Life in Your 20s. (Back Off; I'm Growing My Inner-Life.)

The following is audio and text from the teaching given by Leah on January 31, 2016.  Feel free to listen online, download, or read.  This teaching is the second in our winter series, "Find Your Calling."

In 1780, 21-year old William Wilberforce was a rising star in Great Britain’s political sphere.  He was a young man of wealth, privilege and promise, though he took his university studies much less seriously than the social aspect of collegiate life: cards, gambling, and late night drinking.  Nonetheless, spurred on in part by his more serious college friend, William Pitt, Wilberforce in his last year of school took advantage of his attractive, sociable, winning personality, and his family’s wealth and connections, and secured himself a seat in Great Britain’s governing party, as he was elected to Parliament at 21 alongside his friend William Pitt.

In Parliament, Wilberforce maintained his active social life and was known in social circles for his great wit and beautiful singing voice.  But he also used his rhetorical skills in support of his chosen profession as a politician.  He became a formidable opponent in debate and at 24, he helped build support to promote his close friend Pitt to the role of Prime Minister in 1783.  

But as his twenties continued, Wilberforce, while outwardly successfully, began to feel a hollowness to his pursuits.  He became deeply depressed over a number of months. And then on Easter morning in 1786 Wilberforce, who had never been a particularly religious man, had a kind of spiritual awakening. He had a powerful and profound experience with Jesus. This was a key turning point in William Wilberforce’s life.  He briefly considered withdrawing from political life to pursue a more religious profession, but he began to sense that God could use him in Parliament for good.

Not long into his new life as a sincere Christian, Wilberforce was exposed to the injustices surrounding the slave trade in British colonies in the West Indies. As he would later say, “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the [slave] trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

But bringing the abolition of slavery in England was no easy task, just as it was not in the United States.  At the time, the slave trade was the source of 80% of Great Britain’s foreign income.  William’s opposition was clear that Great Britain could not afford abolition.  Yet Wilberforce would not be deterred.  He began by introducing legislation against the slave trade in the Parliament in 1789.  It failed.  He tried again in 1791.  Again: defeated.  And this continued through subsequent attempts in 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.  All failed.

Throughout this time, Wilberforce faced increasing challenges on multiple fronts.  Once known and appreciated by his fellow politicians for his wild lifestyle and winning personality, Wilberforce no longer fit in the political sphere in the same way, now that his past times reflected a passionate faith in God.  Further, his commitment to abolition made him the primary target for pro-slavery interests, so he was vilified in the public arena.  Closer to home, he struggled with fragile health through the years, and was at times bedridden for weeks in pain.

Yet through all of these challenges, Wilberforce’s tireless commitment to abolition did not waver, and because of his and others’ steadfastness, change finally came to Britain’s government. Wilberforce did not live long enough to see the glorious day, but he heard, just three days before he died, that it would soon come.  Days after his death in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade, 54 years before the start of the American Civil War and without a single drop of bloodshed.

Well, today is the second teaching in a series I’ve titled, “Find Your Calling”.  This is a series in which we’re asking questions about how we can live lives of real meaning and purpose.  For most of us who are trying to center our lives in some way around God or Jesus, we likely have a sense that Jesus is the key to this process.  We might wonder if, in the same way that Jesus issued a calling to a set of fisherman on the shores of the Sea of Galilee that would change their lives, and arguably change the course of history, so too might Jesus have invitations for each of us that we would do well to listen for and try to respond to?

But how do we know what Jesus’ invitations might be?  For those fishermen like Peter, James, and John, it was super-obvious, but we don’t have the same experience of meeting Jesus in the flesh in front of us saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people”.  Our processes are likely going to look a bit different, just like William Wilberforce’s did.  

Throughout the rest of this series we’re gonna be looking for some help with these questions to a major research study that was undertaken a number of years ago by an academic at Fuller Theological Seminary named Dr. J. Robert Clinton, or Bobby Clinton.  Dr. Clinton was also interested in learning how people do this well. He wanted to know how real people successfully navigate a journey into destiny, into calling, so much so, that he and his team of researchers took a critical look at a wide variety of examples of people from a diversity of areas around the globe over a couple of millennia who had been doing this: trying to respond to God positively and step into the things they sensed God was calling them into.  And Clinton and his team absorbed all this data and as they analyzed it, they were able to identify some common elements, common patterns, that those who experienced success in finding and living their calling seemed to share. The results of the research and the phased process it suggests are laid out in a book Bobby Clinton wrote almost thirty years ago called, The Making of a Leader.  This has become a book that many, many people have found to be really useful for navigating this kind of journey with Jesus that I think many of us are seeking.

So over the next five teachings, which will take us through the season of Lent, we’re going to be looking at the various phases from Bobby Clinton’s framework. And the good news from Dr. Clinton is that living into your destiny in God is attainable.  People get there.  It’s hard, but if you move through these phases and stay connected to God in the process, it’ll happen.  So we’re gonna be looking at what that process is. But before we get into this schema, I want to take a moment to clarify a couple of terms before we start that might trip us up if we don’t get on the same page about them.

The first is the term “leader”.  As I mentioned, Clinton’s work is called “The Making of a Leader” and as such it focuses on leadership development in a sense.  Now for some of you, that might sound great; perhaps you are in a role of leadership in your job or in some organization you’re involved in, maybe you sense that you even have a gift for leadership, and so any instruction in how to grow in that leadership arena would only be welcome and helpful.  But others of you might feel like, “I don’t particularly know that that is me.  I’m not over anyone at work or in school or whatever, and I don’t particularly aspire to be.  I’m not even sure I’d have any aptitude to lead others.”

I think upfront it makes sense to say that the definition we’re working with, and I think this is ultimately what Clinton is pointing to, is a broader definition of leadership than we might be accustomed to.  It’s really about influencing others positively.  And if we’re talking about living into some sort of destiny from God, than likely that influence would be for good, and ultimately, for God.

A leader to Bobby Clinton, you might say, is someone who notices people around them, who sees other people, and who feels like they have a role in those peoples’ lives that is ultimately rooted in Jesus.   Another way of saying this simply and concisely is “leadership is doing what you are meant to do, and doing it with other people.”  By this definition, we might include some interesting people.  Sure, the president of an organization can fit this category, but so too can stay-at-home parents who are influencing their kids and the other parents in the neighborhood, or I think of someone like Robert DeNiro’s character in the recent movie The Intern, someone who has lived life and learned and gained insight and is now able to pour that into the people they encounter and those people can see it on them, and look to them for help.  That’s also leadership.

The other word I want to define upfront for us is “ministry”, because it’s a word Clinton tends to focus on.  If you’ve spent a lot of time in the church, then you might be used to this word being used to primarily describe activities in the church.  We have kids ministry, we have music ministry, right now you could say I’m engaging in the ministry of preaching.  But the problem with this for me is when this word is only used to describe these kinds of activities.  To focus heavily on “ministry” can sometimes leave us with the feeling that only activities which are directly related to spiritual activities - to church or Christian functions - are the ones that are really important, but your work in the secular sphere, not so much.  I want to name explicitly that I think this kind of sacred-secular dualism is not helpful, and it’s not true to who we are as a community at Haven.  

Ultimately, I believe a broader view of ministry is more on point.  After all, the word “ministry” literally comes from the latin word minus which means “less”, or “lesser”, and minister, which meant “servant”.  Someone who is lesser than. So ministry by the original definition essentially means “service”.  As we said a couple of weeks ago, all of us, whatever specific things we might be called into, are called into the bigger project of being something for others.  If we care about following Jesus, the one who got down the night before he died and washed his followers feet, than we should care about serving others.  

So throughout this series, when we talk about identifying and growing in our “ministries”, whatever that may be, I want you to keep that in mind.  Some of our areas of service might be in church, but they don’t have to be.  Wilberforce’s wasn’t.  Maybe God’s inviting my husband Jason into serving others through the software products he creates, as well as the way he leads in his company and interacts with those he works with, so perhaps you might say his area of ministry is in tech.  The important thing to note is it’s not just about church.

OK, so that being said, what’s this schema that Dr. Clinton seems to have developed? We’ll take a quick overview look at Dr. Bobby Clinton’s six phases of leadership.  Now, as we look at this we’ll name with each of these phases a general period of life that the phase corresponds to, but, keep in mind, it’s general.  It’s rough.  Some people move though these phases more quickly than others, and some circle back and repeat phases from an earlier part of life, but roughly, these will give you a sense of when these things happen.

So the first of Bobby Clinton’s phases roughly corresponds with childhood, and it’s called “Sovereign Foundations”.   The second phase roughly corresponds with young adults in their 20s, and it’s known as  “Inner Life Growth”.  The third phase, roughly in someone’s 30s, Dr. Clinton calls “Ministry Maturing”.  This one is dealing with developing in the unique areas of service and calling that the person is growing into.  Next, phase four, Clinton calls “Life Maturing”.  That’s roughly in the forties.  And then around the fifties, some people, not everyone, but some people hit a phase Clinton calls “convergence” when folks reach a peak of fruitfulness in their destinies - they’re fully living into and operating in their unique callings and are able to achieve a kind of maximum effectiveness.  Finally, later in life, Clinton finds that an even fewer number of people are able to hit a sixth and final phase.  He calls this “afterglow”.  It’s a kind of sweet spot where you can live your later years satisfied by the journey you’ve taken with Jesus, and others come to you for your wisdom and insight because they see that you’ve done this well.  

We’ll be talking about each of these phases over the weeks to come, so you’ll get to know more about each of them, but I just wanted to start with a general overview of the framework we’re gonna be looking at.  A point to notice off the bat is that this is a lifelong journey, not just a list of tasks you can accomplish in a year and be on your way.

Today, we’re gonna spend most of the rest of our time looking at the first two phases; particularly the second, which roughly corresponds for a lot of people to what God is doing in their twenties.    


For many of us the twenties is a challenging decade because we often start it full of promise - there might seem to be infinite possibilities.  We could become a doctor or an art teacher; the future is open.  But then inevitably, life starts to smack us down.  We fail a class that was pretty important in the track of our desired profession, and now maybe medical school is off the table. The relationship that felt so promising falls apart.  We can’t get an interview for our “dream job”, so we’re struggling to pay rent and student loans in a job that feels like a dead-end.  And we’re left full of questions about what our life will become if it isn’t turning out like we thought it should be.  Where is all this unrealized potential gonna go?

As we consider these questions, we’re gonna track with a story from the Bible that resonates with this challenge of the twenty something.  Some of you may be familiar with the story from Genesis of Joseph.  Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and as a young man, he had extraordinary promise.  He was the favorite son of his father’s which don’t go over well with his eleven brothers.  And he also had these crazy dreams.  When he was seventeen, Genesis 37 tells us this happened. 

“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” (vs. 6-7)

Gee, I can’t imagine why his brothers wouldn’t like that picture, having to bow down before him. Joseph may have had promise, but like most teenagers, not a lot of wisdom, and so not surprisingly, that gets him in trouble.  His brothers decide to get him out of the way and sell him into slavery.  They sell him off to a traveling slave trader, and the next thing you know Joseph is being carted off for sale in Egypt.

So that’s the beginning of Joseph’s story, his season of Sovereign Foundations.  What are we supposed to gain from that?  Well, like I said before, Sovereign Foundations roughly corresponds with our childhood.  And the thing about our childhood is that we don’t have much control over it, right?  One analogy for this phase is this: If traveling the journey of life is like riding in a car, in sovereign foundations, you are stuck in the car seat.  You can’t drive.  Someone else is driving the car; you’re just along for the ride.  But from a faith perspective, Clinton seems to say that even through this array of circumstances that are happening to you, God is at work, beginning to shape our destinies.  God will use both the good and the bad circumstances, I’m not saying He causes bad things to happen, but He seems to have a way of entering into the real stuff, the good, the bad, and the ugly, of whatever our starting circumstances are, and using that stuff to shape us into the person He’s made us to be.

Let’s think a bit more about Joseph’s childhood.  Yes, he grew up a child of privilege and favor in a large family, but there’s more to his story than that.  Likely he grew up hearing the stories of his father Jacob, and his grandfather Isaac, and his great grandfather Abraham.  And with these stories persistently there would be the details about this strange deity that had called out their great grandfather Abraham, and promised to make him a great nation.  Joseph likely learned about how his relatives before him tried to connect with this God.  How this God had helped them prosper.  How they were growing in learning to worship this God.  And as a young man, Joseph had visions from this God.  He senses his own identity, his own purpose, and the destiny before him is connected to this God.  All that taking place is an important part of the identity Joseph would form before young adulthood when his life would turn upside-down as he’s sent off to Egypt and everything would be up for grabs.

Now the thing about Sovereign Foundations is that, while it’s taking place, it’s not really clear what anything means.  And this leads us to our first point to note on this phase.  The significance of things that happen in this phase is only clear in retrospect.  Joseph couldn’t have appreciated the importance of the stories of God’s closeness to him and his family, until, as we will see, he was in a place of great desperation, and then they were particularly resonant.  

My childhood was also a mix of good and hard.  On the good side: I cultivated a love for the arts, I found a natural aptitude for theatre, for music, for public speaking.  I was identified at a young age as a person with natural leadership abilities and so was invited into a number of different young leader training programs, and so on through middle school and high school.  Those shaped how I saw myself and understood who I was.  

I also had some really hard pieces.  I was a victim of sexual abuse at a young age, which warped my sense of self, and fed my need for others’ approval.  In fact, in retrospect, I think it was the hunger to escape myself and earn applause doing it that led me to theatre in the first place and so performing because a kind of salvation, but also an unhealthy addiction.  Both pieces were there, but in my youth it was hard to understand where it would all take me.  It was just clear that to look at me as a teenager that I looked very driven, very accomplished, very sure to go somewhere, but internally, I was completely self-critical and unhappy.  No amount of accomplishments, no awards, no number of college acceptance letters, could really fill that void. At seventeen, I didn’t yet know if anything would, but as I looked to college, as I looked to my young adulthood, I still had enough hope, maybe idealism, to believe that something, I didn’t know what, I certainly wouldn’t have said God, but that something could do that.  That something could bring my life real meaning and fulfillment.

And this brings us to what Clinton would say the task of Sovereign Foundations is: to come out of childhood responding to life positively with hope for the future.  If you’re a parent, or going to be, that might be a helpful thing to keep in mind.  What if our parenting was about asking that question? “How can we be about helping our kids respond with openness and positivity to the life they’re going to be living?”  How can we help kids emerge from their childhood with hope for what life could be?

Well, Joseph has a youth of privilege and then it takes a turn for the worse, and this is the setting he finds himself in as he enters young adulthood, the next phase of Clinton’s framework.  Let’s see what happens to Joseph, picking up the story with Genesis 39.

Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt.  Potiphar, an Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him there.  The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master.  When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant.  Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned.  From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph.  The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and in the field.  So Potiphar left everything he had in Joseph’s care; with Joseph in charge, he did not concern himself with anything except the food he ate. (Gen. 39:1-6)

So Joseph entered young adulthood as a person of great promise, and yet this is where his twenties have taken him:  he’s enslaved.  In Egypt.  Still, despite that, likely to Joseph, shocking turn of circumstances, God’s favor is still on him, even as he’s a slave.  Now if you’ve read ahead or heard this story before, you know what Joseph did not.  You know where it’s going.  Joseph’s journey to Egypt ends up being really important, because the whole known world years down the line will suffer a drought, a famine throughout the land, and Joseph will end up being the only one who can interpret the dreams that the ruler, the Pharaoh, is having in warning of this, so that they can prepare for what’s to come.  Joseph is going to be promoted to be the Pharaoh’s right hand man, the person who is in charge of saving food and then distributing it when the time of need comes.  People come to Egypt from the whole known world, and Joseph is made the person in charge of giving them food.  So you could say that Joseph is eventually going to become the most powerful, influential person of his day.  Indeed his brothers, as well as many, many others, will bow down to him.  

But God wants to know that Joseph will be a person who can be trusted with that level of influence.  How is he going to become the kind of person who can do it?  Let’s read on.

Now Joseph was well-built and handsome, and after a while his master’s wife took notice of Joseph and said, “Come to bed with me!”

But he refused.  “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.  No one is greater in this house than I am.  My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife.  How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?”  And though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her.

One day he went into the house to attend to his duties, and none of the household servants was inside.  She caught him by his cloak and said, “Come to bed with me!”  But he left his cloak in her hand and ran out of the house.…

She kept his cloak beside her until his master came home.  Then she told him this story: “That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make sport of me.  But as soon as I screamed for help, he left his cloak beside me and ran out of the house.”

When his master heard the story his wife told him, saying, “This is how your slave treated me,” he burned with anger.  Joseph’s master took him and put him in prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined. (vs 6b - 20)

When Joseph was sold into slavery and carted off to Egypt, likely he thought things could not get any worse.  But it turns out he was wrong! Next thing you know, he’s falsely accused in prison.  And yet, it seems, even through this horrible turn of events, God was still with Joseph. 

But while Joseph was there in the prison, the LORD was with him; he showed him kindness and granted him favor in the eyes of the prison warden.  So the warden put Joseph in charge of all those held in the prison, and he was made responsible for all that was done there.  The warden paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with Joseph and gave him success in whatever he did. (vs 20b - 23)

So Joseph seems to have a sense of destiny from early on.  And in his 20s, his character is put to the test.  He has to determine ultimately what kind of life does he want to live?  Is his life going to be about securing whatever he can for himself, maybe sleeping his way to promotion?  Or is he going to put his stake in the ground and decide that ultimately what his life is gong to be about, come what may, is honoring God and noticing the people around him in God?  And this, Dr. Clinton would say, is the chief central task of young adulthood, of the Inner-Life Growth phase in his schema.  Inner Life Growth begins with a call to leadership in God.  And that call needs a response.  Before anything specific becomes clear, are you going to make a choice, make a commitment, to living a life that is about leadership in God?  

Joseph had a real choice to make whether he would honor the God of his forefathers, or whether, taken into a totally different setting, he’d go another way.  William Wilberforce could have led a much more “comfortable” life, albeit potentially a more shallow one.  But in his young adulthood, in his twenties, he had a powerful experience with Jesus and it moved him in his core.  He sensed God’s invitation to him to be something for others.  But if he hadn’t had that inner experience of coming to deep, sincere faith, if he hadn’t put his stake in the ground, saying “let the consequences be what they would”, would he have had the stamina to stand up for abolition in the years to come?

For myself, it was in college that I had a profound encounter with Jesus through a series of experiences and relationships that I couldn’t deny.  I had to recognize that I was finding that thing I had been so hungry for, that thing that brought me inner peace, that made me aware of my own beauty, that filled me with hope for the future, and it was Jesus.  But there weren’t a lot of other theatre majors around me saying “yes” to Jesus.  It wasn’t clear how that could possibly fit in the track I thought I was on: heading to New York, auditioning for Broadway.  I had a long-term relationship with a guy who was not really interested in Jesus, and was actively trying to pull me in a different direction. This threatened my new-found faith.  And while it was heart-breaking at the time, because my self-esteem was still pretty low and I wondered if anyone would ever love me again, I broke things off because I knew that was the only way for me at the time to really put my stake in the ground that whatever my life was going to be, whatever circumstances came my way, following Jesus would be my central aim.

So what’s God’s goal with the young adult in this phase?  Clinton would say it’s to make you the kind of person who can handle leadership.  This phase is about moving you from riding in the car seat to driving with a learner’s permit.  Seeing if you have what it takes to drive responsibly.  Joseph needed his character to be shaped if he was going to be able to wield well the amount of power that would eventually be entrusted to him.  He couldn’t get there just traveling from privileged success to success.  Why not?  Because he would not have had the strength of character that God would require of someone He’s entrusting with real influence.

Inner Life Growth is all about inner character development.  And Clinton found that there were three important character tests that the young adult needed to pass to move out of this phase. Here’s what they are:

1. Will you follow your conscience?  Will you listen to the inner voice that tells you what would be wise, what would be honest, and follow it?  Or will you ignore those pricks of your conscience when it’s convenient?

2. Will you follow God’s leading?  Will you to try to go after the thing he’s put in front of you?  For William Wilberforce, would he say yes to the invitation from God to use his position to advocate on behalf of slaves, or not?

3. Can you hear God’s voice?  If you don’t know how to listen to God, how can you follow His leading?  This is an important component of development in the inner-life growth phase.  Can you perceive God speaking to you, leading you through the Bible, through your prayer life, through the people He’s put around you?  If you’d answer no, then growing in these things is foundational to beginning to step into a life of leadership in God.

A couple of other things to note about the inner-life growth phase.  First, is that lessons not learned are repeated.  I believe God wants all of us to flourish in him.   And He’s committed to working with us and in us to make that possible.  He’ll stay with you in the training regimen as long as you need, but perhaps some mindfulness, some awareness of the process might make it easier to enter into and grow through, so you don’t find yourself stuck in an endless cycle.

Finally, the last thing to note about Inner-life Growth is that the temptation in this phase is towards restlessness.  It’s easy in our twenties to feel stuck, to feel like we’re not getting anywhere fast enough.  But Dr. Clinton would say it’s important to stick with this phase however long you’re in it, because God is in it with you, and if you let restlessness get the best of you, you derail and spin off in some other direction.

When I was in my twenties, it was hard not to feel like I was meandering through life en route to nowhere clear.  Here I had a solid degree from a good University, but I was fronting a rock band and working at coffee shops and part-time clerical jobs to pay the rent.  I managed youth and family programs for a while for a local non-profit, while gigging as a musician, wondering if any of it was ever going to go anywhere.  Yet all along, I had this sense that God was with me in this meandering journey, even if it didn’t seem clear to me at the time where it was going.

I felt like God kept encouraging me, through people who prayed for me, through sermons or my own study of Scripture, through connections I made with real people, that over the course of my life God wanted to use me to influence others for good.  That God had made me to be the kind of person that especially might help people who felt pretty uncomfortable in religious settings connect with a living Jesus in the same way that I had.  For years, I assumed this would mean I’d be in rock clubs, or on tour as professional musician or performer.  I had my own biases against church, thinking that to choose a life there meant turning my back on the rest of the world, where I honestly felt a lot more comfortable. But because I hung in there through the long process of inner-life growth, through the small tests of conscience, of obedience, of discernment, I grew into a place where I could start to identify God’s voice much more clearly, even as it confronted my own biases. My biases against church or pastoral ministry. I felt God begin to give me an imagination for the kind of faith community where all people could be welcome to navigate a journey of faith, from wherever they came.  I understood that one of my particular areas of service, my ministry unto others, would be the ministry of helping create that kind of space, and so here we are today.  But it started to simply saying yes to a life of leadership in Jesus.

So as we end, I want to give you a moment to connect with God from wherever you’re at around the question that I think is central to the theme from today.  Have you received that call in to leadership with Jesus?  Have you sensed God’s invitation for you to be about seeing other people around you in God?  To using your influence in service of others?  If you’re answers yes, you have, you’ve sensed that, you’re trying to walk into it, then we’re just going to take a moment before we end for you to invite Jesus to speak into that more.  Just thirty seconds, to ask for Jesus’ leading wherever you are at in that process?  To confirm it, to highlight his presence in it.

And if your answer is “no”, I’m not sure I’ve done that, in the next thirty seconds I invite you to pray, to reach out from that place and internally ask the question, “God, if you’re there, is that something you want for me?  What does that look like for me?”  So let’s just be quiet for thirty seconds, let you have whatever interaction with Jesus you need to have, and then we’ll close and move into our time of response.