*** UPDATE: This post is now officially the most read single-day post of all time on my blog!!…which is not saying all that much. As requested by a few readers, I have changed the title of this post to avoid using vulgar language (although I do use the word once in the actual piece). ***
Ugh. My umpteenth phone interview with a church for an open pastoral position. I have been a part of so many of these not because so many churches want me, but because I have been rejected so many times. These rejections then force me to interview with yet another congregation, racking up my interview count. And I think at least one explanation for this is that I don’t answer questions in this context very well. I’m a bit too transparent.
This last time, one of the committee members asked me how I deal with conflict, to which I replied, “Well, I’d like to think that I’m getting better and better at dealing with conflict. But I’d be a liar if I said that I handle it well all the time. Actually, some of the worst moments of my ministry have come out of personal conflict.” Yes, Peter, very authentic, but next time you may want to phrase it differently, or at least re-order your response so you start with the bad news, and end with the good, something like: “I’m not perfect, but getting better”.
“…Thank you, Mr. Chin. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
But there is one question that flummoxes me more than any other, and that is when a search committee asks me what I’m passionate about, or what I feel called to, or have a heart for, or any appropriate Christian-ese variation on such a question. And I totally understand what they are asking when they pose such a query, and I know what response I should give, that I am passionate about this aspect of faith or the other, that I feel called to serve a particular community. It’s a standard question to ask any pastoral candidate.
My answer? ”…” Confounded silence.
The easy answer would be to say that I have a heart for two things: to help the church reclaim a biblical theology of suffering, and encourage us also to embrace our calling to racial reconciliation. That is what I have found myself doing for the last four years, and is probably the kind of answer that the search committee is looking for. But there’s a reason why I don’t simply blurt such an answer.
You see, I never really had a passion for those who are suffering, nor for multi-ethnic ministry. That’s not to say that I’m against either in any way, because they are incredibly important movements of faith. It’s just that I didn’t have any natural or personal inclination towards those ministries. I had no internships at inner city churches, never attended a multi-ethnic church conference, never scoured academic texts in search of the answer to the problem of pain. I always thought my passion and heart were in music and leading worship, more than anything else.
The reason I am engaged with these aspects of faith is not because I have always felt a gravitational pull to these ideas, but because this is what God has given me to do. I speak about suffering not because I consider myself an astute theologian – I actually believe the opposite. I talk about suffering because my family endured it, and continues to. It’s not a passion of mine in that sense. And when this position as interim pastor of Peace Fellowship came up, I was very reluctant to accept it because I never saw myself as “that” kind of pastor, and doubted that I had the skills and passion to do well in such a position. These callings that God has laid before me were altogether unexpected.
And so it wouldn’t be truthful for me to simply say, “I am passionate about racial reconciliation and comforting the suffering.” Instead, I think it is more appropriate to say that I have learned to be passionate about whatever God puts in front of me. Because where I find myself now is more the result of God’s plans and purposes, rather than my own.
I have been reflecting more on this, and have distilled a simple life principle out of all of this:
Screw your passions.
Actually, I don’t really mean that. I just said that because it seems obligatory for every Christian blogger out there to say something inflammatory and coarse in their posts, just to prove how very authentic they are. Not to mention to drive up traffic. I guess the real principle that I have learned is this:
Shelve your passions.
It is indeed true that God has made us wonderfully, and individually. We possess a unique personality, with skills and passions that are all our own. I would never say anything to the contrary. But there is a big difference between having personal skills and passions, and assuming that those skills and passions will necessarily dictate God’s will and direction for your life. Such an attitude is focused primarily on self-actualization, or doing what we want, rather than what God orders.
I think the reason that this attitude is so common among Christians is that our understanding of calling has been profoundly tainted by the world’s notion of professional vocation. We figure out what we are called to do as Believers in largely the same way in which any person determines what job they should have – by skillset and interest, paired with experience and training. And at the intersection of those forces, voila! You have your calling from God! And to take this one step further, we then imagine that our calling is a career ladder of sorts, that with every rung, we move closer to the goal: to do what we love, all day long. “I like this, so God must mean for me to do this all the time! I don’t like this, so God would never have me do that, ever!” And if these expectations go unrealized, we feel deep disappointment with ourselves, with our lives…with God.
Those unique ways in which God has made you may be used in your calling…but they may not. And we have no right to be disappointed when there are seasons of our life in which that is the case, because God never promised that we would be doing what we love all day, for the rest of our lives. It is terribly unbiblical for Christians to approach their life as if we are ambitious employees, and God is their good boss, and the boss is required to provide fulfilling and fun work for his employees in order to keep them engaged and happy. If you can name a passage that reinforces such an attitude, please let me know, because I don’t know of one. Rather, we are servants who have died to ourselves, and live in Christ and His passions and purposes, not our own. So what is most important is not that we are doing what we like to do, but that we are doing what God has called us to do…which we may or may not have had a “heart” for.
I know this is a hard pill to swallow because this mentality runs so contrary to what has been engrained in us by Western culture. So perhaps I should add this encouraging reminder: more often than not, what God calls us to do is better than what we had planned for ourselves. For instance, it’s true that I had little pre-existing passion for inner city and multi-ethnic ministry, and I never would have chosen this route for myself. And yet I find myself thriving in it, loving the challenge of serving here, my heart simultaneously broken and strengthened by the pain that fills these neighborhoods. I am not the greatest theologian, but surprisingly enough, am a strong counselor, and have a unique knack at encouraging those who find little comfort anywhere else. I never knew these things about myself, but apparently, God did. For me, my “passions” were nothing more than shackles that prevented me from entertaining the unique and strange ways in which God might use me. They were my best guess at my best life, but a guess that was the product of an admittedly limited and fallible imagination.
Look, I’m not saying that you should be completely ignorant of your strengths and weaknesses, and what you would might be good at. But the emphasis should be on “might”. Yes, know who you are, what makes you happy, but never use that knowledge to close the door on what God might be calling you to do. Don’t be passionate about your passions – be passionate about God and His purposes, His will! Look out for whatever He is doing, and join in. Pray, listen, submit, participate. And who knows, you may discover as I did that you are happier and better at being a servant, than you are at being your own master.