In the summer of 1994, I had a most unusual job. I served as an assistant at a funeral home in northeast Tennessee.
My responsibilities were straightforward. I was required to keep the viewing areas clean and to pick up any trash that happened to blow onto the parking lot. When there was a visitation underway, I was required to stand by the door to welcome our guests and then to see to any needs that might arise during their visit with us. Following a funeral, I had to move the flowers from the funeral home over to the cemetery, while the procession slowly made its way from one place to the other.
More than anything else, I was there to take care of whatever needs might arise in the office of the funeral home director. Running errands was a major part of my responsibility there. Robert was the funeral home director. We were both in our twenties, and he was five years younger than me.
One Saturday, after there had been funeral, after funeral, after funeral, Robert asked if I’d come back in later that evening to help him prepare a body for the next day. I had never done anything like that before. That was not something on my bucket list. I was not looking forward to it. But my family needed the money, and I agreed.
When I showed up after dinner, I was pleased to discover that Robert had already embalmed the body and placed it within its casket. He had already done everything that needed to be done except for touching up the hair and makeup, and he was in the process of doing that when I arrived. Really, he wanted me to be there that evening just so that I could keep him company, so that we could chat to pass the time. Then, when it was over with, we would wheel the casket upstairs. So I sat, and we chatted.
We talked about first one thing then another. Finally, he got around to asking the question that I believe had been troubling him since he first hired me. He had never found the right time to ask it, but here it was. So he asked, “Why did you want to be a preacher? Is that what your family does? Is your daddy a preacher?”
I could tell that he was really befuddled by the idea that a twentysomething year old man would want to go into preaching as a profession. Looking back on it, it’s really a strange question considering the source. Here was a man who made his living by working on the dead, and he thought that wanting to be a preacher was odd!
I told him, “No, my daddy was a pipe fitter and welder. There were no preachers in my family as far as I knew. The reason I preach is because I believe it’s what God wants me to do.”
He thought about that for a minute. Then quietly, almost wistfully, he said, “You know, I never really thought about what God might want me to do. Daddy started this funeral home. Momma took it over after daddy died. My older sister ran it until I could graduate from high school and go to mortician school. Always figured I’d end up here someday, but I never asked God.”
It was an awkward conversation, both of us sensed it. Robert quickly changed the subject, and we did not return to that particular topic. Looking back, I wish we had. I wish he had asked me, “How do you know? How do you know God wants you to be a preacher? How does anyone know what God has put them on this earth to do?”
I hope you’ve asked that question. I hope that you’ve entertained it seriously. I hope that you are doing what my friends in the African-American church say, and that is “walking in your calling.” But you may not be. You may have never given it much thought. If that’s the case, I hope that will change this morning. But maybe you have. Maybe you’ve given it a great deal of thought, but you’re confused. You’re not sure how to get dialed into God’s plan for your life.
There is no one passage of Scripture that answers that question. If there was, I would not be sitting here on this stool; I’d be standing there in that pulpit with a Bible open in front of me, and I’d gladly be looking at that passage with you. But there is no one passage that clearly, concisely, perfectly, personally answers that question for you. Nevertheless, there are verses scattered throughout the scriptures that speak to this issue. I want to share some of those with you this morning.
I also want to share with you from my own experience. I’ve been a follower of our Lord Jesus for over forty-one years. I answered the call to preach just a little over forty years ago, so I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for a while. I’d like to share with you a little of what I’ve learned. I’d also like to pass along to you what I’ve heard from other people—good people, wise people.
As I do all of this, I want to shape it in a way that I hope you’ll be able to remember long after this service has ended. In fact, I hope you’ll be able to remember it without the use of PowerPoint and without you even bothering to take a single note today. To help you remember, I brought this bar of Dial soap. I want to share with you how I believe you can get dialed into God’s plan for your life.
Only the first thing that I am about to tell you must be the first thing. Everything else that I’ll tell you can be put in any order you wish. But I’ll put it in a particular order just so that we can keep our acronym of “dial” going. In order to get dialed into God’s plan for your life, the very first thing you must do is …
D – You Must Do What You Already Know God Wants You to Do
That only makes sense, doesn’t it? Your school teacher is not going to give you extra-credit work to do until first you’ve completed your in-class assignment. Your boss isn’t going to approve overtime for you until you’ve worked your regular shift. Why should we think that God would show us the more obscure and more personalized aspects of his plan for our lives if we’re not already doing what he has clearly commanded? It just wouldn’t make sense.
So, what is abundantly clear? What do we already know that God wants us to do?
In the Old Testament Law alone, there are 613 different commandments—365 prohibitions (“Thou shalt not …”); 248 exhortations (“Thou shalt …”); 613 windows into God’s will for our life. But to be fair, those 613 commandments are wrapped up in the history of the Jewish nation. They are contextually sensitive, and it takes some real thinking and some real digging to ascertain what each of those prohibitions and exhortations has to do with life in the twenty-first century.
To help us out, God has simplified it for us. He has taken those 613 commandments and reduced them into two tables of 10 Commandments. In Exodus 20, you can read the 10 Commandments. Most of us are familiar with those 10 Commandments, but some of us have a better memory than others. To help us out yet again, God has reduced those 10 Commandments down to only three.
Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?” (That’s our question! What does God want from me? What does God want from any of us?) Micah answers: “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Do justly. Do right. No matter where you are, no matter when it is, do right! So often, our problem in life isn’t that we don’t know the right thing to do; we just can’t find the willpower to do it. Do justly!
Love mercy. It’s one thing to show mercy. In fact, it’s relatively easy to show mercy. Like my son some years ago, you could be driving down the road and see a turtle out in the middle of traffic and, like he did, pull over to the curb, walk out into traffic, pick up the turtle, and set it over in the grass so that it can go safely on its way. That’s mercy. You could pull up to a four-way intersection and see a man standing there on the corner, holding a sign that says: “Homeless. Need food. Please help. God bless.” And you can give him part of your lunch.
It’s easy to show mercy. But to love mercy, to develop a merciful mindset, to consistently look at people around you not as tools and fools, not through eyes of judgment and scorn, but with compassion and mercy, that’s hard. It’s difficult to love mercy. In fact, the only way I know that you can consistently do justly and love mercy is if you’re keeping that third commandment: walking humbly with your God.
To walk humbly with God means you have submitted yourself to his authority. Or, to put it in New Testament terms, you have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That’s what it means to be saved. To ask God to save you is not only to ask God to forgive you for all the naughty things you’ve done. That’s not it at all! Salvation comes by recognizing that I’ve been serving the wrong king. I live in the wrong kingdom. In the words of The Pilgrim’s Progress, I live in the City of Destruction. The only way I’m not going to be destroyed is to leave this city and to head toward that land that is ruled by the one true King—the Celestial City. To walk humbly with God is to live each day under the authority of God himself, to walk in company with our Creator.
What does God want from you? Part of it is really basic. You must do what you already know God wants you to do. Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Not easy, but clear.
I – Identify Your God-Given SHAPE
When I use the term “SHAPE,” I’m using it how Rick Warren does. Many of you are familiar with Warren because of his two best-selling books The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church. Warren pastors a megachurch in California. When he addresses this subject of how to identify God’s purpose for your life, he uses the word “SHAPE” like I’m using the word “dial.” He uses it as an acronym, to help people remember how to determine their God-given shape.
The S stands for spiritual gifts. If you are a follower of the Lord Jesus, you have one or more spiritual gifts. How do you know what your gift is? Well, start by reading the scriptures—Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Peter 4. In those three passages, you will find at least nineteen different gifts of the Spirit. There could be more, but there are at least those nineteen.
The H stands for heart. What has God placed on your heart? What gets your blood pumping? Paul writes in Philippians 2 that “… it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” When you are humbly walking with God, God is at work in you to transform your will, to bring your will into alignment with his own. The psalmist puts it like this: “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (37:4). I don’t believe he means that God will give us whatever we want. I believe he means that God will give us our wants. He’ll shape our will. He’ll change the rhythm of our heartbeat to match his own.
The A stands for abilities. We are born with talents. Over time, we’ve developed skills. How might God intend to use those?
The P stands for personality. All our personalities are different, and God doesn’t use us despite our personalities. He uses us like he does, in part, because of our personalities. He shapes the personality to fit us for our appointed tasks. Abraham was adventurous. He had to be to leave Ur of the Chaldees, his homeland, and his family to go to a land he’d never before seen. David was daring. He had to be to take down Goliath and face down Saul. Peter was impetuous. He had to be to step out of a boat onto a stormy sea and later to stand in front of a riotous crowd and preach Christ whom they had crucified only forty days earlier. Our personality is not a blight. It’s a blessing. God wants to use us with our personality.
The E stands for experience. You’ve probably seen one of those Farmers Insurance commercials on TV that says, “We know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Well, we’ve been around for more than a minute, we’ve seen a thing or two, so we know a thing or two. And God uses those experiences to shape us for the work he’s calling us to do.
I work with a lady whose first marriage ended badly. Her husband was abusive, and they divorced. Years later, she remarried. Her husband now is a wonderful man who treats her well. This lady now helps to run a charitable organization that ministers to abused women. God redeemed that experience of her past and uses it to his glory.
When I was a little boy, I didn’t go to the movies very often. But it seemed like every time I went to the movies, especially as a small boy, my classmate Danny was there. I went through school with Danny, all the way from elementary school through high school. I liked Danny. He was a good guy. He was at the movies every Saturday. I remember that he’d seen the movies so often that by the time I showed up on Saturday, he’d already seen the picture two or three times during the week. He was wanting to talk while I’m watching the movie. He’s telling me what’s going to happen, but I don’t want to know that. I want to watch the movie. It was a little aggravating at times.
I saw Danny at our ten-year high school reunion, and I asked him where he called home. He said he lived in Birmingham. I asked him, “What are doing there?” He said, “I work in a home for boys without fathers.” I learned later that Danny’s mom and dad were divorced. His mom worked the second shift on Saturdays, so she dropped him off at the movies while she went to work. Danny knew what it was like to grow up without a father, and God used that experience in his life to direct him into what he wanted him to do later.
How do you get dialed into God’s plan for your life? You do what you already know God wants you to do; you identify your God-given shape; and …
A – Ask God to Show You, then Look for His Answer
“Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3). God said, “Call. I’ll answer, and I’ll show you things you don’t know.”
Sometimes, God shows us the answer in a flash, all at once. I’ve known people like that. From nearly the start of their Christian experience, they’ve known what God wants them to do. For them, it was sort of like looking at one of those old-fashioned foldout maps where you can see from where you are to where you want to go all at once, and you can see almost every major road in between. God does that for some people, though that’s generally not how he has worked in my life.
The way God tends to show me his plan is one step at a time, like using a GPS. “Turn left now.” “In a quarter mile, turn right.” A friend and I were once talking about the schools I’d attended and the places that I’ve worked. Rather sarcastically, he looked at me and said, “You really know how to pick ‘em.” After it was over with, my wife didn’t like what she had heard and said to me, “You know, I don’t think that was right at all. Because, truth be told, we really haven’t picked any of the places we’ve gone. We’ve just followed God one step at a time.” I think that’s true.
Ask, and God will show you. He may show you in a flash; he may show you one step at a time. He may show you even while you’re asking. I’ve had this happen to me often. In fact, I think this is the way God usually guides me. I have a decision to make, so I turn to him in prayer. I say, “Lord, here’s what I have to decide. Here are my options.” I then lay them out, not because God doesn’t know. I need to think them through. Sometimes I tell him, “I need perspective. I need you to show me now. Here’s option number one. It will involve this, and it could lead to that. Here’s option two. It will involve this and could lead to this other outcome. Here’s option three …” In this way I go through the options with God. Quite often, even as I’m praying, I sense direction as to which one of those options I should pursue. There’s no voice, no flash of lightning. There’s a sense that this is the way to go; now, go.
Ask, and God will answer.
L – Listen
Listen to godly counsel. The wise man says in Proverbs, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 15:22). Not just your friends. Not just your echo chamber—people who think like you and talk like you—so that when you ask them a question, they’re going to tell you what you would naturally think on your own. You don’t want an echo chamber. You want “many advisers.”
Abraham Lincoln was once asked why he surrounded himself with the advisers that he did. There were people in his inner circle who did not like him, who did not approve of his policies. They were completely opposed to him in so many ways, which is why this person asked, “Why do you have those people advising you?” Lincoln answered, “I need them. I need their voices.” Sometimes you need to hear from people who don’t see eye-to-eye with you, people who will come at things from a completely different direction.
Listen to counselors, a multitude of counselors, and need I say that they should be godly counselors? Israel split into two kingdoms because Rehoboam listened to the wrong kind of counsel. He listened to his friends, and they pointed him in the wrong direction. Listen to godly counsel.
Listen to your gut. Not your flesh, but your gut—your conscience. The Bible doesn’t say a lot about the conscience. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul speaks of some “who have seared their conscience as with a hot iron.” What he means is they had desensitized themselves. They could no longer hear that voice from within because they had turned a deaf ear to it for so long. Our conscience is not an infallible guide, but it is another gift from God. We should listen to that still, small voice from within. We should listen to our conscience more often than many of us do.
Speaking of a still, small voice, listen for the still, small voice of God. Elijah had faced down the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel and later felt overwhelmed. He fled into the wilderness and was fed up. He said, “God, they’re not listening. They’ve killed every prophet you’ve sent their way. I’m the only one left standing. They’re never going to straighten up. Just go ahead and take me too.” God fed him. God put him down for a nap. Then, God got him up and marched him forty days deeper into the wilderness. He put him up on a mountain, in the cleft of a rock, and a fire passed by. But God wasn’t in the fire. A wind ripped at the mountain. But God wasn’t in the wind. Awesome things were happening, but God wasn’t in any of those big things. Then, out of nowhere, Elijah heard a still, small voice. It told him where to go. It told him what to do. And it came out of the blue.
I’ve had that happen too. I’ve prayed about something, waited for an answer, but the answer didn’t come. So, I continued to trust God, leave the matter at his feet, and go on about my business. Then, while I was off doing something else, out of the blue the answer came to me. It was simple, clear, and elegant in its own way that I wondered, Why didn’t I think of that before? Well, the reason is because I wasn’t thinking of it then. It’s because, I believe, that God was speaking in that moment in a still, small voice.
How do you get dialed into God’s plan for your life? You D – do what you already know God wants you to do. You I – identify your God-given shape. You A – ask God to show you, then look for His answer. And you L – listen.
That conversation with Robert took place in 1994, just before I moved to the Mid-South. Eleven years later on a Saturday afternoon, I was talking to my mom over the phone. She mentioned Robert. Eleven years had passed since I had seen Robert. He’d gotten married and had at least one child. He was a successful businessman. The funeral home was doing great. It had three locations in our tiny, little town. On the outside looking in, everything appeared great for Robert. But behind the closed doors of his home, his marriage was falling apart. He and his wife separated.
When I had known Robert, I was struck by how much coffee he drank and how many cigarettes he smoked per day. It seemed like caffeine and nicotine were all that was holding his life together. But in 2005, the caffeine and nicotine were no longer enough. On that Saturday afternoon, my mom told me, “They found Robert this week. He took his own life.” He was thirty-five years old.
As soon as she told me, my mind drifted back to eleven years earlier. I could hear Robert say again, “I never really asked God what he might want me to do with my life.” To this day, I cannot help but wonder how differently his life might have turned out if only he had asked God.
Gregory Hollifield is the Associate Dean at Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies at Union University and Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.