Nora Watson nailed it in her remark about calling. While she was serving as a magazine writer/editor, Studs Terkel interviewed her for his book, Working. She told him: “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” She is right. Far too many—even among Christians—go to work with no awareness of calling.
What Camouflages Calling?
But why? What prevents us from seeing our work as part of God’s mission in the world? In The Other Six Days, Paul Stevens says, “almost the only people who speak of being ‘called of God’ are ‘full-time’ missionaries and pastors.” It’s easy to find examples online that illustrate Stevens’ point:
- “It was during my time in college that I received my calling into pastoral ministry.”
- “I am often asked how I received my calling from God to be a full-time pastor.”
- “I never once doubted my calling to the mission field.”
Yet in his book, The Call, Os Guinness says: “There is not a single instance in the New Testament of God’s special call to anyone into a paid occupation or into the role of a religious professional.”
The Multiple Meanings of Call
Calling is a useful word—and a biblical one. At the same time, I think another biblical word offers a clearer way to describe how God directs us into this or that role or job or task. I’ll get to that word shortly. But first, let’s zero in on this word calling. The words call, called, and calling appear in the Bible hundreds of times. Those words in Scripture refer to the same things we mean when we speak them:
1. Call can mean to name something. If you call your daughter Stacy, that is her name. Many English translations of Rom. 1:1 and I Cor. 1:1 say Paul was “called to be an apostle.” But the Greek text has no “to be.” It simply says, “Paul, called an apostle.” God named Paul as an apostle.
2. Call can mean to initiate communication. I dial your cell phone to call you. While the boy was still in bed, “The Lord called Samuel,” because he wanted to talk to him.
3. Call can mean to summon. If illness leaves a restaurant short-staffed, employees may be called to fill in. Rom. 1:6 speaks of those “who are called to belonged to Jesus Christ.” Here called speaks of God’s invitation to come to him.
Primary and Secondary Callings
Os Guinness distinguishes between our primary and our secondary callings. He says: “Our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (such as motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (such as the inner city or Outer Mongolia).”
Guinness continues: “Our secondary calling, considering God who is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law or to art history. . . . Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most.”
Another Word for God’s Work Assignments
So Guinness uses the same word, “calling,” both for God’s (primary) summons to come to him and for his (secondary) assignments regarding what he wants us to do. Using the identical word to refer to two different things can be confusing. So let me suggest another term I find useful in describing what Guinness refers to as God’s secondary call. When Jesus and the Bible writers wanted to speak of God or others assigning someone to do some kind of work or task, they usually used some form of the word “send.” For example:
- God to Moses: "Say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers . . . has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:15).
- Jesus to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." (Jn. 20:21).
- Paul to Timothy: “I sent Tychicus to Ephesus.” (II Tim. 4:12).
Mark 3:13 and 14 use two separate words for the primary and secondary meanings. “Jesus . . . called [them] . . . that he might send them.” That fits in with the way we speak, doesn’t it? If you want me to come to you, you call me. If, after I come, you want me to go and do something, you send me.
Call Means Come; Send Means Go
Jesus called you to himself—not simply so you can go to heaven someday when you die—but that he might send you in the here and now to work in his world.
- Calling—being summoned to come to God—provides you with a new identity. So calling relates especially to who you are.
- Sending—being assigned by God to do something—relates to roles and tasks. So sending relates to what you do.
God called Paul, naming or identifying him, as an apostle. God then sent Paul to represent him before Gentiles. This involved Paul in such roles as church planter, tent manufacturer, and prison inmate.
God Sends in Various Ways
When God sends someone to do something, he may use words—or he may use the outworking of circumstances. In Paul’s case, God used words: “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.” (Acts 22:21). But in Joseph’s case, God used circumstances. He worked in Egypt because his brothers bullied and sold him out. But much later he explained to them, “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:7). God works in all things--even in the world of work--for the good of those who love him, those called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
Many Christians toil day after day with no sense of how their work connects with God's purpose. What do they need?
- First, we need to hear clear and frequent teaching that all of God’s children have been called, summoned, to come to him and into his Kingdom through faith in Christ.
- Second, we all need to hear clear and frequent teaching that everyone God calls to himself he then sends back out into the world to serve him in some way. God sends some of his children to work as teachers, shepherds, and equippers in the gathered church. He sends others to demonstrate Kingdom-of-God living as they work in paid and unpaid roles in the scattered church.
God sends all of us into full-time service for him. See your work as your current Kingdom post. Your assignment may change. Stay tuned!