“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Every kid in America heard that question umpteen times growing up. The answers are as varied as the kids themselves. My thirteen-year-old daughter’s dream vocation seems to change as often as she changes her clothes.
College students hear a version of this age old question, too. Most often it’s, “What’s your major?” The follow up question is just as stereotypical: “What are you going to do with that degree?” Here, too, the answers often change with the seasons.
Sometimes the answer(s) to this question isn’t easy to find. In my own case I was well into my fourth decade before I started to get a clearer sense of what I really wanted to be when I grew up. Along the way I had jumped out of airplanes for Uncle Sam as an Army Ranger. I spent ten years in advertising. Then it hit me. I wanted to be … I was supposed to be … God was calling me to be … something.
Understanding your calling in life is one of the great challenges facing all of us. Kids get it. That’s why they start talking about what they want to be when they grow up while they’re still young. Christians sort of get it. We talk about it but we limit it to pastors usually. That’s unfortunate and often causes a great deal of confusion and stress particularly for those who sense God’s calling on their lives and are seeking to follow the path He sets before them.
Speaking in the broadest sense possible there are three callings of God upon man. First, there is the universal call to repentance and faith in Christ. Second is the call for all Christians to make disciples of others. Third, there is the call to vocational ministry, the one that compels some to give up their careers, their homes, their fiscal security and head off to seminary (or at least log on) with grand hopes of changing the world for Christ.
Charles Spurgeon helpfully explained the nature of the call to ministry in his seminal Lectures to My Students. He wrote of various indicators that point to God’s calling on your life: Scripture, the affirmation of the church, even an unquenchable desire to do nothing else with one’s life. Those words have helped many confirm their call to service. What they don’t do is define one’s vocational destiny.
Many of my seminary peers knew from day one the exact nature of their calling. They were going to be pastors or missionaries. Some even could tell you the people group God was calling them to serve. My call was nowhere near that certain when I first arrived on campus. All I knew was the God loved me and I wanted to serve Him.
In fact, my first three years in school were marked by vocational uncertainty. I could tell you what I didn’t believe God’s call on my life entailed but I couldn’t tell you what it did mean. I was certain I wasn’t called to be a pastor. I thought maybe it was to some sort of educational ministry but at that time my understanding of such a thing was limited to the educational minister that I had observed in our most recent church home. That sense of calling, however, wasn’t out of conviction. It was out of default. I just didn’t know what else was out there. As I learned more, I began to question more. What is it that God’s called me to do?
Then things changed. I started doing pulpit supply. I was called to a small church in the city. We saw moderate success occasionally and unquestionable failure frequently. Along the way, I learned something about my calling. This clarion call didn’t come in the form of angelic voices or heavenly visions. It was the raspy voice of a dear old saint who should have given up smoking years earlier. One night following our Bible study she raised her wrinkled hand. She then boldly informed me that I was “a much better teacher than a preacher.” The rest of the gathering giggled nervously at the boldness of what they perceived to be an insult. I, on the other hand, took it to be a confirmation from the Lord.
From the night forward I began to change my ministry focus. I continued to pastor that little church for a few more years and then another while I finished my studies. But now I came at it as a pastor-theologian, a pastor-teacher. I saw Paul’s admonition about elders being able to teach in a whole new light. I finally understood why I wasn’t completely happy in the pulpit. I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I was trying to be someone else. That sweet old lady finally gave me permission to be me.
You see, contrary to what we often hear, God doesn’t always call us to do those things we wouldn’t do on our own. He doesn’t always force us to do accept a radical shift in our approach to life – though he sometimes does. More often than not, He calls us to His service by having us use the lives He’s given us to live. You see, I was naturally gifted toward teaching. That’s what I was doing in the local church when God called me to the ministry.
I spent years trying to find that “supernatural,” “holier than thou” calling that had no connection to my past life or interests. Then, I discovered that God was using all of my life’s experiences as a Ranger, as an artist, even as a student to prepare me for the ministry that He had for me.
Today, twenty years after my first sense of God’s call on my life, the guy who didn’t enjoy school, who couldn’t imagine being able to spend four years in college, spends every day in the classroom. I’m a teacher. I also pastor a church that’s rediscovered its mission after seventy years. Pastor-teacher. That’s who God made me to be. Just as Paul’s experience as a Pharisee equipped him perfectly to counter the efforts of the Judaizers, God has sanctified my secular experiences to His benefit.
God readied me for my call long before I heard it. What I once thought of as my “wasted years” because they weren’t spent in a very “spiritual” way turned out to be my apprenticeship. As you seek to understand your calling, don’t ignore your past. It might hold the key to your future.