Throughout Scripture, God frequently chose people, calling them for purposes beyond themselves. Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Mary, the twelve apostles, and Paul and Barnabas provide some examples. God called people in many varied ways. Ephesians 4:11-12 teaches us that God himself has set apart people in numerous specific roles (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) in order to equip all Christ-followers (the saints) for the work of ministry. God calls some to special roles in the body of Christ for equipping all Christ-followers. Every Christ-follower is called to works of ministry. Jesus calls to all of his disciples, “Follow me.” No one is called to remain as they are.
Five truths about God are helpful in discerning His call. Our backgrounds, gifting, abilities, and natural interests may be helpful in considering God’s call, but instead of just looking at ourselves, let’s look to God to learn to hear and discern our calling to ministry. (1) God speaks. (2) God seeks. (3) God serves and suffers. (4) God sends in community. (5) God stays faithfully with us.
God speaks. Jesus is the eternal logos of God. God spoke creation into existence. God spoke through the prophets, through the apostles, and through his Son. No doctrine is more essential than the truth that God communicates. The Bible in its entirety is the Word of God, and is useful for equipping Christ-followers for every good work. If we want to discern God’s calling for our lives, we must listen to God by regularly reading the Bible. It is insincere to “seek God’s will” but to not listen to what God has said in the Bible.
God has spoken to us, but he also talks to himself. There is an eternal intra-Trinitarian conversation between the three persons of the one God. Jesus frequently prays to the Father, sometimes allowing his disciples to overhear his conversations (John 11:41-42, ). God the Father spoke to Jesus and allowed others to overhear (John 12:28). The Holy Spirit speaks to us about Jesus (John 15:26). The Spirit listens to the Father and speaks to us what he has heard from the Father (John 16:13-16). The Spirit helps us to pray, by speaking and groaning to the Father (Romans 8:26). Isn’t it amazing that God has invited us to participate in this divine conversation by the name of Jesus and with the help of the Spirit through prayer? Paul teaches to pray continually (1 Thess 5:17). Because God speaks, we need to join in the conversation, praying together with Jesus with the help of the Spirit to the Father. We often think of prayer as being asking God for help, but it is this and more. Prayer is joining in the divine conversation, praying with Jesus in the power of the Spirit, to the Father. The truth that God speaks helps us to see that both regular Bible-reading and Spirit-groaned prayers are part of hearing God’s call. In fact, we see both in the calling and sending of the first missionaries in Acts 13. The gathered Bible teachers (familiar with the Scriptures) are praying and worshipping when they hear God’s call.
God seeks. After the very first sin in Genesis 3, God asks, “Where are you?” God takes the initiative in Scripture, not waiting on Abraham, Moses, or Jonah to find him. Hosea reveals a God who seeks after us in our unfaithfulness. Jesus seeks after the sick, outcasts, and sinners (Luke 5:31-32, Luke 19:10). Jesus taught about the seeking God through the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son (Luke 15:1-31). Jesus’ commissioned his followers to “Go,” not to stay (Matthew 28:19). Jesus fills those he has called with an ambition to seek to the ends of the earth those who have never heard of him (Romans 15:20).
The Psalmist and the prophets instruct us to seek after the Lord (Psalm 24:6, Isaiah 51:1). The Lord desires us to seek him (Psalm 53:2), but our sin prevents us from fully and rightly seeking (Psalm 53:3, Isaiah 53:6). Thanks be to God that he has first sought after us. Jesus calls us also to be seekers (Matthew 6:33, Luke 11:9-10), and he has sent us out to seek down the by-ways in order to call people to his banquet (Matthew 22:4). When we are seeking to know the Lord’s call, we can have confidence that we will find it, because God has been seeking after us long before we ever sought after Him.
God is a serving and suffering God. The cross of Christ is not plan B. The slain lamb on the throne is not an accidental image that God wishes had never happened. The self-giving of the Son is an eternal self-giving and expresses the very heart of God. There is no greater love, and this self-giving love is the center of God’s being, and also at the center of his calling (1 John 3:16). When Jesus calls us to follow him, he calls us to pick up our cross and to follow him in suffering, and death, and life (Matthew 16:24-28). Paul calls us to be like Christ in humility of attitude and self-giving (Philippians 2:3-8). Jesus came to serve, and his calling is a calling to service (John 13:13-17). God calls us to serve, but not the way the world thinks of service (Matthew 20:24-28).
When seeking after God’s call, it is appropriate to fast. Fasting is a sign and symbol of suffering and humility. Fasting is not to be for religious glory, but is to be done in secret (Matt 5:16-18). The church in Antioch was fasting and praying when the Spirit led them to send out Paul and Barnabas.
God sends. He sent Abraham to a new land. He sent Moses back to Egypt. He sent Jonah to Nineveh. He sent Jeremiah to a stiff-necked people. He sent Ezekiel and Daniel into the exile. He sent his one and only Son into the world. Jesus sent his apostles to proclaim the kingdom of God, and his disciples out ahead of him to everywhere he was about to go (Luke 9:2, 10:1). Jesus sends his church to make disciples of all nations, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8, Romans 15:19-20). God’s call is characterized by pushing us forward towards the vision of the kingdom that he has promised.
God sends in community. American individualism deceives many to embrace a privatized “Christian” spirituality, but there is no such thing. When Jesus calls, “Follow me,” he calls us into a new community. Community is integral to the nature of God as three persons in one perfect unity. It is appropriate to distinguish the three persons of the Trinity, and so it is appropriate to recognize individual differences and giftings within the body of Christ. However, it is inappropriate to conceptualize the individual as separate from the rest of the body. We are united in the church community. God calls us and sends us from within that church community. Paul and Barnabas did not individually determine they were set apart by God and then to the church. While they were fasting and praying with the other teachers in the church in Antioch, the Holy Spirit said to the whole group, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.” (Acts 13:1-2). Jesus sent people out together (Luke 10:1). Why do we think our calls will be privately and individually given?
God stays. When God sent Abraham in Genesis 12, it began a long-lasting covenantal relationship with Abraham and all of his descendants. Throughout the Old Testament, God shows himself as faithful and patiently staying with his people. When God calls us, he is faithful to go with us. Jesus’ sending of his disciples away to the ends of the earth included a promise of his presence with his disciples until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Jesus did not leave us as orphans, but his presence is with us by the Spirit that he has sent us (John 14:16-20).
Knowing who God is, that he is a God who speaks, seeks, serves, suffers, sends, stays, and relates, can help us to rightly recognize God’s call in our own life. The better we know Him, the easier it is to recognize His voice when He calls us to “Follow me.”