The Christian life is one that is marked by calling.
Throughout the history of redemption, God acts first. In creation, He does not simply reshape existing matter into something else – He calls everything into existence out of nothing. He begins his covenant family not by responding to a group of people who are desperately seeking him, but by summoning Abraham out of his ancestral home. Jesus does not wait for his apostles to come and find him, but rather seeks them out in the places where they work and calls, “Leave your nets, come follow me.”
In fact, this personal, God-initiated calling extends not only to the foundations of the church in certain parts of history, but to every individual life: “For those whom He foreknew he also predestined to be conformed into the likeness of His son, in order that He might be firstborn among many brothers. And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30, ESV)
I’ve felt a lot like Abraham for the past few weeks. Not because I’m the patriarch of a new people, but because Hebrews 11 tells us that Abraham was called to go to a place, “and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
On July 1st, I moved into my new house in Fayetteville, Arkansas, roughly 750 miles from the place that I’ve called home for the past five years. It was an adventure – first I didn’t have a bed or hot water, then almost as soon as my family left my phone broke completely (while I still didn’t have internet in my house!). I had to use a physical map. (Non-millennials are probably rolling their eyes about now.)
I’ve been thinking for a while – what in the world possesses someone to up and move like that? To leave behind everything they’ve known and go to a place where they know practically no one?
There are two pieces to the answer, I think. The first piece is beauty.
What do I mean? A long time ago, philosophers philosophized (as philosophers are known to do) that everything human beings do, they do sub specie boni – roughly translated “under the guise of the good.” In other words, people always do things because they think there’s a good in them somewhere. A person plants because he wants to eat; a man steals because he wants to enjoy. Everything we do (even the bad things) we do for the sake of perceived good.
But as western thinking progressed, many people pointed out that human beings, quite frankly, aren’t that rational. We usually don’t use syllogisms to decide what we’re going to do. In fact, the term rationalizing describes what we’re doing when we’ve already decided what we want.
So what drives us to do things? Not, I think, rational assessment, but the vision of some beauty. Think about the word attraction – it literally means “something that pulls you closer.” The thing that pulls us toward ministry is the vision of the gospel changing lives, the hope of seeing the wounds of the brokenhearted bound up, of seeing the New Jerusalem come in fullness. All that beauty is the beauty of Christ himself.
But that is only half the equation. The other piece, you might have guessed, is calling.
If two people are in love and one person gives up everything – finances, family, familiarity – to be with the other, we say “Wow, how romantic.” But if one person gives up all those things to be near someone who has no idea that he exists, we say “Um, dude, that’s a lot creepy.” What’s the difference in these two scenarios?
It isn’t enough simply to see the beauty in something; we also have to be called to be involved with it. Many people have spoken of God’s will like a pair of walls – it stops you from going too far off the right or left, but you can kind of bounce around in the middle. Some parts in the middle might be “better” or others “not as good,” so you’d better take some time to discern the will of God before you make any of your decisions.
Now, I’m not advocating for carelessness here. Galileo once said “I cannot believe that the God who endowed us with rational minds also intended for us to forego their use.” But the idea that God lets us “bounce around” through better or worse experiences (with the subtext that the more faithful we are at “discernment” the better our experiences will be) simply isn’t biblical. On the contrary, He says that not even a hair can fall from our head without His permission. He does not work all things together for our good reactively, but He decrees all things from before the foundation of the world for His glory and our good (Ephesians 1).
No, our Father calls us not by personal divine revelation, nor by leaving us to guess, but by first telling us what is good (Micah 6:8) and then by leading us through the circumstances in our lives. The gifts and talents we have are from Him. The things we delight in are from Him. The opportunities that arise – and the doors that shut – are from Him. Nothing ever goes “off script.”
That’s the reason I can be confident I’m in the right place right now. It’s the reason I can be confident that (even if I never live to see it) what I’m doing here will end in the most beautiful way we can imagine – the new heavens and the new earth. It’s the reason I can know that even someone as bad as me can be used to point the narrow way that lead to Jesus. We have a Father who is good, and a Father who is sovereign.
There’s a little bit of danger in writing about calling when you’ve been called to vocational ministry. Even if we don’t admit it, we often operate with an old Medieval distinction between the holy and the secular, the idea that a clerical life is somehow more noble than, say, a farmer or an engineer. But this is not a distinction that the scriptures make – to the contrary, we are each called to use the gifts we have been given to the benefit of the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8), and to do all things for his sake (Colossians 3:17).
I haven’t found a more beautiful illustration of this than the one C. S. Lewis penned in The Great Divorce. As Lewis and his guide make their way through heaven, they come across a parade for a woman:
“‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.
‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’
‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’
‘Aye. She is one of the great one. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’
‘And who are these gigantic people… look! They’re like emeralds… who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?’
‘Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.’
‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’
‘They are her sons and daughters.’
‘She must have had a very large family, Sir.’
‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’
‘Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?’
‘No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.’
‘And how… but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat – two cats – dozens of cats. And all these dogs… why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.’
‘They are her beasts.’
‘Did she keep some sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.’
‘Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.’
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’”
“Sarah Smith” is probably the most generic English name Lewis could think of. She didn’t cure cancer or end slavery. But because of her life in Christ, her every interaction was infused with beauty and meaning, as the love of Jesus flowed through her and into the people – even the animals – around her.
I doubt it seemed glamorous at the time. In fact, Sarah Smith probably never thought of herself as anything more than a housewife. But the truth is not that there is no fruit in the things we are doing – the truth is that we have weak eyes. We cannot see the extent of those concentric waves. But one day, Jesus will restore our sight.
On that day we – pastors and roadworkers, doctors and office workers, lawyers and hairdressers – will look back on the rocks and thistles we have journeyed through, the thorny fields we have tilled by the sweat of our brows, and find that the whole landscape has been changed into unimaginable beauty. We will find our frustrations, longings, and pains all had a purpose. And we will find that the One who can use ordinary bread and ordinary wine to feed his people in a supernatural way has also used ordinary work and ordinary love to build the impossibly beautiful kingdom of God Himself.
He who called you is faithful. He will surely do it.
Prayer Update: Please pray for me as I’m in a new place, which is gradually becoming a new home! Pray for me as I continue to build relationships with our awesome students, pray for me and Mike as we make all kinds of administrative decisions for the fall semester. Pray that God would open doors for us to come into contact with freshmen and students who feel like they are on the outside. Pray above all that we would be a group marked by the unity and love that flows out of being adopted together by Christ.
Fundraising Update: Thanks to God’s goodness and your generosity, I’m done fundraising for my first year! Of course, what that really means is that it’s time to start fundraising for year two. I have to raise roughly $36,000 each year, so if you’re already supporting me, please don’t stop; if you’re considering supporting me, please do!