“I feel called to serve in the youth ministry” . . . “My wife and I feel called to a different church” . . . “I felt called into ministry at an early age” . . . “I feel called to talk to you about this.”
This kind of language about feeling called, feeling led, feeling drawn by God to a particular ministry, task, or direction is quite common among Christians. You probably hear it often. You probably say it yourself from time to time. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself whether such an idea of an internal subjective feeling of being called to some place, thing, or task is biblical? Have you ever wondered whether your feelings about God calling you may, in fact, be your own personal desires, wishes, longings, ambitions, or pursuits?
It may startle you to learn that nowhere in the Bible do we find an example of a person “feeling called” by God without an external, verifiable call. Most often when the Bible talks about God’s calling, it refers to the call to repentance, salvation, or covenant faithfulness—a general call to all, though it is often coupled with God’s sovereign call of election, or choosing (Isaiah 48:12; Jer 7:13; Matt 22:14; Rom 8:28–30; 9:24; and many more). Thus, Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 2:14, “It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Another kind of calling in the Bible came in the form of an audible (and sometimes even visible) calling from God to a particular task or ministry. Abraham’s calling to the land of Canaan was audible, visible, and repeated (Heb 11:8). Moses’s call came audibly from a burning bush (Exod 3:4). The calling of Bezalel to the task of crafting the tabernacle in the wilderness came by an audible call from God through Moses (Exod 31:1–6). And who could forget Samuel’s repeated call by God in 1 Samuel 3:2–11, where the voice was so clear that he thought it was that of his master, Eli, nearby. Similarly, Paul’s call to be an apostle (Rom 1:1) was no inner conviction or nagging desire to serve, but a brilliant encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ Himself on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1–18).
Another type of call—a bit more subtle, but genuine—came from the Holy Spirit through the official leaders of the Christian community. This official call by the Church was accompanied by an official appointment, usually marked by the laying on of hands. Acts 13:2–4 gives a good example of this kind of authentic call to ministry. As the official leaders of the church were gathered together, praying and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). In response to this word from the Lord, the leaders of the church appointed Barnabas and Saul to their ministries, laying hands on them and praying for them, which was a common means of ordination to ministry in the ancient world.
Whether or not Saul and Barnabas “felt” called to this ministry was irrelevant. Certainly, Paul had earlier experienced a dramatic conversion and received a general call directly from the mouth of Christ, but the specific “where” and “when” of the call were still being discovered. Perhaps Paul and Barnabas had inner yearnings to pursue that particular ministry from Antioch; or maybe they had been resisting the idea. But their personal feelings really weren’t decisive. Instead, the Holy Spirit called these men and revealed His will through the patient, prayerful, and wise discernment of the leadership and community in which they were ministering day to day. Whether the Holy Spirit spoke audibly, we can not know for sure. But we do know that the Holy Spirit spoke through the leadership and the community, that is, through the Church.
So, how does a person discern a calling into ministry, a call by God to a particular task? This is not an easy question to answer, but I can trace the contours of what this should look like. First and foremost, a Christian should be aware of his or her general call to holy living and Christian testimony, the call all believers have by virtue of being called to salvation through Jesus Christ (1 Cor 7:15; Gal 5:13; 2 Thess 2:14). This includes a call to walk in newness of life, to love the brethren, and to proclaim Christ near and far. It implies a committed relationship to the Church universal and local, to build up the body of Christ through humble service, to give and live sacrificially. These things constitute the clear calling to which all Christians are to respond daily. They require no special recommendation or invitation, but they do, of course, require constant reminders and repeated exhortations. We too quickly forget the calling to which we are all called!
Second, the biblical pattern of calling to specific ministries or tasks involved either an audible (and often repeated) call from God, or an official invitation by legitimate spiritual leadership confirmed by the Church community. In the Old Testament this kind of call came through the God-appointed prophets, priests, and kings. In the New Testament it came through the pastors, elders, teachers, and leadership within the worshiping and praying community of the Church or even through the counsel of wise, mature, and trusted brothers and sisters in Christ.
For the last decade or so I have generally lived by a maxim that was advocated by an old professor of mine, who is now, remarkably, a colleague. He probably doesn’t even remember saying it, but it made a great impression on me. In the context of questions about God’s leading and calling, he said, “I don’t do anything I’m not asked to do.” At that moment I believed those words. I ran through the instances of callings and commands in the Bible and realized it fit quite nicely. So I abandoned the typical approach of “I feel called” and decided that my personal feelings on the matter would be the last and least of my criteria for determining God’s will for me. If God wants me to do something, He will call me as He called those in the Bible—through the wise, prayerful guidance and shepherding of His ordained leaders and through the Spirit-filled community. When I finally accepted this biblical approach to calling, I felt liberated. No longer would I have to worry about missing God’s call, misunderstanding His call, aggressively pursuing opportunities, sending out resumes, competing for positions. God would call in His timing and by His own means. This doesn’t mean we remain passive. The general calling of the Christian to loving, serving, and living the Christian life will keep us all busy as we await His various specific calls to particular tasks. But this perspective does mean we aren’t constantly on the hunt for bigger and better opportunities, as if ministry were a competitive career field in which our primary goal is to get ahead. Nor does this mean that we say “yes” to every leader’s whim or friend’s request. Nobody can do everything, but all of us are called to do something.
The idea of “feeling called” to the ministry, “feeling called” to a task, “feeling called” to a particular place—this idea of feeling called to anything has become far too common in Christian parlance. It must stop. It is not biblical. And it can be absolutely disastrous. How many people have gone into ministry or into the mission field because they felt called. How many leaders and church communities have accepted such people because they felt they could not counter a personal calling from God? Don’t misunderstand me. A person may feel compelled, gifted, even “called” to ministry, but unless that urge and desire is confirmed by God’s chosen means of calling and sending from His community through the Holy Spirit, the feelings should never be the sole—nor even the primary—basis for action. In many cases (perhaps in most), our personal feelings on the matter are completely irrelevant.