by Gary Corwin
“Paul an apostle by the will of God.” What could be simpler? Yet, what is laden with more profound meaning for the missionary enterprise than the concept of calling?
"Paul an apostle by the will of God." What could be simpler? Yet, what is laden with more profound meaning for the missionary enterprise than the concept of calling?
Is there a missionary anywhere who has not struggled with questions of personal calling at some point in life? I doubt it.
A lifetime of personal musing, reflection on the Word, and hearing about the pilgrimages of others convinces me of several things about calling. First, God delights to deal with his children in unique and personal ways. Ultimately, there is no cookie-cutter template or 10-step formula. God reveals his unique calling in different ways to different people.
Second, before revealing his unique callings, God always provides more general callings to his people-callings to salvation, holiness, and obedience. If we miss these, we will never hear God’s more personal and peculiar callings.
Third, calling to ministry is not an appropriate measure of spiritual commitment. It has too often been considered that way, however, to the detriment usually of both God’s work and the individuals involved. If God has called you to plant corn, it is not a mark of spirituality to insist that you are called to preach Christ. God has a spiritual ministry for each of us, but it’s not always vocational.
Fourth, calling always requires doing. It is not just a status to wear. It is not enough to like being honored as a pastor, missionary, CEO, physician, teacher, etc. We need a God-given passion for the task involved. While our passion may not be a full-grown oak when we start out, it should at least be an acorn.
Fifth, calling is not simply a reflection of giftedness. While God weaves the employment of our spiritual and natural gifts into his calling, that calling is more than just the sum of our gifts. It is individually sculpted to incorporate both his purposes and our passions.
If this be so, why then the doubts that so many missionaries experience as they set about doing that to which they believe they have been called? Some are simply surprised by pain. Do called missionaries suffer culture shock, too? they ask. They forget the time-tested wisdom that you should never question in the darkness what you were certain of in the sunshine. The presence or absence of difficult circumstances is not a good test of one’s calling.
Then there is confusion about what one is called to. Is calling to a place? A people? A task? A role? A context (such as cross-cultural ministry)? Testimonies I have heard seem to indicate any or all of the above, and more.
Why don’t we hear much about calling in evangelical circles any more? The time was in America when almost all ministry vocations were discussed in those terms. And 500 years ago, Reformers like Luther made much of the concept as a central support to the idea that all honorable work has dignity and is worthy of respect.
Have we simply moved from being God-centered in our thinking to being more man-centered? I don’t necessarily mean this in any ultimate "rebellion against God" way, though Western culture certainly has made that move. I’m talking about God’s people, who love the Lord and want to please him. Have we, too, imbibed the concept of career at the expense of calling, of job at the expense of vocation?
Do we in missions simply avoid the issue to fill the ranks and keep the agency’s machinery going? In our eagerness to increase our numbers, we may be recruiting a lot of people who lack a sense of call. Do we really want people in missions whom God has not called? Not easy questions.
Some would rightly ask if it is really a matter of calling at all. Once one recognizes his own gifts, temperament, personality, etc., might it not be rather just a matter of leading?
Dr. J. Herbert Kane, a true missionary statesman now in Glory, was one of my early mentors. He was fond of raising the question, "If you saw 10 men carrying a pole and there were nine on one end and one on the other, which end would you go to in order to help?" The presumed answer, of course, is predicated on relative need. You go where the need is obviously so much greater. Is that kind of logic the same as calling? While leading and obedience are crucial, they may not be an alternative to calling, but may in fact be two of God’s primary means for revealing it.
Ultimately it boils down to knowing God, waiting on him, and being honest with yourself. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received during my higher education years was from my father-in-law, a long-time pastor. He said that if there was anything else that I could do, I should not go into vocational ministry. (He knew first-hand how hard it could be.) I took his words to mean not "if there was anything else I was capable of doing," but rather, "if I could have peace and satisfaction doing anything else." In essence, he was asking about calling, and he was right. An important test of our character is how honestly we answer just such questions.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missiologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM-USA.
EMQ, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 18-19. Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.