On a fairly regular basis, people ask me, “what do you suppose God wants me to do?” Sometimes it has to do with a specific life issue –conflict with a spouse, dealing with a troubled teenager, getting out of debt, etc.
But other times, it taps something deeper — something concerning the shape of a destiny or discovering the ultimate meaning of one’s life journey. Christians of earlier generations would have unselfconsciously talked about exploring a sense of calling or vocation. However, in recent decades, evangelicals have largely abandoned the vocabulary of calling or vocation for the ordinary Christian, reserving it instead for those involved in vocational ministry.
Into this significant void comes Robert Benson’s quietly profound work, The Echo Within (Waterbrook Press, 2009). Benson writes from a deep well of prayer and a grasp of the ancient rhythms of spiritual disciplines and direction. So, he comes from a different place than the pragmatic, self-help, seven-steps-to-follow-and-it-will-work materials that are all the rage. He sees all Christians as people of calling, with God-designed vocation settled deep in eternity. That means that he writes with a deep sense of respect (even awe) for the unique journey of ordinary, everyday Christians. That sense of personal respect invites you to join the exploration.
The book is organized simply around a series of one-word verbs that Benson urges us to pursue in order to understand God’s design for our lives: listening, waking, hearing, being, looking, waiting, living, knowing, choosing and dreaming. It is also written simply—an easy mixture of narrative (usually of Benson’s own life journey), observation and reflection. But it is not simplistic—the sentences are rich, full, lyrical and thought-provoking
The basic premise of The Echo Within is that deep in every person, there is a Voice—the voice of the Creator God speaking our lives and destiny into existence. Benson writes, “We are…’an incarnate word, spoken by God, still being spoken by God.” And because we are still being spoken, the questions we have about our calling are, in part questions about listening for the incarnate word being whispered into us…Somewhere deep inside of me, perhaps the truest and most holy part of me—the part of me that is the most me there is or ever will be—there is an echo of the Voice that spoke me into being and is still speaking the incarnate word that is Robert. If I can learn to recognize that Voice, I may also learn to trust it….I am coming to believe that the small voice within me is an echo of the Voice that is still speaking the word I am here to become, an echo of the Voice that spoke us into being, an echo of the Voice that spoke all that is alive.” (p.12-14, 16)
Everything else in this extended meditation flows out of the idea of listening fiercely for God’s voice in every moment of our lives. For Benson, the Voice and his story revolve around the printing industry and writing. But as you read, it is very easy to plug in your own experience and join the story because “we can be awakened to our calling, drawn in the direction of it, in different ways.” (p.31) We may hear the Voice in the voices of friends, whose sentences—even unaware—can have a profound impact. (I have three such sentences from friends in my own life that in a matter of months, turned the whole direction of my life.) Leaning into that sense of being is a matter of learning both the positives and negatives of our experience—what we tend to like and want we don’t. And here is a profound observation: “Knowing who we are might keep us from trying to be someone else.” (p.78) Nobody else can live the life God has whispered for us to live.
Benson urges us to understand that calling always moves us beyond ourselves into the lives of others. It is not just an interior issue. “Our calling is about something considerably larger than our own fulfillment. When we wrestle with our calling , part of what we are called to do is to see and hear and notice those to whom we in particular we are being given…to take the time and make the effort to discover who is being given to us and maybe to no one else.” (p. 89) That’s a beautiful way to put the ‘other-ness” of our lives as Christ-followers. It is a key way to think over the scope and maybe intensity of my calling to a particular group of people—a church, family, neighborhood or more.
So many people struggle through with the sense that the twists and turns of their experience are somehow a missing of God’s “perfect” plan. But Benson reminds us that even the wacky and difficult moments may be part of what the Voice whispered. That’s a freeing thought. “Living is very often what happens when we think we have God’s plan for our lives all mapped out. The choices we make, the curves we are thrown, the chances we take, the hunches we follow are all part of our mysterious journey in the direction of who we were whispered into being to become.” (p.123)
This is clearly not a passive process. It is a dynamic, ongoing conversation with the Father that taps into the dreams we have in our hearts. It may come to us quickly or after a long and stumbling journey, but our Father has a dream for us, too. It matches our own longings in ways we cannot imagine because He placed the longings there and nudges us in their direction. It may not be an easy journey. ‘We dream a dream, and it does not easily come true, and we conclude that perhaps it was not what God meant for us after all. But I suspect far too many of us give up on our dreams far too soon.” (p.171)
The Echo Within is an encouraging and helpful work if you have a heart to live God’s calling on your life. It is especially refreshing for those who have been caught in the evangelical self-help/ spiritual technology approach to life. Robert Benson reintroduces us to the mystery and wonder of being a created, called person. Read through this prayerfully. Your soul will be refreshed and you will be set free to live…really live.