I am a baby boomer who has entered midlife. Exactly 20 years ago I walked onto a seminary campus to prepare for "a lifetime of ministry." Campus Crusade had just sponsored the highly successful Explo Conference. I had great expectations. Having an impact on the world for Jesus Christ was about as high a goal as I could imagine. So with all the gusto I could give, I went for the gold--which, to me, meant going to seminary.
Back then I thought a successful Christian life meant being a winner for God, taking control (with the aid of the Spirit, of course), and doing all I could for his kingdom. What could be a higher calling? What could be more fulfilling?
Many of those I went to college with and worked with in Young Life shared these hopes. Their zeal to make a difference for Christ in the marketplace was just as great as mine. The many tasks left to do for the kingdom would fall into our generation's hands in the near future. The essence of our spirituality was to do all we could for God in the 40 or so years we had.
I do not know when I began to question seeing the spiritual life in terms of tasks to be managed and completed. Nor do I remember exactly when I came to see how subtly cultural values had shaped my original vision of God's call. There was no shining experience of encountering God. But at some point, the focus changed, the direction altered. I began to consider whether the race I was running was the race God had called me to run. Was I on the track he had led me to, or on one I had designed?
I now see my call differently. There are still tasks, even great ones, to be accomplished. The demands of life and ministry continue to be great. The pace has not abated; in fact, there are more responsibilities all around. The generation ahead of me is passing on to my generation their years of faithful service and sacred responsibilities.
But there is a difference in my view of God's call. The tasks and great expectations are no longer the priority they were. Winning is not so important, and triumph is defined in terms the world does not relate to well. Issues of personal fulfillment, so central to our culture and to those early years of pursuit, have been redefined. Thinking about the heart and relationships has become more central.
What does the difference look like? Everyone says that entering one's forties makes a person more reflective. So I have spent my time recently considering how culture has influenced my spiritual walk. We do not think about this question enough. For most of us, culture is a given that we have to accept and deal with as best we can. But the package of dreams and goals that drives most Americans does work its way into our values and into our spiritual lives.
My assessment is that the impact has been subtle, much like the way a rusty hole in a pipe can slowly erode water pressure. Too many Christians are so immersed in our culture that, though they pursue the spiritual life fully, they find themselves going nowhere. Oftentimes we can pursue the spiritual disciplines with zeal--we may have daily quiet times or periods of fasting and prayer--but if the lens of values these disciplines are channeled through reflects commitments to our "American dream," then the result is not fullness of life in the Spirit, but an anemic attempt at living life on our own terms with a little bit of God thrown in. The result will be spiritual emptiness and disappointment.
Many pews on Sunday morning are filled with people seeking God, praying like mad, studying the Word, but who still wonder why God seems so distant. Maybe it is because our culture has taught us to pursue goals that do not bring us closer to him. Perhaps those goals undermine the relationships we are to have with him and with others.
A CALLED LIFE
It does not take many trips to the magazine rack or many zaps of the television remote to see how much of our public discourse is consumed with trying to find out who we are or who we should be. Author Gail Sheehey documented life's passages 20 years ago and has now returned to the bestseller list offering more guidance in "New Passages." In our culture, we all want desperately to know where and how we fit into the world.
This search manifests itself in the pursuit of "self-actualization," the desire to be all that we can be, the drive to fulfill all that is potential within us. Yet how many marriages have been damaged because one partner needed "personal space" to "find" him- or herself? How many children have been emotionally damaged because of a parent who decided that the constraints of family inhibited personal potential?
Christians are not immune to self-driven pursuits. How many of us, in putting our gifts to full use, still end up neglecting family and other meaningful relationships in the undertaking of "divinely ordained" tasks? How many fathers, aware that they are called to be the provider, have too little time to nurture their wives and children, much less have a meaningful conversation with them each day? These are questions a spiritually sensitive person asks about the impact of culture.
Yet certainly God does not call us to be less-than-actualized. The problem occurs because our culture has chosen the wrong path to a worthy goal. When we perceive our existence as a call from God--rather than as a search for self--we free ourselves from the maelstrom of self-oriented ambition and find our ultimate purpose in life. Living life as a call means realizing God is not a visitor to our lives, only appearing magically for an hour on Sunday and during our times of prayer and study. Instead, we realize God has placed us where he has to serve him at all times in all places. Living life as a call means that we "redeem the time" 24 hours of every day--"in season and out of season"--by teasing out God's intention in our work, our relationships, our demeanor, our allegiances.
Consider the cross. What "self-actualization" was involved as Christ hung there paying for our sin? Jesus said that "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9:23 NIV). True "self-actualization" is realized once we relinquish ownership of our lives and submit to the purposes of God only, apprehending his call--his ownership--of our lives.
THE INTERDEPENDENT HERO
Of course, if self-actualization is the goal, the cultural value partnered with it is independence. We idolize self-reliant heroes like Bill Gates and Michael Jordan. Likewise, in the church, we make much of celebrity conversions or ministry founders and leaders. Through multiple seminars and conferences, books and cassettes, we give the impression that the right methods of leadership applied in a right way yield success. Sometimes our methods are no different from the public-relations departments of successful companies. We admire and desire "can-do" leaders.
God certainly desires heroic disciples; yet I have come to see that this emphasis on individual effort is biblically out of balance. Our call is not defined in terms of independent or self-reliant efforts. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!' " (12:21). Self-reliance is actually antithetical to biblical living. In Christ, we are interdependent rather than self-reliant.
While each of us answers his or her call of God individually, we live out that call in shared community. God always calls us into relationship, first with himself, and as an outpouring of that, with brothers and sisters in Christ. Believers are called to work together to accomplish what God has set before us, whether the tasks are heady and noble or trivial and mundane. This is why life in the local church is central to spiritual growth. God has formed a nation of ambassadors, not a million independent expeditions.
Early in my Christian life I attended church solely for its instructional value. I cared little about the hymns we sang, the week-to-week activities, or even the people who went there. I assessed a church strictly on the basis of what it gave me. I remained private and independent, answerable to no one; I had learned the lessons of my culture well.
Now I appreciate the gift of the rainbow of personalities that I have come to know as God's people. I have seen families rally around parents with a child in intensive care. I have seen the men of our community team up for a "ladies day" to help single women, especially the elderly, get the oil changed on their cars and perform other necessary odd jobs around their homes. I have worked with an urban church as it planted a church in the heart of the Dallas projects. I have rejoiced as Sunday-school teachers and youth leaders were able to reach kids when parents had trouble communicating with them. I have come to see that our life and call can only be fully realized when we are functioning within the context of community.
When I went to seminary, in addition to studying Scripture and learning how to preach, I wanted to learn how to be an efficient manager. I wanted to be spiritual but also effective. It seemed like a worthy goal at the time.
I have come to realize that my bias is to be pragmatic, to manage my life so as to reach certain goals. Thus my prayer life sometimes becomes a strategy session during which I "inform" God about tasks I intend to accomplish and then ask for his blessing, with added recommendations as to how he should best meet my needs. Even when it came to the noble pursuit of preparing for the ministry, the cultural values with which I grew up taught me to manage my spiritual life in independent, goal-oriented, task-driven terms. I now see that it is possible to "accomplish" a great deal but never encounter the living God in the process.
I started to ask myself some uncomfortable questions: Where are the prayers that seek his guidance for learning from the experience he has sent my way? When Paul prayed for the congregation at Ephesus, he didn't outline for God all the ministry needs he felt should be addressed. He prayed, instead, "that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power...to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Eph. 3:17-18). I saw that the prayers of the Psalter often cry out to God for the deepening of the heart, love, or faith, so that God's purposes can be realized in the midst of whatever he allows us to endure.
The question is not, "What will you do for me, God?" but, "Lord, how can your purposes be fulfilled in my life?" In other words, we are servants in God's kingdom, not consumers of God's services.
This process of searching out the cultural influences on my faith has forced me to develop a discipline where I am suspicious of what feels "comfortable" or "natural." In many ways, I have had to make my faith un-American. Where our culture says, "Seek your place in the world!" our God says, "Seek the kingdom of God." Where our culture bids us to "find yourself!" God calls us to "lose yourself, and so find life." Where our culture calls us to "be your own self-made person!" our God calls us to become "members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus." Where our culture teaches us to "look to your own needs and interests!" God calls us to have the "attitude of Christ Jesus, who took on the nature of a servant." Where our culture promises, "You can have it all!" God calls us to "consider it rubbish, that we might gain Christ." Where our culture mandates, "Be at the top of your game!" God calls us to "be crucified with Christ."
Once we recognize how our self-worshiping culture has informed (and distorted) our walk of faith, and once we have resolved to jettison those effects and embrace a radical, authentic, biblical orientation, we will have taken the first step toward living out the call of Christ. I am called to look beyond the great expectations of my culture and instead find life's true purpose in dying to self, that I might truly live.
Darrell L. Bock is research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, in Dallas, Texas, with responsibilities at the Center for Christian Leadership.
Copyright © 1996 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more