What. Is. Calling?
Can I tell you how long I’ve been asking this simple, three-word question? For at least 25 years, I’d say – from about the time that I first heard the word ring out across the sanctuary in ‘big church,’ while I doodled on the pastel pink bulletin next to my Mom.
[Insert memories of pre-teen youth-group angst here.]
This word stirs a myriad of questions in the deep places of my heart: Who is doing the calling? Am I the one being called? How do I know? What am I being called to? Do I have a choice here? How do I respond to this call?
From a young age, I’ve wrestled with the Christian term “calling.” On one hand, there is something exciting about the word, like I’m being invited on an epic quest to find a treasure or slay a dragon (or both!), all for the glory of the King. But on the other hand, the word is ambiguous, vague, and opaque; what if I can’t figure it out? What if I try to find my calling and fail and everyone knows that I’m a failure? The risk seems pretty high…and yet, even as a 14-year-old hearing the “call” of God to my heart and my life, I knew it was worth pursuing.
I don’t want to glaze over the past 20 years of what it has meant to walk out the pursuit (and understanding) of “calling” as it has unfolded in my life; it has been a journey of both pain and fulfilling of promises, of beauty from ashes, and ultimately, the road has been a sanctifying one. For now, though, it might be a good idea, to begin with the basics – to respond to the question from my youth. What is calling?
Calling: a simple definition
A theologian I deeply respect, Terry L. Cross, defined the term this way:
“Calling is a gift from God that primarily offers humans salvation and a relationship with God and secondarily offers humans a way of life that responds to the grace and gifts received.”
When I first read this definition, it was like a lightbulb turned on inside of me – of course! Calling is two-fold and tiered, connected by the cross. There is a first, and primary call, and then there is one to follow, with both parts joined by Christ Himself at the center (Col. 1:17). I could see the truth of this simple statement in my own life: God had called me to Himself and into His kingdom by the revelation of His Son Jesus. Because I responded at that tender age, His Spirit was now at work within me, and over time, that work began to bear fruit; with maturity, came another invitation to “be about my Father’s work” (Lk. 2:49).
But how does it all work?
When we are “called” by God to Himself, this is the primary call, the inward work of the Holy Spirit offering us the gift of salvation and free access to our Creator-Redeemer God, all made possible by Jesus’ death-and-resurrection as the Christ (Jn. 3:16-17). In this first call, we are invited to continually know and love God. Without a genuine response to this first (and principal) call, we cannot truly experience and fulfill all that will come after. The first call is everything. But as we’ve already mentioned, there is more to the story.
With time comes a secondary call, although not trivial by any means. To say that this call is “secondary” rightly orders it as the Effect of the Original Cause. This call is outward, an expression of what has freely been given and shown and made known; this call is the outpouring of gratitude from a sinner saved by grace. This is our call to Christian vocational life.
The kingdom logic goes something like this: We are called by God into relationship (Isa. 43:1, Eph. 2:8-9), and invited to respond to that call by submitting our lives under His banner of love (Song 2:4, Jas. 4:7-8); this call-and-response works in tandem to form a solid foundation of trust between God as our Master and we, the faithful servant (Jn. 12:26, Matt. 25:23). When that relationship forms deep roots and we are filled with a desire to respond to such extravagant love, we will naturally begin to look for ways to express our gratitude. How does anyone express the deep emotion of genuine thankfulness? We worship! Through song and prayer and laughter and tears, we pour ourselves out at the feet of the One, true and saving King. At this point, we may also sense that God is calling us further into a specific way of responding: He is calling us to worship Him through a particular work, or a unique vocational assignment.
The vocational call of everyday work
My theologian-mentor also said, “Calling cannot just refer to a ‘preacher’s call’ to ministry, but must be seen in broader terms as a call to all God’s people for work that glorifies God and serves humankind.” And isn’t that good news for us regular folk, doing regular work for the glory of God?
Some of us may be called to speak on stages, sure, but most of us will be called to other, more everyday places – to Zoom meetings and soccer fields and pediatric wards and laundry rooms. We will be called to be vessels of God’s glory as we grade papers and plant flowers and comfort toddlers and build spreadsheets. It is not our location that defines the call therefore, it is the posture of our heart toward the Caller (and Lover) of our souls.
If we will think about our vocational life in terms of gratitude -by turning our gaze and our emotions and our efforts in devotion toward the God who whole-heartedly loves and saves us- then we can stand in agreement with the Apostle Paul when he exhorts us,
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Col. 3:23-24)
May it be so of us.