At the beginning of a new year, we often set goals, dream about what we want to be and have in life, and plan new year’s resolutions of habits we would like to establish.
Well, let’s say we obtain these goals – pass the course, get the job, the girl says yes, or the baby is born and healthy – the question we have to answer honestly, is whether we will have the character to carry the weight of the added responsibility? Or will we be like a sinkhole where the surface pressure becomes too heavy for the underground support?[i] Everything seems just fine above ground until one day it all collapses.
Gordon MacDonald wrote a book, and a convicting one at that, with the title Ordering your private world. The question he asks is, how ordered is your inner life? This is a helpful question because it is one of quality, not quantity. Apposed to that, if asked what our devotional time looks like, we might find it easier to answer because we can qualify it in terms of devotional time spent during the day or week, chapters of the Bible or a devotional book read, or the number of things or people prayed for.[ii]
A big part of an ordered inner life, is identifying that by which we are moved. MacDonald asks the piercing question of where our motivation comes from. He talks about the difference between a driven person and a called person[iii], or think of the master or owner of a fortune and the steward appointed to manage the fortune.
He lists the following characteristics of a driven person:[iv]
- The only way a driven person can feel good about himself and his world is by accumulating accomplishments.
- He is preoccupied with the symbols of accomplishment – titles, office size or location, positions on organisational charts and special privileges.
- He always wants to be part of something that is getting bigger and more successful. He is on the move, seeking the biggest and best opportunities.
- He tends to have a limited regard for integrity – he has little time ask whether the inner person is keeping up with the outer process.
- The driven person often possesses limited or underdeveloped people skills – he cares very little about the health and growth of those around him.
- He tends to be highly competitive.
- He often possesses a volcanic force of anger, which is triggered when people disagree, offer an alternative solution to a problem, or hint at just a bit of criticism.
- He is usually abnormally busy. The reputation of busyness is a sign of success and personal importance. Busyness becomes a habit, a way of life and thought.
In the Bible we find an example of a driven man in the person of Saul, Israel’s first king.[v] In 1 Samuel 9:1-2 Saul is described as the son of a wealthy man, a handsome man – in fact the most handsome young man in all Israel, a head taller than anyone else.
Saul was born with certain characteristics enabling him to achieve success early in life without ever having to develop a heart of wisdom or grow in spiritual stature. We read about his life and works and see what a talented general he was. But every now and again his deep drive to be more, get more and do more shines through.
We see it in 1 Samuel 13:9 where he was supposed to wait for Samuel, the priest, to bring the offering to the Lord before the battle, but he grew impatient and his soldiers were scattering from him, so he violated the law and made the offer himself – a noble task, but one that was not the king’s to perform.
In 1 Samuel 15 Saul leads the Israelites against the Amalekites in battle and is ordered by the Lord to devote everything to destruction. Saul, instead, keeps the best oxen and sheep to sacrifice to the Lord and spares the king of the Amalekites – once again a noble deed, but not what the Lord ordered. He also erects a monument in his own honour when it was really the Lord who’s given him the victory. We read in further chapters how he had a persecution complex, constantly fearing that David would take his life and throne. He found power more important than the integrity of a friendship with David and a proper handover to Israel’s next king. All through his life he took things into his own hands instead of obeying the Lord, he went on an expansion frenzy, and he saw enemies behind every bush.
Saul became too important and too successful too soon and didn’t have the underlying support to carry the weight of his position and power. In 1 Samuel 15:17, Samuel says to him: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel.” Saul was given the highest position possible, and yet he was little in his own eyes. In his private world he didn’t feel worthy of his position. He was motivated by a drive to be more and do more instead of by a calling to enjoy, manage and multiply the gifts he has received. He was a driven person who didn’t have the character to handle the good things nor the challenges in his life.
Apposed to the driven person, or the owner who has to accumulate, there is the called person or the steward. He knows that he isn’t master of his time, accomplishments or identity, but that he has been called to manage these and to make the most of it.[vi]
We’ve looked at the characteristics of a driven person, now let’s look at a called person, or a steward:
- He sees time as a gift from God and worthy of careful investment.[vii] He knows that time has to be budgeted.[viii] When we do our financial budgets, we do it according to priority – a large chunk of our money goes to food and lodging. Thereafter we might prioritise studies, or holiday, or church. The same principle goes for our time. If we know what our mission and purpose is (our priorities), we can budget our time accordingly.
Here’s what happens when we don’t budget our time: it flows towards emergencies, to the dominant people in our lives, to our weaknesses, or to things that gain public acclamation.[ix]
The good news is that we can recapture this unbudgeted time. We can do this by knowing when and where we are most effective and use those timeslots wisely, by having good criteria for how we want to use our time, and by budgeting far in advance – especially for the non-urgent but important things that we want to do.[x]
- A good steward wants to know how the things that he has to manage work, he wants to grow in knowledge and wisdom and sees every day as an opportunity to do so. He doesn’t look at his day and ask “What have I accomplished?” but rather asks “What have I learnt?” at the end of each day.[xi]
- The good steward knows that he has to discipline his mind – he has to train his mind to think in a Christian way, to use ideas and information he gathers in service of others and to see God in creation around him.[xii]
- A good steward wants to have the best for those around him. He practices to see others through heaven’s eyes. He doesn’t want to use people, but rather wants to get in line with God’s purpose for them.[xiii]
- A good steward knows when and how to rest in order to be restored. He knows that he will make a mess of his task if he doesn’t rest properly. This is a rest that goes beyond leisure. Like God at the end of each day of creation, he looks back at what he’s done and evaluate whether it was done well. Then he looks forward to realign himself with his mission. From a static position he can get perspective to stay on track with his purpose once he starts moving again.[xiv]
- A really good steward also wants to get to know the master, the owner of the things he is managing – especially if that owner is also the creative brain and the manufacturer of those things.
The steward is unafraid to be alone and silent before God – as Mother Teresa said: “God is the friend of silence.” We are so accustomed to noise that we grow restless without it. We sometimes even equate silence and solitude with laziness, inaction and unproductivity.[xv] We just have to look at the Quakers to know that this doesn’t have to be true. It was their practice to sit in silence with the circle of friends – a practice that might feel like the most unproductive use of time. Yet they were one of the most active Christian movements of all ages, moved to action by the right motivation.
We were once swimming in the sea at sunset and a school of dolphins entered the bay. The surfers were slowly paddling towards the dolphins on their surfboards and the rest of us were also trying to get as close as possible. The dolphins swam in circles around us and between us, it was absolute bliss.
So often we frantically want to chase the dolphins, catch them and put them in a cage, take them to a laboratory, inspect and dissect them, instead of simply entering the water and swimming with the dolphins, enjoying their presence.
We do the same with God.
So, we’re at the start of a new year. We have dreams and goals and resolutions. And this is a good thing. But let’s just take one step back. Ask yourself whether your goals and resolutions are a way of hiding behind a deep unorderliness in your private world, or a feeling of incompetence or unworthiness. Are you trying to compensate on the outside for something that’s lacking on the inside? If not, that’s great and you can admit it. But be honest with yourself.
This year we’re not going to dance around our inner lives. It’s easy to hide behind distractions and it’s even easier to hide behind good things, noble things. But before we know it, our private worlds might implode like a sinkhole. So, come with us on the journey this year – the journey to order the inner world.
[i] MacDonald calls this the sinkhole syndrome, p. 13-18. MacDonald, G. (1984) Ordering your private world. Tennessee: Moody Press.
[ii] Ibid., 17.
[iii] Ibid., 30.
[iv] Ibid., 33-38.
[v] Ibid., 40.
[vi] Ibid., 54, 58.
[vii] Ibid., 68.
[viii] Ibid., 73.
[ix] Ibid., 81-86.
[x] Ibid., 87-92.
[xi] Ibid., 96.
[xii] Ibid., 101, 110-112.
[xiii] Ibid., 166-170.
[xiv] Ibid., 173-188.
[xv] Ibid., 135-138