Calling vs. desire

Faith & Inspiration
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2009, at 7:04 pm

Many Christians consistently misuse the word "calling," which leads to a person who has a "desire" to do something being wrongly viewed as unspiritual or "fleshly." Is it accurate to say "I feel called to be pilot" or "We feel called to live in the city"? Not really. I guess God could "call" people to vocations and ZIP codes, but that's not the main emphasis of the concept in the Bible. Calling has more to do with becoming a member of the people of God and living a holy life rather than deciding which job to take or whom to marry. Those items are actually choices.

The Greek word that Paul uses to describe his "calling" to be an apostle is the same word he uses to express the divine calling to be in union with Christ (Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:1) and is only used 10 times in the New Testament. To say that you're called to missions or to parenting like Paul says he was called to the office of the apostle is to grossly misuse the term or concept.

As a matter for fact, the Bible primarily explains that when God "calls" people, he calls them to intimacy with Him, union with Christ, join the Kingdom, get saved, live holy lives, and so on (Matthew 22:14; Romans 1:7, 8:28-30, 9:26; 1 Corinthians 1:9, 1:24, 1:26, 7:15-24; Galatians 1:6, 1:15, 5:13; Ephesians 1:18, 2:11, 4:4; Philippians 3:14; Colossians 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 9:15; 1 Peter 2:21; etc.).

We spiritualize our desires as if wanting to be a missionary, cop, pastor, seminary student, or mom, or wanting to live in Peru, Kenya, Spain, the city, the suburbs, and the like, for a season, were all unspiritual as personal preferences. If it's true that God gives us the desires of our hearts, and it's true that all good things come from God, why is not OK to say, "I want to be a missionary for a while." Why add "calling" to a choice or desire as if one were speaking in ways consistent with the Bible's use of the concept.

The Holy Spirit can equally compel preferences, desires, and choices, but this is different from "calling." The misuse of the word "calling" can lead to painful theological crises whenever situations don't turn out as expected. "But I thought I was called to this," we wonder. You weren't called. You freely chose what you did and it didn't work out. So what? Move on something else. Your decision was not necessarily wrong, and God's not punishing you (unless it was clearly a sinful choice).

Since a Christian's "calling" is to live in righteous harmony with God, this can be done in any vocation or geographic area. I'm cautious now when I write checks to people who say they are "called" to "this" or "that" ministry, vocation, region, because I would hate to send people off with a bad functional theology. The good news about freedom in Christ is that desires and preferences change, but callings do not.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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