The American doctrine of self-determination is one that is instilled in every schoolchild. It has become an inextricable part of our belief system of our right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Rugged individualism and autonomy are so ingrained in our thinking that questioning these ideals is almost unthinkable.
And yet, is this the way Christians are called to live? Do we have the right or even the ability to determine what is best for our own lives? Everything I’ve ever read in Scripture or experienced in my own life or observed in the lives of others leads me to give a resounding “no!” True life, true liberty, and true happiness come not from pursuing our own dreams and desires but from pursuing God and Him alone— letting Him define who I am and why I was created.
The movie “Dr. Strange” gives a good illustration of what I’m talking about. I know, I’m a total geek, but a lot of truth is found in myths, and superheroes are just our modern version of mythology. Dr. Strange thought his reason for existing was found in his brilliant career as a top neurosurgeon—then, of course, he has a terrible accident that ruins his hands and he can no longer work as a surgeon. His quest for meaning leads him to a mystic called the Ancient One, who teaches him how to manipulate reality itself, and so a super-hero is born—but an arrogant one who is still finding his life’s meaning in his own accomplishments. The Ancient One tells him that all his abilities and accomplishments mean nothing because he has failed to learn the most important and most simple lesson of all. She tells him, “It’s not about you.”
Dr. Strange’s life was, of course, about saving the world from ultimate destruction by a malevolent being. This may never be an issue for you. But the lesson he needed to learn is nevertheless a lesson we all need to learn. Our lives are not about us.
My life is not about me. I was not created for myself and I have no meaning in myself alone. God created me for Himself and I can only find meaning and contentment in Him—in Him alone.
I have a good life. I love my little house. I love my job. I love my church family. I feel I would be perfectly content to live here for the rest of my life, keeping things just as they are. But God has shown me that now it’s time for me to go somewhere else and find contentment in the home and work God gives me in on the mission field. If I rebelled and stayed here, my contentment would quickly slip away.
Because God has taught me in the past year or so that the contentment I find in these temporal things is actually the contentment of being in the center of His will. If I stayed here beyond the time God intends, I would no longer be in the center of God’s will, and I would no longer be content with anything.
My life is not about me. I was created for God and for Him alone. The Westminster Catechism tells us that the “Chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” If what I am doing is not glorifying God, then no matter how altruistic and wonderful my life’s goals might me, I will never find contentment. My purpose in life is to pursue God and Him alone—not my own dreams or goals or my own comfort and happiness. If I seek my own dreams and my own comfort, I will never, ever find them. But if I seek God, I will receive comfort, joy, and contentment in full measure. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matthew 6:33
When my husband and I got married, we had a grand dream. We did not yet realize that our own plans for our lives are not necessarily God’s plans for us. We believed the verses in Psalm 37 that says:
“Delight yourself in the LORD;
And He will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the LORD,
Trust also in Him, and He will do it.”
We thought this meant that, whatever desire we have, it must be from Him, and He would give it to us just as we pictured it to be! We forgot about the rest of the Psalm, which goes on to say:
“Rest in the LORD and wait patiently for Him”
We had a dream and we pursued that dream pretty single-mindedly for over a year. It did not turn out well. We are to pursue God and Him alone, not our own dream or desires. We thought we knew what would bring us contentment, but we had no idea! In his book “Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm”, Dr. Richard A Swenson says: “No man is what he himself thinks he is. He is only what Jesus knows him to be.” God knows what we are best fitted for because He is the one who fitted us for it! Dr. Swenson also writes, “If we love the wrong things, He gives us what we deserve: discontent.” I would say that is also true if we pursue the wrong things.
But we had not yet learned this lesson. Our dream was to own our own used bookstore. We envisioned it with shelves full of good books, some comfortable armchairs, maybe a fireplace or woodstove, rag rugs on the floor, a coffee maker—and lots of patrons coming by regularly to spend their spare hours searching the shelves and sitting around chatting about literature. We didn’t care about making money—just enough to pay the bills. It seems a simple and harmless dream, doesn’t it? We didn’t ask God if that’s what He wanted because obviously He did or He wouldn’t have created us to be the type of people who would want to own a bookstore, right?
We carried this dream with us as we hiked down the Appalachian Trail and ended up in a city with just enough money to buy a cheap car. We grabbed up the first jobs we could find—a telemarketing company that sold tickets to country music benefit shows to raise money for local charities. Sounds like a noble job, raising money for charity, doesn’t it? I was hired as a secretary, but my husband rose through the ranks quickly, from salesman to manager to running his own benefit show in another town within a few months. Then he was sent to run a show in still another town and I was sent to be his secretary. Life seemed grand! We were making a lot of money and we got to work together. Sadly, all our traveling back and forth meant we couldn’t plug into a church, so we were accountable to no one, and we were too busy to read God’s Word: but after all, we reasoned, this was only temporary until we could save enough money to start our bookstore. Then everything else would fall back into place, right?
We slowly started to realize that the partners who owned the business were skimming money from the main office. We were young and naïve and it took us far too long to understand that we were working for con men. This shocked us—stealing from the charities they were raising money to benefit! But—after all, we were running OUR shows honestly. If we were to quit, our bosses would take over and would be ripping off our shows, too! We reasoned that by continuing to work for criminals, we were actually doing good—saving the shows we were responsible for from being ripped off. And anyway, we had found the perfect building for our store—an ideal location for a good price. We just needed to raise the money and our dream would be ours. Maybe you’ve never resorted to such distortions of reason to achieve your dreams or goals, but whenever you stop pursuing God and start pursuing your own stuff, anything is feasible.
We’d been working for crooks for about 10 months when one of the partners emptied the business’s bank account and disappeared—we found out later that he went to South America to be a drug lord. Suddenly there was no money to pay us the comfortable salary we had been counting on.
The remaining partner offered us the opportunity of a new show in another city. He couldn’t pay us a salary, but he would pay us 40,000 dollars at the end of the three-month job. This was an unimaginable amount of money in the 1980’s! With one last job, we could then quit working for criminals and start our dream bookstore!
My husband and I looked at each other. One of us said, “Should we pray about it?” And then we said in unison, “Nah.” Of course, God wanted us to take this job! It was obviously His gift to us to raise the money to achieve the desire of our hearts, so we didn’t even need to ask Him! Secretly, we were afraid He would say no and our dream would elude our grasps. We were so invested in our own pursuits that we were no longer even pretending to pursue God.
I don’t have to tell you that this plan did not work out well. Crooks are crooks and can’t be trusted to keep their word. We ended up living in a campground in a borrowed tent—homeless for several months, chastened and forced to depend entirely on God once more. Finally, some friends offered to let us live with them until we could find new jobs and start our life all over again.
I’d like to say we BOTH learned our lesson and sought only God’s will for our lives from that time on. But the truth is, while my husband found his passion for God and pursued Christ wholeheartedly, I just got angry. I was so ashamed of what we’d done that I could not forgive myself and I could not believe that God would forgive us. As far as I was concerned, we’d blown it and had forever missed our chance ever to have the life of happiness and contentment we’d dreamed of. I stopped praying altogether and went to church with my poor, patient husband only grudgingly.
My bad attitude lasted about a year. During that time I got a job in an office in an office block, and it became my habit to arrive earlier in the morning than anyone else in the building in order to get ready for the day. One day, I let myself into the building, which remained locked to the public, then let myself into my office, which I also locked behind me. It was kind of creepy, being entirely alone in a huge office building.
I was working at my desk when the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it—we weren’t officially open yet, after all, and no one should expect anyone to be in. But then I thought it might be my boss, so I picked up. A voice on the phone said, “Good morning! I’m just calling to remind you that Jesus loves you very much. Have nice day!” And she hung up.
And I thought, “What a crackpot!” and tried to get back to work. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Because the voice had said she had called to REMIND me, not to tell me. How could she know I only needed reminding? For the first time in a long time, I prayed. “God, if that was you,” I said, “You’ll have to prove it to me, because I don’t believe it.” Then I got the day’s bank deposit together and got up to walk to the bank.
And there, on the floor just inside my locked office door, was a fresh daisy, my favorite flower. It hadn’t been there when I came in, and I was alone in the building and the door had been locked. But there it was, my answer. He loves me, no matter what I’d done. I had stopped pursuing God, but He had never stopped pursuing me. I went home that day a changed woman, on fire for God, ready to follow His will.
In the years that followed, God showed us true contentment because we had finally learned to pursue Him, to listen to Him and go in the direction He had for us. He gave us the life that was perfect for us, but something entirely different from what we had believed would make us happy. When we got married, if anyone had told us that my husband would end up being a cop, we would have laughed hysterically and asked what they were drinking. But law enforcement ended up being a career in which he would effectively serve the Lord for 30 years. I had always known I wanted to write, and I aspired to write novels that students would have to study in High School one day. It never occurred to me that writing curriculum would be a more perfect fit for my talents and that tutoring would be how God would use me in the lives of students.
God knew us better than we could ever know ourselves. Our dream of a bookstore was so much less than what God had planned for our lives. I’m not saying we haven’t had trials, doubts, or grief. We’re sinners and we deal with sin. We’ve not walked in God’s will perfectly and our faith has at times wavered. But that’s on us, not on Him.
Proverbs 3:5-7 says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and HE will direct your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.”
My life is not about me. Self-determination is not an option for one who claims to follow Christ. But when I give my life entirely over to God, I can trust Him to direct my path in the way that will best bring glory to Him. And when I bring glory to Him, I find true contentment and joy in my life. But how do I know I’m following Him on the correct path?
In John 10:3-4, Jesus tells us that He is the Good Shepherd and that we who believe in Him are His sheep. “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. . . . he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
It’s only through listening to His voice and obeying Him that we can live contentedly in the life He has for us. The ability to hear Him comes only with experience—with spending time in His presence. Dr. Swenson writes:
“We do not learn from afar that God is a contentment kind of God. It is learned while sitting on His lap. He is not the kind of teacher that phones it in. He is the one-to-one student-teacher ratio kind. God is very intimate, extremely personal, and has all the time in an infinity of infinities. Any deficiencies in the relationship always come from our side.
“If our lives are too busy, too self-absorbed, too full of media, and there is no room for communicating with our Maker, then the experience of contentment will be an academic exercise rather than a daily reality. Real contentment is only possible by being much in the presence of the Lord Jesus.”
Jesus wants this for us so much that He died to make it happen. He wants us to have the life He and He alone knows is the best one for us. All we have to do is want it, too, and obey His voice as He lovingly guides us.
Isaiah 30:21. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”