The lesson this week invites us to think about what it means to be called by God using the examples of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is abundantly clear from the Scriptures, that God does call people. The examples are many—Moses, Aaron, Samuel, Elijah, Amos, other prophets, the disciples of Jesus, to name a few examples. This calling from God has played out throughout history. It goes on still today. Here is a chance for us to think about is carefully and expansively.
It is often the case when we hear or think of God calling people that we think of it in rather singular terms. In other words, we most commonly don’t explore what this calling means or how it works. We leave the calling in a sort of nebulous or mysterious zone and don’t explore what it means to be called by God.
Close thought on the callings of God will reveal that God calls in at least four ways. The first call is a call to salvation. This call goes out under the auspices of the Holy Spirit and it goes to every human who ever lived. This call might be compared to radio waves that are beamed out from a transmitter. The signals are all about, but are only picked up by someone who turns on their radio. So, this call beams out under the bidding of God and it goes to every human. And the fact of this call has several significant implications. The first is that the Holy Spirit is the primary agent of salvation. Those who work in the gospel cause are never in first place when it comes to spreading the gospel for there is no one they can ever speak to who has not already been “spoken to” by the Spirit. A second implication is that anyone who makes an evangelistic call is doing nothing more than trying to get people to listen to the call to salvation. And because the call is ubiquitous in the world, a preacher can make a call at any place with the assurance that there will likely be people there who will respond to the call. Thirdly, the existence of this call means that no human will ever be able to say they never had a chance to approach God. In the great and final judgment, all will recognize that they have heard the call to salvation.
A second calling of God we might call a call to service. It is true that, shortly after responding to the call to salvation, a believer will be overtaken by a desire to do something for the Kingdom. There will come over them a conviction that, since Jesus has saved them, they ought to invest something toward growing the Kingdom, even if it is nothing more than giving their testimony. This second calling of God can be frustrating because it works in indistinct ways —“You ought to do something for the Kingdom,” the voice says. “OK, I am willing. What shall I do?” “Well, do something.” And so the conversation goes. People have to find a way to satisfy that calling either by a hit-or-miss strategy or by looking at some need they can fill, or by evaluating their abilities and talents.
A third calling of God is a call to a specific purpose or task. In this case, the call comes with a very clear understanding of just what the person is supposed to do—I should become a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a pastor, an evangelist, a craftsman. This call is sometimes hard to respond to because of what it asks—self-sacrifice? A change in life direction?—but there is not usually a struggle for clarity of purpose. The person called to a specific task knows somehow what they are being called to do.
A fourth kind of calling is to a place of labor. Here Providence often plays a major role, “closing or opening doors” as we say. When the called person is ready to take up their work, a place has to be identified where they can fulfil their calling. This often involves the observation and action of others, particularly hiring bodies. Someone has to notice the evidences of calling on another person and then give them a place to work. It is fascinating to see how the circumstances just seem to come together in order for this to happen. And, as is usually the case, the leading of God is often clearer in retrospect than in prospect.
A final type of calling is a bit more nebulous than the previous ones and that is a call to a relationship. This is not a call to romance or marriage but a call to enter into a relationship with another person that can lead to their salvation. These relationships are not the kind that have some hidden agenda, no attractive bait with a hook of some kind in them. They are friendships that end up being the means of freighting the news of the gospel into someone else’s life who might not have otherwise been open to it had there not been a friendship. Some of these friendships are of short duration while others may end up being life-long experiences.
It is almost always the case that our sense of God’s callings come by way of a growing conviction that begins oftentimes as what appears to be a nonsense idea—“Me? Become a preacher? Ridiculous!”—to being a clear conviction that has to be decided upon—“Crazy as it sounds, I must respond and get myself ready by going to study theology.” And, as we all know, responding to the call of God whatever it might be, brings great satisfaction and joy into life. Living with the sense that you are where God wants you to be doing what God is asking you to do, is something the satisfaction and contentedness of which is hard to describe.
David E. Thomas is Professor of Theology at Walla Walla University
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