God has clicked the “pause” button for the entire globe. For billions of people, that ever-speeding, ever-noisy, ever-stressful thing called life has suddenly taken a break. It is as if the Creator looked upon His creation, a world driving itself increasingly insane, and announced, “Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 16:10)”. A world that was increasingly confusing motion for progress has been force-fed a “chill pill”. And for the first time for many of us, we have been given a precious opportunity to look up from the frenzy of life and ask ourselves some existential, honest-to-God questions.
Imagine if God appeared before you one day and said, “Stop everything now. We need to talk.
Without even looking at Him, you reply, “I can’t talk right now. I have to take the children to school. I have to go to work. I need to go meet some important investors.”
God then waves His hand and freezes the world, saying, “Now you cannot take your children to school. You cannot go to work. You cannot meet your investors. We need to talk.”
Shocked, dazed, but quiet at long last, you finally take a moment to look up at God. He smiles lovingly at you, sits you down, takes your hand in His, and says, “Be still, my child, and let me ask you … “
1. What do you really want out of life?
It is surprising how effectively the noise of work, life, and society can shape our desires. Too often, we are indoctrinated by social norms, opinions, and circumstances to want what we actually don’t want, and not want what we actually do want out of life. As we become older, wiser, and less pretentious, we tend to gravitate back, rediscovering our true selves and reacquainting ourselves with our old, often simple, modest joys. Learning to focus on the one or two life goals or projects that really matter to us, we also tend to find ourselves looking back with nostalgic amusement or even embarrassment at the things we once did, pursued, or even thought we achieved in life. We come to realize that, back then, we were living life blinded by the mad noise of life itself.
Now, with work, society, and the world economy effectively on “pause”, the noise of life has been muted, replaced by a terrifying yet solemn silence. Up till just a few weeks ago, we were immersed in the world. We were part of the world and the world inextricably part of us. But now, detached, we are finding it possible, perhaps some of us for the first time, to look at the world in third person, to do some deep self-reflection as an individual, isolated from third party influence.
So then, let’s embrace this opportunity. Let’s reflect. If we were to put aside social norms, popular opinion, peer pressure, communal obligations, or even family expectations for one minute and, simply as a child of God, honestly tell our Father what we truly want out of life, what would we tell Him? What a selfish question, you may think. But is it? Our Creator designed each of us to be unique, with a specific role in His grand plan to redeem the world. It should then not be a stretch to believe that He has also placed in our hearts unique desires that call out to us, pushing us towards our destiny, pushing us towards our calling.
We tend to spend a disproportionate amount of our lives striving to be and do what the world tells us is desirable. We spend far less time thinking upon what God is calling us to desire. We tend to neglect thinking upon the desires that would allow us to enjoy a genuine, meaningful, and productive life with our Father. And this is unfortunate because, ironically, that is ultimately the only path to the fulfillment of our deepest desires. “Delight yourself in the LORD” says King David, “and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
So, as many of us self-isolate, let us isolate ourselves with God. Let us take this opportunity to have a private conversation with Him about our desires, independent of the world’s chaotic influence. Take a proper amount of time (some of you have plenty of it now) to list up and describe your dreams to Him in full detail, telling Him why each detail is personally important to you. And when I say list up, I mean to actually write them down. Or, perhaps you are not sure what your dreams are, and are uncertain about what you really desire in life. If so, share with Him the happiest moments in your life. Search in your memories for those moments when you were so happy that you cried, when you felt the greatest sense of accomplishment in the face of great odds, when you felt most valued by the people who mean most to you, or when you felt most in sync with who you really are and who you were meant to be. These memories will help you define what you really desire in life. Confide them with your Father in Heaven, who is the One who placed those desires in your heart in the first place, maybe to help you discover your calling.
And while you’re at it, tell Him what has kept you from achieving your dreams. Was it lack of talent, money, support, or opportunity? In fact, thank Him for dramatically decreasing, through putting the world on hold, perhaps the biggest obstacle standing between you and your dreams – distractions. Humbly acknowledge the many shiny, low-hanging fruits that the world kept tantalizing you with, fruits that diverted your attention by offering seemingly shorter and more immediate paths to gratification, but ended up taking you on a detour that cost precious expenditures of time, energy, focus, money, and even brain capacity. Do some deep soul searching to list up before God the distractions you succumbed to the most, those unnecessary things the world made you think was necessary until the world itself stood still, and life, you realized, found a way to go on. Finally, ask God to help you shed these distractions and streamline your life ahead towards achieving your dreams, and pray that these desires will lead you to your calling, your life purpose in the grand scheme of history, God’s story.
As the world continues to stand still, let us be still, petition our desires, and reexamine our callings before our Father in private self-isolation with Him.
2. What does life want out of you?
But hold on. That is but the first step. Here comes the important bit.
Up till now, I have been using the words “desires”, “dreams”, and “calling” quite interchangeably. But if you are like me, you would have felt an uneasiness in your gut … a sense that something important is missing. Is the path to our calling shaped merely, or even mainly, by our dreams and desires? The problem with trying to find our life’s purpose only through looking within ourselves is that we can only dream within the limits of our own imagination. We would only ever be able to desire something that is within the limits of our own intellect. We would be limiting ourselves and, ultimately, limiting the value and potential of our lives.
However, our heavenly Father tells us that His plans for us are infinitely bigger and better than we can ever imagine. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”, He declares, “Because as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
The truth is that self-reflection and self-discovery, while important, can only take us halfway along our journey to find our life’s calling. Doing so will only help us identify what I call our internal calling, the voice inside each one of us that God uses to push us towards our destiny. But the far more dynamic piece that God uses to guide us towards our life’s purpose is what I like to call our external calling. While our internal calling pushes us towards our God-given destiny through dreams and desires we have within ourselves, our external calling pulls us towards it through the circumstances and contexts in which our lives take place.
The same individual with the same dreams and desires (internal callings)
would most probably have a different purpose in life depending on whether he or she lived in Europe in 1800 during the pivotal times of the Industrial Revolution, or in Poland in 1940 during the devastating Second World War, or in Uganda in 1970 during the terrifying reign of the dictator Idi Amin, or where we each are today … in 2020 during the panic of the global Coronavirus outbreak.
Note, we are not talking about finding our external calling in what the world wants, but in what the world needs; not what the world tells us to desire, but what the world needs us to pursue. The overarching question that we must ask ourselves while seeking our external callings is this: “Why did God place me in this part of the world at this time in history? And what gift does He have for the world through my life?” Asking what the world needs that we can give, or even give up, is fundamentally different from asking what the world, and the noisy, distracted life it tends to drive us into, wants us to desire. It is an acute understanding of this very fact that drives sung and unsung heroes alike to sacrifice themselves for others and for the better good, often despite of their dreams and desires.
New York Times columnist David Brookes articulates this well in his book The Road to Character. He writes that the method of seeking our calling by looking inward is one that “begins with self-investigation and ends in self-fulfillment.” Instead, he says, we must embrace a method that asks, “What are my circumstances calling me to do?” He goes on to explain that “This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate … into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?”
While I tend to discount self-reflection a little less than Brookes does, I do believe that our external calling is just as critical as our internal calling because, whatever our calling may be, it should not only concern our own lives. This is a fundamental Christian value, the golden rule that says our lives do not only belong to ourselves. If it is indeed true that we were each created with a unique role in God’s grand plan of world redemption, it must then follow that we each have been created with a unique gift that we must give to the world. We each have a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it. We were created to contribute something specific to the world’s improvement and transformation, each of us with our own unique summons. And these summonses can be identified through the external contexts in which we were born into as much as through the internal dreams we were born with. It is only through a level-headed reflection on both our internal calling and external calling that we will each find our full calling.
3. So why do you think I gave you these dreams and desires? And why do you think I gave them to you in the world and times you live in today?
Once, a very long time ago, when the world lost its way, God pressed the “reset” button, washing away the madness and corruption of the world in one colossal, global Flood of (quite literally) Biblical proportions. After the Flood subsided, He promised that He would never do so again. True to His promise, He has never pressed the same button again. However, in 2019, He pressed a similar but far more merciful button. He pressed “pause”.
The symbolic similarities should prompt those of us who are searching for a calling to consider three important questions:
A. WHAT WERE THE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE TIMES LEADING UP TO NOAH’S FLOOD AND THOSE LEADING UP TO THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC?
The answer to this question has already been implied in my reflections above, so I will not spend too much of your time upon it. Before COVID-19, we were living in a world that had clearly lost its way. So much so that even those who did not know God, and in fact many who hated God outright, clearly felt that there was something seriously wrong with the world. We as the human race had forgotten or forsaken the natural joys of living life the way that God intended us to when He created us. It all began when man put himself above God. This led to a new low where man put capitalistic ideals of progress above even himself, the image of God, let alone God Himself. (Note: It is important to note that none of these things are intrinsically evil, but we had gotten our priorities terribly wrong.)
The result was a world that continuously and unsustainably screamed “more, more, more!”. So God answered with a pandemic that forced us to sheepishly ask in unison, “How can we do more with less?” In response to a global culture that kept shrieking “faster, faster, faster!” God made it unavoidable for us all to slow down, whether we liked it or not. And in response to a global business mindset that was addicted to short-term gains, monthly sales performance, and quarterly shareholder value growth, God created a global condition where full-scale uncertainty made it almost impossible for businesses to make short-term plans, and they had no choice but to re-learn how to plan for the long term.
Before COVID-19, we were living in an increasingly materialistic and unstoppably superficial world, a world that liked quickly and forgot how to love deeply. So God has responded with a virus that forces virtually everyone on the planet to pause, look at one another, blink and ask “What are we doing all this for?”, and finally arrive at the golden question, “What are the really important things in my life?”
B. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT AFTER THIS PANDEMIC SUBSIDES, IF WE WERE TO DRAW FROM THE PARTICULAR BIBLICAL ANALOGY OF NOAH’S FLOOD?
This is the million-dollar question, the question that we must spend a good amount of time upon.
The truth is that the world never recovered per se from the Flood. When the waters abated and dry land finally reappeared, the world had changed completely, even unrecognizably. There is an important lesson to be learnt here. When God employs a global catastrophe, He does so to transform the world. The world does not emerge from a global crisis healed. It emerges different. The important question we must be asking ourselves today in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic is not “When will the world return to normal?” but rather “What will be the new normal?”
Much of what will constitute the new normal would have had their origins in trends that were building up just before the pandemic. COVID-19 would merely become the trigger that turns a tendency into a normal.
Take, for instance, the increasingly nationalistic tones that were emerging in the world since, or in fact well before, 17.4 million people in the UK voted for Brexit in 2016, the “‘murican” Donald Trump won the US presidency in 2017, and China tried to assert its dominance early over a defiant Hong Kong in 2019. President Trump, representing the sentiment of hundreds of millions of US voters, wanted a wall to protect his borders. Today, we live in a COVID-19 world where, even without the “Trump Wall”, travel and immigration between most countries have essentially become banned, and not just unilaterally. When President Trump took office, he famously and controversially announced, “America FIRST!” Today, countries have little choice but to prioritize the safety and welfare of their own citizens first, above everyone else, by closing borders and airports and imposing some of the strictest immigration policies ever seen outside of wartime. The new geopolitical normal that will follow COVID-19 remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. For better or for worse, the world’s drive towards liberal globalism, capitalism, and progressive homogeneity will not simply swing back to where it used to be before the pandemic, especially if economies somehow manage to find a way to function to some extent despite Coronavirus-related border restrictions.
Needless to say, another example of a macro trend that may experience great windfall because of COVID-19 is the growth of the tech industry. Even before the pandemic, we were asking ourselves “just how much bigger can Google, Facebook, PayPal, Amazon, or even relative newcomers like Uber, become?” Most of these tech giants have more money than some countries, and some have more money than most countries. But the pandemic has become the testing ground that these tech giants needed to prove themselves capable of achieving a whole new level of both significance and capacity. And most would agree, they are acing the test. Emerging technologies based on blockchain, virtual or augmented reality, and 5G connectivity have also found endless new justifications for commercialization. As nations, companies, and even households emerge from COVID-19 and understandably invest heavily into resilience, these technologies will most likely take center-stage in the new normal.
Perhaps more importantly for developing countries, the shape of international aid and charity may also see a new normal. Up till now, deadly viral outbreaks, such as ebola, were stereo-typically associated with regions such as Africa. The Coronavirus, however, crippled developed G20 nations way earlier and far more relentlessly than it did developing countries, at least for now. As of the first week of April 2020, the United States has reported 9,620 deaths, Spain 13,055, and Italy a staggering 15,887, while the entire African continent of 54 countries and 1.4 billion people has reported only 445. Granted, the numbers in Africa may be under-reported, or perhaps Africa’s real struggle with the virus is yet to come. But that is beside the point. The point is that these numbers have changed the priorities, direction, and nature of humanitarian donations and aid around the globe, a globe in which suddenly everyone is terrified, at risk, and in need. I recently received a request from an African friend to help raise US and Japanese donations to fund projects that will help boost awareness about COVID-19 in the African nation of Malawi, where there have been no Coronavirus-related deaths as of yet. Despite Malawi being one of the poorest countries in the world by GDP per capita and despite it being one of the countries for which donations would normally have been swiftly raised, I had to regretfully tell him that his request may be unrealistic … that we are now living in a new normal.
For a long time now, there has been a movement to gradually wean Africa from its dependency upon aid. One of the champions of this movement, Zambian Harvard and Oxford graduate Dambisa Moyo, in her New York Times bestselling book Dead Aid, famously wrote,
Africa is addicted to aid. For the past sixty years it has been fed aid. Like any addict it needs and depends on its regular fix, finding it hard, if not impossible, to contemplate existence in an aid-less world.
This, however, was a problem with no easy solution. And it may continue to be so even after COVID-19 has subsided. But the pandemic has created a precedent where many humanitarian aid and charity organizations have had to tell Africa for the first time, “Sorry, but you have to wait in line.” This precedent may have a profound effect upon the world’s perspective and sentiment towards international aid, charity, and their destinations as the world enters the new normal.
But the new normal is not only going to involve changes in these big, macro areas. There will be a new normal in the way the world views and values the elderly, children, healthcare professionals, finance and insurance, wealth, spending, education, health, sanitation and hygiene, minimalism and lifestyle, work-life balance, corporate culture and work ethic, law and order, government authority, travel, commerce, logistics, supply chains and value chains, and the list goes on.
Once again, the world will not emerge from this pandemic healed. It will emerge different.
C. HOW DO WE SEEK OUR CALLING IN THE NEW NORMAL?
This brings us back to where we started – finding our calling in a time of crisis and change.
One afternoon in October 2012, a fifteen-year-old girl was riding home from school in a bus in Pakistan, when a masked Taliban gunman jumped on-board and shot her in the head at point blank. The bullet entered near her left eye, damaging her brain, and then traveled through her neck to lodge in her shoulder near her spine, leaving her unconscious and critically wounded. Miraculously, however, three months and many complex surgeries later, she was discharged from hospital in January of 2013 and had made an almost complete recovery by mid-2014.
However, that was only the beginning of her remarkable story. The tragedy served to reinforce the calling she had felt within her since she was eleven, a calling to speak out on behalf of children’s basic right to education. It also gave her a big voice on the international stage. Speaking out on behalf of children’ basic rights to education, she went on to receive a standing ovation at the United Nations for her stirring speech on July 12, 2013 at age sixteen, co-found a non-profit fund for education, and become the youngest person in history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of seventeen. Time magazine named her one of the most influential people globally in 2013, 2014, and 2015. You probably already know who I am talking about. Her name is Malala Yousafzai.
Malala’s story is more relevant to us than we may think. Although admittedly different in severity, Malala also lived in a world that, like ours today, was shifting towards a new normal. By the time she was eleven, Taliban militants had taken over much of the Swat valley region where she lived, banning television, music, and girls’ education, bombing and destroying hundreds of girls’ schools. The people lived in constant and mortal fear under de facto Taliban rule, the new normal.
It was in this new normal that Malala found her calling, even before she was shot. Inspired since childhood by figures such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Benazir Bhutto, and her own parents who ran multiple schools, she discovered that what she really wanted out of life (her internal calling) was to become an activist advocating for children’s education. However, it was the oppressive new normal imposed by the Taliban, the attempted assassination, and the outpouring of international support that provided her with the confirmation that what she wanted was also what the world needed, what life wanted out of her (her external calling). And it was in this alignment between her own desires and her world’s needs that she found her full calling.
Today, many of us may be seeking for our own full calling in the face of the global uncertainty inflicted by COVID-19. For some, this trying period will be remembered as nothing more than a giant setback in life. However, for those of us who are genuinely seeking for our calling, our God-given purpose in life, it can be a historic opportunity that presents new normals, new needs, new ways to serve, and new ways to matter.
But there are two additional characteristics that make this particular opportunity so historically unique and valuable to the honest path-seeker. Firstly, unlike most opportunities that come once in a lifetime, this one gives us abundant time to think before we jump. While most opportunities come and go at a speed that forces us to “take it or leave it”, the pandemic has slowed the world to a pace that allows us the luxury of spending months finding both our internal calling (i.e. self-reflecting together with God in prayer, consulting family, friends, and mentors) and our external calling (i.e. educating ourselves about the new lay of the land, analyzing the impending new normal).
Secondly, it is perhaps the only instance in recent history, and probably for the foreseeable future, where such an incredibly large number of established norms about lifestyle, family, society, business, and government are being re-scrutinized the world over. The world is being forced to reexamine its very way of life. As a result, questions about life that may have been brushed off as “out there” or discounted as strange or alternative for the past half-century are finding serious, open-minded listeners. We who survive COVID-19 get to seriously challenge norms such as the five-day work week, the school-based education system, the current tax and accounting principles, the definitions of full-time and part-time employment, and many, many more. In other words, COVID-19 has taken away many of the tradition-based obstacles that we would have had to cope with if seeking our calling prior to the pandemic.
Therefore, not only do I believe that God put us each in the world during the Coronavirus pandemic for a specific purpose, He has given us ample time and flexibility with which to find it. We are the blessed generation that gets to contemplate, seek, and shape our callings from a whole new playing field. Let us not mess this up. Let us:
- be still and isolate ourselves with God, pouring out our hearts before Him, telling Him our truest desires
- be still and carefully analyze the emerging new normal in our fundamentally changing world
- be still and self-reflect deeply upon what we have and can give (talents, resources) that the world needs
- be still and take time to creatively visualize our unique callings, not allowing traditional norms to hold us down
That’s all much more easily said than done, you may be thinking. Perhaps you may be feeling a little overwhelmed at the thought of all this. But here is a deeply comforting thought. If God called you for a specific purpose in the post- Corona world, He will show it to you. And then He will equip you and He will take care of you as you pursue it. Sound familiar? I hope so, because I am paraphrasing none other than the very words of His famous promise to us that, “All things work together for good for those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
4. Closing Thoughts
History will remember this pandemic. Your children and grandchildren will one day ask you about how you lived through it. What do you want to tell them? Malala had a noble calling. But it is what she did, and the story of how she overcame overwhelming adversity to do it, that made her who she is today. What will you do to find your calling during the Corona pandemic? What will be your personal Corona story?
When the virus was discovered, epidemiologists named it “Corona”, or Latin for “crown” (hence the word “coronation”), because of its unique shape. It would be humorous and ironic then, perhaps, to imagine that there may be many of us who will one day look back and tell our children, “The Coronavirus pandemic was what God used to crown me with purpose and anoint me with my calling.”
It is my prayer that this pandemic will help many who seek the will of God and His purpose in their lives to find their unique and meaningful calling. And it is my belief that they will. An interesting parallel can be drawn between where we are today in our quarantines or social-distancing routines and where the nation of Israel was in 600 BC, being marched into exile and captivity. We are both being isolated from the lives we have always known, and through no wish of our own. But God promises them saying, “I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart”. (Jeremiah 29:11, 12)
So, as we experience our own “exile” through this pandemic, let us do what the prophet Jeremiah tells the children of Israel to do … to seek God, talk to Him, and hope upon Him. Because if we do so, this pandemic could be the season through which He will call us according to His purpose, showing us His plans for us and for the new world we are about to see.
“Originally published at our sister organization, www.africanbusiness.institute“
Jun ShiomitsuFounder & President at AVODA Group
Founder & President of AVODA Group. Prior to this, Jun was a banker for 13 years in Japan, the UK, and Switzerland, initially as the Assistant Vice President of the Treasury Department of Citibank Japan.