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The Calling of God

posted by Scot McKnight

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Jeremy Berg, a youth pastor, has offered a good set of ideas on “calling” and “vocation”.  Tell us what you think.
We love to throw around the notion of career “calling” and “vocation,” both in the context of Christian ministry and secular careers.  I believe we’ve become sloppy in our concept and understanding of “calling.”  What we do agree on is the importance of seeking to live out our individual sense of calling in order to have a life that is both meaningful and satisfying.
The big question is: Who or what is doing the calling when we talk like this? Also: So, who or what is the true source of your calling?  How else do we use the concept of “calling”?  What is the most biblical definition of calling?
Here’s some of the uses I see at work.  See if you agree and tell me if you know of other uses.

1. The Call of God: Ideally, Christians and people of other theistic faiths are primarily concerned with discovering God’s particular calling on their life.  What unique mission or task is God calling me to pursue in my life?  This is especially the case with those “called” to so-called “vocational ministry” — that is, people who go into full time ministry as their career calling.  But every person of faith, whether insurance salesperson or stay-at-home parent, should seek God’s unique calling and sense of purpose for their lives.  But it is the call of God we’re seeking in this sense of the word.
2. The Call of one’s Gifts: Since most of us do not encounter God in a burning bush or hear an audible voice calling us to particular tasks for God, we seek to discover our calling by looking at the unique personality, gifts and natural abilities God has given to us. What is my calling in this life?  If I’m a gifted scholar, speaker and teacher, perhaps my calling is to be a preacher, inspirational speaker, or college professor.  Or, if I’m creative, artistic and imaginative perhaps my calling is to be an artist of some kind.  If I’m handy, skilled with my hands, and love fixing things, perhaps my calling is to be an engineer or mechanic of some kind.  But notice that we are not listening for God’s direct call anymore, but instead assuming that God’s call automatically lines up with our natural abilities.  This may be the case sometimes, or even most of the time; but I would argue not all of the time.
3. The Call of one’s heart or desires: While one’s gifts and natural abilities may be a good indicator of their career calling, sometimes we happen to be very good and skilled at things we hate and don’t enjoy.  I’m good at math and administrative tasks, but I hate them. So, many will draw the conclusion that God desires us to invest our lives doing things that we are both gifted at and find personal satisfaction and enjoyment in. But now we are no longer asking what God is calling us to do, but rather what is our heart’s desire.  I don’t think this is wrong.  I hope God calls me to tasks and assignments I find great pleasure in doing.  But now we are very close to making God’s calling equal to our personal desires.  Now we are on sketchy ground. I am not comfortable saying that asking “What does God want me to do with my life?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” are the same thing.  This is only a small step away from making ourselves God of our own life.  Yikes!
4. The Call of the Oppressed: Getting us back toward a more biblical, God-centered understanding of “call” we can see many examples in scripture of people responding to the call of the oppressed, needy and downtrodden.  That is certainly the voice God’s ears are most inclined to hear and move towards in his own activity.  Moses’ heart was eventually broken for his own people, and that helped lead him to a life of liberating Israel from bondage.  The apostle Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come and preach the gospel in his region.  William Wilberforce heard the call of those in slavery, and spent his life working for their freedom and the abolishment of the evil institution.  Many organizations like World Vision and Compassion International began when a servant of God heard the call of the poor, hungry or downtrodden.  They discerned the call of God in the call of the oppressed, and made that cause their life’s calling.  Saying yes to this kind of a call may sometimes lead one into a season of obedience where we put our own personal desires or primary gift areas on the back burner in order to put God’s mission on the front.
So, I think the process of discerning our personal calling, whether in ministry or any other area of life, probably is a mish-mash of all of four of the above.  But I think we need to be careful that we don’t embrace one or two at the expense of the others.  Because in a culture that is obsessed with satisfying our desires and looking out for our own well-being first, we all know #2 and #3 will win the day, and we’ll easily lose sight of #1 and #4.  And these two should trump the others in the economy of the Kingdom everytime.


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steve sherwood

posted March 28, 2010 at 3:08 pm


I work a good bit with college students who are at various turns obsessed by/paralyzed by figuring out what God wants them to do with their lives. I like this treatment of the question quite a bit. Part of what I like about it is that it resists hard and fast formulas. I think it brings 4 key questions into play and how those sort out is going to be unique to each person’s interaction with the Holy Spirit.
As examples, I have a friend my age (mid 40s) who could easily have made a handsome living as a professional golfer. His natural gifts were clearly evidenced there, but he felt it to be a largely vain and meaningless pursuit. Now, there are certainly Christian athletes who live lives of integrity, have significant ministries of influence and use of resources, but my friend felt he should pursue full-time vocational ministry (in response to #4). God has richly blessed that.
I have another friend who has powerfully responded to number #4 and, looking at his life from a close distance, I’m not sure he’s made the best choice. He struggles in a variety elements of ministry, often finds himself longing to use natural gifts of his that aren’t called upon in his ministry context and feels a bit stuck. He has not been able to leave, however, because the things he’s good at and wants to do, don’t feel as “meaningful to the Kingdom.”
I agree that all 4 of these questions should be in play as we move through our lives. Additionally, I regularly tell students, “I am not sure God is going to lay out the big picture for you. But, do you have a sense of what God would have you do TODAY? When you leave this lunch and go to class, do you think you’ll know how God would have you interact there? Maybe “call” is something that we best see looking back, having followed God faithfully with THIS thing immediately in front of you, you look back and discover that God has built a life for you, a call, a journey into the will of God for yourself and the world.”



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chad m

posted March 28, 2010 at 4:45 pm


one thing i feel particularly strong about when it comes to investigating, responding, and identifying a “call” from God is that it is rooted in community. that is, the community of believers agrees that there is indeed a call on an individual’s life and a call for the community. when i was pursuing ministry, it was of extreme importance for me that others sensed and saw God’s call on my life. i get nervous anytime a person says, “God is calling me to do ________.” communal discernment in the power of the Holy Spirit is essential.
in addition, a few years ago i heard Tony Campolo speak to a small group of urban pastors. his message, “the Church needs to do the calling. we are losing great Kingdom workers because churches aren’t identifying and extending God’s call to those who are obviously called and gifted!” this is a message i believe the Church needs to take more seriously. are we losing gifted leaders because we haven’t identified the call to ministry as essential and important to the Kingdom?



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Jeremy Berg

posted March 28, 2010 at 6:15 pm


Steve and Chad – I appreciate both of your comments. Right on. Especially about what is God calling me towards TODAY. Perhaps, this is another part of asking God for our daily bread — daily tasks, simple and modest, that honor our God watching in secret.
Peace,
Jeremy



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Jeremy (Not Berg)

posted March 28, 2010 at 6:35 pm


I like this. I particularly like how each category can either involve God or not. Our desires, talents and convictions are important in determining what we do, but we often don’t ask God what he wants us to do with them. Instead of listening, we like to either charge right in or interpret our God-given desires as only working out in a specific way of our choosing.
One of the big problems I’ve seen when dealing with people is a pervasive idea that ‘calling’ is equated with full-time ministry in a church setting. For some, this is true, for others, not so much. A sense of ministry calling and extreme gifts for business or sports have left people confused and disillusioned. Our idea of what ‘calling’ means clouds both the individual’s search for God’s will and their advisors’.
OTOH, It seems to me that a lot of the Christians I know that are doing something perfectly attuned to their gifts and personality went through a season of sacrificing those skills and desires to God. It’s like God calls some of us away from what he’s planning for us to get us ready first. The day-by-day advice here seems critical.
We need to reframe ‘calling’ to mean legitimate Kingdom work in whatever setting God places us in, whether it be the pulpit or the NFL.



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Jacques Bornman

posted March 29, 2010 at 5:39 am


What if the question about calling and vocation is linked with how we view God’s will? If you live with the notion that God’s will for you life is a very linear, straight-line thing it will have a huge influence in how you approach the question. In post here http://roadtalk.blogspot.com/2006/10/blue-print-or-brushpaintcanvas.html the suggestion is made that we are given the freedom to make our own decisions, but in living out the decision honouring God’s will…



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Travis Greene

posted March 29, 2010 at 9:34 am


Good thoughts. I’d have to agree with Jacques, though, that God isn’t necessarily micro-managing every decision we make, such that if we don’t choose just the right path, we’ve missed God’s will.
I’d also re-frame the whole discussion about “vocational ministry” to remember that there is no one not called and gifted to serve the church community and the world. Now, there’s a huge variety of how those gifts and callings get played out, and for some that will certainly include leadership, or teaching, or pastoral care. Some communities might even be fortunate enough to pay the people who do those tasks. But any conception of “calling” as one that sets up a special class of “called” over and against the ordinary “not-called” (even if no one would say it that way), is in my opinion very mistaken.



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Bob Porter

posted March 29, 2010 at 9:47 am


Thanks for this post! I appreciate the comments that have already been posted.
As others have mentioned, it does seem to me the greatest danger is thinking that we can get the complete map in one bite. The important concept of spiritual maturity *or whatever we want to call it* implies to me that we need to develop the character of Jesus in our lives and that this is a slow process. This was one of the key points from the recent Tom Wright book.
The suggestion that I want to add is that as we become more aligned with the mind of Christ our passion #3 becomes more and more reliable as a guide to where God is leading us next.



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dopderbeck

posted March 29, 2010 at 10:07 am


Great post! The one thing that bugs me though is the idea that any one of these categories might “trump” another. That seems to me not to take a holistic view of the person or a holistic view of redemption and sanctification.
There really is only one thing that God “calls” all people to: union with Christ. Scripture often uses the term “abiding” here. If we focus a little more on “abiding” in Christ, and a little less on “what is God calling me to do,” maybe this sort of categorization will start to meld a bit.
I worry that our Western mindset, particularly today when everyone is obsessed with “careers,” distorts our thinking about “calling,” as though I must always have a “career” that also is a “calling.” For most people, it doesn’t really work that way. You find your way into a career, which hopefully is productive and somewhat satisfying and uses your natural gifts, and you also find your way into multiple areas of service, in your home, your church, your community, etc. Scripture seems to counsel all of us to be patient, persistent, industrious, and filled with the basic fruits of the Spirit, in every aspect of life — not to obsess about a particular “calling.”



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Your Name

posted March 29, 2010 at 4:11 pm


I really wish more Christians would consider careers in social justice. We are really underrepresented.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm


I don’t know if you have ever read any of R. Paul Stevens, especially, “The Other Six Days.” Stevens talks about a trinitarian call on our life:
Father = Creation Stewardship ? Being stewards of creation and co-creators with God.
Son = Kingdom Service ? Carrying on the works of Jesus.
Spirit = Exercising Gifts ? Using gifts for the growth and health of the Church and humanity.
These universally apply to everyone. Then he goes on to make a distinction between vocation and occupation:
Temperament/gifts/experience + passion = personal vocation
Temperament/gifts/experience + passion + context = occupation (in the broadest sense of ?what I am occupied with,? which may mean employment)
All of this is discerned in the context of community and the Spirit. What is key here is the particular context we find ourselves in. Our particular life context directly effects our occupational options.
Stevens also notes that ministry is not defined by what we do. It is defined by WHO we are doing for! Maybe not the best grammar but you get the point.
The two biggest obstacles I see are what I call the divide and the dot. The divide deals with a false split between “sacred” and “secular.” The elevation of “full-time Christian ministry” above other occupations or creating tiers of work where the helping professions are somehow nearer God’s call than being a forklift operator or a business owner.
The dot is the idea that there is one choice that is God’s will and if I don’t hit that one dot, all is lost and I’ve missed God’s will. Call is on going interactive iterative process and there are often multiple good options that fit with God’s call on our life.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 29, 2010 at 4:31 pm


#9
I wish more people would see that social justice is about people living justly with each other on a daily basis. I wish more people would see that justice is not a separate compartment or activity of life and would go into all walks of life with a healthy sense of what means to live justly.



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Jeremy Berg

posted March 29, 2010 at 5:12 pm


Fascinating comments. Thanks all. Thanks Michael for sharing the trinitarian framework of Stevens. Dopderbeck – good point about our calling to not only “do” certain things with our lives, but the central call to “become” certain kind of people. Thanks.



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Bruce G White

posted March 29, 2010 at 7:03 pm


Jeremy: The 4 categories are a helpful guide and a great way to begin thinking about, and talking about, this important issue. Thanks!
I agree with so many of the fine comments posted here. I particularly agree that our calling should be rooted in, flow out of, and be affirmed by, our community of faith.
Some posts have noted the problem of the “secular/sacred” divide. This is a huge issue that must be addressed. In my view, we make a grave error when we use the word “call” only in terms of vocational ministry. At the end of college, I sensed God’s call to business…and I had a successful career for the next 12 years. Then God stepped in and gave me a new call – this time to vocational ministry (which I’ve now been doing for 20 years). To me, both calls clearly were from God and were confirmed by those around me. And even though the first call was to “secular” work, it was intensely spiritual and it infused my work in the marketplace with great meaning. I’m saddened when I meet believers who love the marketplace, whose godly lives are a vibrant testimony in their places of employment, but who have been taught that their kind of work just does not have as much kingdom value as “ministry”.
I periodically preach/teach/speak on the meaning and value of “work” in the life of the believer. Most Christians – at least in my little corner of the kingdom – have never heard a sermon or lesson on this issue (unless it’s just an exhortation to be more evangelistic at work), so they find it encouraging and refreshing. Yet most ministers I speak with seem uninterested in the topic. For example: when I am invited by volunteer church leaders to be a guest speaker, and mention “work” as a possible topic to speak on, they usually are intrigued and want to hear more about my approach. When I am invited by fellow pastors, they invariably are lukewarm and feel this topic would not be of much interest.
Clearly, this points to part of the problem: too many ministers are not in tune with the daily lives of their people. How can we help them hear God’s “call” if we don’t value and validate the lives that most of them will lead?



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Michael W. Kruse

posted March 29, 2010 at 10:48 pm


#13 Bruce
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for that comment.



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