Tonight I will be addressing a question that often comes up in pastoral counseling, and therefore I was not surprised to find it in the Question Box. It is an issue that has a variety of questions attached to it, so I will not be surprised if we return to it in the future. Here it is: “My question is on the concept of vocation and calling, and how you can know for sure this is what you are supposed to be doing.”
There is an assumption behind this whole issue, an assumption that there is such a thing as calling, that there are specific tasks or purposes individual Christians are intended to give themselves to by God. I want to begin by validating this assumption. Many Bible verses support this, but I think Ephesians 2:10 suffices: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
There are, therefore, good works prepared for Christians that we are to do. There is a problem here, however, namely that we do not have access to God’s plan for the future, which is open to His eyes but is a secret to us. This allows me to roll out one of my favorite Bible verses, and I think one of the most useful – Deuteronomy 29:29, which says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
This provides the framework for my basic answer. Yes, God has a calling for you, but you do not get to know what it is for sure. The secret things belong to God – and this is one of them. There are, of course, callings that we know, that are obvious. If you are a woman with children, then you are given the vocation of mother. The same is true for fathers. That has been revealed providentially by God. Indeed, the first thing we want to say is that whatever vocation or calling you are in, the most important thing is that you do it faithfully, in obedience to God. God’s revealed will, which belongs to us, is found in Scripture, so before we start asking God to reveal a particular calling, we should begin with the prayer from Psalm 119:33-35:
Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end. Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.
This is always our first need, the need to know and desire what is revealed to us in God’s Word; obedience is always the path to blessing and fruitfulness. Far more important than knowing which job to take, which girl to date, which guy to marry, where to live and send your kids to school, is the matter of knowing and obeying the will of God that is abundantly revealed in Scripture, and doing well what God has set before us today.
With that preface and caveat, I realize that Christians have to make decisions, and that we rightly want to do so with insight into what we describe as a sense of calling. To help you in this I want to recommend some reading and then lay down three principles. There are three books I would recommend are Sinclair Ferguson’s Discovering God’s Will, James C. Petty’s Step By Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians, and Edmund Clowney’s Called to the Ministry. I want to also recommend the May/June 1999 issue of ModernReformation magazine, which deals with issue, as well as the upcoming City Light fall retreat, which also is on the subject of knowing God’s will.
The first principle I want to offer is that we must not pit God as Creator against God as Redeemer. God as Creator made you, with many particular characteristics, desires, talents, and set you in certain circumstances. Then, if you are a Christian, God redeemed you from sin and judgment, and also gave you spiritual gifts which enable you for ministry and belong to all of the church.
There is a certain strain of thought that I think greatly over-spiritualizes the matter of calling. It says that you should not use your natural gifts and talents as a Christian because you are now a new creation. Some will even say that we are called only to tasks that we are naturally unqualified for, because then we will utterly rely on God’s grace and will are likely to pray more fervently. But this is to pit God the Creator against God the Redeemer. God made you knowing you would be saved. Your passion and sense of purpose, the kinds of things you like to do and want to do, will normally be linked to your calling very directly.
Second, we believe in God’s providence. That is, that God is superintending the affairs of the universe, in all its details, according to an orderly and good plan. This means that there is a shape to your life. Yes, God may very well change your direction in a radical way and this sometimes happens in conjunction with conversion. And yet there will be many elements of your preparation and development, the skills you have developed and the experiences you have had, which will be of use to you and to God in that to which He has called you. It is often hard for us to see how these work out, but we should not be surprised to find this so.
Third, and finally, the fact is that you have to make decisions. Let me say that what we really need for our decisions is not special revelation from God but faith in Him. Therefore I offer some questions to ask yourself: “What would I do in this situation if I were really to trust God?” “When I consider doing this instead of that, what are my motives, my fears, my hopes? Are these godly? Which course is really the path of unbelief, and which is the path of trusting in the Lord to provide for what I need?” Those are not easy questions to answer, but they are the key ones, the ones God wants you to face.
If you know my story, you know that I felt compelled by God to leave my career at age 34, a career I loved and in which I was prospering, in order to enter the Gospel ministry. I remember very well the time just before I was going to submit my irrevocable resignation from my position as an officer in the Army. A friend who was not a Christian asked me, “How can you be sure? You are throwing away so much! Do you really know for sure?” I really thought about what to say to him. Finally, I replied, “No, I do not know for sure. But I know this – I am willing to be wrong for the sake of Jesus Christ. I am willing to have been proved mistaken because I was willing to trust in Him, and in gratitude for His love I am willing lose even my career lest I should fail to do what I think He would have me to do.”
It took me a long time to get to that point, but when I was there I knew what to do. I did not and do not know the future, and the book of my life is yet to be disclosed. Maybe it will turn out to have been the wrong choice after all. But I am still willing to take risks with my life if I am trusting in Him.
That is the real issue. And therefore, the most important words for this matter of calling are those of Jesus from Luke 9:24, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
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