As I approached the entrance to the foreign clinic in Vientiane, Laos, I noticed a woman smoking as she chatted with another man. I thought to myself, “Surely she’s not the counselor!” I had decided to try the only expat counselor available in the country out of desperation. Anxiety was high, and my only other option was to fly to Thailand. I figured it was worth a try.
After waiting for a few minutes, the woman I had seen outside welcomed me into her office. I have to admit my first thought was “a counselor who smokes?!” But I followed her in and sat down. I probably met with her a total of four times over the course of a month, but I will never forget the question she proposed to me. This was not my first time to see a counselor, but she explained that her approach was different.
She wanted to explore with me the “should” voice in my life. Through her thick French accent she said “Every time that you say to yourself ‘I should…’ I want you to replace it with ‘I want…’ and notice what comes.” I remember thinking: “This is not going to help me with anxiety.” I quickly got defensive and said that what I was doing in Laos was what I felt called by God to do. She was not a Christian, but she paused and said, “Wow, I didn’t know you felt so strongly about it!” And honestly, I think we could both see that my “calling” was causing me a great deal of anxiety. But she respected my statement and did not press. Looking back, I think she was offering me a key to a locked door that I needed, but I had justified what I was doing with “God language”—and who can argue with that?
As it was, it took a few more years until the stress had mounted enough that I was ready to grapple with these questions. As my husband and I prepared for our sabbatical year in Thailand, we asked each other: “Do you think it’s possible to serve God AND feel alive? Is it possible to serve God out of a place of being healthy?” We were so weary that we were leaving our ministry and “calling” to rest. It was risky business, and there was no one walking the path in front of us. If we hadn’t been so desperate, we would not have had the courage to go.
My spiritual director sat with me during that year, and I began to meet a God who was for me…not against me. I began to know a God who not only loved me, but was not saying “I love you so you should do/go/be …” I felt invited to listen into a voice that sounded a bit like the French woman’s voice: “What do you want to do?” As if God might be smiling at me with a French accent and inviting me to step out from under the weight of the “shoulds” that I had been carrying around for so many years. And not only was God not saying “You should,” but I was feeling space to breathe and wonder to myself, “What do I want?” Wow, this felt like someone opening up the caged door to my life.
But…like most things in life, it takes time to unlearn what we have believed for so many years. It has been eight years since I sat across from the counselor in Laos, and it has been six years since my sabbatical year. I still find myself stumbling over the invitation to notice what I want, and not what I should. I believe it’s a lifelong journey of finding deeper freedom and deeper knowing of God and who we are created to be.
As you take a few moments to pause and breathe, how do you notice the “should vs want” playing out in your life? Can you think of ways life might change if you allowed yourself to ask “What do I want?” What does this question stir in you? Do you find yourself uncomfortable with the idea that God might actually be inviting you to listen in to what you “want”? It’s okay if you are not comfortable with this idea…maybe simply take a moment and ask God: “What are you wanting to say to me about all of this?” It’s okay if you notice yourself squirming in the chair, resisting the idea of asking yourself what you want.
On the other hand, if you find yourself saying “yes” to the idea of noticing what you want, then why not try replacing “I should…” with “I want…” and notice what emerges. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t sure what you want—it takes time to listen to ourselves. It’s baby steps on the journey towards a deeper knowing of who God is, and who you are, as we begin to listen to desire instead of “should” voices.
Peace be with you dear friends!
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