When given the opportunity to help believers explore their call to ministry, my first thought was, “What could I possibly say that would be useful? The story of my calling is terrible.”
I was 14 years old when I knew for certain God calling me to ministry. I didn’t really know what to do at the time, but I had been to enough revivals to know when God moves, you get out of your seat and come forward. So during the invitation at the end of the message, I promptly left my seat and walked straight to the pastor. I said, “God is calling me into ministry.” My pastor said one word to me. “Good.” Then he motioned for me to return to my seat. That was the only time we ever spoke about ministry. This is the point of the story that most people gasp and say, “That’s messed up.”
At the time, I wondered if I did something wrong. I felt like I couldn’t talk to my parents about it. They were Christians, so technically, they “had to” support the idea of me in ministry. They never spoke against it to me, but I could sense that I destroyed their idea of their son being in a prestigious field like medicine or higher education (no one, seriously not a single person thinks student ministry is prestigious). I didn’t know what to do or where to go for advice. I just got embarrassed in front of the church (at least that’s what 14 year old me thought) To this day, my church might think that I confessed some horrible unmentionable sin. (Maybe I did, deacon Johnson. Maybe I smuggled non-union pandas into the country. You’ll never know.) At the time, my church had a vacancy in the student minister position. And nothing will cause your friends (Christian or non-Christian) to distance from you when you tell them you think you’re going to be a minister. I really felt alone. Perhaps you can empathize with my story? Maybe you’re in a non-ideal situation. Maybe you feel alone. What do you do? Here are a few things that I learned as I explored my call in a non-ideal situation:
1) Recognize there isn’t an “ideal” situation.
God rarely does the same thing the same way twice. He is Creator. He does new and creative things. The Callfound on the Explore Your Call resource page demonstrates this point. The book tells the stories of a variety of people who were called by God. The book oozes the idea that every calling is unique. It’s almost like there is a Sovereign Creator who knows intimate details about people and puts them on the exact path they need to be on. Take joy in knowing the King has called you! That’s something amazing, loving, gracious, and special. In my case, my calling didn’t fit my “ideal,” but it is exactly what I needed. I have an awesome story to tell about how God led me through a confusing and fearful time. And here I am sharing that wisdom with you. Keep following God and you’ll be able to see that while the path you walked was hard, God was with you every step of the way. Tolkien wrote about taking this perspective in his short story Leaf by Niggle. “Things might have been different, but they could not have been better.”
2) Recognize you are not alone.
You might feel alone. Elijah certainly felt alone after experiencing the power of God on Mt. Carmel. Overwhelmed by feelings of isolation and fear, Elijah ran and hid. See 1 Kings 18-19. In that place of loneliness, Elijah tells God, “I’m the only [faithful] one left.” And God quickly reminds Elijah that he is far from alone. (Over 7,000 faithful Israelites!) Don’t let your feelings drive the train of your life. Transform them by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2) God will put the people you need in your life at the right time. I had a rough start, but over the years I’ve sat under the leadership of many godly saints. In God’s timing, mentors and guides may come into your life. In the meanwhile, ask God what He is trying to teach you in this moment. Pray that you will learn the lessons you need to learn as quickly as possible. And pray for people to guide you. James said, “you have not, because you ask not.” James 4:2
3) Take solace in Christ.
Psalm 62:5 declares “my soul finds rest in God alone; my hope comes from him.” It would be great if you had a loving and wise mentor who cared about you personally, taught you skills to succeed in life and made you cupcakes. And some people are blessed to have that kind of mentor right at the start. But some people never have any kind of mentor. But that’s ok. Don’t worry. You have the greatest mentor in the universe, Jesus Christ. And whether you have a great mentor or not, your hope comes from Christ alone. So abide in Jesus, keep your eyes on him and look to him for guidance. (Proverbs 3:5-6) You might feel alone. But you are not. “…be strong and courageous for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
4) Take solace in people who were called and felt alone.
You can learn from the courage and leadership of the saints who found themselves in isolation. Identify with the stories of people from Scripture who were called and didn’t have great support: the aforementioned Elijah, Jeremiah, Moses, Mary, and many others. Read the word of God and find people whose stories resonate with you. (I have a deep affection for Jeremiah and his ministry. I “get” him.) But there are other places to see God’s leadership, the legacy of the Christian witness of the church. Read the stories and biographies of saints who were in positions of despair or solitude – where they had to feel like the only one following God: Jan Huss, Watchman Nee, Lottie Moon, Jim Elliot, even Frodo Baggins (I’m joking about the last one. Sort of. But not really.) How did they experience God’s leadership? What gave them the strength to go on when everything was stacked against them? How did they experience God’s call on their lives? Examining the lives of people you can identify with can give you wisdom on how to better navigate the phase of life you’re experiencing.
5) Be obedient.
Scripture is full of cautionary tales of people who believed their calling would allow them moral indulgences. That God would turn a blind eye to their sin because He called them to service: King Saul, the sons of Aaron in Leviticus 10, most of the judges, and on a meta-level, the nation of Israel. As one who leads, God expects you to be more than one who flirts with the boundaries of sin. You need to be above reproach to have lasting ministry. (Titus 1:7, 1 Timothy 3:2-3; 2 Corinthians 6:3, James 3:1 and many others) Ask God to root out those sins that easily entangle. Set boundaries for yourself. Be resolved like Jonathan Edwards. When he was completing his preparation for ministry, he wrote seventy personal resolutions to guide him throughout life. All seventy are great but the first two are the ones that stand out the most. I’ll spare you the “ye olde” Middle English, but paraphrased they are, “Resolution 1: I will live for God. Resolution 2: If no one else does, I still will.”
Being obedient does not mean you’ll have certainty in life. At the beginning of his calling, Abraham knew very little other than pack up and go west. Abraham was only given the greater and more defined call (Father of many nations, through you the world will be blessed, etc.) by being faithful to the small and seemingly unclear thing that God asked him to do. Can you imagine all the unanswered questions and uncertainty going through Abraham’s mind? Where am I going? How far west? Did I go too far west? I haven’t heard from God in awhile, did I hear Him wrong? At this phase of your life, your call may not be clear. That’s ok. Just be obedient to the last thing that God told you to do. You might feel alone. But you’re not. Be faithful and God will reward your obedience. (Although it may not look like what you think) Trust him, follow courageously and listen to the promise of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Matthew 25:23