Stop talking about God calling you (because he already has)

crossroads.jpgWords are endlessly fascinating. As a card-carrying pedant, I’m forever analyzing the way that words are used in various contexts. I find it especially intriguing to observe the ways in which subcultures develop their own idioms and jargon.

Christians are no different. We tend to spend a lot of time within our own communities, with each Christian subculture developing its own slightly nuanced, quirky ways of speaking.

Often this can be positive, reinforcing biblical ways of thinking and encouraging one another in the truth. Sometimes it can be completely neutral, nothing more than the development of quick and easily understood references. Christian jargon becomes unhelpful when it excludes newcomers or outsiders, confusing them or perhaps making them feel like unwelcome onlookers who are sneaking a peek at some exclusive, odd little clique.

But sometimes our Christian jargon can become unhelpful in another critical way—not just for outsiders, but for those within the community. We can inadvertently develop ways of speaking that cause confusion and lead us away from clarity in our thinking about God and his ways.

So I’d like you to pause and think with me about one important word that probably has a place in your Christian subculture’s jargon: call. And let’s include all the variations: call, called, and calling.

You must know what I mean. In Christian circles, people will very often say that God has called them to live in a particular place, or that they sensed God’s calling to take a particular job or make a particular decision, or that it was God’s call on their life that led them into their particular ministry. And we could easily find many other examples.

All around me, people keep talking about how God has called them or is calling them to act or live in some specific way.

But I really wish they wouldn’t. I’ve become convinced that it’s a decidedly unhelpful way to speak.

I’m not saying that people who speak this way are terrible, reprobate Christians. Almost always, they are people who love the Lord Jesus and want to glorify him in all that they do and all that they say. They usually speak about ‘calling’ as a way to honour the Lord for his goodness and to encourage others.

I know they don’t mean any harm. But I believe they may inadvertently be doing harm.

Before you write me off as a curmudgeonly nitpicker, please remember that pedants are people too (in fact, based on Galatians 4:16, I’d confidently argue that the apostle Paul was a great pedant). More importantly, maybe a healthy dose of pedantry can be a gift to God’s people from time to time. Surely we Christians, as people of the book—people who place the highest possible value on not just the word of God but the words of God—should be willing to scrutinize our language about God, especially if our poor choice of words has significant pastoral consequences.

So what’s the big deal with misusing the word ‘call’ in Christian circles? Here are seven reasons to be careful and, for some of us, to change the way we speak.

It’s not how the New Testament uses this word
I hope all Christians can get on board with this simple idea: Bible words should have Bible meanings.

Yes, the accepted meanings of words can evolve in all kinds of ways. That’s a big part of how language works. But in our own thinking, and within our various Christian networks, surely we should use biblical words in ways that match with the Bible’s meanings for those words. If we don’t, we’re putting ourselves (and others) at risk of confusion. We’re apt to open the Bible, come across a word (like ‘call’) and force an incorrect meaning onto the text. We can easily end up distorting the precious word of God.

The New Testament never uses the ‘call’ word group to speak prescriptively about the subjective call of God in the life of a believer. It frequently uses this language to describe the objective, universal call issued in and by the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. These uses include the call to repentance and salvation, the call to holiness and godliness, and the call to endurance and ongoing faith. But whatever the precise details, every type of ‘call’ is issued objectively, publicly, collectively and outwardly (not subjectively, privately, individually or inwardly) to all people everywhere or to all of God’s people.[1] Jesus came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32 and parallels), not builders to become dentists nor mechanics to become baristas—nor even (strictly speaking) to call speech therapists to become missionaries in Thailand.

On top of that, an important handful of passages tell us that it’s us who should be calling on God, rather than waiting around for him to call on us.[2]

Yes, there are passages where Paul says that God called him to be an apostle (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:7). One verse looks back on God’s call to Abraham (Heb 11:8), and in another case we read of Paul and his colleagues concluding that God had called them to preach in Macedonia (Acts 16:10). However, this small cluster of texts hardly compares to the overwhelming weight of passages that describe God’s call as objectively coming to all people everywhere. More to the point, aren’t we better served building our theology of calling on the mass of prescriptive passages, rather than on a handful of descriptive passages about Paul, the unique apostle to the Gentiles?

Is it good to be a missionary in Thailand? You bet! (Please consider it.) But the point is that God’s word never encourages us to apply the language of ‘calling’ to answering the specific question of whether I should be a missionary in Thailand. It always encourages us to see the language of ‘calling’ as being centred on the objective, public, external truth of the gospel.

In other words, as far as the New Testament is concerned, we all receive the exact same calling.

One of Jordan Peterson’s ‘12 Rules for Life’ in his bestselling book of the same name is ‘Be Precise in Your Speech’. If a non-Christian thinker like Peterson can see it, surely Christians—people of the book, people of the word(s)—can see it. Be precise in your speech. Let Bible words have Bible meanings.

It subtly undermines the sufficiency of Scripture
In more than two decades of being a Christian, I’ve lost count of the number of people who share some version of this concern: ‘I believe that the Bible is the word of God. But what if God is trying to tell me something outside the Bible? What if he’s calling me in a particular direction, but I’ve just missed it? What if the Bible isn’t enough for the decisions I have to make?’

There are many ways to help a brother or sister trapped by these concerns, but here’s the best way: remind them that the Bible isn’t just the inspired and inerrant word of God; it’s also the sufficient word of God.

Take them to 2 Timothy 3:14-17, and ask them to make a list of all the things that Scripture IS and all the things that Scripture DOES, just from those four verses. Then ponder with them: once you have the Scriptures, are you lacking anything at all that you need in order to live a godly life in Christ Jesus? No! If you have the Bible, you have it all!

You don’t need to wait around for God’s subjective call on your life. You don’t need to second-guess what God may or may not be telling you privately. If he wants to get you somewhere, he’ll get you there. Obey the Bible where it gives us clear commands, use the Bible to gain a heart of wisdom, then get on with using your Christian freedom to glorify God. Let the Bible equip you for every good work, and let the Bible set the agenda for what really matters. On a similar note…

It undermines the power and centrality of the gospel
If I were a Thai Christian in need of discipleship, would I rather have a missionary show up on my doorstep because she’d had a private epiphany about Thailand? Or would I rather meet someone who’d been so gripped by the objective truth of the gospel—the universal power and authority of Jesus, the wonder of introducing people to God, the urgency of seeing people saved from the wrath of God, the hope of eternal life—that she was willing to go anywhere in the world, to Thailand or Timbuktu, to preach Christ crucified?

As we’ve already seen, it’s the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ that calls us to holiness and to enduring faith. It’s the gospel of Jesus that calls us to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. It’s the gospel of Jesus that calls us to lay aside our small ambitions, deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. The exact details of where we do that, or how we do that, are (relatively) unimportant. Every time we speak about God calling us to a specific ministry, we elevate the unimportant and we miss a golden opportunity to elevate the supremely important, universal gospel.

It’s this gospel, and only this gospel, that has more than enough power to call men and women to the ends of the earth in its service.

You might simply be baptizing or justifying your own desires
One senior saint I know looks back on a lifetime of ministry and recalls the way that numerous young adults have spoken to him about their plans and aspirations: many would say to him things like, ‘God is calling me to be a surgeon’ or ‘God is calling me to be a dentist’ or ‘God is calling me to be a lawyer’. ‘How amazing’, he would think. ‘God doesn’t seem to be calling anyone to be janitors or street sweepers! The Holy Spirit certainly is very middle-class in my part of the world.’

Of course, it might be very good to be a surgeon, a dentist or a lawyer. But how do you know that God has actually ‘called’ you to such a profession? Maybe it’s just your own personal desire, the voice of an insistent parent, or the weight of cultural expectation. Perhaps the devil would be very happy for you to become a surgeon because he knows that, for you, it’s the path of least resistance and therefore the quickest path away from dependence on God. Is the unverifiable claim that God is ‘calling’ you to a particular profession (or to other similar life choices) really helpful? Or does it open the door to simply anointing our own personal preferences with a little sprinkling of Christian fairy dust?

It can make it difficult to receive advice and wisdom from others
Once you’ve declared that God is calling you to be a surgeon, it becomes that much harder for anyone to offer godly wisdom or practical advice that might help you evaluate your decision. “You’re completely awful at biology and I’ve seen you faint at the smallest sight of blood.” “Yes, but God has called me to be a surgeon, you see.” “Oh. Carry on, then.”

It’s unloving and confusing to others
Describing the way that God has ‘called’ you to a particular lifestyle choice can be an unfortunate way to make others play the dreaded Comparison Game. It can take a few different forms:

  • “It sounds like you have a special relationship with God. I wish I had something like that.”
  • “It’s great that God made his will for your life so clear. I wish he’d do that for me. Why doesn’t he? Perhaps he will one day, but what do I do until then? Is God playing games with me, keeping me guessing until I find his calling on my life?”
  • “Perhaps God has tried to call me to something special, but I’m so unspiritual and unenlightened that I missed it.”
  • “So this inner inkling of an idea that I have—are you saying that’s God’s calling on my life? Great! I guess I should just do it, no questions asked.”

I’m not saying that people who testify about God’s calling to them are intentionally trying to make others feel like this. Not at all. But don’t you see how these kinds of conclusions would be entirely possible?

What if, instead of speaking about God subjectively calling us, we took an attitude like this: “Here’s the thing I think I’d like to do. It’s not unbiblical, it seems to be wise, it seems to fit my gifts and experiences, and it might even prove a blessing to someone else out there. Therefore, until God closes the door or I realise it wasn’t so wise after all, it’s what I intend to do. But I have no way of knowing whether God definitely wants me to do this thing. After all, the only place where he promises to speak to me is in the Scriptures, which means I don’t need him to speak to me in any other way. And my life is fundamentally shaped by the very same gospel that should be shaping your life too.”

Think how much potential anxiety or confusion you may have just taken off your friend’s shoulders.

It puts matters of wisdom on the same level as matters of obedience
Once we conclude, “God is calling me to…” (or the slightly stronger and even more dangerous “God is telling me to…”), we’ve put ourselves in a dangerous spot. For if God really does call you to something or if he tells you to do something, then you better darn well do it!

The problem, of course, is that the matters in which we often say God calls us are not matters of biblical obedience. They’re matters of biblical wisdom and freedom. When we turn them into matters of obedience, we box ourselves into corners that God never intended us to be in.

We may also find that we start taking our eyes off the real non-negotiables, the things which the Bible says are matters of obedience.

Let God, not us, set the agenda for what really matters.

So can God ‘call’ you in a subjective, internal, private way? Yes. He is sovereign, and he can do whatever he wants with your heart and your life—although remember that you’re using a biblical word in an unbiblical word when you describe the phenomenon that way.

Can God speak to you outside the Bible? Yes. But does he promise to? No. The only place where he promises to speak to us today is in his word, the Bible. It is this word, this gospel, that calls every single one of us to all the things that really matter.

* * *

[1] Here are the relevant references, in case you have the time and inclination to work through them (I did, and I couldn’t find a single one that tells us to expect a subjective, private, internal call from God in our lives): Matt 22:14; Acts 2:39; Romans 1:6-7, 8:28, 9:11, 9:24, 15:17; 1 Cor 1:2, 1:9, 1:24, 7:18-24; Gal 1:6, 5:8, 5:13; Eph 1:18, 4:1, 4:4; Phil 3:14; Col 3:15; 1 Thess 2:12, 4:7, 5:24; 2 Thess 1:11, 2:14; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1, 9:15; 1 Pet 1:15, 2:9, 2:21, 3:9, 5:10; 2 Peter 1:3, 1:10; Jude 1:1; Rev 13:10, 14:12.

[2] Acts 2:21, 9:21, 22:16; Romans 10:12-14; 2 Tim 2:22; 1 Peter 1:17.

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