There was a curious moment in last night’s season premiere of The X-Factor.
The show is an American Idol knock-off in which celebrity judges (including Simon Cowell, America’s favorite English grump) alternately bless and bash dreams of stardom. The moment in question came when 50-year-old Shawn Armenta took an ill-fated stab at singing (and dancing?) onstage. Simon hated it. Britney Spears hated it. Radio Disney princess Demi Lovato told the contestant, “A lot of people work really, really hard for their dreams. But it’s not meant for everybody.”
“That’s why you use auto-tune and I don’t,” the man snapped back, which almost made Simon spit out his drink and sent Britney into full-on angry-mama-bear mode.
The curious moment wasn’t the man’s retort, which, admittedly, has some merit. It was Lovato’s critique which, auto-tuned or otherwise, falls so strangely on our ears as to sound downright un-American. Someone can have a dream that, no matter how hard they work for it, isn’t meant for them? Nonsense. That is no message to teach our children, least of all when it comes from the Disney Universe—an empire built on the unqualified belief that “all your wishes will come true.”
But Disney isn’t the most die-hard progenitor of this belief. No, that honor goes to the Church.
Desire vs. calling
The American church service exists as sort of an American Idol in which there is no Simon Cowell, only kindly worship pastors and well-meaning Sunday school teachers, each determined to prove to every sheep in their flock that God not only loves them but has made them uncommonly gifted. Church leaders, often desperate for any warm body with an eager spirit, will shovel willing volunteers into whatever position they want.
You want to help with the youth group? Are you free this Wednesday?
You want to play guitar for the worship team? Here’s this Sunday’s chord sheet!
You want to cook dinner for small group? We’re on our way!
I exaggerate, but not overly so. I’ve seen a man’s request to sing his own original songs granted every Sunday, in spite of the fact that he was the only one who found them any good. I’ve seen a woman on a drum kit who couldn’t manage to find anything to hit besides the cymbal. I, myself, had my own childhood request to play the piano for church granted—although, to my youth pastor’s undying credit, it was granted but once.
In these and all the other horror stories we could all share, the repeated phrase is that they have a good heart: “She’s not a great singer, but she has a good heart.” “He’s not a great preacher, but his heart’s in the right place.” In the Kingdom of God, we have decided that desire is an apt substitute for calling.
But that is not the way God sees it.
David’s deferred dream
One of the lesser known but more interesting stories from King David’s life is that of his desire to build a temple. David had finally secured Israel and established himself as the undisputed master of the realm. He had his palace to prove it, a structure of unprecedented majesty. The shepherd had, as they say, done well for himself. This accomplished, his thoughts turned to the tabernacle: the tattered old tent where the Ark of the Covenant—the physical representation of the presence of God—was kept. He mused over this to his friend—Nathan, a prophet—saying, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan saw David’s good intentions and basically gave him a thumb’s up. “Whatever you have in mind,” he says in 2 Samuel 7, “Go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”
Notice Nathan’s confidence. David is a good guy, wanting to do a good thing; it seems right. But God, as He often does, had a few things to set straight regarding the good intentions of His children. As David relates the story much later, “I had it in my heart to build a house for the Name of the Lord my God. But this word of the Lord came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for My Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.’”
It’s important to note that David’s warring activity—virtually all of it—was explicitly commanded by God. This prohibition was not punishment. It was simply the recognition that God has created a body with many members in it and that just because a hand wants to be an eye doesn’t mean it’d be any good at it.
However, that doesn’t make a hand any less useful. Or valuable. Or beautiful, in its own way. Nor does it mean that the eye doesn’t have any work to do. As God went on to tell David, “You will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side … He is the one who will build a house for My Name.”
David wanted to do a good, noble, selfless thing. That didn’t mean it was God’s will for him to do it.
Giving our dreams to God
Our first response whenever we meet an eager young heart who wants to go into missions, or seminary, or worship music, or acting, or writing or anything at all is one of reciprocal eagerness. The American mantra to go for your dreams, make your wishes come true and deserve every little thing we take it upon ourselves to accomplish has been adopted wholesale by our Bible studies and church services.
But David’s story makes clear that our desires and our calling are not always one and the same. It took David being in very close communion with God to know the difference. And God—speaking the truth in love, since He could hardly speak any other way—affirms David’s talent, assures him of the purity of his desires and explains to him why he’s just not the right fit. God had another role for David to fill.
This does not give us, or anyone, license to wander the halls of our churches, squashing the dreams of anyone we deem not worthy. The better application is to examine our own dreams in light of the reality that their goodness just does not make them right.
Because a lot of people work really, really hard for their dreams. But it’s not meant for everybody.