Rethinking Christian Calling

Many well-meaning Christians often want to baptize their aspirations and decisions with divine approval. It’s not uncommon to hear young people encouraged to figure out who, where, and what God might be “calling” them to. Consider three little anecdotal stories. John is talking with some friends when he confidently announces that he has met the girl he will marry. When asked how he can be certain he says God has called him to take her as his wife. Susie is getting ready to graduate high school and decides to go to a particular university. When asked why, she says God has called her to go to that school. Ben works as a plumber. When asked why he chose that profession he says God has called him to that work. Do you see the pattern?

While it may not gain me popularity points I want to rethink this common idea of God’s calling. Biblically, the call of God is used in reference to our salvation and to Apostolic office (see e.g. Romans 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:1). Foregoing the second of these, the Bible says we have been “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6) and “called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:30). We’re “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2) and “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). We have been “called to freedom” (Galatians 5:13) and called into a hope that is “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18). We have received the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14) and are to “walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12). And you are to be “diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). The dominant use of “call” in the New Testament is directed toward our initiation, identity, hope, and destiny in Jesus Christ. In all of that, and there’s dozens more that could be mentioned, the Bible never mentions God’s call in relation to your individual aspirations and decisions.

Practically, what does this mean? Well, if I can put it this way, it means you don’t need a divine calling in order to confirm the decisions of your life. For the sake of clarity, that doesn’t mean you aren’t to discern God’s will or that God doesn’t guide us. The Apostle Paul tells us to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). But God’s will doesn’t come to us by some spiritual experience many people see as a “divine calling.” As John Newton once asked: “How then may the Lord’s guidance be expected? In general, he guides and directs his people, by affording them, in answer to prayer, the light of his Holy Spirit, which enables them to understand and to love the Scriptures.” Discerning God’s will and guidance comes to us in the Bible and we need to be content with that. The specific details of his individual plan are things that can only be known in retrospect. For instance, God isn’t going to call you to marry a specific person by name but he does specify the kind of person you should marry—a godly man or a godly woman. God isn’t going to call you to attend a particular school or study in a specific program but he does specify that you are to be a good steward of the gifts and resources he has given—guarding against debt and honoring him. God isn’t going to call you to take a specific job but he does specify how you need to work—in the six days he’s given you with honesty and integrity as one working for the Lord. We need to stop thinking that our decisions need to be made or supported with a sense of divine calling.

I write this as a point of pastoral concern. Even though we’re well-meaning when we encourage people to discern God’s “calling” in their life there are some potential (if not inevitable) consequences. First, it detracts from the sufficiency of the Bible. Paul wrote to Timothy and said: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). That means the Bible is enough for faith and life. As Sinclair Ferguson observed: “If there is one critical issue we must face about divine guidance it is this one. Is Scripture our guide? Is Scripture ultimately ‘the only rule to direct us how we may glorify’ God?” Mystical or not you don’t need a calling in addition to, above, beyond, or aside from what you are given in the Bible. Our desperate need is to be trained by the Spirit to bring the Bible’s precepts and principles into our aspirations and decisions.

Secondly, when we stamp “the call of God” over our daily or life changing decisions we are making a very serious claim. Biblically, when God did—by an act of revelation—call a person to something, the only appropriate response was unwavering and unhesitating obedience. This is illustrated well in the story of Jonah. When God called the Prophet and said “Go” and Jonah said “No,” the Lord pursued him to death (see Jonah 2:5). That’s the gravity of invoking the call of God in your aspirations and decisions. If it is God’s call that you marry a specific person, study a specific subject, or take a specific job it would require nothing but complete and total obedience outside of which you would be in sin to do something else.

Thirdly, it causes unnecessary stress and anxiety. The Christian life is one where we are called to be holy. As Paul wrote: “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). It is the daily struggle of every Christian to live in a manner worthy of that calling. Why unnecessarily press upon people the need to seek a divine calling that the Bible never speaks of? I remember giving a talk at a college conference a couple years ago. Part of my talk was about our ordinary obedience. I noted that it wasn’t our responsibility to figure out the detailed plan that God has for our life and then live in obedience to that. Our obedience is measured in our conformity to the Bible which is the only rule of how we are to glorify God. When I finished a young woman came up to me and said: “That’s so refreshing! No one has ever told me that. All my life I’ve been told I need to figure out God’s specific call for my life–what I should study, where I should work, and who I should marry. It’s as exhausting as it is exasperating!” Exactly! It’s a yoke we aren’t intended to bear. As wisdom teaches us: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

So here’s my suggestion. You don’t need a divine calling to confirm the decisions in your life. In a sermon Augustine once famously said, “Love, and do what you will.” Not to tinker unnecessarily with the words of Augustine, but if I can modify that slightly I would say: glorify God in whatever you do, and do what you want. Glorify God in your relationships, and marry who you will. Glorify God in your studies, and study what you will. Glorify God in your job, and work where you will. Glorify God, and do what you want.

7 Comments

  1. Linda M. Au July 14, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    This is refreshing and marvelous. I still struggle with this sometimes… but had never really thought of it this clearly. Thanks, Kyle!

  2. Graham July 15, 2017 at 7:23 am #

    Very helpful, refreshing read. Thank you. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on calling into full-time ministry. Would you treat this any differently to the decisions in life referred to in your article.

    • Kyle Borg July 15, 2017 at 7:47 am #

      Graham,

      Thanks for the comment. Essentially, I wouldn’t treat it any differently in that even here we aren’t looking for a mystical experience. When Paul speaks of being “called” as an Apostle I can’t help but read that in relation to *how* he was called–by supernatural revelation. Paul himself understood that he was the last whom Jesus appeared to (see 1 Corinthians 15:8). Where I would see a difference is the way in which the Bible prescribes a method of entering into the ministry. The ministry isn’t something a man takes to himself even though he may desire it, there are spiritual qualifications that are a necessary prerequisite, and there is to be an official setting apart by the laying on of hands. All of that is done through the agency of the church electing, examining, and ordaining to the ministry and yet that one is being given the ministry by Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:17). That’s a very different method than other decisions in life.

      Blessings,
      Kyle

  3. JS July 22, 2017 at 11:06 am #

    Thanks for the article. Some helpful stuff in here, but also some misleading stuff. I think if you do a full search of call/called/calling, there is more nuance beyond just salvation (1 Cor 7 being an example). And it’s dangerous to put God in a box and say that He won’t call/reveal something specific to someone. That’s not true and certainly not biblical. I understand the overall sentiment of what you’re trying to say, but the way you have communicated it has limited God and how He may work. Blessings!

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