Two weeks ago, I anxiously sat in my room awkwardly staring at my glowing computer screen. My heart raced and a dull lump began to form in my throat. Every few seconds I would chuckle at myself, “Zac, breathe. You’ve got this.” I have been in college for four and a half years at this point. Every test, every paper, every single page of those monotonous textbooks has led to the single moment of me awkwardly sitting in front of a computer screen on a sunny afternoon. Why? Well, I was awaiting a call. I sat there as the seconds ticked, waiting for the professors at my prospective graduate school to call me via Skype for an interview. All of the effort and energy I have invested in my education came down to a call.
In Christianity, there is this common discussion of calling. The term could really be defined as one’s purpose, meaning, or direction in life. In this short article, I would like to debunk some of the aspects of the call to provide a greater understanding of what being called actually means and what its implications are for our lives. We will examine the notion of calling in four ways:
- What is the call?
- Answering the call.
- The Price of the call.
- Being Chosen.
What is the call?
Deep within each of us is an insatiable hunger to know the purpose or meaning of our lives. If it is true that God formed each of us intentionally and has specific plans for our lives (Psalm 139:13-14; Jeremiah 1:5, 29:11), then it begs the question, “Why am I here?” Os Guinness (2003) says that “Our passion is to know that we are fulfilling the purpose for which we are here on earth” (p. 1). On its most fundamental level, the calling is one’s awareness of God’s purpose for their life.
Simply knowing what calling is though does not lead us any closer to hearing or answering that call. Samuel heard the call of God one night four different times before he was finally able to answer, and that was only after Eli told him how to respond! Then, once God tells Samuel all he is going to do, I believe we have sufficient reason to speculate if Samuel even fully understood what God was talking about.
Remember, Samuel obviously knows that there is a purpose in his life — his mom did make him move in with Eli the Priest (1 Samuel 1:24-25). God comes to Samuel in the night and tells him all that he is going to do, and then we read one of the most real verses in the Bible, “And Samuel lay until the morning” (1 Samuel 3:15). Samuel laid there all night long trying to figure out what just happened — been there, done that. Samuel’s calling was pretty confusing, and even at that moment, he had no way of even fathoming that he was going to be the last of the Judges and the first of God’s prophets! Dietrich Bonhoeffer once penned from a cold German prison, “My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know.” Today, if you know that God has plans for you, but you simply have no idea what that means, don’t worry, you are in good company.
Discovering the call of God on our lives is a dynamic process that takes time and effort. One way to begin the process of discerning the call is to examine the talents and gifts that God has given to you. What are you good at? What do you like to do? What do people know you by? What are you interested in? Similarly, the antonym of these questions is also a great indicator. What do you NOT like to do? What are you NOT interested in? These are good foundational questions to ask yourself as you seek to examine the call.
I’m afraid that we have this idealized image of the call as being an exclusive club reserved only for pastor’s kids and those who do not want to go to college. This cannot be further from the truth.
Paul writes to the Ephesians, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Ephesians 4:1, KJV). Again, “the vocation wherewith ye are called.” Remember that when he was not in prison or traveling to spread the Gospel, Paul was a tent-maker (Acts 18:3).
- Moses was a nomadic shepherd for years (Exodus 3:1).
- David was also a shepherd (1 Samuel 16).
- The disciples were fishermen (Matthew 4).
- Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 9).
- Jacob seemed to be a half decent chef (Genesis 25:34).
- Noah was a shipbuilder (Genesis 6-7).
Furthermore, in Exodus 25-30 we read of the of the plans that God gave to Moses for the tabernacle, then we read in Exodus 31 that God called Bezaleel and anointed him with wisdom to be a skilled craftsman so that all the detail of the tabernacle could actually be built.
Then we look at Joseph and see all that God did through him in his calling. Outside of Pharaoh, Joseph was one of the most influential political figures in Egypt (Genesis 41:41-44). The life of Joseph is critical to the history of Israel, and yet he never prophesied or made sacrifices. He was not a priest or a preacher. Joseph was, by all means, a politician who God had called.
This list is far from exhaustive, but it provides us with a portrait of the fact that God’s calling on our lives is not always exclusively for vocational ministry. Again, Paul said to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” Certainly being called into the ministry is a high calling and one that is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, nobody can call you to preach or be involved in vocational ministry other than God Himself (McClintock, 2015, p. 58). However, God does call people into vocations that are not the ministry.
Going back to the rise of the Catholic Empire, one begins to find the roots of the notion that you can only be used by God if you’re involved in active vocational ministry. At the time, common people were faced with a fork in the road. The church had exclusive access to the Bible, as it was written in Latin and common individuals neither read or spoke Latin. So, the average man or woman seemed to be faced with a juxtaposition: become a priest or nun and have full access to God or become a merchant, sailor, trader, farmer, etc. and know nothing about God. The average man or woman was at the mercy of the clergy in regards to knowing and understanding God. From this rose a polarity that if you want to be used by God, he calls you into the ministry. The fallacy has plagued us for hundreds of years. Yes, God calls men and women exclusively into the ministry, and this is a huge privilege. But God also calls men and women into the medical field, the sciences, academia, and so forth.
Paul further explains in Ephesians 4 that God has ordained and called men and women into the fivefold ministry, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, KJV). If we were all called to be pastors or prophets or evangelists, then who would we edify? God’s calling for your life may be to become a pastor or a missionary, and that this awesome. However, God’s calling for your life could be to be an excellent nurse, HR representative, teacher, banker, or server. The calling is not exclusive to vocational ministry. Furthermore, if you feel that God has called you, no matter where that calling leads, then he has called all of you — that includes your bank account, iTunes playlist and topics of conversation. As I defined earlier, the calling is one’s awareness of God’s purpose for their life. God’s destiny and purpose wherein you find the meaning of your life is exclusive to you.
The Great Commission in Matthew 28 means that all of us are called to bear fruit for the kingdom of God. We are all called to witness and reach for those who are not saved. As William Temple once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” We even find that with the infilling of the Holy Ghost, believers are empowered to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). So, we cannot undermine the fact that each of us as Christians are called to spread the Gospel. But the question of personal calling factors in as we ask how this calling of the Church factors into our personal purpose and existence in everyday life.
Os Guinness (2003) reminds us that, “talk of ‘callings’ remain bafflingly hollow unless there is something or Someone to whom we are responsible, or response-able, to whom we are able to respond. There is no calling unless there is a Caller” (p. 20). Therefore, while it is important for us to understand the call, it is vitally more important to know the Caller. Martin Luther famously said, “I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.” There are many phone calls that I do not answer because I do not recognize the caller. Samuel did not immediately recognize the Caller (1 Samuel 3). Moses did not recognize the Caller (Exodus 3). Saul did not recognize the Caller (Acts 9).
As we now discuss answering the call, I urge you to first seek the caller.
Answering the Call.
I would like to postulate that there are two predominant ways in which God calls us.
- Momentary Revolution
- Progressive Evolution
The first is what I like to call Momentary Revolution. We see this in the life of Samuel (I Samuel 3), David, (1 Samuel 16), Saul (Paul) (Acts 9), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), Isaiah (Isaiah 6), and the disciples (Matthew 4; Mark 1; Luke 5). In definition, this momentary revolution is characterized by a singular experience where one suddenly knows their calling. Remember, when Jesus called Peter, James, and John they were fishing, “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). These men had a sudden experience that caused them to understand a portion of the destiny God had for them. Traditionally, this has become the cliche approach to being called. However, I believe God calls many through another means.
The second means of calling is the Progressive Evolution. This approach is different than the stereotypical instantaneous revelation and is characterized by a series of progressive steps that culminate in an understanding of one’s calling. Moses is a good example of this process. We look at his life and see the hand of God, but it took Moses 80 years to finally end up in Pharaoh’s court to answer his destiny of liberating the Israelite nation (Exodus 7:7).
Joseph is another perfect example of the progressive evolution approach to calling as one finds a boy who sees a picture of his destiny (Genesis 37:9-11) but in order to arrive there, Joseph had to grow through a pit and a prison. Joseph’s ultimate calling was a progression.
This approach to the calling as being a process is underlined by Isaiah’s prophecy, “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:13). The call in this way is not a singular experience but a carefully developed understanding. In many ways, this is exactly how the call of God in my life has unfolded. I cannot look back to a single moment where I felt that God was calling me into vocational ministry, but as I look back over the last few years, I can see glimmers of God’s hand through a myriad of experiences that has culminated to where I am today.
It is important to understand these two approaches as we seek to answer the call. If you can look at your life and find a singular moment where you felt God calling you, then hold on to that momentary revelation. However, if you cannot, then I urge you to think back over some of the defining experiences of your life and see if there aligns a common theme. This progressive evolution may not be finished yet, but you are well on your way to answering the call.
Answering the call is not always as straightforward as we would like for it to be. Simply put, answering is our part in responding. As noted above, the Caller gives the call, and it is our job to be response-able for the response. God breathed into Adam’s limp body, and Adam responded by inhaling and exhaling (Genesis 2:7). God called the prophets in the Old Testament, and they were responsible for conveying the Word of the Lord. Answering the call requires both hearing and acting. On a raging sea, Peter shouts over the wind and waves, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). Jesus replies in the next verse simply, “Come.” The call required Peter to listen and act. Because Peter was able to hear and respond to the voice of Jesus even through the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee, he had the faith to stand amid the rushing mighty wind on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1-2).
“Answering the call is the way to find and fulfill the central purpose of your life” (Guinness, 2003 p. 7). The process of answering the call is not a momentary act but is an endeavor that one partakes in as one follows God’s Will. Paul said, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Throughout Paul’s ministry, he continued to press forward towards the high calling.
So, as we pose the question of how does one legitimately begin to answer the call, we must begin with the words of Jesus to his disciples. For context, the disciples try to cast an evil spirit out of a boy but are not able to. The father brings the son to Jesus takes authority over the mute and deaf spirit and commands it to come out — it obeys. Apparently deflated, the disciples later ask him privately, “‘Why could not we cast him out?’ And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting’” (Mark 9:28-29, KJV). First and foremost, endeavoring to answer the call is an intentional process which requires each of us to seek after God for it. God does his part is calling, we must do our part to position ourselves to listen and respond.
Jesus further reminds us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, ESV). Apply this three step process to your pursuit of discovering the call in our life:
- Ask God to show you your calling. This is achieved through prayer and fasting, as well as talking to your pastor and those who know you well.
- Seek the call by positioning yourself to hear the call. This is achieved through faithfulness and carefully stewarding the responsibilities you currently have.
- Knocking is the final process of attaining the call. Once you have a picture of what the call is, knocking is the continual striving to ascertain all God has.
We noted earlier that as Christians we are all called to do our part in carrying the Gospel. “In short, everyone is called to serve. Everyone should have a ministry, although not everyone has the ministry of preaching, teaching, and leading” (Bernard, 2015, p. 14). So, as we seek to answer the call of God, it is imperative to understand that even if God has called you to be a pediatric neurosurgeon you still have a ministry in the Church. Each of us are ministers.
If after reading all of this you truly feel like God is calling you to pursue vocational ministry, then there is another portion we must examine — the price.
The Price of the Call
One aspect of the calling that is rarely discussed is the price of the call. As we looked at earlier, Jesus told the disciples in Mark 9:29, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting” (KJV). God’s calling to Abraham required him to leave his family and venture into a foreign land (Genesis 12). Paul was blind for three days after God called him (Acts 9:9). So, there is this trend we see in Scripture that answering and following the call is not a casual or passive experience — there is a price.
I recently talked to a good friend on this topic, and he stirred me with his words regarding the price of the call. He noted that he felt called at a young age, but because of the reality of what that calling meant, it scared him. The call to vocational ministry itself did not scare him, but the price of what that would mean to his life did. Potentially giving up friends, having to stop listening to cool music, and lifestyle changes like clothes and hobbies made the call bear a heavy price.
Jesus did not shy away from this reality, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29, ESV). If you feel called to formal, vocational ministry yes, there is a price involved in living out that call. The rich young ruler was so close to Jesus and truly sought eternal life, but Jesus pinpoints the price that his calling would require, and the young ruler went away sorrowful (Matthew 19:16-22). My intent with this is not to discourage you from the call, but to remind you that no matter the price, the end result is always worth it.
Any discussion of the price of the calling must fundamentally remind us that vocational ministry is a calling and not a career choice. “Our problem today is that ministry has simply become a vocational choice. This has brought untold misery to the church. Ministry is not a vocational choice; it is a sovereign call of God” (Tozer, 2014, p. 106). One of the unique aspects of the call of God is that it is not a job or task to be accomplished until you can retire. Instead, the call is a lifelong journey of seeking and following. The call of God intrinsically merges with one’s personal identity. Meaning, purpose, destiny, and identity are wrapped up in this notion of the calling to the point that it cannot be carefully boxed into a portion of one’s life but instead becomes who we are.
It is not my intention to belabor the point, but I believe that it is important to convey the sheer price of the call. John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV). The Church is bigger than all of us and therefore means that we must be willing to sacrifice our personal desires. David was living a happy life in the countryside. His hobbies included hours of watching sheep gaze, playing the harp and killing the occasional bear or lion (1 Samuel 17:36). Then Samuel comes into his life, and he is anointed king of Israel. Scholars believe that the period between David’s anointing as King and his crowning as King was a span of 15-25 years. Much of that time was spent running.
The call is not a haphazard decision that one embarks on because one’s friends are going to Bible College. It is placing one’s life on the altar and saying, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). C.S. Lewis put it this way, “The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.” I urge you to pray and seek the wisdom of elders before you make any decision of the call of God into vocational ministry. The Bible reminds us that those whom God has entrusted with much will be required more than the rest (Luke 12:48). In fact, James goes so far as to say, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, ESV).
Henri Nouwen (1979) referred to vocational ministry as “the lonely call,” and he spoke often of his personal battle with loneliness throughout his ministry. As we look throughout the Bible, we find account after account of God’s chosen vessel being set apart from everyone else. Though being God’s spokesmen to the nation, the Old Testament prophets were typically isolated from the crowd. “The prophet is a lonely man. His standards are too high, his stature too great, and his concern too intense for other men to share. Living on the highest peak, he has no company except God” (Heschel, 2001, p. 100). At one point, the Israelites were afraid of Moses because of the glory he radiated (Exodus 34:30). Noah and his family were ostracized because of his obedience to God and eventually become the only people whom God spared (Genesis 6-7). In fact, Jesus withdrew himself from the people numerous times (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). If God has called you to Himself, then he has called you for Himself.
As we conclude our discussion of the call, it is imperative that we end by examining where the call beings. Christian ministry in any capacity is a lifelong journey of becoming. Whether you feel called into the fivefold ministry or if you feel that your call is in graphic design, as a Christian you have been called “out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9, ESV). The Christian walk is one of constantly striving — continuously pushing forward. As Paul said, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). Obviously, this prize is not to be ascertained here on Earth, for the ultimate prize of the Christian life rests in seven words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21, KJV).
Bearing this in mind, we find that it is possible to be called by God as a servant for his kingdom, as everyone who is a Christian is, but yet miss the mark of being chosen of God. Sure, God may have called you, but has he chosen you? The Bible reminds us, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14, ESV). While the calling is an endeavor to find purpose and meaning within God’s providence, being chosen entails being selected into the Kingdom of God. Think of it this way, the calling is natural, whereas being chosen is eternal.
So, the burden of calling is one that rests heavy upon all of our shoulders. I certainly hope that this article has helped to sort through your process of discerning and answering the call. Believe me; I am in this right with you. Even as I write this, I can relate so much to Bonhoeffer in that I know without a shadow of a doubt that God’s call is upon my life, but where that call will beckon me and where God’s purpose for my ministry will unfold I really cannot say. I speak of the calling because I am also trying to listen to that still small voice (1 Kings 19:12, KJV). However, as we seek the call, I pray that we do not lose sight of our personal relationship with God. While the calling is imperative, being chosen and entering into the joy of the Lord is truly why we are all in this Christian walk. Please do not chase the call so passionately that the embers of your relationship with God go cold. Honestly, we will always be seeking more in this life. As Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts remain restless until they find their rest in you.” We will always have that angst of restlessness with the call until we cross over into heaven.
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall”
(II Peter 1:10, ESV).
Bernard, D. K. (2015). Spiritual leadership in the 21st century: Advice for ministers and church leaders. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press.
Guinness, O. (2003). The call: finding and fulfilling the central purpose of your life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Heschel, A. J. (2001). The Prophets. New York, NY: Perennial.
McClintock, J. (2015). Life preaching: practical advice on preaching God’s word. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press.
Nouwen, H. (1979). The wounded healer: ministry in contemporary society. Garden City, NY: Image Books.
Tozer, A. W. (2014). Voice of a prophet: who speaks for God? Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.