About two years ago, my goal in life was to become a world-famous wildlife biologist, like Sir David Attenborough (I appreciate you may not be familiar with him if you don’t live in the UK!). Having been through some pretty horrible experiences in my life, I had decided that now was my time, and I was incredibly focused and determined to make it happen. I had everything planned out: I would study a Natural Sciences degree part time while I kept my job, then go on to do a PhD. In the meantime I was slowly building a portfolio of volunteer work, gathering data for marine scientists and giving educational talks about conservation to school children. I was motivated and sure I would succeed.
Then I met Jesus.
At first, I was naïve. I was convinced I could explore my new-found faith while still pursuing my own agenda. And the Lord tolerated that, for a season, as he often does when we’re young in our walk with him. Gradually, though, I began to feel uncomfortable, which I’ve since learned is the Holy Spirit’s way of telling me that all isn’t well in my life. As it turns out, God isn’t happy being a part-time lover. Though I tried my best to ignore him, he persisted. It wasn’t so much “leave your nets and follow me” as “leave your textbooks and follow me”.
I’d been a Christian about three months when I took a trip to Paris with a friend. We climbed the steps, breathless, to the Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre. It was there, between the crowds and nuns who moved in the glow of votive candles while the priest read out prayers in French, that I knew I was being called to ‘something else’.
God, in the loveliest way, was asking me to give up my dreams.
Follow your dreams…or carry the cross?
Christians shouldn’t be surprised when this happens, of course. I’m aware that some pastors are quite comfortable with telling people to seek worldly success and prosperity, but the Gospel makes it quite clear what Jesus expects of us:
‘Then to all he said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, that man will save it. What gain, then, is it for a man to have won the whole world and to have lost or ruined his very self?”’ (Luke 9: 23-25, CTS)
It also tells us that it’s impossible to be Jesus’ disciple with a divided heart:
‘“No one can be the slave of two masters; he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be the slave of both God and of money.”’ (Matthew 6: 24)
Finally, the Gospel urges us to fully count out the cost of following the Lord before making a commitment to him:
‘…“And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, the onlookers would all start making fun of him and saying, ‘Here is a man who started the build and was unable to finish’”.’ (Luke 14: 28-30)
The history of the Church is filled with stories of people who’ve willingly given up family, possessions, even their own lives, out of love for Jesus. However, such sacrifices aren’t always easy to make.
Lord – you can’t be serious!
I suspect the reason so many of us struggle in this area is because it’s counter-intuitive to what the world teaches. Only a very brief scroll through most social media sites will reveal hundreds of motivational and inspirational quotes, all telling us to follow our dreams and seek success at any cost. It’s an inevitable consequence of a culture in which the self is deified. As we saw above, Jesus calls us to live differently.
One thing we need to keep in mind about Jesus, though, is how fully he understands our struggles. St. Paul reminds us of our Lord’s humanity: ‘For it is not as if we had a high priest who was incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us; but we have one who has been tempted in every way that we are, though he is without sin.’ (Hebrews 4: 15)
Jesus is God. But he is also human. That means he more than likely had desires and dreams of his own during his earthly life. Perhaps he dreamed of leaving Nazareth and exploring the world. Maybe there was a nice Jewish girl he had thoughts about marrying. We can only speculate, of course, but it’s certainly possible.
Yet Jesus knew what was truly important. When his disciples told him off for not eating, he reminded them that his ‘food’ was to do the will of his Father (John 4: 34). On the eve of his arrest, in spite of being terrified and not wanting to die, he showed a perfect submission to his Father’s will which we are all called to emulate: ‘“Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine.”’ (Luke 22: 42)
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…
The other reason we might not want to relinquish our plans and goals is because we think that God’s dream for our lives is somehow inferior to our own. And when the rewards aren’t immediately apparent or we haven’t fully put off our old selves, it can certainly seem that way. What we need to remember is that our Heavenly Father knows us – so much better than we could ever know ourselves – and he, better than anyone, knows what’s good for us. He knows that, no matter what we achieve in this life, we won’t be truly happy until we can echo the words of King David and say, with confidence: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I lack nothing.” (Psalm 23)
He’s also all-knowing, with an eternal perspective. He can see how our lives will fit into his ultimate purpose, something which we can’t hope to understand on this side of Heaven.
The thing to remember is that God never asks us to give up our dreams without offering something better in return, even if that something doesn’t become apparent right away. He passionately desires to bless us and fill us with a joy the world can’t provide, but he can only do this if we’re willing to follow him with both feet in. That’s not to say that his dream for our lives won’t involve trials and suffering – the path to Heaven is, after all, narrow and difficult – but it will always be worth it in the end.
Not long after Paris, I dropped out of university. It was only then that I felt the peace of Christ come over me, and I knew I’d made the right decision, even though I had no idea where that decision would lead.
It’s been almost a year now since I gave my dreams back to God and began the process of dying to myself and accepting his will for my life. He has responded in turn by deepening my faith and revealing the next step he wants me to take. So far, I haven’t been disappointed. It turned out that, rather than seeing me spend four years glued to my textbooks, God wanted me to build on the education I already had. In less than a month’s time, I’ll be traveling to Barcelona to train as an English language teacher. He also inspired me and gave me the courage to start this blog.
As for what will happen next I honestly have no idea. I’ve learned now that I’m not the one making the plans in this relationship. And that’s okay.
What did you have to give up to follow Jesus? Please share your stories in the comments!