Called by God
I was reading an article in The Atlantic this week that provided some cultural commentary on the messages in animated movies. The point was that perhaps we’re overreaching a bit in our effort to convince kids that they can be anything they want to be. In the Disney universe, yes, an overweight panda can become a kung fu master (Kung Fu Panda), a sewer rat can become a French chef (Ratatouille), a common garden snail can win the Indianapolis 500 (Turbo), and a crop duster can challenge jet planes in a race around the world (Planes). However, in the real world, we have to ask the question: Is it true that we can do anything we want to do? Moreover, is this a good message for our kids? (Note that this isn’t an anti-Disney rant. I love animated films, including some of those listed above.) The answer to both question is no, so let me provide a biblical alternative to the ubiquitous statement.
God has made each of us unique, and we can be everything He has called us to be.
Part One: YOU SAY VOCATION, I SAY CALLING
Theologians distinguish between our general call to make the world a better place and our individual call to be, say, a French chef, a Kung Fu master, or a basketball player. Each of us has been uniquely gifted by God to contribute to making the world a better place. Continuing the animal metaphors:
"...The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly "as to the Lord." This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a rooster must crow..."
- C. S. Lewis
We need people to work the ground for the glory of God, and we need people to compose and sing songs for the glory of God! We see this throughout the Bible, but especially in Genesis as the Creation Mandate begins to unfold. There are snapshots of people taking up their roles to cultivate God’s world.
Genesis 4:17-22 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. [To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech. Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal;] he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.
Civilizations are emerging, cities are being built, and people are farming, designing, and building. Very early in the biblical narrative, varied vocations (or trades or jobs) are developed and taken up.
The work of making the world a better place for the glory of God does not end with the fall; it continues even though the fall has occurred. Rather than destroying the world, God chooses to save it. Starting with Noah, then Abraham, then his children named Israel, God calls people to worship Him and to be a witness to the nations. In fact, God doesn’t wait for Israel to enter the land of promise before he sets them to the task of building a place of worship. Can you imagine? They are out in the desert on this long journey with hardly anything to eat and nothing to wear but the clothes on their backs, but they’re going to build a worship center?! A portable worship tent! The people don’t argue though, they start making donations and getting ready. They get it. Worship is the most important thing they can do and they’re all called to do it. So when God calls out the artisans he wants, they’re ready to build.
Exodus 31:1-11 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen [called] Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent—the table and its articles, the pure gold lampstand and all its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, the basin with its stand—and also the woven garments, both the sacred garments for Aaron the priest and the garments for his sons when they serve as priests, and the anointing oil and fragrant incense for the Holy Place. They are to make them just as I commanded you.”
God calls (chooses) and gifts people for different “jobs.”
Don’t miss this. God called Moses to lead his people. He called Aaron to serve as the spiritual leader of God’s people. And here we clearly see that he “calls” artisans and gifts them to build a place of worship. The Hebrew word that is translated as either chosen or called roughly means “to hear the voice of God.” Our English word “vocation” is rooted in the same concept. It’s derived from the Latin word vocare (voice) and the original idea was that people were “called” by the voice of God to their work.
If you were thinking that only pastors are called, this passage was probably a surprise. We see people with all kinds of skills called of God to serve in various capacities—designers, architects, stonemasons, jewelers, embroiderers, furniture makers, and perfumers. God called people to provide political leadership, to offer spiritual guidance, and to design and build things for the good of the community and the glory of His name!
This is such a revolutionary idea, and one that so desperately needs to be recovered in the modern church, that I’m going to repeat it in a different way. Just as God calls people to be pastors, he also calls people to be painters, and professors, and pipefitters and politicians.
"...We know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage..."
- John Calvin
Part Two: ONE LIFE, MANY CALLINGS
John Calvin, Martin Luther, and others often pointed people to 1 Corinthians 7, where the idea of calling is applied to several things.
1 Corinthians 7:17-24 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Some of the early Christians thought that when they were “called” to Christ, they had to change everything—their marital status, their culture, and even their social status (many were slaves). The church’s first theologian rejects that impulse. When people are called to follow Christ, they are to stay faithful to all of their callings. Their calling as a husband or a wife. Their calling as a Jew or a Gentile. Their calling as a master or a slave.” (Regarding slaves he adds, But if you gain your freedom, that’s great! We might say, If you can find a better job, that’s fine too!)
Paul uses the word “calling” in relation to salvation, and vocation, and marital status, and religious practice because he recognizes—and wanted his hearers to recognize—that people do not call themselves to something, but rather that God is sovereign over every person’s situation. I’ve been called to be a husband. Now you might argue that I CHOSE to be husband, but Christians thinkers have already anticipated your argument. They would say, as I would, that unless God chose a beautiful bride for me, called her to love me, and prompted her to say ‘I do,’ I would still be single. When I saw Stacy Quackenbush in the hallway, I couldn’t simply walk up to her and announce, “I’m going to marry you!” (In fact, I couldn’t get up the nerve to ask for a date so she sent me a note that said, “I see that you have noticed me. Wondering when you are going to ask me out.” I wascalled, you see.)
The doctrine of calling encourages us with the truth that our entire lives are guided by a sovereign God. God has called me to be married, he has called me to be the dad to three sons. He has called me to be a pastor—to be YOUR pastor—right here, right now.
The divine purpose of all callings (vocations) is service to God and others.
The Oxford-based thinker Dorothy Sayers encapsulated this concept so well in relation to work.
“The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly during his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.”
- Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?”
We don’t serve God on the job only by witnessing to co-workers. We don’t serve him only by cleaning up our act and showing up for church on Sunday. We serve God by doing our job well. We are serving him and others by using the abilities he has given us to make the world a better place. We serve Gob by being good mothers, good builders, good CPAs, good painters and designers, good salespersons and managers, good carpenters, good songwriters, and good policemen.
Os Guiness wrote in his book The Call, “The greatest deeds are done before the Audience of One—and that is enough.” We are each of us called by God to use our God-given calling and talents to make this world a better place—and that is greatness.