Ask the Right Question
Several years ago I was thumbing through the introduction of a book when I ran across a sentence that changed my life. God is intimately personal with us and he speaks in ways that are peculiar to our own quirky hearts — not just through the Bible, but through the whole of creation. To Stasi he speaks through movies. God’s word to me comes in many ways — through sunsets and friends and films and music and wilderness and books. But He’s got an especially humorous thing going with me and books. I’ll be browsing through a secondhand bookshop when out of a thousand volumes one will say, ”Pick me up” — just like Augustine in his Confessions. Tolle legge — take up and read. Like a master fly fisherman, God cast His fly to this cruising trout. In the introduction to the book that I rose to this day, the author (Gil Bailie) shares a piece of advice given to him some years back by a spiritual mentor, Howard Thurman:
Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
I was struck dumb. It could have been Balaam’s donkey, for all I was concerned. Suddenly my life up till that point made sense in a sickening sort of way; I realized I was living a script written for me by someone else. All my life I had been asking the world to tell me what to do with myself. This is different from seeking counsel or advice; what I wanted was freedom from responsibility and especially freedom from risk. I wanted someone else to tell me who to be. Thank God it didn’t work. The scripts they handed me I simply could not bring myself to play for very long. Like Saul’s armor, they never fit.
Can a world of posers tell you to do anything but pose yourself?
As Buechner says, we are in constant danger of being not actors in the drama of our lives but reactors, “to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running the strongest.” Reading the counsel Thurman gave to Bailie I knew it was God speaking to me. It was an invitation to come out of Ur. I set the volume down without turning another page and walked out of that bookstore to find a life worth living.
I applied to graduate school and got accepted. That program would turn out to be far more than a career move; out of the transformation that took place there I became a writer, counselor, and speaker. The whole trajectory of my life changed and with it the lives of many, many other people. But I almost didn’t go. You see, when I applied to school I hadn’t a nickel to pay for it. I was married with three children and a mortgage, and that’s the season when most men completely abandon their dreams and back down from jumping off anything. The risk just seems too great. On top of it all, I received a call about that time from a firm back in Washington, D.C., offering me a plum job at an incredible salary. I would be in a prestigious company, flying in some very powerful circles, making great money. God was thickening the plot, testing my resolve. Down one road was my dream and desire, which I had no means to pay for, and an absolutely uncertain future after that; down the other was a comfortable step up the ladder of success, a very obvious next career move and the total loss of my soul.
I went to the mountains for the weekend to sort things out. Life makes more sense standing alone by a lake at high elevation with a fly rod in hand. The tentacles of the world and my false self seemed to give way as I climbed up into the Holy Cross Wilderness. On the second day God began to speak. John, you can take that job if you want to. It’s not a sin. But it’ll kill you and you know it. He was right; it had False Self written all over it. If you want to follow Me, He continued, I’m heading that way. I knew exactly what He meant — “that way” headed into wilderness, frontier.
The following week three phone calls came in amazing succession. The first was from the Washington firm; I told them I was not their man, to call somebody else. As I hung up the phone my false self was screaming, What are you doing?! The next day the phone rang again; it was my wife, telling me that the university had called wanting to know where my first tuition installment was. On the third day a call came from a longtime friend who had been praying for me and my decision. “We think you ought to go to school,” he said. “And we want to pay your way.”
Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
What Are You Waiting For?
Where would we be today if Abraham had carefully weighed the pros and cons of God’s invitation and decided that he’d rather hang on to his medical benefits, three weeks paid vacation, and retirement plan in Ur? What would have happened if Moses had listened to his mother’s advice to “never play with matches” and lived a careful, cautious life steering clear of all burning bushes? You wouldn’t have the gospel if Paul had concluded that the life of a Pharisee, while not everything a man dreams for, was at least predictable and certainly more stable than following a voice he heard on the Damascus road. After all, people hear voices all the time and who really knows whether it’s God or just one’s imagination.
Where would we be if Jesus was not fierce and wild and romantic to the core? Come to think of it, we wouldn’t be at all if God hadn’t taken that enormous risk of creating us in the first place.
Most men spend the energy of their lives trying to eliminate risk, or squeezing it down to a more manageable size. Their children hear “no” far more than they hear “yes”; their employees feel chained up and their wives are equally bound.
If it works, if a man succeeds in securing his life against all risk, he’ll wind up in a cocoon of self-protection and wonder all the while why he’s suffocating. If it doesn’t work, he curses God and redoubles his efforts and his blood pressure. When you look at the structure of the false self men tend to create, it always revolves around two themes: seizing upon some sort of competence and rejecting anything that cannot be controlled. As David Whyte says, “The price of our vitality is the sum of all our fears.”
For murdering his brother, God sentences Cain to the life of a restless wanderer; five verses later Cain is building a city (Genesis 4:12, Genesis 4:17). That sort of commitment — the refusal to trust God and the reach for control — runs deep in every man. Whyte talks about the difference between the false self’s desire “to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that may be.”
You literally sacrifice your soul and your true power when you insist on controlling things, like the guy Jesus talked about who thought he had finally pulled it all off, built himself some really nice barns, and died the same night.
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? — Mark 8:36 NKJV
You can lose your soul, by the way, long before you die.
Canadian biologist Farley Mowat had a dream of studying wolves in their native habitat, out in the wilds of Alaska. The book Never Cry Wolf is based on that lonely research expedition. In the film version Mowat’s character is a bookworm named Tyler who has never so much as been camping. He hires a crazy old Alaskan bush pilot named Rosie Little to get him and all his equipment into the remote Blackstone Valley in the dead of winter. Flying in Little’s single-engine Cessna over some of the most beautiful, rugged, and dangerous wilderness in the world, Little pries Tyler for the secret to his mission:
LITTLE: Tell me, Tyler… what’s in the valley of the Blackstone? What is it? Manganese? (Silence) Can’t be oil. Is it gold?
TYLER: It’s kind of hard to say.
LITTLE: You’re a smart man, Tyler… you keep your own counsel. We’re all of us prospectors up here, right, Tyler? Scratchin’ for that… that one crack in the ground… and never have to scratch again. (After a pause) I’ll let you in on a little secret, Tyler. The gold’s not in the ground. The gold is not anywhere up here. The real gold is south of 60, sittin’ in living rooms, facing the boob tube bored to death. Bored to death, Tyler.
Suddenly the plane’s engine coughs a few times, sputters, gasps… and then simply cuts out. The only sound is the wind over the wings.
LITTLE: (Groans) Oh, Lord.
TYLER: (Panicked) What’s wrong?
LITTLE: Take the stick.
Little hands over control of the powerless plane to Tyler (who has never flown a plane in his life) and starts frantically rummaging around in an old toolbox between the seats. Unable to find what he’s looking for, Little explodes. Screaming, he empties the toolbox all over the plane. Then just as abruptly he stops, calmly rubbing his face with his hands.
TYLER: (Still panicked and trying to fly the plane ) What’s wrong?
LITTLE: Boredom, Tyler. Boredom… that’s what’s wrong. How do you beat boredom, Tyler? Adventure. ADVENTURE, Tyler!
Little then kicks the door of the plane open and nearly disappears outside, banging on something — a frozen fuel line perhaps. The engine kicks back in just as they are about to fly into the side of a mountain. Little grabs the stick and pulls them into a steep ascent, barely missing the ridge and then easing off into a long, majestic valley below.
Rosie Little may be a madman, but he’s also a genius. He knows the secret to a man’s heart, the cure for what ails him. Too many men forsake their dreams because they aren’t willing to risk or fear they aren’t up to the challenge or are never told that those desires deep in their heart are good.
But the soul of a man, the real gold Little refers to, isn’t made for controlling things; it’s made for adventure. Something in us remembers, however faintly, that when God set man on the earth He gave us an incredible mission — a charter to explore, build, conquer, and care for all creation. It was a blank page waiting to be written; a clean canvas waiting to be painted. Well, sir, God never revoked that charter. It’s still there, waiting for a man to seize it.
If you had permission to do what you really want to do, what would you do? Don’t ask how; that will cut your desire off at the knees. How is never the right question; how is a faithless question. It means “unless I can see my way clearly I won’t believe it, won’t venture forth.” When the angel told Zechariah that his ancient wife would bear him a son named John, Zechariah asked how and was struck dumb for it.
How is God’s department. He is asking you what.
What is written in your heart? What makes you come alive? If you could do what you’ve always wanted to do, what would it be? You see, a man’s calling is written on his true heart, and he discovers it when he enters the frontier of his deep desires. To paraphrase Thurman’s advice to Gil Bailie, don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, because what the world needs are men who have come alive.
Excerpted with permission from Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, copyright John Eldredge.
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What makes you come alive? Come share with us on our blog! We want to hear from you what God planted deep in your heart that the world needs! ~ Devotionals Daily