is God calling me into mission? (vi)

I’ve almost finished this series exploring the language of ‘call’. Read from the beginnig HERE.

In my previous post, I moved from God’s general call on all Christians — to belong to him and to be swept up in his mission — to considering the way some people sometimes speak of a special call (or ‘burden’) God places on them to serve a particular place, people-group, or project.

I suggested that there were some things this way of talking can help us safeguard. But I also need to highlight some of the reasons why I’m hesitant to talk this way.

To begin with, I wonder if such language can lead us to overspiritualise decision-making, leading to a pervasive and soul-destroying anxiety about ‘missing out on God’s will for our lives’.

All our decisions are spiritual in some sense. And they should be shaped in response to God’s grace to us in Jesus. But one of the key — and most frequently overlooked — aspects of this is Christian freedom. Let me explain:

I could worry away about what I choose to eat for breakfast every day, weighing up how it will help or hinder me in caring responsibly for my own body, the planet, and the people God has given me to love and serve. But I’m not sure the gospel encourages such paralysing introspection — and certainly not on a daily basis.

Instead, it tells me (a) that I can and will blunder in this regard — failing to care responsibly for myself, God’s world, and God’s people — and (b) that God graciously accepts me without regard to my success or failure in this.

So, in my view, to expend considerable emotional energy on this amounts to a refusal to trust what the gospel says about me. (I could also go on to speak about how it also romantically and individualistically refuses to trust what God says about the good gifts he gives us in our decision-making faculties as well as in the community of his people and the wider giftings of ‘common grace’ — all of which both stand in need of redemption and sanctification and can and are redeemed and sanctified in Jesus Christ.)

What’s more, the kind of obsessive introspective worry talk of a particular ‘call’ sometimes invites tends to treat our actions and motives as transparent to us in a way that I don’t believe is possible. As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things — beyond finding out’.

By contrast, we take hold of our freedom in Christ when we’re bold and prayerful not only in trivial, everyday decisions but also in apparently more significant decisions (and who of us knows ahead of time which of our decisions will prove truly significant and life-shaping?). This includes decisions we make as we seek to respond faithfully to Christ’s call to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth in his mission.

Rather than trying to sound the impossible depths of our own hearts, we should listen to Martin Luther and ‘sin boldly’. That is, we should get on with our lives, prayerfully entrusting ourselves to the God who enables us ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2.5) — and confessing our mistakes as and when we inevitably make them!

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4 comments

  1. Hi Chris,
    I’m not a regular blog responder, but the subject of calling is of interest to me as I prepare for long term overseas mission.

    Part of the difficulties in the blog world is that I don’t know the context that you’re writing in now, whether you are indeed surrounded by anxiety wrought Christians who need to know if they are called to weetbix or toast every morning, or whether you’re in an environment more like college where if you wanted to use calling language, you better be prepared for the onslaught of incredulity that you would lapse into such language. There’s appropriate and inappropriate uses of language, and part of that is dependent on the context we find ourselves in.

    In your intro, you wrote, ‘I’m more or less convinced that when the New Testament speaks of our ‘calling’ it’s usually referring to our calling to belong to Jesus’. Acts 2:39 is an example of this use, and strictly speaking when Paul uses ‘call’ it tends to be with regards to our call to be saints. Acts 13:2 though gives us insight into another use of calling: a work to which the Holy Spirit calls us. I think it’s worth being more generous by acknowledging that there is a range of words used in Scripture that express this reality of calling to a work, including language of leading/guiding/compelling.

    I believe there are several significant positives to the use of calling language which I wanted to mention to complement your list.

    I grew up reading missionary biographies, and so my context is with quite a familiarity with calling language. I read about many people called to specific areas of mission. A big advantage to being convicted about a calling is that deep seated assurance that you are ‘where God wants you to be’. I don’t say this lightly because this statement once said innocently was greeted by derision. But I still believe it. Consider Paul’s missionary activity recorded in Acts, from the moment of being ‘sent on their way by the Holy Spirit’ (13:4), throughout his travels, he is guided by the Spirit as to where he should minister. In Acts 16:6-10, for example, Luke reports that Paul has been kept by the Spirit from preaching in Asia, that the Spirit didn’t allow them to enter Bithynia, and that after a vision, Paul concluded that God had called them to preach in Macedonia. Paul does not shy from saying that the Holy Spirit compels him to go to a place (20:22).

    The same Holy Spirit has compelled me to go to Niger. God has called me there. I believe the use of this language is legitimate because this is how Scripture describes it. And the effect of this is a deep seated assurance that despite the political unrest, our government’s travel warnings etc, that I ought to follow this call.

    Not only should I follow, but having a ‘calling’ enables perseverance. In reading biographies of missionaries, this was a common theme. The conviction that missionary men and women followed enabled them to persevere in the most devastating and extreme circumstances, where many would have given in, saying it would no longer be ‘wise’ to be there. In reading Scripture, this also can be seen. Jesus’ call to Jerusalem enables him to persevere, to set his face to Jerusalem and carry out the difficult heart-wrenching will of the Father. Paul’s guidance along different legs of his missionary journeys enabled him to be joyful in suffering, knowing that God’s name was being proclaimed faithfully as it should. Read through Acts and note the times where fellow believers advise Paul it’s not safe there, don’t go; but Paul is called and so goes. I think this has a great deal to say to a culture which says that our decisions are either wise or unwise because God doesn’t speak to such particulars. On what wisdom do we act on? God’s wisdom is foolishness, and yet find me a mission agency that wouldn’t have wanted to pull Paul from some of his missionary journeys (if they let him go in the first place, with that thorn in his side…)! But I don’t think it’s God’s wisdom to be a martyr if he hasn’t called you to that. Don’t put the Lord your God to the test: yes, he has called each of us to self-sacrificial love and service in the paradigm of the cross, but to throw ourselves off the highest point of the temple expecting his angels to rescue us, or going to preach on the street corner in Yemen about Christian freedom with similar expectation is to put God to the test, if he hasn’t called us to do such a thing. So calling enables us to persevere through difficulties and trials joyfully, without putting God to the test.

    And I think this will be my last point… that calling is not for my sake. It is not to allay my anxiety, a calling doesn’t win me salvation points or make me more spiritual, a calling does not limit my Christian freedom. Rather, the purpose of my calling is God’s renown. It is for his sake, and for his glory, that he condescends to call us, to lead us and guide us. I think it’s irrelevant to pray for God’s guidance on what I should have for breakfast unless it somehow boils down to God’s renown. God is at work in the world. He calls people to himself, and once he’s got them there, that’s not the end of our interaction. For his glory, he calls us with purpose, and at times, with particulars.

    Sorry it’s long… probably another reason why I don’t usually respond on blogs!!

    1. Hi Anne-Sophie,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your story in response to my post. I really appreciate the depth and breadth of your reflection about this issue — an particularly your emphasis on our calling being for God’s sake rather than ours (to allay our anxiety, etc). It sounds like the College environment didn’t exactly leave much room for open discussion of this?

      Let me share a little of my own context and experience to help shed some light on where I’m coming from:

      You’re right. I’m not personally gripped by deep existential angst over whether what I eat for breakfast pleases the Lord and responds to his call. Nor am I operating in a context in which people are. It was a flippant example of an area of freedom that is usually not vulnerable to erosion by worry over whether or not wer’re being spiritual enough (probably because of its triviality). Although, as I ham-fistedly tried to indicate, I could certainly sometimes do with a little more reflection over whether, e.g., I need to consume quite so much bacon in order to love and serve God, his church, and his world!

      However, what am I gripped by — especially on my worst days — is something bordering on jealousy about the experience of deep seated assurance you report. You see (and this is probably says more about me than it does about the language of calling, leading, compulsion, or guidance), I’ve always felt like an outsider to that kind of confidence that I’m exactly where God wants me to be.

      I was largely untroubled by this until Natalie and I were confronted with the decision about where to live and what to do after College. For somewhere in the order of 18 months during my final year and into our first year in Melbourne, I was pretty much totally rattled. Not only did I not know whether Melbourne — study for Natalie and student ministry for me — was the right (or the ‘best’) option. But my confidence was shot. I was wracked by doubts about whether ministry was right for me or that I was right for it.

      Underlying, it all was the fact that I had no clear sense of call. I know that others do. I don’t doubt it. But all I had — and all I still have (although I feel less unsettled about it now) — is an all-too-human combination of my own attempts to weigh up the options, the wisdom of others, and some ‘on the ground’ confirmation by the opportunities for productive ministry and life that were opening up before us.

      So I guess my hesitation to employ the language of specific calling stems ultimately from my own inability to appropriate it for myself…

  2. that makes sense Chris. For myself, I didn’t know 15 years ago that I would be heading to Niger specifically, and yet looking back over that time I can see how God has prepared me specifically for ministry in such a place. Perhaps this sense of calling to Niger will disappear once I visit the country in 2 months time, and then I will reflect on what God has taught me in that experience and recommence searching for God’s guidance. And if nothing specific comes, I will come back to the exact same principles as you use: weighing options, others’ wisdom, opportunities etc. I think the point of calling is that if there is somewhere specific that God is drawing me for his purpose, I must go. If there isn’t, I go also (in the sense you have written about in your posts)! And if I have a sense of calling, I need to not get lazy and assume it won’t change, and when I don’t have this sense of calling, equally, I need to not get lazy and assume that won’t change.

    1. Yeah. I think that’s a really helpful and healthy approach, Soph. Thanks!

      I’m pretty sure I don’t have any answers. But I guess I’d also want to think a bit about what resources God might provide us to help us persevere and hang in there (wherever ‘there’ happens to be!) even if/when we lack a strong and specific sense of call.

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