by Daniel Bacon
Moving toward fulfilling the good work God has for us includes wisdom and action. Bacon offers guidelines for finding our way in the myriad of options.
Over the years of my missionary career there have been numerous times when leadership has suggested that I take on a new ministry assignment that involves a change in role, and in some instances, even a change in location. That inevitably sets in motion a period of heart searching, asking difficult questions without always finding answers, coupled sometimes with uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety before coming to a final decision.
I suspect that most of us have gone through this process. How do we really know when a proposed assignment is something God is ordering or something else? How do we recognize a God-given assignment? Keep in mind that some might even challenge the notion that God truly has assignments for us that we must discover and fulfill. Regardless, we need to think carefully about the answers to this key question as it may have a profound impact on our daily spiritual life and how we approach our ministries.
From the perspective of Ephesians 2:10 it is clear that God has prepared a path which is characterized by “good works” in which we should walk. In Hebrews 12:1, the writer exhorts us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The idea is to run faithfully in the lane uniquely marked out for each of us. From our limited perspective, how then do we discern that path or identify the particular good works that God purposes for us? Let me suggest three approaches.
1. The “to-do list” approach. Some have argued that God’s call or assignments are very specific and can be determined through thoughtful prayer, scripture, and godly counsel. In other words, God reveals the where and the how through these time-honored means. Historically, Christians have been taught that God does indeed have good works or assignments for us individually as well as corporately. As a young believer, I was told that God had a specific plan for my life and I must discover it and then do it with all my heart if I were to fulfill my calling. My task was to find God’s “to-do list” for my life, and then at each junction pursue it.
2. The “godly wisdom” approach. Others see God as giving us freedom to make choices and believe that those very choices become the will of God for us as we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. In other words, God has already revealed all that we need to know to live out the Christian life, and as long as we make decisions consistent with his revealed purposes and values in scripture, we are within God’s will.
Furthermore, this approach would add that God has given each of us a mix of natural abilities, acquired skills, and spiritual gifts, and that he expects us to live out our “gift mix” as good stewards. Thus, whatever task or “good work” we undertake doesn’t really matter in terms of being God’s will or call, but rather our main concern should be that it expresses his revealed purposes in scripture and is done in a way that brings glory to him. This is what is meant by exercising godly wisdom in choosing from among alternatives as we seek to glorify God in our lives. In effect, whenever I choose an assignment believing that it is a good and right thing to do, God, in his sovereign control and purposes, makes it my God-given assignment and ultimately works out his plan (Rom. 8:28).
I confess that I struggle to understand just how God guides. At times, doors open in a way that seems to shout, “Pay attention! This is your opportunity. Walk through it.” There are other times, however, when I feel as if I am totally on my own to make a decision and hear no voice whispering in my ear, “This is the way; walk in it.”
So how do we resolve the tension or polarity between these two views—between what seems a very personal and subjective approach (discover the list and do it) versus a very objective approach (exercise godly wisdom)? My own conviction is that resolution lies in a dynamic tension between the two. But just what do I mean by this?
3. The “partnership with God” approach. As I read scripture, and in particular passages that relate to God’s involvement with the believer in working out his sovereign purposes, I am persuaded that the process of guidance is more complex than we may think and grows out of a partnership with God rather than a simple “follow the directions” approach.
Passages such as 1 Corinthians 3:8 and 3:14-15 indicate that rewards will be given to a believer according to his or her own labor before the judgment seat of Christ. The expression “labor” seems to be referring to one’s unique contribution to the planting and building up of the Church. In other words, the focus is on one’s function and faithfulness in fulfilling that role rather than saying anything specific about where or in what setting we labor. We are rewarded then according to the quality of our contribution (gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, straw) as we operate within our general sphere of gifting or function. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “…as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor. 3:5).
Furthermore, Paul describes us in 1 Corinthians 3:9 as God’s fellow workers—an amazing statement! He indicates that as workers we are privileged to serve in a partnership with God to accomplish his purposes. Again, in another setting, the Apostle Paul talks about this partnership in this way: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). In other words, God does not treat us merely as robots at the end of a remote control. Rather, there is a divine synergy between the Lord of the Harvest and each of us individually in working out his plan for our lives.
This synergy is further emphasized in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” What is interesting here is to see the initiative seemingly coming from us to undertake a purpose or act. Then, after taking the first step in faith, we see God working in power to fulfill that act or purpose through us. Here then is the mystery of partnership with God. What has happened is that God worked in us at first (“to will and do of his good purpose”). In responding, we in turn take ownership of that burden and it becomes “our purpose” as well as God’s, and thus we see this reciprocal dynamic taking place.
I am persuaded that God will guide us, but the defining of any so-called "God-given assignment" is a process that includes us as well as the Lord. I believe that it is important for us to pray about what we should do, read scripture carefully to make sure our motives and overall values are in alignment, and seek godly counsel. But I also believe that we need to take more responsibility for our part in decision-making and believe that in the process God will be at work.
What then is the role of the subjective and the objective in the equation of discerning a God-given assignment or in receiving a call? In addressing this question I would like to touch upon two important factors and then outline some general guidelines.
Important Factors in Defining a God-given Assignment
1. Culture and environment. Part of the complication in defining how God guides our lives or in determining what constitutes a “God-given assignment” is our own cultural conditioning. Western or Postmodern cultures that put more emphasis on individual choice and freedom tend to emphasize the subjective side of guidance. In other words, the key questions would start with how you feel about the task: Are you convinced in your heart that it is the right thing to do? Do you have personal peace about the decision? What would bring you the greatest sense of fulfillment and use of your potential?
By contrast, traditional cultures which are more family-oriented and communitarian in their values and practices would tend to stress the objective side of guidance: What is expected by others? What is required or what is your duty? What would please or benefit the group most? Seldom heard is the oft-mentioned phrase so common in the West: “I don’t feel like it!”
2. The call. Inevitably, any discussion about guidance will bring up the matter of the call. Few questions come up as frequently or creates as much confusion in Christian circles as the whole matter of the “call”—whether to a place, ministry, or task. However, what does it really mean and how does one really know if he or she is called by God? When am I “free to just choose” and when must I have a “call”?
The Greek word kaleo, usually translated “call,” occurs 148 times in the New Testament with an additional 70 times in related terms. The predominant use of the term is in reference to God’s calling of individuals to salvation and to a quality of life as a Christian. Thus, we could describe this as God’s general call to all believers.
At the same time there is another use of the term as found in Romans 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:1, which describes a call to a unique role or function. Paul saw himself as an apostle, called and appointed by the will of God (Eph. 3:7). Related to his function as an apostle, he then viewed his service as an outworking of that call or function (Acts 13:2; 16:9). Thus, we are all called to salvation and a Christian walk worthy of that calling (Eph. 4:1). Beyond that, however, some are called to a kind of ministry or task as Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:2. The focus of a call, then, is on the function more than the where and how.
It is important to note that the only time geography is used in relation to a call in the New Testament is in Acts 16:10. Beyond that there is no other reference to Paul being called out from Macedonia to some other location or ministry task similar to the way he was called to Macedonia. Why geographical direction was given here but apparently not elsewhere is not clear, but perhaps there was something special about the circumstances. Therefore, we need to exercise caution in demanding a geographic call before determining our direction. Furthermore, there is no record of any individual in the Book of Acts being accepted or rejected on Paul’s apostolic mission band because of a personal call. Also, the term is never referred to as a requirement in the list of qualifications for church leadership in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1.
What do we mean then by the call? For many, the traditional use relates to a feeling or conviction that someone should be in a particular country or in a certain kind of ministry and undertake a specific task. The call is frequently tied to God’s guidance for special service, usually in the cross-cultural sense or to the staff of a local church. One should never go out without one, nor accept a position without one, for that would be inviting trouble. Ignoring the call would be disobedient and result in serious consequences and loss. The call usually comes through the formula of the word, prayer, and circumstances.
On the other hand, a number of Bible teachers or mission leaders question the biblical validity of a special missionary call. They stress that scripture’s commands to go and make disciples are evident, and extraordinary guidance of a subjective nature is unnecessary. Rather, the emphasis should be on a person’s suitability and availability to respond to given needs or opportunities. If those are in tandem from an objective standpoint, the person should move ahead even without a “feeling” of being called.
Many, however, use the term “call” in a generic sense, synonymous with God’s guidance, including both subjective and objective factors. Although in this system an individual’s convictions are given consideration, responsibility for assessing suitability is not ignored. If the qualifications are lacking, the church or mission agency usually discourages candidacy, regardless of the person’s subjective feelings.
The following guidelines may help steer our thinking through this important decision-making process of discerning a God-given assignment.
Assignments that apply to all. Every believer has been called to a relationship with God and to a quality of life that honors him in every aspect of daily life. As Paul reminds us, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1). This is the will of God for each of us, regardless of where we live or what our individual roles might be. Jerry Sittser adds this practical note:
The will of God concerns the present more than the future. It deals with our motives as well as our actions. It focuses on the little decisions we make about the future. The only time we really have to know and to do God’s will is the present moment. We are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. These are the basic responsibilities Jesus challenges us to pay attention to… (2000, 29)
Assignments that express our unique giftedness and basic function in the Body of Christ. Scripture makes clear that what God has equipped us with as believers (natural abilities, acquired skills, spiritual gifts) should give direction to our primary service and assignments. Peter states it simply when he exhorts, “Each one should use whatever spiritual gift he has received to serve others, faithfully ministering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10). There is a sense in which all of us are called to serve—to do the necessary things at times, regardless of whether or not we feel that it matches our training or giftedness. However, as a general rule, God expects us to take on tasks or accept assignments that enable us to best utilize our giftedness.
In Ephesians 4, Paul reminds us that God has given gifted people to serve within the body and to reach out to the world. These gifted people are called apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Each of these gifted people is called to fulfill a certain function. What is stressed is not the specific location or organization within which they might serve, but rather the nature of their unique roles. As one reads through Paul’s journeys in Acts, we see frequent changes in place, circumstances, and assignments. And yet the thread of continuity in all of Paul’s ministry settings was the unique role he fulfilled as a gifted apostle, teacher, and pastor.
Sittser clarifies the importance of distinguishing between our basic calling and our careers (2000, 63). Sometimes we confuse our God-given function with any specific job description, role, or career. We think that God calls us to a career (e.g., missionary, doctor, engineer), but fail to understand that within any vocation we are called to a basic function which flows out of what God has equipped and gifted us for (e.g., evangelist, pastor, teacher, encourager).
Assignments that respond to needs and opportunities. The New Testament is replete with exhortations for God’s people to engage in “good works” (e.g., 2 Cor. 9:8; Gal. 6:9-10; Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:7, 14). The theme running throughout these texts is that each of us is to respond to needs and opportunities for doing good; by doing so, we are fulfilling God’s redemptive purpose or calling for us.
Thus within these broad parameters of God’s clearly revealed will, each of us takes on various assignments that reflect God’s purposes. I really don’t need to pray about whether or not I should love my neighbor or seek to serve within the local church. God has already spoken about these duties. In my daily priorities and choices, any action or response that flows naturally from life’s circumstances or demands and looks like, smells like, and talks like a good work, becomes a God-given assignment to me at that point. Whatever best expresses the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) in a situation automatically qualifies as God’s assignment and thus God’s call or will for me.
There are innumerable potential good works that theoretically could be considered divine assignments. The key issue, however, is not to be unduly concerned over which should be mine or yours, but to start from the perspective of what are the needs or opportunities that I’m uniquely equipped to undertake or have the reasonable opportunity to meet.
Assignments that come from a God-given burden or concern. There is strong biblical evidence that God also works in our hearts so that a vision, burden, or concern to meet a need begins to emerge and gives us a conviction that there is something we need to do. Paul reminds us that “…it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).
Titus is an interesting case study. At one point, Paul asks Titus to go to Corinth to assist in the pastoral care and development of this important local church. Using his apostolic authority, Paul could have ordered Titus to go and likely he would have. Paul was not adverse to issuing orders to fellow workers such as Titus in other settings (see Titus 1:5). But instead we read, “I thank God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you. For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative” (2 Cor. 8:16-17).
It is interesting that most ministry visions flow out of a desire to meet a need or solve a problem. Seldom does a vision come from a vacuum. History is filled with stories of God’s servants seeing a need, and feeling within a growing desire or burden to do something about it. Hudson Taylor saw one million souls a month perishing without Christ in China, and the burden to help is what drove him to start the China Inland Mission in 1865.
God has called us to partnership in his work in this world. It would seem that as we walk with God, from time to time he brings to our awareness a situation that cries for help. We are confronted and begin to feel in our heart of hearts that this should not be. It becomes a cry or protest against the status quo. That kind of a conviction would strongly indicate a God-given assignment.
Assignments that come from organizational requirements. When we are a part of an organization as an employee or volunteer, then scripture makes clear that work-related assignments are in reality God-given assignments. Paul reminds slaves in Ephesians 6:7, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is a slave or free.”
When we are serving under authority, we are told to see our tasks not just as menial or mundane jobs to be done, but rather as acts of service to God. How much more so when we are serving within a Christian organization or as part of a ministry team. Tasks then that come to us from the team need to be seen as God-given assignments and solicit from within us a wholehearted commitment to contribute as best we can.
In the end, we are all called to walk by faith and not by sight. We desperately want to get things right and thus, at times, want “absolute proof” of what God is asking or calling us to do. However, each of us needs to take a final step of faith even after we have done all to discern God’s will with respect to a proposed assignment. Ultimately, we are to trust not in our guidance, but in the God who guides (Ps. 48:14).
Sittser, Jerry. 2000. Discovering God’s Will: How to Make Every Decision with Peace and Confidence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.
Having served in Japan and Singapore, and as U.S. national director for OMF International, Daniel Bacon has focused on leader development among OMF personnel and consulting with other ministries. Daniel has a DMiss from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 60-66. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.