Calling is something that has been around since creation. God called man to till the earth. He called him to work. God called Abraham to leave his family and go to Canaan. God called Moses to lead his people to the Promise Land. He called Israel to forsake all other gods and follow him only. God called David a man after his own heart.
The English language lumps all of these events and definitions into one word, “call.” The English New Testament is not any better. We see the “call” to salvation. But God also “called” Barnabas and Saul to go and preach to the Gentiles.
The issue of language gets in the way of our understanding of Scripture. Next, we add the mixing of the concepts of the Holy Spirit’s work in salvation, appointment to specific offices, ie, apostle, and overseer/pastor, and vocation. There is also the influence of our culture. In western culture, we have the mythologies and stories of Luke Skywalker, Superman, Frodo Baggins and any Walt Disney prince save the princess/empowered princess saves herself fairy tale. These affect how we perceive and understand how God works through us and what part we play in the continual move of the Gospel through history.
Many of us don’t fully understand the differences between the call to salvation, vocation and appointment to office. Because of this lack of understanding, we form a simplified and blended version in our minds. Then we try and find something else to compare it with, to aid our understanding. Here enters the stories of our literature and movies. Each of the characters mentioned before has a distinct calling in their life. Some wrestle with it and are a reluctant hero like Frodo. Others take up the mantle and ride toward the dragon bent on saving the princess.
We like this very black and white idea of “calling”. It is clear to the hero what must be done and they do it. Yet as I read Scripture it doesn’t seem that clear. In my own spiritual journey, I have not a had clear, undeniable, almost audible voice of God “calling”. As a result, I have spent years comparing myself to others and it has fueled years of frustration, waiting, and being jealous of others who have a “clear call.”
“Calling” in Scripture
I believe some have taken the various discussions of “calling” in Scripture and tried to make them prescriptive. That is, they try to distill all the essential elements and say that it will work the same for each believer. I believe Scripture is pretty clear, this is not the case.
Samuel anointed Saul as king and told him, “do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” Later when Samuel proclaimed Saul as king to Israel, he began acting in the role of king. Years later, Samuel anointed David, yet it was well over a decade before he became king. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were both “called” as prophets. God told Jeremiah he was set apart before birth, whereas Ezekiel was “called” in a vision as an adult.
Matthew, John, Andrew, Peter and the rest of the twelve disciples were personally called by Jesus to follow him. Saul of Tarsus was an “untimely born” apostle. Near the end of his life, Paul related his Damascus road experience to King Agrippa:
“I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
Those are all very specific instances where God set apart people for a very particular task. We see a trend away from that as the early church grows. Timothy is one example. In Acts, Luke tells us that he had a good reputation among the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Then we read that Paul wanted Timothy to come along on his missionary journeys. That is all we see of Timothy’s “call” or lack of it as we often define it today. There was no audible voice, no vision, no blinding light. We can’t say that Timothy didn’t have one of these experiences. We read later in Paul’s epistles to Timothy of things that might be attributed to a unique call like the others mentioned previously.
Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. - 1 Timothy 4:14
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. - 2 Timothy 1:6-7
I contend these passages refer more to the gift of the Holy Spirit and salvation than to a specific “calling”. Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned in the book of Acts and were used by God but there is no mention of their “call.” They made tents and shared the Gospel. When they met a young evangelist named Apollos, they took him in and taught him the full Gospel. Luke then tells us:
And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. - Acts 18:27-28
I believe Apollos simply wanted to go to Achaia and preach. It does not appear to be the result of a vision or an audible voice. Luke points out when God stepped in and gave visions or other answers on where Paul and his companions should go or what they should do.
This brings us to the third generation of believers, those that Paul’s children in the faith raised up. We all read the qualifications for overseer/pastor and may be able to quote the qualifications from heart. However, it seems we often skip over the first part or we know it but push it aside because it doesn’t fit our mold.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.
Again, I’m not saying that some people don’t have an experience like Paul or Peter or Matthew when they “sense the call of God to preach”. But I am saying, that there may be people who don’t have any experience like the apostles or a confirmation like Barnabas got from the church at Antioch. However, in the absence of those things, if someone desired to be a preacher because he wanted to see people come to Christ and he met the rest of the qualifications given by Paul, I don’t believe he is any less “called.”
In Paul’s discussion with the church at Corinth, he gives them his guidelines on marriage in chapter seven. But within his rules about marriage and singleness, he addresses a bigger issue. It seems that new believers were trying to leave all the circumstances of their past lives. Some were trying to leave unbelieving spouses. Paul says they should stay married. Others were circumcised and wanted to somehow undue this reminder of their old life. Others were slaves and wanted to be free.
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision.
For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.
You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. - 1 Corinthians 7:17-24
The first part of this passage could be taken as evidence of “call” being a specfic thing for each person. But, as he continues, he uses “call” to refer to the “call to salvation.” He concludes by saying, “in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.” There are other passages where Paul addresses slaves.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. - Ephesians 6:5-8
Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. - Colossians 3:22-24
We have already seen Paul’s commands for those who are slaves to remain slaves after salvation. He doesn’t tell them to leave their masters and figure out their “calling”. He tells them to serve their masters as if they were serving Christ. So just as there may be those that are “called” to be pastors or missionaries, there are also those that are “called” to remain as slaves. And they may not get an “experience”, to tell them to remain.
What this means for us
I think with our skewed view of “calling”, there are so many in the church paralyzed from doing something, because their experience doesn’t match what we hold up as the “norm.” They simply have a desire to write or work in IT or be a teacher. If they don’t have some emotional experience with a “calling” to a set title, there is the belief they don’t have anything to offer the kingdom of God.
I think it goes deeper in that we all want our lives to be as compelling as the Lord of the Rings or a Disney fairy tale. We’ve been told we’re special and we’re good enough and smart enough and people like us. So the idea that we may never get a title or a special story wounds our pride and ego, however, it does not negate our usefulness to God.
I’m not trying to convince anyone to either viewpoint. I’m not saying that God only works through our desires and then sets us free to “do what [our] hand finds to do.” I’m also not saying that he gives everyone of us a call like those in Scripture.
What I am saying, is that God has called us all to salvation. He commanded us to go and make disciples of all the nations. He has given us the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us. Whether we simply have the desire to help people as a doctor or a teacher or God gives us a blinding light and audible voice, it doesn’t matter. Our “calling” is to make disciples. How we get there is just an example of God’s varied grace and wonder. Not something for us agonize over or take pride in.
What has been your experience?