June 4, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Have you ever had anyone tell you that they needed to “find their voice?” If so, the person was probably not referring to a case of laryngitis but rather to a kind of inner exploration. This phrase, “finding your voice,” has been adopted in the self-help literature to define the process of exploring one’s desires, talents, and passions in order to create a life that is fulfilling and singular, unique to you. Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People says for example, “Voice is the overlapping of the four parts of our nature: our body, our mind, our heart, and our spirit…. The power to discover your voice lies in the potential that was bequeathed you at birth… You were given magnificent “birth-gifts”- talents, capacities, privileges, intelligences, opportunities – that would remain largely unopened except through your own decision and effort.” 1
In other words, though as a human being, you share similar biology and potential to the other people sitting in these pews, you also have unique strengths and unique experiences, different from those sitting next to you. To ‘find your voice’ is to deliberately pursue those singular gifts in an attempt to make your life into something that best matches and even exploits those strengths and thus leads you to a sense of self-fulfillment. While the jargon may be modern, the pursuit of self-development is as old as the hills. The Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca who was a contemporary of the apostle Paul said, “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” In other words, while Paul was preaching in Galatia, intellectuals in Rome were listening to Seneca who advised them to figure out what they were good at, what unique passions they brought to the world, and how they could align their life choices with those elements. If a young man, for example, loved the comaraderie and physical challenge of the military, he shouldn’t sit at a desk and tally figures all day, even if it was the family business. The Roman legion would be more in accordance with his nature. Seneca said that following a path that was not one’s own would end up in misery and only by living in accordance with one’s own nature can you find happiness, or in the jargon of today’s life coaches, you find happiness when you find your voice. However it is expressed, for centuries — for millennia even — human beings have been searching for the way to be most fully ourselves.
In his letter to the Galatians, however, Paul seems to reject that quest, even implying that to follow our passions might lead us not to happiness but to ruin. In Galatians 5, he says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Now, when Paul used the word “passion” he was probably not talking about a passion for mathematics but passions of a more carnal sort, but even so, one still gets the feeling that Paul would have been quite uninterested in discussions of personal fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness. After all, this was a man who spent hours trudging down hot barren roads, enduring beatings and imprisonment, and who finally gave his very life for his faith. The only voice that he cared about, he said; the only voice he was interested in following was the voice of the Spirit.
Now, before we talk about the “voice of the Spirit,” lets back up a little and talk about what Paul even means by “the Spirit.” On Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the advent of the Holy Spirit because, according to the Bible, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, God sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles so that they would know that God would continue to be present with them in a real and living way. Just as Christ embodied God for them during his ministry, the Holy Spirit would continue to move among them expressing to them God’s active comfort, strength, and guidance. To put things very simply, “God” is the word we use to express the eternal mysterious divine, “Jesus” is God expressed in concrete human history, and the “Holy Spirit” is God on the move in our lives in the present moment. “I’m feeling the Spirit = I’m feeling God right here and right now.” When Paul says that he was guided by the Spirit, he means that he felt God’s presence in a very personal way moving his heart and his mind and directing him to a particular course of action. So while Seneca was instructing his audience to live in accordance with their own nature, Paul was instructing the Galatians to live in accordance with the Spirit, in accordance to the desires of God for their lives. Paul wasn’t interested in self-fulfillment but only in Spirit fulfillment.
When I was a teenager, my father came home from church one day and wrote a long letter to our minister to argue a point that our minister had made in his sermon. My Dad’s letter was not accusatory but rather an invitation to a theological discussion, and so our minister wrote him back, supporting his own view, and over the years of Reverend Miller’s tenure at the church, the two of them continued to wrangle over the question my Dad had raised. It was this: Reverend Miller had said that each of us is a unique person, created by God with unique gifts and talents, and so our goal as Christians should be to develop our individuality so that God can use us in ways that will be particular to who we are. My father took the opposite tack saying that as Christians, we are supposed to be vehicles for the Holy Spirit and the best way to do that is to empty ourselves completely and become a hollow tube through which God can flow through us to the world. Reverend Miller seemed to be echoing Seneca while my Dad would have argued that he, my father, was echoing Paul.
I have thought about this debate many times over the course of my ministry because what might seem on the surface to be simply a theologically abstract argument actually raises the important question of what it means to be a Christian. Does being a Christian mean, as Reverend Miller suggested, being basically who you would be if you weren’t a Christian except a nicer version of that, or does it mean, as my father argued, not thinking about yourself at all but making all of your decisions, all of your choices based solely on God’s desires?
In other words, how does your faith relate to your interests, your passions, your skills, and your self-development? Do the things that make you uniquely you — your personality, your talents — have any bearing on your faith at all, or to turn it around, does your faith have any bearing on what passions you have chosen to pursue in your life? If you weren’t a Christian, how would your life, and the life choices you’ve made look different from the way they look now, or would they? I assume that if you weren’t a Christian, you would be at home right now watching “Meet the Press,” but other than the hour you spend in church on Sundays, how has your faith affected the actual structure of your life, the paths you have chosen to pursue, the way you spend your Monday through Saturday? Did faith enter into your decision about a career? Did your faith inform your choice of life partners, family, or friends? Does your faith affect the way you spend your money, the way you spend your time? As you have gotten older, has your faith had an impact on your understanding of what’s valuable about your life and where you need to concentrate your energy in your senior years?
Or would you be the same person today that you would have been without faith, only a nicer better version of that person?
The danger of Reverend Miller’s argument, my father felt, was that it leaves the “self” at the center of your choices instead of putting the Spirit squarely in the center. And yet, at the same time, I have come to see that the danger in my father’s argument is that it is simply impossible to accomplish. Who among us can truly empty ourselves of ourselves? Look at Paul: in his letter to the Galatians he says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience… self-control. Love? Self-control? Just ten verses before this, Paul exploded in anger at his opponents saying, “I wish they would castrate themselves!” Paul acknowledges his own struggle to empty himself in order to allow the Spirit to function in his life. He says dejectedly “I can will it, but I can’t do it.” 2
So what is the relationship between who you are as a unique individual and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your life? How much of yourself does the Spirit want you to bring to the choices you make and the way you structure your life, and how much should be all God?
[At this point in preaching, I stopped and said the following, more or less:]
One other thing I remember about Reverend Miller besides the theological debate he had with my father was that inevitably when preaching, after about 20 minutes, he would stop, shuffle his manuscript, and say, “I had a lot more I wanted to say about this but I’m running out of time so I’m going to skip to the end.” Well, today, I am going to channel Reverend Miller: I have another page and a half of eloquent preaching providing amazing insight written with excellent rhetorical skill in which I talk about my answer to the debate between my father and our minister, but on the way to church this morning, I decided that I don’t want to tell you my answer. [I then crumpled up the last two pages of my sermon.] I realized that the question itself is an important one for all of us and that we can learn more in our own search for the answer than we can in hearing one person’s answer. I leave you then simply with the question: what is the relationship between the Spirit’s influence on our lives and our own passions, personalities, and choices? What should be the relationship?
When you chose a career, do you ask God what career path to pursue? If you didn’t, should you have asked God, or do you think that a person should choose a career based on their interests and then God will work with that person within that career?
Will God ever ask you to do things that you feel unequipped to do or does God match the tasks God needs done with the skills that each of us brings to the table?
Do you think God might you to do something that you find mind-numbing or soul withering because God needs that task done regardless of your personal investment in that need, or does God only ask things of us that will grow our own souls as well as meet the needs of the world?
What is the balance between our individuality and the movement of the Spirit in our lives? The question is an important one for our faith, and I have come to believe that wrestling with that question may actually be more important than any answer we settle upon, especially since, for me at least, my answer keeps changing. I invite you then, to engage that question this week, and in the weeks beyond, and I invite you to begin the search at the Lord’s Table. 3
2. Romans 7:19
3. I did actually have another page and a half written but I have excised it from this manuscript. Not only do I really believe that the question is as important if not more important than any answer, but I also deleted it also because I’m not fully committed to the answer I described in the original manuscript. I find that my thoughts on this question have shifted many times over the course of my life and will probably change again. I would rather leave my answer unrecorded than have anyone think that by the act of writing it down, I have come to a final conclusion!