God’s Calling Is Not Linear
For twentysomething and thirtysomething Christians, our understanding of career is joined to a sense of calling. In my years at a Christian liberal arts college, I often heard peers talk about being called in very specific ways: to do business as mission in China or specialize in international law and fight sex trafficking, for example. Though noble and worthy pursuits, even within the church we, like the surrounding culture, can imagine a rather linear and narrow path for what we believe God wants us to do. When life happens with its sudden turns and messy “interruptions” (my toddler son being one of these), we get confused and feel as if our calling is stalled. Did we mishear God? Are we doing something wrong?
There is freedom in realizing that calling is not linear. … A dear spiritual mentor of mine told me that what looks to God like the most direct route from point A to point B looks to us like a winding path in the wilderness leading nowhere. Moses spent decades herding animals in obscurity before encountering the burning bush. Jesus, likewise, lived the majority of his working years as an unknown carpenter before being called by the Spirit out into the desert in preparation for his public ministry.
We often repeat the exciting points of these stories—Moses rising against Pharaoh and Jesus healing the lame and raising the dead—rather than the years of preparation or confusion that preceded them. The same goes for our own lives. We’re more likely to talk about starting that business in China or landing our dream job at International Justice Mission than about whatever humdrum jobs or seemingly unproductive periods came before. We think to ourselves, “Now that’s when my life really begins.”
Yet God calls us to faithfulness in the mundane, whether that’s herding sheep and sawing wood or paper-pushing in an office and diaper-changing at home. God calls us to embody his love in the world now, not just when our careers take off. It’s also important to stick with doing the “useless stuff” for a while, says Tim Keller, because we learn things that enable us to be salt and light later.
Maybe we should replace the question “What are you doing when you graduate?” with “What kind of person is God calling you to be?” This helps young adults reorient their identity away from careers, which will inevitably change, to character, which only deepens throughout a lifetime. I haven’t yet figured out what I am doing, but I do know God is calling me to a life of hospitality, generosity, and wisdom that only comes out of silence and stillness. Regardless of my job situation, I can live this kind of life now.
“I think God may be calling me to something different,” I said warily to my senior pastor.
“Do you mean something else within the church, or do you think God is calling you out of the church?” he answered.
Later that day, I told my wife about the conversation. “You did what?” she exclaimed. “What if he asks you to leave?”
“I don’t think he’ll do that.” I wasn’t certain, but it turned out I was right. Eighteen months later, I stepped out of that “dream” position to follow the call I had been hearing from the Lord.
A short time later, I saw the job opening and knew it. This was the job—a grant-funded position at a local high school, helping students prepare for college. I had no experience and no certification, but God flung the door wide open. That job lasted four years.
When the grant for that position ended, I didn’t feel called out. I felt forced out. I searched reluctantly and found a position as an advisor at a local community college.
“Lord, what are you doing?” became a daily question.
With this most recent change, I struggled with discouragement and even some depression. It hasn’t been easy. Here are a few things that God has been teaching me:
Identity is not tied to calling. God cares infinitely more about my character than my career choices. This seems to be a recurring life lesson for me. It’s hard to learn, especially when you’ve felt called to “The Ministry,” grew up in church, and had a pretty good idea of what that was supposed to mean.
This has been a very challenging season. Even though I understand that my identity is in Christ alone, if I truly believed that in the depths of my spirit, the days where I question what God is doing would be fewer, and the days where I actively live by his power would be vastly increased.
Ministry is more than church work. The call of ministry extends beyond the walls of the church. In his book Organic Church, Neil Cole suggests that the great commission can be translated, “As you go, make disciples…” It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? Making disciples is not just for church workers or pastors. It’s a job for all of us. As we go about our day, our task is to move people closer to God.
We need doctors, engineers, nurses, and even politicians to actively believe and engage in the ministry of their work. There has been this separation between “secular” and “sacred” work for far too long. The Lord sees no such division (except for teachers of the Word—there is a special responsibility there). We are all called to listen and obey the Lord, extending his grace and love to those we encounter daily.
God doesn’t call us to understand; he calls us to obey. I said this very phrase to others when I was a pastor. It’s easy to say when you’re in a comfortable, secure position. When you wonder what in the world God is doing in your life, it’s a difficult statement to live out. God has used this time to strip everything away from me, even good things, things that could be labelled as “ministry work.”
As God frees me from some deeply-entrenched ideas, I’m left with only my relationship with Christ. He is teaching me to walk away from everything that would prevent me from resting in my true identity … in him.
I love reading about the great Christians of the past—distant and more recent—and their love for Jesus that gave them faith to go wherever He led them. The lives of many of these Christians have inspired me since I was a little girl.
Do you know one of the main things that made these Christians great? All were great because they were obedient to God’s calling for their lives, whatever it was—and their callings were diverse indeed! Not all were pastors, not all were evangelists, not all were songwriters, not all worked in orphanages or with lepers or the poor. Some were businessmen, some were teachers, some were politicians, some were cowboys, some were mothers, some were called to a ministry of prayer. However, all were missionaries, people like you and me, sent with the message of God’s love.
Not all were called to far-flung fields. Some were called to stay right where they were in their neighborhoods or hometowns. Some of these folks were very young when they felt called to work for the Lord; others were older. Some died young while laboring for Jesus; others died at a ripe old age. Some accomplished bigger tasks and others seemingly smaller ones. However, because they did what God asked of them, their lives were a blessing to many others. All were great because they wholeheartedly fulfilled God’s call in their lives.
We are unlikely to have Abraham’s calling to become the father of nations. (See Genesis 12) Not many of us have the strength of Samson to bring the perpetrators of evil to justice. (See Judges 16) It is rare to be given the responsibility, like Esther, of safeguarding the people of our nation. (See Esther 4) And most of us don’t have the fearlessness of the prophet Daniel, risking life and limb for our faith, (See Daniel 6) or even the vigor of the apostle Paul, who evangelized almost the entire known world of his day. (See Acts 13–15, 18)
Most of us are more like those unnamed individuals scattered throughout the Gospels, like the men and women who sat on the grass listening to Jesus, enjoying the meal of loaves and fishes, and hopefully letting His words sink into our hearts and change our lives. (See Matthew 14) He’s given us a lot to chew on, that’s for sure.
We don’t need to do something outstanding or showy with our life in order for it to be worthwhile. The secret is finding out what God’s calling for us is and how we can best fulfill it. Some of the most meaningful lives are built by doing little things in countless little ways.
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