Doing Life: Planned or Summoned?

            David Brooks of the New York Times is one of our most consistently thoughtful columnists.  Whether writing about politics, economics, cultural trends or moral virtues in the public square, Brooks engages an issue from all sides, asking tough questions and entering genuine, honest dialogue with the opposing view—an increasingly rare quality in our contentious times.

            Occasionally, Brooks writes columns that reveal his faith, or at least the fact that he operates from a God-centered worldview. Last week, he carefully considered the social implications of David Platt’s new book, Radical.  But it was another column a month or so ago, that really grabbed my attention.

            In The Summoned Life, Brooks thought openly about thinking about your life.  A person who wants to live meaningfully must determine their life purpose, and then practically live that out from day to day. In evangelical circles, we use language like “discovering God’s will for my life” or more recently “the purpose-driven life”.  

Brooks asserts there are two fundamental ways of doing life, two categories of thinking about our lives, into which most of us fall: the Well-Planned Life and the Summoned Life.  

The Well-Planned Life treats life as a “well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.”  One determines an overarching life purpose (why am I here?) and then learns, or plans, or adjusts, or moves, weighs risk and reward and ultimately responds at every step based what furthers the steady pursuit of that goal.

On the other hand, the Summoned Life is a more dynamic journey.  In this view “life is an unknowable landscape to be explored….”, which means “I’m living in a specific year in a specific place facing specific problems and needs…” and so “the important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?”   

In sum, “the person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, “What should I do?” The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”

 This is not quite the same as the distinctions Gordon MacDonald draws in Ordering Your Private World between the driven person and the called person. The driven person leaves God out in favor of the rabid pursuit of his own selfish agendas, leading to narcissism, people-pleasing, compulsive work and discontent. King Saul is the example of a driven person.  On the other hand, the called person lives out of the soul centered in God, pursuing the spread of God’s glory and marked by selflessness, courage, deep rest and even joy.  This is displayed by King David.

In Brooks’ model, either The Well-Planned Life or The Summoned Life can be a God-centered, gospel-spreading, Jesus-shaped life. A person will probably lean to one or the other based on their unique wiring and personality.  Generational  characteristics may factor in (Builders and Boomers for the Well-Planned and Millennials for the Summoned). But my guess is that most of us live out a mixture of the two.  

Even more, faithful life as a disciple of Jesus requires that we live both Well-Planned and Summoned lives.  The display of God’s glory, the spread of Jesus’ gospel, the Great Commission and the Great Commandments are the defining “plan” for the life of every Christ-follower.

But they are personally worked out through the everyday summons of the Spirit in our ordinary journeys at home, or school, or  work,  in our neighborhood; in relationships with our families,  the teller at the bank, the waitress at the restaurant or barista at Starbucks; in our spending or investment  of both money and time; in the evidences of injustice among the homeless or underinsured, the leper treatment of families of Middle Eastern descent in our community, or a thousand other places where the least, last and left-out wait for mercy with skin on; and in the peoples of the nations where Jesus and his gospel is yet unknown and eternal destinies are still in question.

So then, Christ-followers live out God’s big Story with disciplined purpose—and also with the sort of spontaneity that makes every day an adventure of stepping into the unknown that only our Father knows.  It is both sides together that make a whole Christ-life.

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One response

  1. Dave, this is beautiful writing. Only writing such as this is worth burning the early morning oil. The fact that I am currently pondering this very issue (discussed in your post) only adds to the delight of reading it. Carla

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