Knowing That God Calls
- Friday, March 10, 2006
Often we do our best to discern God’s calls. We pray feverishly, take personality inventories, and seek professional as well as personal advice. Still, no calls arrive directly from God. Scripture teaches that God calls, but we imperfect creatures still struggle to know how, when, and where to serve God. As followers of Jesus Christ, we live by faith.1 So we go on in faith.
My father, a Chicago cab driver, loved to tell the story of a passenger he picked up early one morning. As his taxi rolled to a stop in front of an apartment building, a woman ran up to the vehicle, opened a rear door, and hopped into the seat. “Where to?” my father asked.
“Get going! I’ll tell you when we get there!” she exclaimed.
Often our approach to calling is like this passenger’s overly eager desire to get going. We impatiently want to forge ahead to an unclear destination instead of taking the time to learn how to be faithful.
The mystery of vocation is more like an unfolding relationship than a carefully planned trip. As we come to know God better and to know ourselves in relationship to God, we also discern where and how to serve—but rarely with absolute certainty.
One of my students came from a family of teachers, but he was sure that teaching was the one profession that didn’t suit him. He considered filmmaking or music. Then he began feeling called to become a college teacher, so he applied for graduate school. Dismayed when the university he wanted to attend turned him down, he humbly prayed to God for help.
Shortly thereafter, he visited a different graduate program at the same university and within minutes was admitted and then assigned courses to teach. His life was turned upside-down twice in a matter of hours. Now he wonders if God used the initial graduate-school rejection to remind him to depend on the Lord. In any case, he rightly realizes that occupational callings emerge out of a faithful relationship with God, not just a message from God.
When we become Jesus’s followers and join a community of believers, we are best equipped to discern our strengths and weaknesses and to learn about opportunities to serve. Listening to others’ stories of vocation helps us to discover our own callings. We then see that faithfulness is partly accepting the mystery of how God works through followers’ ups and downs, baffling turnarounds, failures, and fresh starts.
A former student of mine in Michigan drove 1,700 miles to the West Coast partly because he liked the weather there. The second day in a city where he knew hardly anyone, he was sightseeing downtown and happened across the office building of a company he recognized from his online research. He boldly went inside and asked if they were hiring, and before long he had a fine position with that small but rapidly growing company. He thrived on the challenging work, the long hours, the rigorous deadlines, being a Christian witness through his work, and meeting clients from around the globe.
Later he left the firm to accept a promising position with a new company, which soon went bankrupt. He went to graduate school for his M.B.A. Here’s a summary of his unfolding story: impressive college record, great job, notable success, upward mobility, fine marriage, risky career change, business failure, time to think and pray, grad school. What’s next for him? I’m looking forward to finding out. So is he.
Another graduate went to Nashville absolutely convinced that God wanted her to serve in the Christian music business. She was the kind of person I would hire: industrious, articulate, hardworking, and faithful. Plus, she knew Christian music. She moved to the music city in faith. From what I could tell, she did everything right to find a position.
After many months, however, she gave up and settled gratefully for a job in a different field. She’s still baffled about her earlier sense of occupational calling. Was she wrong about God’s will? Was she too early on the music trail?
In spite of our confusion about callings, God claims us for service before we are aware of it. “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,” proclaims the psalmist.2 God “chose” us in Jesus Christ, Paul writes.3 I don’t pretend to comprehend this.
In spite of such comforting words, however, we ought not to wait around for perfect knowledge of God’s plans for us. Recently a man guiltily told me in private that he wasn’t sure about God’s calling. “Neither am I,” I admitted. But I added that we must go on, being faithful followers wherever our journey takes us.
Faith is patient, not lazy. The great Christian writer John Milton (1608–1674) wrote after he had gone blind, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Following Christ is an ongoing journey, not a one-time blast of revelation or a straight trajectory.
Nevertheless, God’s calls sometimes are too crystal clear to ignore, although even obvious occupational calls usually lead us to a general field of work rather than to particular jobs or tasks.
Before his conversion to Christ, Saul (later called Paul) believed that his purpose in life was to discredit Jesus and his followers. Saul became a professional critic. He had a gift! Then Saul journeyed toward Damascus, where God called him to become a preaching follower. The people traveling with Saul were speechless.4 After all, Saul probably was among those least likely to follow Jesus.
As the book of Acts and Paul’s letters demonstrate, he spent the rest of his life trying to figure out how to be a follower (one who is called). For him, vocation led to traveling as a missionary, preaching here and there, encouraging other believers, spending time in prison, escaping from hostile crowds, advising churches on how to settle staff and theological conflicts, and recruiting more followers. In these and other ways, he cared for the emerging church of Jesus Christ. All such activities became his many stations.
We can partly solve the mystery of God’s callings by distinguishing between our shared vocation and each person’s particular stations. Our vocation is to be caring followers of Jesus Christ who faithfully love God, neighbor, and self.5
God calls each of us to this overall task of caring for his world. In a broad sense, this caretaking is our vocation as Jesus Christ’s ambassadors on earth.
Even after hearing the overarching call, however, we still have to discern how to care faithfully in specific contexts, such as sharing the gospel with a friend, comforting a co-worker, running a business profitably, and serving patients or clients.
Our stations include our jobs, situations, and relationships. A few stations are definable roles, such as manager, parent, student, nurse, and deacon. Others are too informal to identify precisely—such as caring for a lost child or listening empathically to a suffering co-worker who is struggling to save a failing marriage.
God calls us to both our shared vocation and the various stations where we can “work out” our faith concretely.6 He provides stations so we can all serve each other for the good of society as well as church. Each of us depends on other stations, such as parent, doctor, engineer, and teacher. The number of people and stations involved in designing, manufacturing, marketing, selling, and repairing the car I drive is mind-boggling.
The historical meaning of station is “where one keeps watch,” like a sentry, guard, or overseer.7 In our stations, we caretakers stand watch on behalf of the Lord in the service of others. As a next-door neighbor, I watch out for the kids playing in the street. As a college instructor, I monitor my teaching and students’ learning. As a cook at home, I prepare meals for my family when it’s my turn. I ensure that the wash is clean and the lawn is watered. I also stay on the lookout along with my wife for ways that we can help the needy in our church, community, and nation. We listen, learn, and follow the leading of the Spirit.
None of us can determine from the Bible precisely which stations to pursue. Most of our stations emerge as we pay attention to the needs and opportunities that present themselves. Someone asks us to help out at church. We discover that we are falling in love. We enjoy a college course so much that we decide to major in that field. Every one of our job applications is rejected except for one—which leads to an offer that we decide to accept. We lose our job or suffer illness.
Access to many stations is partly a matter of social privilege. A college education is an advantage denied to many North Americans and to most of the world’s population. So are internships and job training. In some countries, even worshipping publicly is a privilege. Because social factors limit as well as open up access to stations, each of us is born into particular opportunities and limitations. The most just societies provide adequate freedom and opportunity, but no society is perfect. Although some people are blessed with manifold opportunities, most of us have to face the realities of global, local, and personal circumstances that greatly limit our choices. Flexibility is essential.
Some theologians argued centuries ago that God gives each human being one lifelong work station in order to keep him or her from being lazy and unproductive. Perhaps such was the case then, but today jobs come and go. People win and lose promotions. Layoffs devastate employees’ families and communities. Government regulations and international political and monetary policies impact domestic economies. Midlife career shifts are increasingly common. So is going back to school to learn new skills and enter different professions. As a result, we should remain open to the possibility of a lifetime of occupational moves, perhaps even two or three major career changes. Flexibility and faith are critically important.
Even amidst such turbulence, however, we usually can identify our immediate stations. We might be a grandchild, friend, accountant, mentor, volunteer, or Sunday school teacher—or all at the same time. We might take off a year from school or career in order to reflect and pray for guidance or volunteer for a nonprofit agency. Such a respite can be a time for new learning and special serving. It might be particularly appropriate when the job market doesn’t match our occupational goals. God blesses us with temporary stations even when we are uncertain about the long run.
We are called to connect our shared vocation of caretaking to our own, changing stations. In doing so, we work out our faith in every area of life.
Quentin Schultze (Ph.D., University of Illinois) holds the Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication ar Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A nationally known communications expert, Schultze is the author or coauthor of several books, including High-Tech Worship?, Habits of the High-Tech Heart, Internet for Christians, Communicating for Life, and Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media.
Used by Permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. (www.bakerpublishinggroup.com)
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