We've all heard it, and many of us, including me, have said it. God has called me into ministry. I've often said that I'm called to make disciples among the Bakoum people in Cameroon. We talk about the tasks and ministry we feel led to be involved in as a calling, meaning God has told us directly (whether audibly or within our own spirits) the specifics of how we are to serve him. But is this language biblical and helpful? Does the Bible speak of the ministry God gives to us as a calling?
God Hasn't "Called" You, But He Has Called You
The New Testament rarely describes someone receiving a call directly from God to engage in a certain task or ministry. Paul and Barnabas were set apart by the Holy Spirit for ministry, and that was in the context of the local church and not on their own (Acts 13:2). And later, when on his second missionary journey, Paul saw in a vision a man urging him to redirect his course to Macedonia, which he did (Acts 16:9). However, this was hardly a call to ministry, for Paul was already engaged in missions. The normal pattern of Christians assuming ministerial roles in the New Testament did not include a call from God.
Conversely, the overwhelming thrust of God's will in the New Testament focuses not on individual occupational or ministerial decisions, but on obedience to God. We are all given the objective calling to seek God's kingdom and his righteousness, and to love him and neighbor (Mt 6:33, 22:37). Paul writes that God's will for our lives is our sanctification (1 Thess 4:3). God gives us these biblical parameters in which we are to live our lives, and as long as we do so, we are within his will. Determining his specific call for your life is not part of the biblical way to find God's will for you.
We are able to trace God's specific, individual calls in our lives as we look back on how circumstances in our lives have unfolded. Matt Chandler, speaking on how he knew he was called to marry his wife Lauren, said, "You know how I know I'm called to be married to my wife? I married her. She said Yes." Short of a voice from heaven, this is the only sure way to know we were called to do a particular task or be in a specific place at a specific time. Under God's sovereign providence, it came to pass. And that confidence comes on the back end, not the front. Even if you experience a strong inclination in your spirit that God wants you to do something, it is only confirmed afterward. When we are living in the New Heavens and the New Earth, we will be able to trace all of God's calls on and purposes for our lives. Until then, just seek his kingdom, and love him and love your neighbor. It's that simple. Don't try to be more spiritual than God is. It's time to hang up on the "call."
My Call Is Better Than Yours
One problem with using the term "called by God" is that it implies that those who are "called to ministry" are better or more signifiant than those who "aren't called." When's the last time someone told you, "I'm called to be a plumber"? Yet the pastor or missionary who has received the "calling" is surely more important than than the faithful factory worker, right? Wrong. The Bible never exalts one occupation or type of work as more important than another. Nor does it say that pastors or missionaries have a more prestigious ministry than the man with the 9-5 job who serves faithfully at his church on Sunday, or the tired Mom seeking to share the gospel with her kids in word and deed day in and day out at home. So let's stop making other Christians feel inferior just because they're not being paid to do ministry. We all have equally significant work to do for God's glory.
"So What Do I Do Now?"
You may be thinking, "This all seems great, but I still don't know what to do with my life!" My missions agency, World Team, taught me a helpful way to answer this question at their candidate conference. They ask all of their missionary candidates to consider their skills, knowledge, abilities, and gifts. Basically they ask ,"What are you good at, knowledgable in, and gifted at?" God uses our life circumstances to mold us into the kind of person he wants to be in order to walk in the good works he has already prepared for us (Eph 2:10), and along the way we often acquire the abilities he wants us to have for later use in service to his kingdom. Are you good at exegeting Scripture, applying it to yourself and others, and public speaking? Maybe you should be a preacher. Do you find it easy to understand engines and machinery? You should consider being a mechanic. Do you have medicinal knowledge and a love for animals? Maybe you should be a veterinarian. And as long as you are loving God and others, and seeking to advance his kingdom in your work and decisions, you are free to do what you want!
I would add two more things to consider when figuring out which direction your life should take: character and circumstances. No matter how skilled you are at pastoring, if you do not have godly character, you should NOT be pastoring! A seminary degree does not mean you're ready to shepherd God's people. The Bible gives clear qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9). If you do not meet them, God does not want you serving in those capacities until you do.
Also, if your circumstances do not allow you to take a course of action, you should redirect your course. The saying is true: when God closes one door, it is so he can open another. I'm planning to spend my life among the Bakoum people in Cameroon, Africa. I have the skills, knowledge, abilities, gifts, and character to disciple church leaders who can in turn lead their people to worship God in spirit and in truth. And God has thus far opened the doors for me to do so. But if in 2-3 years I haven't been able to raise the funds needed to get me there, I may need to consider doing something else with my life. I may need to listen to God telling me not to go to Cameroon through those circumstances, should they arise. Of course, God often tests us to see if we will persevere through hardship. Difficulties are no reason to immediately tuck tail and run away. But there comes a point where, in humility, we should hold our plans loosely and allow God to send us wherever he chooses, even when we don't see it coming.
Based on the passions, skills, knowledge, abilities, gifts, character, and circumstances that God has providentially brought to pass in my life, I'm being led into missionary service in Africa. What are you being led into?