SCRIPTURE: Romans 8:18-30
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: Mar 16th, 2016
18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. 28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
These days I have been thinking about calling. Maybe it is just that mid-life crisis topic, or just an impromptu moment. Maybe it is about transitions or some new adventure to embark upon. It forces me to go back to the biblical word, "called." What is it? How is it applied to today's context? These two questions will guide my reflection for the next two weeks. This week, I like to deal with the subject of calling.
What is calling?
Simply put, I believe calling is a journey. In Romans 8, we see how Paul describes his own call in terms of moving toward a final goal. Life for him as a Christian had been tough. He could have enjoyed the fruits of his Pharisaic achievements. He could have become a top solicitor for some rich clients. He could have earned enough money to simply go through life by sitting in positions of influence, reputation, and fame. Yet, he made that decision to turn back and as a consequence, had to suffer for his choice. He writes with boldness that "I consider our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."
The journey from suffering to glory is a long one. He suffered for his faith and was persecuted for his faith. He needed constant reminders about his calling to press on, knowing that one day, one shall be well. It is the hope that kept him going. For hope enables us to look beyond temporal concerns. The amount of present concerns are never equal to the future glory. In fact, they are much less. Tiny. Pittance compared to the flood of glory that would gush out in immeasurable ways.
I remember those days as a student in Regent College. One attraction in a Regent education is the opportunity for "Vocational Clarity." According to the website here, Regent offers a place to be about to find clarity in what we want to do and our role in the body of Christ. Several professors have shown the way. They point out that all of life is important, both spiritual and secular, indirectly showing us that we cannot separate the two. They speak frequently against dualism and warn us against the impact of Gnosticism. In our culture infatuated with the "Spiritual but not Religious" mantra, it is so easy to adopt Yoga-like exercise as a way to escape the present sufferings in order to achieve that state of tranquility. Once the trance wears off, one goes back to the grind, to work until the next rest point. Romans 8:20 may come as a shock. How can a loving God allow His dear children to suffer?
I am reminded of the emperor butterfly story where a man tried to help a pupa struggling through a tiny neck inside the cocoon. Feeling pity for the pupa that did not seem to be making much headway through, he decided to enlarge the neck by cutting it loose. Suddenly, the pupa stopped moving. The whole thing remained swollen with its wings wilted. Suddenly it dawned on the man that there is a reason for the struggle. The pupa had to go through the tiny neck so as to physically circulate fluids throughout its growing body. When the blood and nutrients are pumped to the wings, it can then fly. The struggle through the neck is essentially an essential part of growth!
Nobody likes suffering. Neither do I. Yet, there are times in which it is essential to let God have the final say. Let God show us the way to grow. Trust God.
Second, Calling is personal, not mere vocational. The Old Testament servants of God were all called to serve. Abraham was called to be the father of all nations. Moses was called when he was tendering sheep in the wilderness. Young Samuel was called when he was sleeping. The disciples were all individually called simply to follow Jesus. They all receive a personal call. On that note, sometimes, I wish that God's calling to me is as dramatic as Paul's experience in Damascus; or a celestial angel that appeared before me to give me explicit instructions. Maybe, if God suddenly appear to me in a dream or speak with a clear booming voice at some point of my life, I would know for sure that God is calling me. It is good to remember that even when calling is personal, it is not individualistic. It is a personal call not in itself but to God. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church says it very well.
“A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and – as Bellah and many others have pointed out – undermines society itself.” (Tim Keller, Every Good Endeavor, Hodder and Stoughton, 2012, p19)
Yet, that is often an exception rather than the rule. God has already called. It came at that very point when we hear the gospel. When we made the decision to follow Jesus. When we join a Church. When we begin to serve. When we obey the promptings of the Spirit. When we receive the spiritual gifts. These are all signs of a calling. They all come in very ordinary ways, interspersed with some divine unmistakable highlights. Far too often, we pay more attention to the highlights and forget that the beauty is in it all. Like climbing a mountain, we do not simply enjoy the peak for itself. We grow in the discipline of training; the wisdom of packing; the due diligence of preparing; the execution of the climbing expedition; the use of maps and compass; the teamwork needed to travel as one team; and so on. All of these are part of the journey of calling.
Third, Calling is to God, not simply a job. Mother Teresa has one of the simplest ways to define calling. She says: "Many people mistake our work for our vocation. Our vocation is the love of Jesus." The Latin word for "calling" is "vocatio" which is where we get the word "vocation." It is a term used to match one's gifts and training to the type of work to be done. In the Catholic Church, this word is widely used to describe the dedication of one's gifts and talents to the ministry of God through the Church. Over time, due to the frequent use of this word, vocation has become a higher form of "career" or "job." Sometimes, at interviews, I would hear prospective employers asking: "Are you looking for a job or a career?" What they are trying to ask is whether we are simply there for the money. Anybody who desperately wanted a job will simply say "career" as the appropriate answer. Unfortunately, the true intention of a person will need time to discover. An interview is never a good test of a person's true character. This is one reason why I tend to be suspicious of people who go around saying that they had a specific divine calling like the ones the biblical characters had. Like the experience of Elijah, one must learn to listen to the still small voice of God instead of the bombastic images of earthquakes, typhoons, and loud noises. I read somewhere this week about listening:
"The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply."
How true. If we are indeed open to the voice of God, we must learn to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, and to follow Jesus. True listening is less about ourselves and more about the heart of God.
Fourth, calling demands a response, our response. If God's call is an opening bracket, our response is that essential closing bracket. The popular saying goes: "It takes two to tango." When we are talking about the calling of God, it is essential that we respond in faith. This responding is not necessarily a perfect one. If that is so, we can always say no by using the reason:
"But God, I'm not perfect now. Can you wait until I am more perfect before I go?"
Here, it is comforting to read Romans 8:27-28:
"27And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. 28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
THOUGHT: "The call of God blocks the path of all such deeply human tendencies. We are not primarily called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself." (Os Guinness, The Call, Paternoster, 2001, p43)
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