Q&A: Isn’t It Selfish to Pursue What I Want in Life?

I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. Occasionally I share some of these interactions here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.

But those aren’t the only questions I receive. I also hear a lot of questions in the context of my work as a life & leadership coach. And this week I decided to address one I’ve heard often, particularly from people of faith, who are rightly concerned about honoring God’s will and plans.

Here it is:

Question: Isn’t it selfish or self-centered to think about what I want in life? to consider my desires and build a life around them? I thought we were supposed to deny ourselves and think about what God wants for us.

Answer: One interesting thing about this question is that it often comes with an underlying assumption that our desires and God’s plans are in conflict.

I used to think that way. Somewhere early in my life, I developed the conviction that what I wanted was exactly the opposite of what God would want me to do. That everything that came naturally to me was to be denied. And–I actually remember hearing this from a guest speaker in our church–that what I least wanted to do would be what God would call me to do with my life. I became pretty convinced that God was going to call me to be a missionary, doing manual labor in a land far away–a land where the sun burns hot, few comforts are available, and medical care would be hard to find. For this fair-skinned asthmatic, prone to heat exhaustion and drawn to a life of creative expression, this sounded like a very thorough form of suffering.

On the other hand, I have a friend who was dreaming of being a missionary back when we first met as children. The dream never left her, and she built her life around its pursuit. The self-rejecting suffering I dreaded was what she actually wanted. And I doubt anyone ever questioned whether she was selfish to pursue it–because it wasn’t what most people want.

By my logic, God should have sent me far away and kept my friend at home. Instead, she has enjoyed a 20-year missionary career in an often-overlooked place. And I find myself in the suburbs of Chicago, engaged in a career I never would have envisioned for myself way back then, but which is a great fit with my personality, life experience, skills, and God-given desires. And I get to spend most of my life in the shade.

For both of us, being the people God made us, and following the interests that came naturally for us, led us to fulfilling work. It also led us to fitting opportunities to serve God.

When our desires themselves are not in rebellion against God, following them is not rebellion either. It’s not self-centered to pay attention to what we want; it’s wise. God has made us as we are on purpose. He uses our good, healthy, wholesome desires to lead us toward what he wants. And he treasures who we are. When we surrender our will to his, he will always make more of us than we could have made of ourselves. He transforms us. He sometimes requires us to do what we don’t want to do. But he does not empty us of the unique shape his breath takes within each of us.

When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, in deference to him, he is calling us to make our lives about him, not about us. He wants us to give up our efforts to live independently of him, to prioritize him over ourselves and his calling, and to harness our God-given gifts in service to him rather than ourselves.

That doesn’t mean we don’t get to be the people he made us to be, or enjoy the life he calls us to. It’s not selfish to consider how our personalities, gifts, and enjoyment can be gifts to God. Denying ourselves means offering these things in service to God, not rejecting who he has made us. God often works through our natural tendencies and desires to guide us toward ways he wants to use us in the world.

God didn’t put you here to strive to be someone you’re not or to suppress yourself in deference to what you think the world wants from you. He did not put you here only to suffer. God has intentionally given you the qualities you possess, your personality, your wholesome desires and dreams, your sense of God’s purpose for you, your desire to pursue God and his ongoing transformation in you. All these gifts will point you toward ways you can live for his glory.

  1. Jeff P says:

    I really appreciate your thoughts on what ‘denying yourself’ really means, and doesn’t mean, Amy.
    I think this idea that God usually calls us to do those types of tasks we personally find most unpleasant and least matching our personalities can warp our our conception of God. It was a stumbling block when I was first thinking of converting. It seems to me to make God almost a sadist, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what discomfort and unhappiness he might have in store for me.
    Unfortunately, this misconception is deeply seated in our thinking, including how we teach our children. I am thinking about how we teach about biblical figures who got ‘called’ to do things that they didn’t want to do (example: the way we teach about Abraham and Isaac).

    • Amy says:

      Good point, Jeff. We don’t have any actual biblical evidence that Abram resisted God’s call. And while Isaac’s character was deeply flawed, he did want the blessing God promised–he just didn’t want to work for it. God certainly does ask us to do things we don’t want to do, and he equips us in ways we never could have anticipated. And often we discover that we are very well-suited for the places he puts us.

  2. Jason Jacklich says:

    I like the way you put that Amy. God has given me natural abilities such as playing lead guitar which I use for his glory playing in our churches worship band. I have a tendency to want to fix things and solve problems so I am a Technical Support Specialist for a high tech network analyzing company. I believe even in our vocation he has given us gifts and when you use it at your job it is more fulfilling. Lastly, I believe God has a specific calling on all his people and when you find yours there is excitement but that doesn’t mean it is going to be easy, as you stated. For example, I am attempting to start a Fresh Hope group at my home church and since I am diagnosed Bipolar 2 I qualify to facilitate it. I know I might meet some resistance but if it is God’s will it’ll happen one way or another.

    • Amy says:

      These are great examples of how being the person God has made you brings fulfillment and brings glory to God–even if it isn’t always easy. God bless you as you start the Fresh Hope group. I hope you’ll see God use your diagnosis, and the difficult times you’ve been through, to provide hope and support to others.

  3. Jason Jacklich says:

    Thank you Amy for the encouragement. Like Pastor Brad Hoefs says “you can thrive in life and in your relationship with God despite of your mental heath diagnoses”.

© 2017 Amy Simpson.