Who Are You?
Have you ever gotten a phone call or a text message from someone who had the wrong number? It can result in hilarious or sometimes awkward interactions, or can become greatly irritating if the person makes the same mistake more than once. In the age of the internet, SPAM chain emails, phishing sites, and scam advertisements can give us much the same experience: the wrong is being contacted, for the wrong reason.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s also easy to be suspicious of people who claim to be called by God – especially when their “calls” are contradictory. People claim that God has told them to do all kinds of things: quit this job, pursue that relationship, send this angry letter, write a book, become a pastor, stop becoming a pastor, don’t listen to that song, vote for this person.
Unfortunately, sometimes it’s also easy to be suspicious of people who claim to be called by God.
Then there are people who hurt or kill people because they feel called by God. Cult leaders take people’s money and rip them away from their families. Serial killers murder women because they believe God told them to. Religious extremists commit suicide bombings motivated by their belief that God has called them to be martyrs.
For Jesus’ disciples, it was easy to tell what their call was: Jesus usually walked up to them and told them to follow him. You can find accounts of him calling his disciples in all four Gospels: in Matthew 1:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11, and John 1:43-50. The men he calls don’t seem to have much in common: they are humble fishermen and merchant artisans, passionate zealots and traitorous tax collectors. They all receive simple instructions: “follow me.” And they do.
As they follow Jesus, he teaches them patiently, empowers them to heal others, and when he eventually returns to heaven he charges them with spreading the good news to the whole earth. In his relationship with the disciples, Jesus encapsulates a popular saying by Henry T. Blackaby: “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.”
The disciples are not immediately called to particular action or expected to have expert knowledge; instead, their calling is the beginning of their grown and learning about Jesus. They are, however, expected to be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus, including their lives. Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship, says bluntly that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, most of Jesus early disciples and apostles did die violently for their faith – a subject that we’ll discuss at length later. Jesus makes it clear in his ministry that to follow him is to choose him even if it means abandoning everyone else: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27 ESV).
Verses like this one, while they represent a mindset necessary to follow Jesus, don’t reflect the lived experience of every Christian. Not every person will face martyrdom – and not every person has a dramatic experience of God calling them to a specific action or sacrifice.
Jon Foreman, lead singer of the band Switchfoot, argues that we approach calling the wrong way. When asked whether Switchfoot was a “Christian band,” he replied:
“To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple [Switchfoot] tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonatas Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds.
The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty.”
(You can Foreman’s full response here.)
Who, then, is called? Only a specific few – or anyone who hears the words of Jesus and wants to follow him? In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter writes that “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (NIV). In John 3:16, however, Jesus says that eternal life is open to “whoever believes in him” (NIV). Are certain people called by God, or is the call open to all who accept it?
- Jesus called a variety of people from different walks of life to follow him, and this no doubt led to tension. What kind of societal tensions today can result from people from different walks of life being called?
- In the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus describes many being invited to the wedding feast but not all of them coming. Some versions say “for many are invited, but few are chosen,” and some say “many are called, but few are chosen.” Does this difference in translation change the meaning of the verse? In the parable, people independently decide not to come to the banquet. Is denying the call of God the same thing as not being chosen?
- In the Calvinist theological tradition, God predetermines that certain people – the “elect” – will choose him and be his followers before they’re even born, and others – the “reprobate” – will reject him. Do you find this troubling? How does it reflect your understanding of God calling certain people?
- Can you think of a figure in Christian history who seemed like an unusual choice to work for God? Why are they unusual? What was their calling experience like?
- Have you been called by God for any specific task? What might that be? What evidences do you have of this calling?