draws its name from the root psyche, a Greek word whose use can encompass the physical, the psychological, and the immaterial aspects of humanity. In both clinical and experimental expressions, the nature and functioning of human beings in the central concern of psychology. Theology is concerned with the nature of God and with God’s relationship to the world. Psychology may be able  to describe human beings as they are, but only Christian theology can describe them as they were intended to be—questions of ultimate concern, such as how did we come to be, what is our purpose, what is our destiny?

“The biopsychsocial model is both a philosophy of clinical care and a  practical clinical guide. Philosophically, it is a way of understanding how suffering, disease, and illness are affected by multiple levels of organization, from the societal to the molecular. At the practical level, it is a way of understanding the patient’s subjective experience as an essential contributor to accurate diagnosis, health outcomes, and humane care.” —Borrell-Carrio, Suchman, and Epstein

Sarah Rainer, PsyD (2014), said in an article for Christianity Today, “Pastors largely feel unequipped to address mental illness, and mental illness is still taboo in many ways.” Rainer further notes that in recent years psychologists have begun recognizing that our spirituality impacts our lives, but have yet to buy into the idea that it is imperative for life. Of course, not all secular psychology is wrong. We cannot just throw the baby out with the bath water. Indeed, there are many helpful and positive aspects of psychology to consider when diagnosing and treating a patient. This is precisely why there is a need for integrating psychology and Christian theology.

Entwistle (2015) notes that although psychology has much to teach us about human behavior, it cannot provide the larger context that gives meaning and direction for life itself. Pope Benedict XVI said, “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is.” It is theological reflection that often sets the stage for poor self image that leads to malaise and self-doubt. Consider the many levels at which we exist: social, psychological, physical, systemic, economic, spiritual, sexual. It is through these many lenses that we ask ourselves Who am I? Does my life really matter? How can I change my circumstances when I feel stuck? What is the meaning of life? Where is God in all this mess?

ON INTEGRATING CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said,”We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Unless you’re an atheist, you probably believe the world we live in is not the only plane of existence. Accepting that reality is only temporal is paramount to understanding spirituality and how it relates to mental health. 2 Timothy 3:7 says man is “always learning but never able to come to a [full] knowledge of the truth” (NIV). Countless books have been written by psychologists over the years that attempt to describe our personalities, the boundaries within which we must operate, our dysfunctional development, interpersonal relationships and their inherent problems, how our children should be raised, and so on. This has caused an intellectual/spiritual crisis, causing believers—indeed our very clergy—to often treat human beings in a manner that differs from how we were instructed by Jesus through Scripture. To me, this is where integration of Christian theology and psychology may prove helpful.

Naturally, Christians have always been intrigued by God’s creation. We’re well-aware that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts higher than our thoughts (see Isaiah 55:9). We cannot begin to understand the intricacies of creation—from as far outward as we can see to as far inward as we can see—let alone the subtleties of brain chemistry and mood, or the machinations of memory and learning. And don’t get me started on quantum physics and black holes or old age versus young age earth.

What does fascinate me is how Christian interest in psychology has exploded over the past fifty years. Countless books have been written by Christians that describe how our brains have developed, what constitutes our fight or flight response, how we fall in love, why we become addicted to drugs or food or shopping, or why some of us isolate while others love to stand in front of a congregation and preach or sing. Most publications on psychology are secular in orientation, which makes for fascinating dinner conversation to say the least. Naturally, there are as many disagreements about psychology as there are schools of thought. Fundamentalism still speaks more often than not about “psychoheresey.” One of the reasons my first wife divorced me was my interest in psychology. Granted, at the time I began studying philosophy and psychology I was in the midst of an identity crisis as a believer. Today, I see the need for a healthy integration of the two schools of thought, and am pursuing a master’s degree in support of a faith-based counseling career.

“CHRISTIAN” PSYCHOLOGY?

The field of psychology has been retooling itself over the years. Initially, it was concerned solely with what makes people mentally ill. Today, much focus is on what makes people mentally healthy, positive, joyful, happy to be alive. Studies show that those who believe in life after death, for example, are happier than those who do not. Sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas at Austin says, “Religion provides a unifying narrative that may be difficult to come by elsewhere in society.”

Christian psychologist Paul Vitz says the work of Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the catalyst for what he terms positive psychology by emphasizing mental health instead of mental illness. Seligman said, “What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life.” And what are these positive human characteristics? Virtues such as wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. These core virtues are quite similar to the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23).

I admit we need to stay alert as Christians to so-called “self-help”  or “self-potential” psychologies that often seem faddish and change with the wind. Any “psychology” that suggests we can only be happy, healthy, or spiritual when we forget the past and “live in the moment” must be avoided. The truth is “self-help” is an oxymoron because the individual who uses such an approach always arrives at a solution to his or her problem either with the help of a therapist or by following the formula of the self-help book.

Christians understand that for 2000 years there has been a relationship between an individual’s mental outlook , his or her belief about God, Christ, salvation, and how he or she fits in the whole scheme of things. I think Christian psychology has ample incentive to focus on core virtues and what it means to be a human being with a substantive center of soul, spirit, heart, mind, and consciousness—rather than on self-improvement—because of Christianity’s foundation on Scriptural principles. It is God who forgives our sins, heals our sinful human nature, and replaces our guilty conscience with the fruit of the Spirit—it is nothing that we do in our own strength. 

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Edition. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

Rainer, S. (September 25, 2014). “The Integration of Christianity and Psychology: A Guest Post by Sarah Rainer.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/september/concerning-psychology-and-christianity-guest-post-by-sarah-.html

Seligman, M. Ph.D. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Courage & Calling: Embracing Your God-Given Potential

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. —Frederick Buechner

God calls people. Whether it is the calling of Abraham to leave the land of Ur, or the calling of Moses, confronted with the burning bush, or the calling of Isaiah who encountered the glory of God, or the calling of the apostle Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, an awareness of call is both mysterious and powerful. A calling is always a demonstration of the love and initiative of God, but through vocation we also come to an appreciation that God takes us seriously. It becomes the fundamental fact of our lives; everything about us is understood in light of this call. Many have said they’re not qualified to serve the Lord. You’ll be happy to hear that God does not call the qualified. Instead, He qualifies the called.

Called of God: The Three Expressions of Vocation

  • The general call—the invitation to follow Jesus, to be Christian
  • The specific call—a vocation that is unique to a person; that individual’s mission in the world
  • The immediate responsibilities—those tasks or duties God calls us to today

Finding Your Unique Purpose for Life

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Erik Rees wrote a wonderful book called S.H.A.P.E. Finding & Fulfilling Your Unique Purpose for Life. Rick Warren notes in the forward to the book, “God has given every creature he made a special area of expertise to fulfill its purpose. For instance, some animals run, others hop, some swim, others burrow, and some fly. Each has a particular role to play based on the way they were shaped by God.” This is true for us as well. We were all uniquely designed and “shaped” by God to do certain things. None of us are an assembly-line product. We are a custom-made, one-of-a-kind, original masterpiece.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV). Rick Warren says, “Instead of trying to reshape yourself to be like someone else, you should celebrate the shape God has given you.” God wants you to truly understand and accept who he has made you to be. He longs for you to experience the release that comes with simply living as the person He created you to be. Can you be anything you want to be? Perhaps. I don’t know. But you can be everything God wants you to be. And you become that by discovering your uniqueness.

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This call on your life by God is actually your Kingdom Purpose, which Rees defines as “…your specific contribution to the Body of Christ, within your generation, that causes you to totally depend on God and authentically display His love toward others… all through the expression of your unique shape.” The Bible says, “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits” (MSG). Your Kingdom Purpose, however, is more than a career. It’s a special commissioning from God to make a significant difference on this earth. It’s the banner of your life that you carry and wave for God’s glory. Your Kingdom Purpose is very much a reflection of your faithfulness to God. The more time we spend with God, the more we learn of His goodness and faithfulness—and the stronger we become in Him.

Your Special S.H.A.P.E.

Rees explains the acronym S.H.A.P.E. He says, “As one of God’s custom-designed creations, your potential for significance and excellence is revealed by the S.H.A.P.E. God has given you. Rick Warren coined the term. He believes whenever God gives us an assignment, He always equips us with what we need to accomplish it. Warren (and by adoption, Rees) notes the following breakdown of  S.H.A.P.E.

  • Spiritual Gifts: A set of special abilities that God has given you to share His love and serve others.
  • Heart: The special passions God has given you so that you can glorify Him on earth.
  • Abilities: The set of talents that God gave you when you were born, which He also wants you to use to make an impact for Him.
  • Personality: The special way God wired you to navigate life and fulfill your unique Kingdom Purpose.
  • Experiences: Those parts of your past, post positive and negative, which God intends to use in great ways.

Wise stewardship of your life begins by understanding your shape. You are unique, wonderfully complex, a composite of many different factors.  What God made you to be determines what He intends for you to do. Plain and simple. Your ministry is determined by your makeup. If you don’t understand your shape, you end up doing things that God never intended or designed you to do. When your gifts don’t meet the role you play in life, you feel like a square peg in a round hole. This is quite frustrating, as I’ve learned firsthand. Not only does it produce limited success, it is also an enormous waste of your talents, time, and energy.

Just Be You!

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If you could press a rewind button on my life, you would see that for many years I was running away from God and toward the devil. I wanted to do whatever felt good at the moment. That included sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, shirking responsibility—first, chores at home, later, employment—and taking whatever I wanted from whomever had it. Consequently, it is natural for me (indeed for anyone with such a past) to want to start all over again. My struggle with addiction was nothing short of insurmountable. First, I had to want to stop drinking and drugging. I had to admit I had a problem. Then I had to want to do something about it. Once I came to grips with my addiction, I had to stay consistent. I had to get up every day and “quit” all over again. One day at a time. Relapse seemed to be my middle name.

We were not created to conform. We were not created to compare. We were not created to compete. Yeah, I know: That one sounds iffy. What’s wrong with a little competition to sharpen your skills? Fine. But it’s not your propter quod. You were also not created to compromise. Especially when it comes to Christian doctrine or your witness. Instead, you were created to contribute to God’s kingdom and make a significant difference with your life. You were created to just be you! God is saying to each of us, “Just be you. Be who I shaped you to be.”

Part of the Body; Part of the Plan

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There is one Body of Christ, but there is diversity of gifts within the Body. A diversity that God has ordained in order to ensure the health of the unified whole. Romans 12:8 essentially instructs us to hone our gifts and talents in order to maximize our S.H.A.P.E. Our calling is a gift from God. We don’t earn it, nor do we pick it for ourselves. We don’t need to be pre-qualified in order to serve. As I noted, we are equipped by God for God. Second Timothy 1:9 says, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV). After all, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works.

We long for work that is meaningful, joyful, and significant. We long to know that the work our hands and the work we do with our minds and through speaking is good, that in word and deed we are doing something that is fundamentally positive and worthwhile. Meaningful and rewarding. What a wonderful sentiment. Work that we enjoy and where we feel we are doing something significant and valuable. We long to know that we are making a difference. In situations where we turn from God and run amok, selfishly doing whatever feels good, taking prisoners, manipulating loved ones, lying to employers, shaming our parents, we cannot help feeling empty. We might deny it, drown it in booze, anesthetize it with opiates, but it’s there, like a dangerous undertow, pulling us further and further from shore.

As Unto the Lord

We’ve heard it said, “Whatever you do, do it as if unto the Lord.” Colossians 3:23 says, “Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work” (MSG). While Paul was speaking at the time of those who were slaves, the principle would be applicable to all regardless of the work they are called to do. Frankly, the fundamental features of vocational integrity are simple. They include (i) knowing yourself and (ii) being true to who you are.

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For this to be true, we need to be sure that what we are doing comes from God; we take joy and pleasure in our work or responsibilities because they are given to us by God. Whether it is the task of raising children, running a business, providing pastoral leadership for a church, or leading the worship team, it is from the hand of God, a gift to us. We need to have a sense that what we are doing is “done for the Lord.” It is something we do with a “God-ward” orientation, something we offer back to God. In other words, our work is both given to us by God and is offered back to God. Paul addressed the aspect of “call” in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. Paul essentially tells Timothy to fulfill his call and to do so with diligence, focus, and courage. Paul’s words are applicable for a religious call or a non-religious vocation.

This Thing Called Diligence

The theme of diligence comes through often in the apostle Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, but especially at the high point of his second letter to Timothy, where Paul urges him to proclaim the message and to be persistent in this task (2 Timothy 4:2). Diligence involves persistence. Timothy is urged to persevere in his work “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable… with the utmost patience.” In other words, it involves doing our work with care and commitment that does not waiver depending on the level of affirmation we are getting on that particular day. We do what we do because it needs to be done and our Christian character literally compels us to do it.

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But more, diligence also involves what Paul speaks of later in that same chapter when he calls Timothy to “carry out your ministry fully” (v. 5). Diligence includes thoroughness. Which means there is no substitute for hard work. Just one more thing my father told me as a teen that has taken me decades to grasp! There is no easy task—easy in itself. For an athlete to perform well, hard work is involved, regardless of how gifted or talented that athlete happens to be. And much of that hard work happens behind the scenes, in rigorous fitness programs that continue day in and day out, far from the eyes of sports fans. Musicians can only become accomplished at their task if they practice with thoroughness and persistence, which provides little reward for affirmation. But the same principle applies to all of us. Attention to detail must be a personal commitment or it is not a commitment at all.

Concluding Remarks

Regardless of our calling—the specific work to which we are called—we can never say that we do not have time, that our work is too important or not important enough, or that our calling is so all-consuming, that we have no time to offer hospitality along the way, care for the poor, generously share our material resources and, finally, give time to prayer and seeking God’s direction and inspiration. It is important to stress that we can become distracted from our calling. I can think of no finer example of tenacity regarding calling than the ministry and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

When Jesus reminded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, work was part of that. In fact, from my personal experience the workplace is where it is easiest to “lose it” regarding our treatment of others. It helps me to think of everything I do at work as a way to express God’s love to others. Don’t focus on the crap. Don’t focus on the aspects of your job you hate. Instead, remind yourself to spotlight the positives. If you do nothing else, at the very least think of how you can use work as an expression of love. If you work as a way to show love, then you’ll find yourself enjoying your work more because your boss is more impressed with you and you have a better attitude. It’s a great start to doing your work as unto the Lord.

At times our vocation is undermined because of pride. We are unwilling to accept what God has given us because we are not prepared to accept some aspect of our calling—it may appear to lack the prestige, the status, or perhaps the financial reward we believe we deserve or want. We are always looking ahead—doing what we do so that we are noticed, so that we will be promoted, so that we obtain another job, perhaps. And the consequence is that we are consumed with ourselves. Whatever the reason, if we are not true to ourselves, we are simply living a lie. The longer we live the lie, the sooner it will be that we are nothing more than hollow men and women.

Our only hope is to intentionally embrace the call of God. This is joy, and it will sustain us and give life to those with whom we live and work. There is great joy in knowing what God has called us to be and do, and to act with courage and humility in response to a needy world. Joy is found in giving ourselves fully—eagerly and passionately—to this call. For this to happen, though, we must learn to think about our vocation as God sees it.

God Calls Us to Service But We Make the Decision to Answer His Call

God gave Moses the dream of leading the children of Israel out of 400 years of slavery, but Moses had to make the decision to confront Pharaoh. God gave Noah the dream of saving the world from the flood, but Noah had to make the decision to build the ark. God gave Abraham the dream of building a new nation, but Abraham had to make the decision to leave everything he had and go out into the unknown. Just like these men, you will never realize God’s dream for your life until you come to the point of making a decision and stepping out in faith.

It is helpful to understand the call of God in three distinct ways.

First, there is the call to be a Christian. The God of creation invites us to respond to His love. This call comes through Jesus, who invites us to be His disciples and to know the Father through Him. To be Christian is to respond to this call to know and love God, and to love and serve others. It becomes, then, the fundamental fact of our lives; everything about us is understood in light of this call. Every aspect of our lives flows out and finds meaning in light of the fact that we are a called people. And the church – the Body of Christ – is made up of “called” ones.

Second, for each individual there is a specific call – a defining purpose or mission, a reason for being. Every individual is called of God to respond through service in the world. Each person has a unique calling in this second sense. We cannot understand this second meaning of call except in the light of the first. When we fulfill our specific vocation, we are living out the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Therefore, while we all have a general call to love God and neighbor, we each follow our Lord differently, for though He calls us all to follow Him, once we accept His call we are each honored with a unique call that is integrally a part of what it means to follow Him. The second experience of being called is derived from the first.

Third, there is the call that we face each day in response to the multiple demands on our lives – our immediate duties and responsibilities. The call to be reliable and trustworthy when my family needs me, or to volunteer during our church’s annual baseball and softball clinic as part of the meet-and-great team assigned to parents and grandparents of the kids enrolled in the clinic, or to respond to some specific need presented before me. These are my tasks – not in the sense of burdens, but as those things that are placed before me today by God. It may be nothing more complicated than helping my elderly neighbor put her groceries away. But that is what God has for me today. I would not speak of these as my vocation (which is closer to the second meaning of call), but they are nevertheless the duties and responsibilities God calls me to today.

Calling, or vocation, is much deeper and all-encompassing than career or occupation. Indeed, there are some who may not even begin to discover their vocation until after they have retired from a career. It is a sheer gift if we are able to fulfill our vocations through an occupation. But for many, a job is a means of supporting life and family; it is often a matter of getting whatever work might be available. We need to discern our vocations and then also discern how God is calling us, within the complexities and demands of this world, to fulfill these vocations. The pivotal issue is one of self-knowledge and of living out our lives in a way that is consistent with who we are, as individuals.

KNOW YOURSELF

The key to finding your specific calling is simply “know yourself.” This is implicit in what we read in Romans 12:3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” (NASB) The Apostle Paul calls us to look at ourselves with “sound judgment.” God has granted grace to each of us, so we can take an honest, critical and discerning look at ourselves. Indeed, it is not an overstatement to observe that when it comes to answering the question What is God’s vocation on my life there are really two critical questions. The first: Who am I? And the second: Am I willing to live in humble acceptance of the call of God?

Make an appraisal of yourself – an honest assessment. Think of yourself in truth. Who are you? What makes you unique? How has God called you? We are not all the same. In fact, Paul compares the church to a body (Romans 12:4-5), with different gifts, differing contributions, differing abilities. Vocational identity is found in discerning who we are within this mix. What is the ability, the talent, the deep passion that God has given you? Where is it that God is calling you to make a difference for Him in the church and in the world? Consider and think of yourself with honesty; make a sound judgment.

If we seek to be anything other than who we are, we live a lie. To know ourselves and to be true to ourselves is to be true to how God has made us. How He has crafted our personalities. How He has given us ability and talent and passion. God will call us to serve Him in the church and in the world. But this calling will always be consistent with who we are, with who He has created us to be. A.W. Tozer calls this “living with freedom from pretense.” His comment captures it well, for in living truthfully we no longer live with a mask, a façade, but rather with a deep honesty about who we are and who God has created us to be. During a period of my rebellion and doubt, my favorite song was The Stranger by Billy Joel.

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out
And show ourselves when everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we’d love to try them on

I think that Billy Joel’s “stranger” is similar to what psychologist Carl Jung called the archetypal shadow self. The part we disown, usually because it is disapproved of by our family, our spouse, or society in general. Anything that contradicts our “public image” gets consigned to the shadow. Unfortunately, the shadow self contains enormous energy and alternate possibilities that we ignore at our own peril. We need to acknowledge the “disowned” parts of our personality and seek to heal our brokenness through Jesus Christ. If we don’t, the dissociated aspects of ourselves, like hungry dogs locked in the basement, can wreak havoc when released. We truly have no idea what can happen when we deny and continually suppress defects of character that need to be healed.

“IF I HAD MY DRUTHERS.”

Ask yourself, If I were able to only do or be one thing, what would it be? A follow-up question might be, What do I long for more than anything?  What brings me joy? It is important to get to the root of the matter. It is not what you imagine might bring you joy; it is seeking what fundamentally and actually brings joy. We cannot buy into the lie that more money or more prestige would do it. Such motivation is a distraction. When we get at what really matters to us, we get to the passion of our hearts. But the “instrumentality of our culture” distracts us from what really matters. Any many of the things that matter most defy measurement. It’s easy to yield to that which is doable and practical and popular. Worse yet, as I tended to consider recently, was my deciding how impractical it was to go to graduate school at sixty years of age and become an addictions counselor whose clientele will be exclusively sixteen to twenty-nine years old. Teens and young adults. This, however, is an area of great importance to me.

What matters to us reflects who we are and gives meaning to our lives. What matters is reflected in the life we live; it is reflected in the way we engage life, spend our money and our time. Here’s a thought: If we don’t have the time to do something, perhaps this is a sign that that particular thing does not matter to us. Really, what we need is to stop complaining about the economy, the limitations we are facing, the problems of our past, and begin to take responsibility for our actions (to be the cause rather than wallow in the effect).

Perhaps another way to get at the core of who we are is to get at what makes us angry. Anger is often dangerous terrain, of course, but I’m talking here about righteous indignation. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” (NASB) This is the same type of anger displayed by Jesus when he threw the money changers out of the Temple. (See Matthew 21:12) When our anger is consistent with God’s view of the world, could it be that what matters to God matters to us? Could it be that by attending to what makes us angry we begin to get a read on what moves us? It’s been said that the antidote for exhaustion may not be rest but wholeheartedness. In other words, could it be that we are exhausted because we are not doing our true work?

What are your elemental waters? What is your core, the sense of who you are? David Whyte is an English poet whose poetry and philosophy is based on what he calls the conversational nature of reality. He has been quoted as saying, “One of the distinguishing features of any courageous human being is the ability to remain unutterably themselves in the midst of conforming pressures.” Whyte was essentially saying when in our work we are engaged with tasks or responsibilities that are deeply congruent with our fundamental self, we are in our “elemental waters.” When the young shepherd boy David refused the armor of the soldiers when he went to take on Goliath it was not so much that he wanted to trust in God and not in his own strength or capacities, though that was surely the disposition he brought to this encounter. Rather, he was not at home in that armor; he was at home in his shepherd gear and with a weapon he had mastered; not the sword but the sling.

WHERE DO YOU FEEL THE WORLD IS MOST FRAGMENTED?

Consider this question: Where do you feel and the operative word is feel – the deepest fragmentation of our world? Certainly, we each see the world’s needs differently. And our vocational identity is in some form or another aligned with how we each uniquely see the pain and brokenness of the world. Often we miss our vocation because our sense of the needs of the world is informed and shaped by the expectations of others. Sometimes preachers and public speakers outline the needs of the world in a way that is very compelling, and they describe these needs in such a way that they communicate that if we really care, then we will respond according to their expectations and evaluations. They assume that we should see the world as they see it. But the needs of our world are complex, and we need to be alert to how others use the word should.

If we are prepared to listen to our own hearts, we will recognize that we long to help and serve and make a difference just as much as they do. But it will be our own vision for a needy world – a vision informed by our own reading of the Scriptures, but also a vision sustained by the witness of the Holy Spirit to our hearts. So where do you see the brokenness of the world? What impresses you to the core of your heart and calls you to be or do something? When you are able to set aside ego gratification and ask honestly what you long to do to make a difference because you see the need – quite apart from any monetary return or honor that might come your way – what comes to mind?

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I have found that taking the steps I’ve outlined in this post helps to assure that my vocation will in some fundamental way be aligned to how I see the brokenness of the world. By taking what 12-step recovery calls a fearless and thorough moral inventory of myself, I have the opportunity to take stock of who I am. This includes the negatives and the positives on my “balance sheet.” As I look long and hard at my moral shortcomings, I am actually able to start fleshing out a plan of spiritual and emotional recovery. Such an inventory should be written down, because it becomes the first tangible proof you have that these issues are real, and that they must be addressed. Of course, this personal evaluation will also allow you to get acquainted with your talents, your skills, your passion for life. It allows you to answer the four basic questions I brought up earlier: What do you want most of all in life? What matters to you? Where do you feel most comfortable (your elemental waters)? What breaks your heart about the circumstances in the world today?

In John 17:4, Jesus says these remarkable words: “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” I want the same to be true for my life. I want to come to the end of my days and know that in God’s eyes I fulfilled my vocation. Work can be difficult. Especially when we consciously choose to embrace a life of addressing the evils and brokenness of this world. Jesus reminds us, however, that His yoke is easy, His burden is light. For a yoke to be easy, it means that it fits us. It is designed around the contours of who we are; it is congruent with the character, strengths, potential, and personality that we are before God. I believe our only hope for vocational clarity is that we come to terms with our own hearts – with what we individually believe is happening in the very core of our being.

Each of us has something that we feel is the very reason for which we have been designed, created, and redeemed. In the end, we embrace this call, this purpose, because this is who we are. In the end, there is something to which we say, “This I must do.” Now we are in the position to give up our lives for the sake of others. (See Matthew 16:25) We do it because we must. And we accept this as from God – as that which God has placed in our hearts. What drives us is the very conviction that God has placed there. This is what is meant by vocational integrity and personal congruence.

“God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere, but God Himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is. Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one-by-one, by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what, and when.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, The Message)

You Ask Me How

You ask me how you can be used to minister life to the Body of Christ [the Church]. Not by setting out deliberately to do a lot, nor indeed by running away…and doing nothing, but simply by letting the cross operate in the normal course of your walk with the Lord. Let the “slaying of Jesus” work in you, and life will manifest itself in others. For the building of His Church, God emphasizes the ministry of the Word above the ministry of the works. The Church is not to trust in miracles, for they may lead to outward things exclusively.

For many churches, general truth has taken the place of specific truth. They feel all is well if they are “conservative” or “orthodox” in their doctrine. By this reasoning, “fundamentalists” consider themselves on a higher plane than “modernists.” Yet they measure up in God’s eyes only insofar as they possess a true inward revelation of Christ, and no further.

The seed is the Word. We must know how the Spirit applies the Word to men today.

Excerpts from What Shall This Man Do? by Watchman Nee