SCRIPTURE: Roman 1:1-4
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: October 25th, 2014
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendent of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:1-4)
One of the common clichés used in Christian circles is the authoritative phrase: “God put me there.” Whether one is working at the hospital, teaching in a school, serving in the government office, joining a culinary school, or going on a mission, if one is a Christian, the sure way to spiritualize our jobs is to simply say: “God put me there. It is my calling.”
- The medical professional says, “God put me there to be a doctor.”
- The school teacher says, “God put me there to teach.”
- The chef says, “God put me there in the kitchen to cook.”
- The missionary says, “God put me there in the mission field.”
Who am I to judge? How can I, who have never seen that doctor receive a vision on one morning out at a walk? How would I know that God had appeared to the school teacher the other day, when she was praying? How could I doubt the chef who reported some strange feeling in his heart while choosing some ingredients? Can I really question the calling of a missionary?
These famous four words offer some divine authentication to make one feel better about it all, regardless of how one discerns his or her calling. In a sense, it is true that one is put in a particular vocation for a reason. On another angle, what if the job turns ugly for whatever reason, are we going to blame God for “putting us there?” Have we misheard God’s call in the first place? Are we wrong to say “God put us there?”
Worse, are these simply self-assured words to cover up some personal preferences? Are they words to make one look good to the believing friend and earnest Church member? Or are they spiritual words of “insurance” to put the blame back on God if something ever goes wrong?
What if the choices they have made are not exactly “God putting them there” but a result of them being free to choose in a list of options God did not disapprove? Maybe it is not “God put me there” but “God let me choose to be there?”
A) The Problem
At the end of Acts 7, which gives us the gruesome details of how Stephen was stoned to death, there was a man by the name of Saul who was in “hearty agreement” on how Stephen ought to be punished for blasphemy. This man, Saul was a top Pharisee, a formidable lawyer, and a prominent persecutor of Christians. That was his "calling." He could have ventured into the synagogues and be offered a prime slot to preach a sermon. He could have written spurious commentaries on the Law to demonstrate his authority and scholarship. He could have spoken with such conviction that there would be no doubt that God had called him to be the foremost persecutor of Christians.
Maybe, it was less about his own special “calling” but more about his personal choosing. In Acts 8:3, we see how convictions about his "call" took shape.
“But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:3)
That was sheer conviction of faith, that his goal is to make sure that such “blasphemers” of God are to be dealt with one by one. Saul could have easily proclaimed aloud:
“God put me there to haul the Christians into jail.”
Which Pharisee or Sadducee would resist? How could anyone argue against such a force? No one. Except God himself. Acts 9:4-6 shows how wrong Paul was and how he needed to be converted from the inside out. By the way, in Philippians 3, Paul proudly states his credentials, as one who had been:
“5circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Philippians 3:5-6)Who would dare argue against that? After all, we are not Paul.
B) Passing the Buck
I have two concerns about fellow believers using the word “call.” The first is that of distinguishing the sacred and the secular, as if there is a gulf of quality in terms of serving God. I continue to hear people saying that Christian ministry is a “higher” calling. They look at me and think that I have some special words from God each time, even when I do not have a clue about their expectations. The second concern is that of people using God’s Name in vain, especially when things turn sour.
It is easy to attach a divine label on our job titles just to connect our spiritual thoughts with an earthly endeavour. It is also easy to bail out when things do not go according to our plan. If anyone starts putting a label, “God put me there” in their careers, their work, and their projects, they may be putting God's Name on the chopping block when things falter.
C) Calling and Certitude
“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:8-9)
There is certainty of Paul’s faith that stands in both good times and bad. There is a humility that admits that success may not be forthcoming. Calling is sure and steadfast. It is not easily swayed according to results or trials. In fact, trials and tribulations only serve to push one closer to God, like Paul. If any calling is from God, it is always a calling to be closer to God, not farther.
D) Calling and Consistency
The other aspect of a call is the consistency of it all. Look at Paul’s introduction in letters like Romans, 1 Corinthians, and others. There is a remarkable similarity in terms of his identity as a servant of Jesus Christ, his commissioning as one who does the will of God, and his conviction that he is called to preach the gospel. As far as the calling is concerned, I believe that one way to distinguish an authentic call of God from a frivolous “God put me there” statement, is the consistency of the call. God does not call a person to follow Christ halfway. God calls the person to follow Christ ALL THE WAY. That is the essence of Mark 8:34, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
If we claim to be a follower of Christ, this calling will remain consistent. Ben Campbell Johnson writes:
“Call is continuous! God is always calling us. One distinctive, unforgettable moment comes when you answer the call. But there will be other moments that will come again and again, marking your way and giving you the assurance that the God who called still calls.” (Ben Campbell Johnson, Hearing God’s Call, Eerdmans, 2002, p12)
The trouble I have with people doing a “God put me there” as a one-time sticker to prove his own spirituality is precisely about that consistency. What if the business fails? What if you get sacked? What if the job turns out terrible? Will we then turn around to say we have misheard God’s call? No. The call of God will not change, even when the packaging has changed.
E) Calling and Choice
I think calling is about the grace of choices and choosing. God gives us a choice. We then choose from the range of options. Grace is only grace if it is freely given and freely received. It makes no demands on the recipients to accept something when they are not ready. Neither does it require givers to give when they are uncomfortable. Grace is about free choice. Being called of God is about that free choice. Out of the range of options God had allowed us, we freely choose the one we feel best, the one God is leading us toward. That is why for many of us, we need help to discern anything before any commitment. The choices before us are like the mountain of different locks. We have only one key. Through the best wisdom and discernment available, faith is that best decision at that time to use that key to try to open any one particular lock. It may open or it may fail to open. Yet, one thing is clear. It is the obedience that pleases God. A thoughtless "God put me there" can very well violate that free choice, putting the blame on God for inserting us into that measly job against our wills, and make us like robots forced to do something not of our choosing.
I am not comfortable with one-timers who brandish a “God put me there” label at the beginning, only to retreat quietly with their tails between their legs when things go wrong. They not only embarrass themselves. They put the notion of calling into disrepute.
I prefer to say, “God graciously let me choose, and I gratefully choose to serve God in this particular vocation at this particular time.” If this sounds like a mouthful, let me suggest another. Rather than utter “God-put-me-there,” why not say: "God let me choose. I choose to serve as a _______." (choose doctor; or a school teacher, a banker, a student, a minister, a chef, and so on.) It is not what I do that matters. It is who I serve. What I do is not less about a job or a highly spiritualized career. For I am called first and foremost, to Christ. I am called to be a servant of Christ. I am called to worship God, to follow Jesus, and to live in the wisdom, the guidance, and the power of the Holy Spirit in this world, out of the range of options graciously provided for me, I choose to serve God as a pastor, a teacher, a technologist, a writer, a spiritual friend, and of course, a brother in Christ.
God let us choose to be where we are. Whatever we choose, may we all choose to do so in honour of Jesus' Name. Always.
“God is glorified through the actualization of his will in people who obey his call. Human beings are fulfilled by responding to the possibility created by the action of the Spirit of God upon them. Human history becomes infused with the holy through obedience of God’s people. This new history created through the Spirit is lifted into the life of God and shares in the eternity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (Ben Campbell Johnson, Hearing God’s Call, p111)
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