Put away your Christian calculator

Emma Nicholls 15 Dec 20

What should I do with my life?

It’s the big one, right? At the start of adult life, it’s inevitable that an awful lot of our headspace will be taken up trying to figure out how to answer this question (or trying to avoid answering it!) Maybe for you it elicits a sense of excitement as you wonder about all the opportunities that your future might hold. Maybe it raises a creeping feeling of panic – it feels like everyone else has their life plan sorted already, but you’re still clueless about what you’ll be doing next week, let alone in ten years. Or maybe you feel a certain smugness, because you’re the person who does have their ten-year plan mapped out.

Whatever response it elicits in you, we can’t get away from the fact that ‘what should I do with my life?’ is one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves in our late teens and early twenties. And not just in relation to long-term career options: our answer to ‘what should I do this evening?’ or ‘what should I do in the ten-minute gap between my lectures?’ reveals just as much about our heart priorities as our answer to ‘what job should I have in ten years’ time?’ How we go about answering these questions matters.

In Ephesians 5, Paul commands us to ‘look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil’ (Eph 5:15-16). God calls us to steward the time he has given us wisely, carefully thinking through how we can best use it in his service. In the light of this, how do we figure out what we should do with our lives, both in the long-term and day by day?

That was the question troubling a Relay worker who I met in a busy Starbucks one bright January morning. The Relay worker in question was an engineering graduate, and was clearly gifted in and passionate about his degree subject: as I drank my coffee he launched into an enthusiastic monologue about designs for aeroplane wings.

But as we discussed how his year on Relay had been going so far, his tone totally changed. CU ministry had been very hard work, his personality wasn’t well suited to the self-directed working style, and one-to-one discipleship didn’t come naturally to him. He had none of the same joy and enthusiasm speaking about ministry that he’d had a moment earlier when effusing about plane designs.

So I couldn’t help but be surprised when he explained that when considering what to do next, he was torn between applying for jobs in the aeronautical industry, and pursuing a path into local church ministry. His heart and gifting seemed to both point strongly towards a career in engineering, but as he put it, ‘surely it gives God more glory if I go into ministry?’

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed time and again since then, by students I meet in church, friends who are contemplating their future, and - let’s be honest here – in my own heart too. It takes a few different forms:

‘Surely it’s more important that I tell my friends about Jesus than that I pass my degree?’

‘Surely I’ll be more useful to God in a ministry job rather than a secular one?’

‘Surely going overseas as a missionary is better than staying here – and even more so if I go to a country where being a Christian means risking my life?’

What’s going on in our heads to make us assume that the answers to these questions are so obvious that we ask ‘surely…’? In my experience, these conclusions are the end point of a complex mental calculation, according to a formula derived using the following logic:

1.    The ultimate purpose of my life is to glorify God.
2.    I have the freedom to choose between a number of different paths in life, depending on what jobs I apply for, how I choose to spend my leisure time, if or who I decide to date/marry etc.
3.    Some of these options will glorify God more than others.
4.    Therefore, I should work out which of my options will glorify God most, and choose that one.

The bit that makes our brains hurt is the process of working out which of our options will glorify God most. This entails coming up with a complex formula for assessing how much glory God might expect to receive from any possible decision, adding and subtracting pros and cons using our mental ‘Christian calculator’ to produce a figure that can be compared with others. Maybe you’re very conscious that that’s what you’re doing (my own decision about which unis to apply for involved a complicated point-scoring system…). Or maybe your Christian calculator is a subconscious thing. Either way, I think most of us have one.

And why not, right? The logic of the Christian calculator seems so sound – after all, if our ‘chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever’1, doesn’t it make sense to try and maximise the amount of glory we give to God by our life choices?

We find it deeply puzzling, then, when the output of the Christian calculator conflicts with what might otherwise seem like wise advice. CU leaders end up burnt out and flunking their exams because their Christian calculator always concluded that CU mission was more valuable than sleep or studying. The Relay worker I had coffee with was leaning away from the career that seemed such a good fit for him towards one which he was neither particularly gifted for nor passionate about.

Is it possible that our Christian calculators are calibrated wrong?

I think so. Reflecting on this over the last few weeks as I’ve prepared to write this blog post, I’ve come to the conclusion that our internal Christian calculator rests on a fundamentally right instinct (the desire that God be glorified), but some fundamentally wrong assumptions. Stick with me while I outline what I think those are.

Assumption 1 – God’s glory is quantifiable

The word ‘glory’ is classic Christianese – one of those words we use all the time in Christian settings, without being terribly clear about what it actually means. The concept of glory in the Bible is chiefly expressed using two words: the Hebrew ‘kavod’, and the Greek ‘doxa’. Both words have a range of meanings: so what do we mean exactly when we speak about giving God glory?

Both ‘kavod’ and ‘doxa’ can refer to the blinding light that comes from the presence of God (see Exodus 24:17, Acts 22:11, where NIV translates ‘doxa’ as ‘brilliance’). ‘Kavod’ can also mean wealth (Gen 31:1), or soul/being – the innermost essence of a person (Psalm 108:1, Psalm 16:9 ESV). But when we speak of ‘bringing glory to God’, we can’t mean that we somehow add to God’s infinite light, wealth or God-ness.

A better translation for both ‘kavod’ and ‘doxa’ when it comes to the idea of ‘glorifying God’ is honour. To give God glory is to honour him, to give him the recognition he deserves. Glorifying God does not make him any more glorious – he is already maximally so – but it does demonstrate his glory to the watching world. We glorify God when our actions lead others to praise him rather than us – and when we worship and praise him ourselves.

So is God’s glory quantifiable? Can we add and subtract it using our Christian calculators?

Well, there’s certainly a meaningful category of things that glorify God more than others. It glorifies God more when I’m kind and patient with my housemates than when I’m irritable and grumpy towards them – my kind actions result in more praise to God in my own heart, as well as in those who see me reflecting God’s own kindness and patience well. It glorifies God more when I share the gospel with a friend and they come to faith than when I don’t bother because I’m afraid of what they’ll think.

But things get a lot more tricky when we start trying to do more complicated comparisons. Is God glorified more if I share the gospel with a friend because I want to feel good about my own evangelistic prowess and they then come to faith, or if I tell them about Jesus out of genuine love and obedience to the Lord, but they reject the message? Does the God who would leave the ninety-nine sheep in the field to seek out the one think that leading just one friend to Christ over a number of years is less glorifying than to preaching the gospel for half an hour to a stadium of thousands?

God’s glory refuses to conform to our neat points-based system. Bringing him the most honour isn’t a matter of just converting the greatest number of people, or giving the most money to fund mission. It’s a matter of our hearts – and you can’t do maths with the attitudes of our hearts.

Assumption 2 – God’s glory is predictable

We’ve noted that God’s glory isn’t neatly quantifiable. Making decisions isn’t as simple as adding up a ‘glory points total’ for each of our options and picking the one with the highest value. But if some things do glorify God more than others, surely we can have a qualitative sense of which option is likely to honour God most in the long-term? In reality, trying to predict the future like this has two pretty major problems associated with it.

Problem 1 is that God doesn’t always choose to bring himself glory in the ways that we’d expect. When Elijah goes to stand on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19, expecting the LORD to pass by in all his glory and majesty, a great wind, earthquake, and fire all come and go and the LORD is in none of them. Finally comes a gentle whisper, and it’s in this that God speaks. God’s glory was not revealed in the way Elijah might have expected. In John’s gospel, Jesus’s great hour of glory comes not in a display of miraculous power, but at the cross: the very moment when he appears truly defeated. What to us might look like a vision of a ‘successful’ Christian life may not equal God’s vision of it.

Problem 2 is that we have no idea what the future holds. All of our best-laid plans are always provisional: at any moment the direction of life could be drastically changed. Opportunities open up or close unexpectedly, illnesses or accidents take us by surprise, financial circumstances change suddenly, people walk in and out of our lives in ways we never could have predicted. Some plans prosper and others don’t, and while we can trust that God is totally in control, we have no way of knowing which will be which (see Ecclesiastes 11:6). The ministry career we might think will result in loads of opportunities to lead people to Christ might actually result in very little visible fruit. The City job that on the surface seemed like a sell-out could be where God leads you to person after person who is hungry for the gospel.

Trying to figure out which of our possible options will bring God most glory in the end isn’t just impossible, it’s putting ourselves in the place of God. Ultimately, only God gets to make the call on how he is glorified through our lives: whether that’s by bringing many to Christ as a result of our ministry, or just by our faithful perseverance under extreme hardship and perceived unfruitfulness. Whilst there are many paths we could humanly take, miraculously there is one divine plan being worked out that can’t be thrown off course by our bad decisions. To suggest that we could ‘miss our calling’ (i.e. the single best option available to us that would give God most glory) and thereby God would lose out is to seriously overestimate our own importance, and underestimate God’s sovereignty.

Assumption 3 – I’m the only person in this calculation

Finally, and more briefly: the Christian calculator forgets to acknowledge that we’re not in the business of glorifying God on our own. If everyone’s Christian calculator adds up the points and decides that full-time ministry brings God most glory, we’d end up with a church full of pastors and student workers and interns and evangelists, but with no congregation to actually minister to (or to pay their salaries!) If the calculator told us all to pack our bags and go overseas to unreached people groups, who would be left to bring the life-changing news of the gospel to workplaces and universities and schools and communities in the UK?

They’re exaggerated examples of course, but this is exactly how the Christian calculator gets us thinking – as if we’re lone wolves single-handedly responsible for bringing God maximum glory. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s as a whole church body that we’re called to glorify God, each serving in our distinct circumstances, with our distinct giftings. You are only one person, and you can only serve in one place. But as a united global church, we can simultaneously be witnessing to Christ in every country on earth, every workplace in your city, every society in your university… Our calculators tell us to choose the option where we can have the single greatest impact for the gospel, as if no one else is working alongside us. But there are other people – millions of them – with us in this. That changes things.

A better way?

Misguided as our attempts to do maths with God’s glory might be, I’ll reiterate here that our Christian calculator does rest on a fundamentally right instinct: the desire to fulfil our ultimate calling to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’, to the best of our ability! So what’s the better way of figuring out what we do with our lives? To make things very meta: how do we honour God in our attempts to honour God?

Here are a couple of thoughts that I hope capture something of how Scripture calls us to glorify God in the way we use our lives.

First: live with thankfulness.

In Psalms, God’s glory is closely linked with praise and thanksgiving. Take Psalm 69:30 as an example:

'I will praise God’s name in song
    and glorify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the LORD more than an ox,
    more than a bull with its horns and hooves.'

Or Psalm 72:18-19:

'Praise be to the LORD God, the God of Israel,
    who alone does marvelous deeds.
 Praise be to his glorious name forever;
    may the whole earth be filled with his glory.'

Did you notice how in the first quote, it’s the act of thanksgiving that brings God glory – in fact more so than the animal sacrifice? The Psalmist isn’t saying that the physical act doesn’t give God glory (far from it), but that God is more concerned with the attitudes of our hearts in whatever we do.

The apostle Paul shares this priority, writing in his letter to the Colossians:

'And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.' (Col 3:17)

Yes, God absolutely cares about what you do. He cares about what career you pursue, how you choose to spend your weekends, who you prioritise spending time with. He cares about every last hair on your head (Matt 10:30). But he cares most of all about how you go about those things.

The Christian calculator approach gives us credit for our achievements in maximizing God’s glory. An attitude of thankfulness gives God all the credit. Thankfulness reveals our dependence on God: in giving thanks we acknowledge that God is God and we are not, and that all we have comes from him.

To reframe the question, ask first not ‘what should I do with my life?’ but ‘how should I do my life?’. And let the answer be: ‘in all things, live with thankfulness’.

Second: live in obedience.

As we seek to answer the question ‘how should I do my life?’, another crucial biblical theme is obedience. Thankfulness and obedience are tightly interwoven in Scripture. In the very act of being thankful, we are obeying God’s command to give thanks (Col 3:15), and it’s gratitude for the grace we have received that fuels our obedience in all areas of life2.

So what are the commands that we’re called to obey? This is how Jesus summarises them:

'“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”' (Matt 22:38-39)

These commands are worked out practically in numerous ways throughout the Bible, but at the heart of all Scripture’s teaching is that we are to love God, and to love others.

That’s a bit vague, right? Surely it would be more helpful if God would say to each one of us specifically: ‘here is your particular calling: I want you to love me and love others in this one specific job/place/relationship’?

Instead, he gives us freedom to choose. And actually, isn’t that wonderful? There are a million different things we could choose to do with our lives that will fulfil those commands to love God and love others, and God has gifted us with the ability to choose which path to take. That’s a pretty great honour!

And that freedom takes a lot of the pressure off, right? The Christian calculator tends to cause angst because we’re left trying to figure out the single best option for our lives that will glorify God most, but in reality there a whole bunch of different ways we can obey God’s primary calling on our lives: to love him and to love others. We don’t need to freak out that we’ll never find our calling in life. If in what you’re doing, wherever you are and whoever you’re with, you’re living in thankfulness and obedience to the Lord, you’re fulfilling your calling.

Making the decision

But then how do I choose? If there are so many ways to glorify God with your life, how do you actually settle on which job to work in, or which activities to prioritise?

Tim Keller lays down a framework for assessing your options which I think is really helpful.3 He gives three metrics to help us decide:

1)    Affinity
God has given us unique interests that will shape how we want to spend our time. So what do you enjoy doing? What are you passionate about?

2)    Ability
God has given us unique gifts and talents to make use of in his service. So what are you good at? What are your strengths?

3)    Opportunity
God has uniquely situated each of us, and your circumstances may mean that doors are open to you which are closed to others.  So where are there open doors? Where is there a need?

Of course, there are caveats here! You can’t use a lack of affinity or perceived ability to get out of things that the Bible explicitly commands us to do: sharing the gospel, for example. There are times when the right thing is to sacrifice one or more of these metrics. You may be gifted in and passionate about a specific career path, but there just aren’t jobs going right now. Or maybe there’s a real need for people to serve in a particular area in church that’s not really your thing, but you can meet that need for a time by filling in until someone better equipped can take on the role. (Actually, it’s often true that when we take an opportunity that we didn’t feel confident in or excited about at the time, we grow in our ability in that area and even become more passionate about it.) As followers of a crucified Saviour, we certainly shouldn’t be afraid of sacrifice! But when considering something that you’re going to spend a good chunk of your life doing, it’s a good use of your God-given uniqueness to find something that you’ll enjoy, that you’re good at, and that a door is open for you to pursue.4

As well as reflecting on these things for yourself, a really helpful way of working through that is to sit down with the people who know and love you best – parents, close friends, your church small group leader or staff worker. Ask them: what can you see that I’m passionate about? What am I good at? What opportunities might there be for me to serve? There’s no compulsion to act on their advice, but my own experience is that often others have a clearer perspective on me than I do on myself!

And pray. Then pray some more. Then pray again. It’s hard to overstate the importance of prayer when we make decisions. We don’t necessarily have to pray for God to give us a ‘feeling’ about what the right thing is (although he might choose to do that!), but when we ask for wisdom in deciding we can be totally confident that God will give it:

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.’ (James 1:5)

What a phenomenal promise to have in mind as we approach the question of what we should do with our lives. What a kind and generous God we have!

Summary on a postcard

Coming back to that January morning in Starbucks, this article is the advice I wish I’d given that Relay worker whose desire to serve the Lord combined with his internal Christian calculator were causing so much anguish. I sincerely hope that it’s a blessing to you reading this now, especially if you’re struggling under the weight of the ‘what should I do with my life?’ question at the moment.

If you’d like someone to think this all through with and apply it to your situation, I’d be so happy to chat – just drop an email to science@uccf.org.uk and I’ll get back to you ASAP!

If you remember nothing else, here’s my summary on a postcard:

Q: What should I do with my life?
A: Live in obedience and thankfulness to the Lord – knowing that this could take one of any number of paths! Serve and share Jesus where you are, making use of the passions and talents God has given you, if you have the opportunity to do so. Expect that it will require sacrifice. Pray that God would glorify his name through you, in surprising ways that may not be visible now. And trust that he will.

1 Westminster Shorter Catechism, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/westminster-shorter-catechism/
2 See the book of Romans for a worked example of how thankfulness drives obedience: Paul unpacks the gospel of grace in chapters 1-11, before turning to show what a life transformed by receiving grace looks like in chapters 12-16. Notice especially how the grateful praise of the doxology 11:33-36 results in Paul’s urging to ‘offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’ in 12:1.
3 https://vimeo.com/62344054
4  Note that this applies to full-time ministry and serving in church just as much as to a ‘secular’ career or hobbies! If you’re considering going into full-time Christian work, is that something you’ll enjoy? Is it something you show the signs of being good at? Are there opportunities open to you?