We talk frequently of being “called”. Called to Jesus. Called to write. Called to move across the world. Called to teach. Calling on the large-scale and calling on the personal level.
What is calling? Here’s what I don’t think it is:
1. A Passport. Like a seminary degree, calling can be used like a badge, an automatic entrance to whatever it is we feel is our place of service.
2. A Right. In America we talk of the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. In the Church we add the right to do what I feel called to do. And if you question me? I’ll just say the Lord called me. How can you argue with the Lord?
What is calling, if not a free pass or an entitlement?
Biblically, I think we can affirm that calling is multi-leveled:
1. Identity. This is the most fundamental part of calling. Calling, in this sense, is belonging to the Lord. It’s a state in which we exist, as opposed to a fluxing job or assignment, or a direction our life takes. It’s a calling to the inheritance of salvation: life everlasting, the presence of Jesus, a changed heart. I wrote about this in my post You’re Called Whether You Know It or Not. It’s the hope of this calling that sustains us when the other aspects of calling are blurry or broken.
2. A career, service, gift. “Paul…called to be an apostle” (Romans 1:1). Sondra, called to be a writer. This is perhaps the most commonly recognized aspect of calling. When people tell their life stories they often include how they felt called into a career or service.
This sense of calling includes the recognition of a community. In a formal arena, this recognition may take the form of a commissioning, licensing, contracting, or ordaining. For example, if you are called to be a doctor, your skills are tested, and if others approve your gifting, you are licensed and allowed to practice. In a less formal setting, this communal recognition may simply be a verbal affirmation. For example, you may be called to teach junior high Sunday school, and you know it not just because you love it, but because your church leadership has continually asked you and told you your good and it. That’s communal affirmation.
This aspect of calling usually carries a mantle of authority. Your position requires certain things which you are held accountable to fulfill.
This aspect of calling also relates to vision. We often have an idea of how the Lord wants us to live our lives, even if we are unclear about details or even if the Lord surprises us by changing our course. We are made with certain personalities and giftings that, as we understand ourselves better, create pathways for our lives and breathe vision into our everyday routines.
3. A sense of direction. It’s the man from Macedonia saying, “Come.” We often refer to this aspect of calling as open and closed doors. The Holy Spirit speaks and we answer. This might be the most subjective part of calling. It’s fluid. It outlines spiritual seasons. We are called, for a season, to live and work in a certain city or to attend a certain church or to mentor youth in our neighborhood. We are called in the grocery store to offer prayer to someone. We are called to send a note of encouragement to a struggling friend.
Sometimes this sense of calling is accompanied by a high dose of doubt. Did the Lord really say…? And this is where the subjectivity of calling is evident. How can we be sure that what we, or another person, experience is from the Lord?
Let me offer several tests.
First, the Lord will never call us to do something that goes against what we find in the Bible. That would be contradicting himself, for he has spoken in the Word and will not change his mind about what he has already revealed. Second, if everyone in your spiritual community is disagreeing with what you believe the Lord is calling you to do, you may have misheard the Lord. Maybe. The humble listen to those around them. Third, if you step out in a direction you believe is from the Lord, you should see fruit of your obedience. Do not confuse fruit with success. Sometimes our efforts are unsuccessful in the world’s eyes, but we feel peace in our lives and are affirmed by others – that’s fruit.
In closing, let me encourage you. Recognizing that some aspects of calling shift frequently, and others remain steady in spite of circumstantial or emotional ups and downs, be bold in your following of the Lord. Do not assume that you are called only to things that are easy for you, or things which you have always been drawn to. Do assume that you will be equipped and empowered for the work to which the Lord calls you. And be assured that his presence is not fleeting or temperamental. It is unwavering and always firm.