Many Christians struggle with the mystery of a calling. The idea of a “call” is quite possibly the most confusing aspect of the journey.2 The popular notion among Christians is to suppose there will be some sort of heavenly-vision experience. Most will never consider missions because they never had a call.
As I’ve met with hundreds of young adults, I’ve realized the one thing they are looking for is to know the purpose God has for their life. “Where am I going to end up?” “What am I supposed to do?” Most are waiting for a clear voice from heaven. To bring clarity to the chaos it helps to understand the three types of callings mentioned in Scripture: the mysterious, the commissioned, and the common-sense.4
The Mysterious Call
Our most common thought when it comes to a calling is you have a mysterious dream or vision from God. Though this may happen, it is rare. This type of call finds its roots in one of Paul’s journeys. As Paul was pushing the gospel through modern-day Turkey he had a vision:
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:9-10)
Having seen the vision he rightly decided to go to Macedonia, where he and his coworkers eventually saw some of the first recorded converts in Europe. The vision directed the gospel from Asia to Europe.
The Commissioned Call
The second type of call is the commissioned call. This is where the leadership of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, exhorts you to go. An example of this is given in Acts:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers.… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:1-3, esv)
Paul and Barnabas were called by the Holy Spirit through the church leaders to a specific task. The difference between the mysterious call and the commissioned call is the vision comes to the leaders, not the individual. Though this call seems unusual, it isn’t as astonishing as it may seem. The church leaders were asking the Lord to speak to them. When they heard from God to set apart Paul and Barnabas, the leadership concluded the church was to commission these believers to proclaim the gospel to new areas. The commissioned call is just as viable as the mysterious call.
The third type of call is the common-sense call. In Acts 15 the apostles and elders held a very important council on what it means to be a Christian. The conclusions of the council were summarized into a message and the church needed to send messengers from the council to share the news with believers in other areas. Was there a mysterious call? No. A commissioned call? No. Here is how they decided: “It seemed good … to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch” (Acts 15:22, esv). There was a need for a messenger, and there were people willing to go. It appears there are times it will just seem good to meet the need. Are we allowing God to lead us by all the different types of calls, or are we relying on just one?
What’s Wrong Here?
Inevitably, there will be times we have opened our lives to God’s leading but don’t seem to be hearing anything. What should we do when there seems to be no wind?
The first time I went sailing was on Lake Union in Seattle. As we boarded the ship our fearless leader, Captain John, opened the sails. Within minutes we were in the middle of the lake. My eyes were closed and the wind in my face. I was loving every minute. Everything was perfect until I realized our boat was slowing. No more wind.
I’m not one to jump to extremes, but we were stranded in the middle of a lake. Without blinking, the captain grabbed a long piece of wood, thrust it into my hands, and yelled, “Paddle!” So much for sailing.
If we survey the church today, most would say they have never had a mysterious call to missions. Which is fine. If we probe deeper we find what they mean is they have never had a God-given attraction to a specific country. We, like Abraham, get to step out in obedience to follow Jesus regardless of where He takes us (Gen. 12:3-4). Though I’ve never heard the voice of God or had a mysterious liver-quiver, I have grown to understand people may be called to live a missional life simply because they understand what God is doing and desire to join Him. They paddle in obedience to God’s mission.
Today, millions lack access to the gospel. We must not feel the need to be stagnant until we hear a word from the Lord, a vision, or a “call.” For some, it might just seem good to send people where no one is going.
The Struggle Is Real
I struggled with the thought of being a missionary. I saw missionaries as a select few God had called to wear a loincloth. As I saw God’s plan through Scripture, I realized missionaries are normal Christians who love the Lord and want to see His glory spread to all people groups. The loincloths are optional. The lack of a calling is no reason to stay on the sidelines. Though this may be our obstacle, at times there is something deeper behind our inactivity.
In Exodus chapter 3, God sends Moses to free Israel from the bondage of Pharaoh. Moses’s response? “Who am I that I should go?” Just like Moses, we ask, “Who am I?” and focus on our lack of abilities instead of the fullness of God’s. God says to Moses, “I will be with you” (v. 12). He gives Moses (and us) assurance, “It’s not about you. It’s about Me.” In Exodus 4, Moses shows the heart issue. He begs God, “Please send someone else” (v. 13). When we are honest with ourselves, the issue is not in believing God can use us, but that He will use us. We are afraid of the uncertainties of a radical life. In the words of Paul Fleming, founder of New Tribes Mission, “Here am I, Lord … send my sister.”7
I have found people will use the lack of a mysterious call as an excuse to not be involved. We must realize God uses more than one type of call. May we be open to how God directs us.
By Josh Cooper