I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:
“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.
“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
One reader took exception to this quote. Here is his response:
“This quote from Kubler-Ross is truly misguided. I understand that we should live for a purpose, but there is no evidence, rather an abundance of evidence from the scriptures that doing what God put you here to do is not going to be something you love doing.
“From Moses crying out for God to kill him, rather than force him to continue leading the Israelites out of bondage, to Paul saying that the reason he preached the Gospel was not because it was something he wanted to do, but out of “necessity,” it was laid on him to fulfill this ministry, we find that the ministry is often the last thing that people want to do. Many start off thinking that this is what they want to do, but when they find out how difficult it is, they quit.”
Hmmm. What do you think? Is Kubler-Ross onto something, or is she – as the reader suggests – misguided?
Here’s my response:
Truth is often found in the juxtaposition of ideas that are contradictory. For centuries philosophers have talked about how the best thinking is often the “golden mean” between two extremes (Aristotle), or the “synthesis” between two opposing ideas (Hegel). My mentor Mark Laaser would often challenge people in his workshops about their “black and white thinking.” The truth is often found in between — in various shades of grey.
I have come to think that many challenges in our lives are the result of polarities — opposite extremes of ideas, goals, or values that we hold in tension and vacillate between. The tension is never really resolved, we go through our lives circling around it, sometimes taking a bigger arc on one side, sometimes the other.
For example, take the often-discussed issue of “balancing” work and home life. Our commitments and desires for our personal / family lives exist in ongoing tension with our commitments and desires to excel in our work / professional lives. Nobody finds a perfect “balance” between the two. Instead, the well-lived life will likely include some seasons where a person is more devoted to one, and other times, more devoted to the other. How about the tension between “living a life of contemplation” vs. activism? Life must include both of these dimensions, and we will often struggle to keep them in place.
This is precisely the problem I see with both the quote from Kubler-Ross and the critique from the reader of this newsletter. They both articulate one side of an issue that is very complex and fluid as our lives unfold.
Kubler-Ross articulates one extreme. I agree with the reader that if a person exclusively follows the dictum: “do only what you love to do,” this would be problematic. This mindset would lead to narcissism and selfishness. Not only that, it is often the case that doing something meaningful and important has times when it’s hard and challenging. So if we only “do what we love to do,” we will want to quit when things are no longer fun or rewarding. If we are following God’s plan, we won’t be “loving it” every minute. There will be struggle and suffering.
But is the other extreme an accurate description of how God wants us to live? Moses hating his life so much he wants God to kill him? Paul preaching the Gospel because he felt compelled to, even though he didn’t want to? The minister who really doesn’t want to be a minister, but keeps doing it because she feels like she has to? Do we really want that to be the model for how God works in our lives?
“If there’s something I you really don’t want to do … then that’s probably what God is going to call me to do.” No. That’s insulting to the character of God.
One of the fruits of the Spirit — results of the Holy Spirit in our lives — is joy. Jesus said that he came to give us “life to the full” (some translations say “abundant life”). If we’re on the right track, or lives should be characterized by a sense of fulfillment, a kind of satisfaction that we’re doing something we love, and feel good about.
Does this mean that doing what God wants us to do is not going to include struggle and suffering? That there won’t be times we are overwhelmed, and/or don’t like it? Of course not. That’s a dangerous extreme.
But at the same time, envisioning that God’s calling in our lives is such that “what God put you here to do is not going to be something you love doing” … well as a general principle I don’t agree with that at all. In fact, I would go further: if someone is a minister, and they really hate doing it … I would not want them to be my minister. They should do something else.
Just because someone feels like a martyr doesn’t mean God called them to be one
Maybe, just maybe, a person is called be a martyr. Maybe a person who really hates being a pastor will find that God really does want them to continue slogging it out, even though they don’t want to do it.
But I doubt it.
Those are RARE cases, and should not be our model for how God’s calling works. Most emotionally and spiritually healthy people will find that when they really hate what they’re doing … this is part of how God is leading them to do something else. To borrow Paul’s language: maybe it’s time for them to “preach the Gospel” in other ways.
I’m saying this after work with hundreds of ministers, both as a counselor in recovery groups, and as a leadership coach. I’ve seen too many pastors and missionaries who hate their lives, who are putting themselves, their families, and the people they’re ministering to through unnecessary suffering. Many spiritual leaders who struggle with addiction, or are in recovery and struggling with relapse, are in this category. They struggle to find lasting recovery because the ministry demands are onerous and out of control, and their “life has become unmanageable.”
Take a break! Do something else! Then, after you’ve found some peace and joy again, you might be able to discern whether the call is still there to serve God and others in that ministry role. Remember the passage in Isaiah 42:3, quoted about Jesus in Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory.” God is not a slave driver, pushing His children beyond their limits, only to chastise them and push them even harder when they struggle.
The final reminder
Once again, let me remind you of the main point: it’s NOT black and white. It’s not all one or the other. Some people do need to be challenged to suck it up, do the hard thing, and keep going. But that’s not the message for everybody — or even for most people. These days there are a lot of servants of God who need to be helped to the side of the road, and given the opportunity to take a break, or maybe look at running the race on a different path.