When I was working on my graduate degree, my classes were comprised half by students who intended to pursue Ph.D. degrees in theology or history or philosophy, and half of whom who would pursue other things, some of which ministry, upon matriculation. On more than one occasion I remember professors offering council with I am sure the best intention, “Graduate study is difficult work, and it isn’t for everyone, but if it doesn’t work out there are plenty of ministries that need pastors.”
I remember being surprised by that “advice” every time it was offered. As if those of us who are incapable of study can fall back on a far easier profession. I’m not sure this was their intent but at the same time I cannot imagine how else this counsel could have been taken. It just served to broaden the great cloud of mystery that surrounds this notion of calling. It is far to often said and misunderstood with the same frequency.
Does God actually call us to do anything?
This is a question I have struggled with in recent months. I remember my first true conviction that I should become a pastor. I didn’t listen. I remember the conversations with mentors and friends who encouraged me to go into ministry; I didn’t listen. After a few years, I finally got the message. It’s a hard thing to describe, but there is a certain peace you feel when you know that what you are doing with written within, as if you have just a part in the story where you finally understand the character’s motivation, or you now know how the rest of the book will play out.
Truth is, God doesn’t force us into our calling. He allows us to follow or remain, he lets us play the role we want, but he wants us to know that there are options, and there is a best option. I have heard the church so often misuse the idea of calling. We hear of someone being called away from our church and we wonder, why does God not care about our church? We hear of someone called to leave the ministry field to work in the public sector and with that we wonder why that public sector job is more important than the ministry job. And lets face it, we secretly wonder what the real reason was for the departure. Was it problems on the staff team? Was it a crisis of faith? We hear this word calling and we just don’t trust it.
God doesn’t hold a gun to our heads. He doesn’t force our hand nor push us through any doors. It wouldn’t be very loving if he did. Instead he has a way of affirming or denying options in our life. We hear “calling” and we think, “how does this most benefit the person?” but in actuality when God offers a new calling he says, “are you ready to be part of the next chapter in this story?” And as God calls one of us, he calls all of us. I have recently felt confirmation from God towards a transition from the current ministry role I am in. There are a whole lot of factors at play however at the end of the day it is clear that God affirms that calling. Likewise, I truly believe he is calling the ministry I have led over the last two years to new things as well. As he has confirmed my call he has simultaneously confirmed the call of others to step up, of students to claim ownership, of the ministry to reshape its identity and so on.
At the same time you have to deal with doubters. Typically those who have not found the same sense of peace or calling in their own work or mission. Now this is a very different thing than those around you offering wise counsel that may be contrary to what you feel is your calling. These are the people who cannot fathom how one would give up money, or comfort, or notoriety, or any other essential social currency that the majority of the world pursues. The reality is that these doubts are understandable but misinformed. Although things like money or comfort are nice, they are irrelevant to the story God is writing.
We are all too often our biggest doubter. We want comfort, we want money, we want fame. We wonder if God will ever give us these things, we also wonder if he ants to deny us of them as well. In the end however, we can do no more than remember that God loves us more than we can ever know and his plan for us is better than we can ever imagine. The truth is, money doesn’t care about us, comfort can freely come and go; our pursuit of things results in nothing more than a perpetual pursuit of things. God however wants to journey with us, he wants to work through us, and he wants to continue to invite us into the next stage of his story.
There is a typical model those who are called in the Bible follow. (1) They have an authentic moment of realization to what God desires them to do. (2) They try everything in their power to offer excuses as to why they are wrong for the job, Moses couldn’t speak well, among other things, Saul wasn’t the right kind of person, Jeremiah was too young, etc. (3) They eventually agree. And in that we don’t watch these people as they grow towards riches and fame. We don’t remember them because of all they amassed on earth. We instead look to them as people who relentlessly pursued God, and we se how God was faithful in their pursuit.
Are we called today?
It is interesting that in all the major biblical accounts of direct calls form God are initially met with resistance by the one who is called. In the time I have worked and studied in a ministry context I have seen people called to a variety of things, sometimes within, sometimes outside the church. One thing that has been made evident is that when there is no internal resistance, no seed of doubt, no moment of pause, it is seldom God calling us to it. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t call us to things we are excited about, but rather, I don’t think God wastes his time calling us to things that don’t require faith in him. Why would he? His plan requires us to rely on him; the story he has authored requires the author to continue to pen the next chapter.
I think God is relentlessly pursuing us, constantly calling us to be part of his story, to continue to flip to the next page even though we have grown comfortable with the characters and settings on this one. It isn’t in his plan to end the story half way through, and it’s not in our plan either. If you have ever read or written a story, or seen a movie or a play, you would know that no one ever creates a character who serves no purpose. Why waste the time? Anyone who is part of the story is important to the story. And at the same time, it is not our role to determine our importance; it is our role to follow the story. We are not living a story about money or fame, or comfort. Our story is about love. His story is about love.