For the past six months, while undergoing treatment for cancer, I was working on a reduced schedule. The medical treatments, while somewhat debilitating, left me still enough health and energy to carry on the administrative duties in my present ministry, but they didn’t allow me any extra energy to teach classes or to offer any lectures, workshops, or retreats at outside venues, something I normally do. I joked with my family and friends that I was “under house arrest”; but I was so grateful for the energy that I still had, that being unable to teach and give lectures was not deemed a sacrifice. I was focused on staying healthy, and the health that I was given was appreciated as a great grace.
A month ago, the medical treatments ended and, soon after, most of my normal energies returned and I resumed a normal schedule that included again teaching inside a classroom. Having been on the sidelines for a half year left me a little nervous as I entered the classroom for my first three-hour session. My nervousness passed quickly as the class robustly engaged the topic and, after the three hours, I walked out of the class feeling a wonderful energy that I hadn’t felt for six months. Teaching (which I consider both my profession and my vocation) lifted both my heart and my body in a way that it hadn’t been lifted in months. It was the missing tonic.
At first, I felt some anxiety and guilt about this. What really triggered that wonderful feeling and burst of energy? Narcissism? Pride? Was I basking in the capacity to demonstrate some cleverness and learning and then drink in the students’ admiration? Did I feel good because my ego got stroked? Was my teaching really about furthering God’s kingdom or about stoking my ego?
I am not alone with these questions. These are valid questions for anyone who draws energy from his or her work, especially if, because of that work, he or she drinks in a fair amount of adulation. Our motivations are never completely pure. Indeed, if we are fully honest with ourselves, we have to admit that there is always some degree of self-serving in our service of others. But, mixed as our motives will always be, something else, something much more positive, needs to be factored into this, namely, the fact that God gave us our various talents and that God feels good about us using them.
Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, whose story is featured in the Oscar-winning movie, Chariots of Fire, once made this comment: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He didn’t make this comment lightly. As his biography and Chariots of Fire make clear, Eric Liddell, in his quest to win an Olympic gold medal was motivated more by his faith than by his own ego. His faith had him believe that, since God gave him this unique talent, God, not unlike any proud parent, took a genuine delight in seeing him use that gift. In his heart, he sensed that God was pleased whenever he exercised that talent to its optimum. Moreover, that inner sense that God was happy with his use of his talent filled him, Eric, with a wonderful energy whenever he ran.
Seen from that perspective, we see that the root and source of his motivation and pleasure in running was, ultimately, not his desire to win gold medals and popular adulation, though clearly no one is immune to these. Rather he was motivated by an inner sense that God had given him a special gift, that God wanted him to use that gift to its fullest, and that God was happy when he optimized that gift. Like everyone else who is human, he, no doubt, enjoyed the adulation he received for his successes, but he knew too that the deepest joy he felt in using his gift had its ultimate source in God and not his own ego.
And this, I believe, is true for everybody of us. When anyone uses properly the gifts that God gave him or her, God will take pleasure in that. After all God gave us that gift and that gift was given us for a reason.
Not long after I felt that burst of pleasure and energy from again teaching inside a classroom, I was talking to a colleague, a very gifted young teacher just beginning his teaching career. He shared about how much he enjoys teaching but how he worries too that the pleasure he derives from it is somehow too much connected to his ego. I gave him the Liddell quote, assuring him that, whenever he teaches well, God takes pleasure in it. He much appreciated Liddell’s comment.
And so should we all. We shouldn’t feel guilty for exercising the gifts that God gave us, even though our motivations will never be completely pure. Whenever we use a God-given talent to do something well, God takes pleasure in it … and so too should we.