I got an email from a college student a while ago asking a question that went something like this, “God has been working in my heart regarding missions, but I’m not sure if I’m called. What should I do?”
The question itself brought back a flood of memories from my college days when I was trying to figure out the same question. Obviously, having been on the mission field for a year now, I came to the conclusion that I was indeed called, but how did that get me to the point I’m at now? And how did I understand that calling? Looking back on what I often heard at college and examining it in the light of Scripture, I find myself now often scratching my head and wondering where in the world we ever got this idea of needing to have a specific “call.”
We’re all called to a life of sharing Christ, not just a select few of us. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15) applies to every believer. And it is to be a way of living – a vocation. Now we may do something other than “full-time ministry” to provide for our physical needs, but our life is to be consumed with sharing Christ. In my opinion, there is no scriptural support for the idea of a specific “call” to do missions; it’s something we’re all called to do. This was especially well stated on a blog I read the other day:
Right. You need a special call from God to share the Gospel with the lost of China. But you don’t need a special call to stay home, be a computer technician, make money, buy an iPhone, and take a vacation to Florida every year. Not that I’m against any of those things (anybody wants to send me an iPhone, I will send you my address!) – my point is, one life is clearly the more comfortable of the two. So why do we think that the life of luxury is by default God’s will?
Because it’s available to us, I imagine. So it must be God’s will, we reason. Why would he put me in a country where I could make six figures a year unless it was his will that I do so? There’s more than one way to read that evidence, though. A CEO of a large corporation could see that he has the authority over and access to large amounts of money. But it would be irresponsible (criminal!) for him to assume that the money is there for him and his comfort.
One of the great sins of Western Christianity: misappropriation of funds. Of blessings. Of manpower.
The truth is, every one of us is spending our lives, our money, and our ability on a call, on a life-purpose. There really are no blank spaces where a life-purpose should be. If you can’t state your life-purpose on demand, I’ve got some bad news. It’s highly likely your life-purpose is your own pleasure. You are misappropriating God’s gifts; you are wasting your life.
Now with that in mind, I ask these questions: “Are more people in our churches today staying home or going to the foreign field to serve God?” “Why?” If it’s because they’re “not called” that simply means that we have a terrible misunderstanding about what it means to be called.
So what is a “call”? Simply stated, it’s a command given by Christ that is applicable to every believer in every era of time. Our call comes from the Scripture, not from our feelings. A call is not something driven by emotions – feelings of pity, compassion, etc. (although emotions can have a part in it). Perhaps the distinction that has been made between a burden and a call was made to keep people from running off to the mission field on pure emotion. I often heard that “if you don’t have a call you’ll never make it when things get tough on the field.” Which may be true, but what we need to realize is that we are all called and we must live our lives according to the Scripture and it’s principles and not off our feelings. If we live off of our feelings we’ll be in a constant state of flux rather than being fixed.
A call is also not something “supernatural” – a dream, a vision, an audible voice, etc. We are not going to get an Acts 13 call today where the Holy Spirit says to us, “Do this specific work.” In many circles today, the idea of ” the call” has been turned into something mysterious, speculative, and subjective. No one can tell you exactly how to know if you’re called, but they all say “You’ll just know” and then go on to say that “You have to be called before you can go.” Now while this whole line of thinking was no doubt well meaning and intended to keep uncommitted people from going to the field, I believe that it has also kept many people, perhaps even a greater number, off the field that should have gone because it made the call subjective and difficult to understand. However, when we look at the Bible we find clear, objective, concrete truth regarding our call. There is no subjectivity or mystery to it.
The thing that really bothers me is how can someone possibly say (as I’ve heard people say), “Well, I’m really burdened for missions, but I’m not planning to go because I haven’t been called.” What in the world is that?! It’s a bunch of garbage that has come along with this mystical idea of the call. Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” – in other words, as I am delighting in and pursuing after God, He is going to put desires (a burden) in my heart to do something specific for him. So if God is putting the burden in my heart, does that mean that I have to wait until I get a “special revelation” from Him to tell me that I can actually do what He has given me the desire to do? Of course not!
I believe that the real question to be asking, then, is not “Am I called?” (because the answer is clearly ‘Yes’ for everyone) but rather “Where does God want me to live out my calling?” That’s where we get into the specifics which are different for every person and known only to God. However, to give a general answer the question of how I go about finding exactly where God wants me to serve, it will be helpful to look at a couple biblical examples, one OT and one NT. First, let’s take Abraham. God just told Abraham to go, but didn’t specify where. And Abraham got up and did it! He packed up family and everything and went, not even knowing where he was going to end up. People probably thought he was foolish and reckless and crazy, but he knew God had spoken to him and he obeyed.
I fully and firmly believe we need more of this attitude in missions today. We already have the call of God, so let’s just get up and go and trust God to lead us! Often our problem is that before we’re willing to start our journey we want God to give us MapQuest directions for our lives. “Go 23.8 miles, then turn left. Go to this place for 4.7 years, then…” But that is not how God directs.
For the New Testament example, look at Paul and his missionary team in Acts 16:6-10. He was out on his missionary journey, already busy for the Lord and responding to the call he received in Acts 13. All the sudden, though, they didn’t know where to go; so they tried to go into Asia but the Spirit said “No.” So what did Paul do? Did he reexamine his life to see if he was really called? Did he just sit down and wait for another revelation from God? No, he just tried going to a different place – this time into Bithynia – and again was stopped by the Spirit. But that didn’t deter Paul. He kept on trying things, kept on going places until finally God opened the right door for him. And because Paul was trying different options, when he received the Macedonian vision, he was already in Troas, which was right on the coast where he could take a boat and go to Macedonia immediately. Had he stayed inland closer to Asia and Bithynia, he would not have been in the position God wanted him to be in when the vision came.
It’s easy to say that we want God to steer or direct our lives, but that doesn’t work if we’re just sitting still. Take the example of a car – even though I may be turning the wheel, if the car isn’t already in motion it’s direction won’t change. In the same way, we can’t just be sitting stationary waiting for God to steer our lives. We need to get moving, doing something that God has placed in our hearts and if what we have in mind is not exactly what God has planned, He will redirect us along the way, just like He did with Paul. Now we don’t know how the Holy Spirit stopped them from going into Asia and Bithynia because Scripture doesn’t specifically tell us, but it obviously was very clear to them at that time. In the same way we may not know right now “How will I know if I’m going the ‘wrong way’ or doing the ‘wrong thing’?” but God will not just let us go off in the wrong direction if we are seeking His leading. Often God uses very clear and concrete circumstances to direct our lives, but we can often miss those if we’re just looking for the mystical, supernatural ones.
So what do I do when I don’t know where to go? First, start by doing what you already know God wants you to be doing (obedience to clear commands of Scripture). God is not going to tell you something else He wants you to do if you’re not already obeying what He has told you. Second, be ready to take a step of faith. Try doing something – specifically what God has given you a desire to do. Because God is sovereign, as you start moving He will arrange the circumstances of your life to direct you where He wants you to go. Don’t underestimate the sovereignty of God in all of this; it is crucial! Often we can be paralyzed by the fear that we’re going to choose the wrong direction, as if we think that once we’ve started in a particular direction we can never change course. God is the one who is sovereignly in control of our lives, and as we start moving forward for Him, He will guide and direct us as we are continually listening to His direction. Sometimes we can be so afraid that God is going to shut a door that seems open now that we never start moving that direction to see what happens.
So those are the principles of a call as I understand them. Now here’s my personal experience with it in a nutshell…
When I started college, I was a Pastoral Studies major because I was thinking about church planting in New England where I grew up. After the first year, however, the Lord led me to change my major to missions, because I thought it would help me better prepare for a church planting experience. Part of the missions program at the college I attended is the M.A.P. (Missions Apprentice Program) trip, and so naturally I looked for a U.S. church plant setting, but couldn’t find anything. That’s when I found out about a group going to Cameroon and decided to make that trip my M.A.P. experience. My thoughts were still in the U.S., though and I remember thinking that a foreign missions trip would give me a better heart for missions as a pastor in the States. On that trip, the Lord completely changed my mindset and I became convinced that He wanted me in foreign missions.
When I graduated from college, I was ready to go to the field, but God had other plans and directed me to seminary. Honestly, at that time, more schooling was the last thing on my agenda, but I felt very strongly that it was God’s will, so I “had to” submit to it. Although I wasn’t initially thrilled about seminary, it was during my time there that God gave me a passion for His Word and a desire to teach it to others. After seminary, again we were ready to go to the field, but things were not falling into line with our search for a mission board, etc. (i.e. the doors were not opening). So I began to look around to see what else God wanted me to do and I ended up going on for a Master’s degree in education (again, not being too excited about more school). After that year, we again began trying to get to the field, and this time the doors started swinging open.
We applied and were accepted with BMM, but we had no clue where we were going. Heading into candidate school, we were the only couple that was undecided as to a field, but we proceeded anyway because we knew God was opening the doors at that time. That was when we met the our coworkers for the first time and ended up talking about the possibility of teaming up together and opening Cameroon as a new field. Now, after a couple years of deputation we’re finally here, and we are absolutely convinced that we are in God’s will being here. But the thing that gives us that confidence is not some sort of “mysterious” call we received in college, but the constant and continual leading (direction and re-direction) of God as we sought his will. And the fact is, I don’t know what the future holds – we could be in Cameroon for 50 more years or 5 more months. But I don’t have to worry about that because God has been and will continue to direct our lives as we are seeking him. Ultimately, the place where I serve isn’t as important as the call to serve. And that’s the same call that all of us have been given.
So when we talk about the call of God for missions let’s make sure we’re talking in biblical terms and giving an accurate representation of the biblical data and not just talking in the “conventional wisdom” in an effort to keep the uncommitted people at home. After all it should be God who decides who goes out into His harvest field (and where and when), don’t you think?