Discerning your Calling
When I was a kid, I was certain I would either grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. Other adults in my life often suggested these two options to me. My grandmother always told me I would make a great doctor, adding that it would allow her to get free plastic surgery. I’m not sure how genuine her motivations were in her support of my future endeavors.
But I loved, and still love, science and logic. I have a penchant for debate. I like problem solving. I still read about medicine and the legal world, with a special interest in constitutional law. I admit, however, that I have no idea whether I would have excelled in either medicine or law. They can be grueling professions, with long hours and a lot of responsibility. Thank the Lord, I became a pastor instead.
For me, becoming a pastor started when I was a teenager. At age 13, I got more serious about my faith and, as a result, became more involved in my church. I began helping some friends of my family, a couple we still love, to teach a 2 year old Sunday school class. Each year as I aged, I worked with older and older kids. When I got into high school, at age 15, I was invited to join the youth group’s “ministry team.” This was a group of 12 students who were invited to help plan activities for the youth group. We were taught how to design evangelistic outreach events, fun evenings and weekends for the students, and other special activities. We turned our Wednesday night program, which attracted about 150 high school students, first into an effective tool for reaching the lost with live music, evangelistic skits, and regular testimonies from students whose lives had been impacted by the gospel. A year later, we changed the format and made it a night for small groups followed by activities. As a sophomore, I was able to lead one of those groups. It was great training for ministry.
At the same time, I had been invited to lead worship in our Sunday morning and Sunday night programs, along with some other friends in the youth group. I had just learned to play guitar, and so I made a lot of mistakes. But they didn’t seem to mind too much, especially since I got better at a decent clip.
When I was 16, I remember coming to my dad’s bedroom to talk to him about when he knew he wanted to be a pastor. I shared with him how much I was loving the work I was doing at the church, how much I liked sharing the gospel with people, and how God was becoming the most important thing in my life. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. My dad asked me some good questions, shared about his own experience, and then told me that maybe I had a call from God to be a pastor. From that point forward, at age 16, I began charting a course to be a pastor one day.
What about you? What did you hope to be as a kid? Did you have any longings or dreams about what you might grow up to be? If you are a kid, what do want to be when you grow up? For most of us, that question is answered primarily with some kind of job. I want to be a firefighter. I want to be a doctor. I want to be president. But what if your calling is about more than picking a career?
That day, in my Dad’s bedroom, I remember telling him that I wanted to go to seminary to learn more about God, the Bible, theology, and ministry. He asked me, “What if you don’t become a paid, full-time pastor?” I answered without hesitation, “I want to go to seminary anyway. For me it’s more about life training than job training.” I knew that, regardless of what job I took, my passion was to serve the Lord and the Church somehow. That was my calling.
What Is A Calling?
What Is A Calling?
Before we go on, let’s take a minute to define “calling.” Calling is an all-encompassing mission that leads to restoration and healing for you and others. We all have dreams about what we want to do in life. But our calling is bigger than that. It may very well include your job, but the job is just an aspect of it. It’s about your whole life. It’s about your family, who you marry, how you raise children, what church you go to and how you serve in it, where you live and what role you take in your community. These are big issues.
You may dream about travelling the world. It may be your passion. But that is not your calling.
You may love math or music or sports or cooking, and you want to enjoy a fulfilling career pursuing these things. But that’s not your calling.
You may be retired, no longer working in your career. But that has not changed, and certainly not ended, your calling.
In the most basic sense, our calling is to follow Jesus. Remember, we are a people who have our eyes fixed on Jesus. He is first. He is the most important person and the most important purpose in our lives. So whether you travel the world, pursue math; music; sports; or the culinary arts, or whether you are retired - it doesn’t change the fact that you are to do those things as a follower of Jesus.
I love how the Apostle Paul talks about this. In Ephesians 4:1 he says,
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
How does he suggest we do that? Would you turn to Ephesians 4 and look at it with me?
2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Our calling is to act like Jesus in everything we do. Be a humble business person. Be a gentle nurse. Be a patient retail sales associate. Be a parent who bears with children in love. Keep the unity of Spirit through peace in whatever church you attend. Remember that all believers are one body with one Lord, one faith, and one baptism - whether they worship with you on Sunday morning or in another church down the street.
He goes on to say,
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it... 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
This is all part of our calling. God makes some of us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers so that the entire Body of Christ, the Whole Church, can do the work of ministry (ministry means service). By doing the work of ministry, we will be built up in the unity of the faith and the knowledge of Jesus. We will become mature/complete. We will attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. In other words, we will begin to live fully as Christ lived, love fully as Christ loved, serve fully as Christ served - all as part of doing ministry.
Is that how we live? If that how we love? Is that how we serve?
I dare say, we do not!
In other words, we have a long way to go in living a life worthy of our calling. But as we increasingly live, love, and serve like Jesus, we will find that we are more grounded, not tossed about by the waves of life - including being drawn away by false idols and false teachings. We will increasingly speak the truth in love. And we will increasingly be like Jesus, together. Because none of this is meant to be done alone. It requires a community.
Think about it. You can’t really be humble alone. You can’t be patient alone. You can’t bear with others alone. You can only do that with other living human beings. You can’t pursue unity alone…that’s meaningless. In addition, the community is where the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are to help each believer live out the calling God has given us. We do it as a body, not as individuals.
So if you want to live a life worthy of your calling, I am saying that you must do it with others. You must do it as part of the Church. I don’t care if its a house church, a small church, or a mega church. But it has to be done as part of the Church. That is how God designed it. And it must include service. That includes service outside the church, but it also includes service inside the church.
In the end, this calling God has placed on your life and on mine reaches into every corner of your life. it touches every aspect of your being. It affects your heart, your mind, your actions, your relationships…everything.
It is nothing less than the call to die to yourself and life your life totally and fully for Christ Jesus. We all have this same calling.
But we also all have different callings.
What Is My Calling?
What Is My Calling?
When I was 16 and wondering if God wanted me to be a pastor, what I really was trying to discern was what the call to be a disciple of Jesus Christ would look like for me. What did living, loving, and serving like Jesus look like for Stephen Johnson? Even more so, what did it look like as a 16 year old Stephen Johnson living in Memphis, TN and going to Central Church? Because being able to say, “I’m called to be a pastor” isn’t really that helpful when you wake up on any given Monday morning and need to make decisions about what you’re going to do that day, that week, or that year.
You see, in addition to the call that God has given us all in the Gospel, we also all have a calling that is specific to us. Each individual person has an individual calling, in addition to the general call God gives us. Once you know what our calling is, you need to then determine what your calling is.
Before we go further, I want to make one thing clear. There is no use comparing your calling to someone else’s. God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, knows exactly how to make the best use of every person he welcomes into his family. And we’re all working toward the same goals. While some people get more attention because of what they do, it does not mean they are more important.
In I Corinthians 12, Paul tells us about the makeup of the Church and how each person, each gifting, each callings works together for the greater good.
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
What this tells us is that God is very intentional about calling each of us to different tasks with different gifts. He doesn’t want you to do what I do, and he don’t want me to do what you do. We each have to stand before God one day and give an account of what we did with our gifts in our situation and our calling. And in the end, we all want to hear, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
Now you may have noticed that we haven’t even begun to talk about Nehemiah yet. Let’s fix that. Please turn with me to Nehemiah chapter 2.
In chapter 2, we get a glimpse into the moment when Nehemiah began to actually step into his calling. Remember in chapter 1, he had been mourning, praying, fasting, and reminding God of his own faithfulness. The time from that moment to the one we’re about to read about was 4 months. Some of you have been mourning and praying and asking God about something for 40 years. Some of us can’t keep our attention in one place more than 4 minutes. But it doesn't matter how long it’s been. What matters is that we prepare ourselves now to take some action.
But how do you know what to take action on? Let’s read the Nehemiah 2:1-10 to gain some insight.
1 In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, 2 so the king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
I was very much afraid, 3 but I said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”
4 The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
Then I prayed to the God of heaven, 5 and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”
6 Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?” It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.
7 I also said to him, “If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? 8 And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the royal park, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?” And because the gracious hand of my God was on me, the king granted my requests. 9 So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.
10 When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.
The first thing we notice about Nehemiah in this passage is that he’s still sad. After 4 months, he is unable to suppress the feelings that he had when he first heard about the broken walls and gates in Jerusalem. Some of us are very good at pushing our emotions down and compartmentalizing our work life from our faith. Thank God, Nehemiah either didn’t or just couldn’t. When we distance ourselves from those painful or heavy feelings, whether in an attempt to protect ourselves from the sadness or to protect others from the sadness, what begins to happen is that we stop feeling them altogether. But as we learned last week, it’s vitally important that we be able to feel the things that God feels - and God feels pain, sadness, anger, and more.
While Nehemiah was serving the wine to king Artaxerxes, his face displayed the sadness that had taken him, and the king noticed. You might wonder why Artaxerxes cares so much about Nehemiah's feelings. While we can’t say for sure, we do well to remember that a cup bearer was a very high position in the ancient world. They were the ones who guarded the king against poison or other attempts on his life.
Customs varied by nation and king, but the cup bearer was, understandably, one of the most trusted officials in the king’s court. In some cases, cup bearers were advisors to the king, since they had constant access to him. The king not only valued their character, but also their wisdom. They were often wealthy, well-educated, and powerful individuals. It looks like king Artaxerxes genuinely cared about Nehemiah and what he was going through.
(As a side note, it helps to be a person of high character and well-developed skills when you seek help fulfilling your calling. While God can and does use anyone, it serves us and the Kingdom well when we develop ourselves as best we can - with the Lord’s help.)
When Nehemiah told Artaxerxes about the sorrow he had for the city of Jerusalem, Artaxerxes asked what he could do for him. Sometimes our hearts ache for something, or we feel passionate about some cause, and when speak about it people will simply offer to help. Passion is contagious. It’s moving. It can break inertia. This is even more true when you have God on your side moving the hearts and minds of people to give you help. And that’s exactly what Nehemiah says happened. The king asked him what he wanted, and Nehemiah told him. Then, in the words of Nehemiah, “Because the gracious hand of God was on me, the king granted my requests.”
As we look at what Nehemiah asked for, we begin to see some very important elements of a calling. Remember, we all have the same calling, which is to follow Jesus Christ by loving God, loving our neighbor, and make disciples of Jesus. But we also have a more specific calling, and that’s what we see here. Nehemiah asks for Artaxerxes to send him to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so I may rebuild it.
Called to a People, a Place, and a Purpose
Called to a People, a Place, and a Purpose
Nehemiah is clear about what he wants. He’s clear about what he thinks God wants him to do. He’s to go to Jerusalem, the city where his ancestors are buried and where his people still live, and he’s to rebuild the city - or more specifically, he will rebuild the walls and gates around the city. He knows where he’s going. He knows who he is going to serve. And he knows what he’s supposed to do.
These three elements are crucial as we work to discern our calling. As I mentioned before, I may have known I wanted to be a pastor, but that is not worth much if you don’t know where you are called to pastor, who you are called to pastor, and what you’re supposed to do as a pastor. Originally, my dream and plan was to return to Memphis after seminary and work as a youth pastor in the church I grew up in. That is a specific calling. It’s just that it turned out not to be my calling. In fact, two good friends of mine did exactly that for a long season. Part of me was envious, but the better part of me knew that God has something different planned for me, and for me, it would be better.
Today, I have developed a passion for the people of New England. As it stands, I am serving New England in and through Fellowship Church. Furthermore, I’m doing it with Sonia. And I’m doing it as a preaching pastor who is dead set on seeing people’s lives be healed, transformed, and restored. We are also called to invite others into greater maturity, greater dependency, and greater action for the Lord. Furthermore, I believe now that God wants to use us to minister to other leaders at some point in the future. The specifics for the future are not all clear, but the present call is. We will only be able to do the future ministry as it becomes more clear.
If I were to ask you to articulate where you’re called, to whom your called, and for what purpose you’re called, would you be able to do it? If not, that’s okay. Because that’s what we’re going to be doing together. But here’s a warning - if you’re just now starting to think about these things, you may not be able to complete this process through this workbook and sermon series. In some ways, this is just an attempt to whet your appetite for more.
This summer, Sonia and I plan to host some workshops on calling. We’re going to go deeper with you to help you understand what God made you for. We’ll help you turn your passion into purpose, with the help of the Holy Spirit. But don’t wait until then. As you read, listen to God in prayer, and reflect on the questions in Lesson 2, you should be able to begin to understand your own calling in life.
Don’t wait until this summer. Process now with your group. Listen to each other’s passions and desires, and where you think God is calling you. For most people, it’s not full-time ministry in a church. But what threads do you see in your home, your work, and at church? What common themes come up? What might those themes say about God’s calling for you?
If you want to go deeper before this summer, I recommend that you pick up To Be Told, by Dan Allender. Sonia can’t stop talking about this book, and we used some of the ideas found there in our own study. This is a great resource to help you see how your own story is pointing to a people, a place, and a purpose, among other things.
In general, be proactive. Meet with people in your group or with other friends/family to help you discern your calling. And if you think you know what it is, don’t stop the process. You need to always be discerning your calling…they’re sometimes for a season. Nehemiah didn’t build walls forever. Once they were finished, he did something else.
That’s a bit of an aside. Looking at Nehemiah again, and what we can glean as we long to understand our own calling, the people, place, and purpose are tied to four areas of convergence for Nehemiah. That convergence is the overlap of his passion, his pain, his proficiency, and a great need in the world. He was sad and in anguish over his homeland. He longed to see that place, and the people living there, restored. He had access to the king, and the trust and skills needed to get the job done. And there was a great need in Jerusalem, as the people living there were constantly exposed to both ridicule and outside aggressors. Passion, pain, proficiency, and a great need. Let’s quickly look at each in turn.
Our passion is something that we long for. But not just anything we long for. Remember the definition of calling, an all-encompassing mission that leads to restoration and healing for you and others. It’s something you long for that has Kingdom impact. It’s not just for you, but for others in the world, and for the Lord. It relates to loving God, loving neighbor, and making disciples.
As many of you know, the word passion originally meant suffering. We use the word as we do today with the idea that you are so desirous of something that your heart actually aches for it. So what does your heart ache for? It could be something beautiful that you long to see, or something ugly you want to rid the world of. It could be something you hate or something you delight in. Consider what your ears perk up for when someone is talking nearby. What catches your eye as you go throughout your day? Romans 8:23 says that
23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
What do you long for so much that you groan? This is your passion.
Our pain will be more obvious. What hurts have you experienced in life? So often, we’re called to the very thing that has brought us pain in life. This is not a welcome idea for most of us. We’d just as soon leave that pain behind. We don’t want to go back to it to help others. But there does seem to be a profound connection between what has hurt is and how God wants to use us to help others.
In my own life, I think about the great pain I’ve experienced in my own stunted emotional development. I’ve talked about this to different degrees over the years. But I realized that I had trouble connecting deeply with God and others, and I wanted to do something about it. I just didn’t know what. But I saw the problems it created in my own life and I saw how it negatively affected so many people I cared about and ministered to. That’s how I, and Sonia, came to care so much about helping people to develop the undeveloped parts of our minds, souls, and spirits. This is a passion because it has been a point of pain.
That pain didn’t come from my own failure or sin. It was a function of my life history. Sometimes the pain comes through God’s judgment and the natural consequences of our sin. Nehemiah knew that God was the one who brought about the destruction of the walls. The Bible is clear on that. But God still wants to use that pain as a catalyst for a Kingdom purpose. Whatever you have experienced in life, whether through your sin, the sin or others, or simply a result of living in a fallen world, God will redeem that pain, in part, by using it to bring about the healing of others if we’ll be brave enough to face it.
When it comes to proficiency, we need to thing both big and small. Every skill, every insight, every resource you have can be used for the Kingdom of God. Do you notice when people are struggling? Pray for them and ask them if they want to share about it. That, for some, is the bulk of their calling - at least in some seasons of life. Sonia’s sister had a mother-in-law named Toñita. Toñita, by the time I met her, was old and mostly house bound. But she would spend hours a day receiving calls on the phone and calling others in need. She spent hours more in prayer, interceding for those she knew needed prayer. Her days were filled with ministry, though she never left her house. I know some of you write cards to encourage people. I know because we’ve received them at our home. Others of you come to the church to tend the plants because you know our appearance to the world impacts our testimony, and you know that the Lord, like most of us, delights in beauty. These, and many more, are proficiency.
But also think big. What specialized skills might you have? Can you run a household with excellence? Can you code? Are you a great writer? Do you have a knack for picking up new skills quickly? Do you know how to run companies? All these, and more, can be used for the Kingdom of God. Maybe, just for fun, start a list of all the things you do well. Start another list of all the resources you have at your disposal (financial, material, places, networks, etc.). Finally, make a list of all the people you know and could call on for help. This process, while out of many of people’s comfort zone, would help you honestly assess the myriad ways you could be used by God.
Finally, think about the great needs you see around you. What is especially helpful is to think of the needs that you see that many other poeple don’t see. We’re all geared to notice certain things. And our training may help us see some problems that others do not. As you think about the needs around you, begin to whittle that list down based on your passions, your pain, and your proficiency. This will help you determine what it is that the world needs that you can actually do something about.
And when I say great needs, I don’t only mean “big problems.” A child who falls down while riding his bike has a great need in that moment. Consider what you might think of as small needs and how that may translate in a “smaller callings." I say smaller calling in quotes because what seems small to you may be very important to God and to the people who benefit from your service. When you share music with others, that may seem small but it may be big. If you teach someone to cook, it may feel small but there may be great flourishing that comes from it.
In the end, let your passion, your pain, your proficiency, and a great need steer you to a people, place, and purpose. When you find those things, you have found your calling.