So, what do you want to be when you grow up? As a child, I wasn’t entirely sure. But I felt compelled to come up with an answer that would both satisfy the curiosity of well-meaning adults and make me sound vaguely interesting. I went through various phases of confidently declaring that I wanted to be an actor, a pilot, a travel rep. Sometimes I pretended to want to be a Formula 1 racing driver, because that’s what my best friend wanted to be and it sounded exciting. At other times, it seemed right to follow in my parents’ footsteps by wanting to be a teacher. In truth, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or, indeed, if I wanted to grow up at all.
As adult Christians, we should think differently of course. Because what I want to be vocationally is not the most important thing about me. My core identity is rooted not in what I do for a job, but rather in who I am in Christ. I might do the work of a shop-assistant, doctor, lawyer, cleaner, teacher, factory worker, civil servant, administrator, refuse collector, pastor, stockbroker or builder. But my job title doesn’t describe who I am, it doesn’t reveal the essential me. Or at least it ought not to.
Called to belong to Jesus Christ
If someone were to ask you to talk about God’s calling on your life, I wonder how you might reply. Perhaps you would feel that childhood pressure to come up with a convincing or impressive answer. To assert that you feel called by God to a certain vocation or sphere of Christian service, or called to share the gospel amongst this people group or in that country. Perhaps you wish you were called into what we sometimes (unhelpfully) refer to as ‘full-time Christian work.’
But this is not what the New Testament writers usually mean when they speak of Christians being called. True, Paul says he’s “called to be an Apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). However, that’s the exception rather than the rule. Generally, the emphasis is not on Christians being called into a specific vocation or ministry. Instead, the focus is on us being called into relationship with Jesus Christ with all its implications. So, Paul refers to the Corinthians as those “called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
The most important aspect of my Christian calling is not where or how I serve Christ, or what area of mission I feel drawn to or passionate about. And whether I’m set apart for paid Christian ministry or in so-called secular employment is not the main thing either. No, all those details are trumped by the wonderful truth that I’m called into the fellowship of God’s son, “called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6). Every believer has been “called …out of darkness into his wonderful light” and is now counted amongst “God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). This is the calling that matters most.
Called to be holy
This big-picture thinking about God’s calling is all very exciting, you might be thinking, but I still want to know God’s will for my life. After all, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Doesn’t that imply that there are specific works that God has prepared ahead of time for each individual Christian to do?
Well undoubtedly, in his sovereignty, God has mapped out in advance various good works that he wants each of his children to do in certain places and at specific times. But on this question of knowing God’s will for our lives, again Scripture generally takes a broad-brush approach. In answer to the question, ‘what is God’s will for my life?’ Paul would reply, for example, “it is God’s will that you be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). Or “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Of greater importance to God than what specific good works we do and in what locations we do them is the way in which we do them. As I serve, God wants me to “be holy as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Yes, of course, I should pray for wisdom as I make decisions about when, how and where to utilise my God-given gifts, talents and abilities. And I should make such decisions with good and godly motivation and with a humble, submissive attitude. But God’s priority is not the precise details of where I serve and what specific good works I do. No, his greater concern is that I be sanctified. That I serve him and other people in a godly, upright way, reflecting the glorious, holy nature of the Lord Jesus Christ to whom I belong. That as I live and serve as a Christian, I do so joyfully, prayerfully and with a thankful heart.
Called to eternal glory
Let’s be under no illusion that being called to belong to Christ and obeying God’s will by living a sanctified, Christlike life guarantees us an easy, trouble-free life. Quite the opposite. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). God calls us to follow in the footsteps of his suffering servant. To fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
So, when our calling into fellowship with Christ leads to us sharing in his sufferings, we’re to keep our eyes on the goal of ultimate, eternal joy. Because we are assured that “the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10). For some, this ‘little while’ of suffering may seem interminably long and incredibly hard to endure. But that’s why we need to maintain an eternal perspective. To remember that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Called by the Sovereign Lord
I’ve met Christians who seem to live in constant fear that they have fallen outside of God’s will by making a wrong or poor decision in the past or because of a certain sin committed. Others believe they have slipped from plan A (God’s perfect will for my life) to plan B (God’s second best will for my life). Or even all the way down to plan C (reserved for those who have messed up completely). When I was a pastor, this was a common concern amongst younger people, some of whom were paralyzed by a fear that their lives had been ruined by making the wrong choice regarding what to study or which career to pursue.
But if I want to be clear on my calling, I need to do some grown-up thinking and trust that God is on the throne. I should not get caught up in trying to work out the minutiae of God’s detailed plans and purposes for my life. He’s sovereign. He’s in complete control of my life. Nothing – not even a bad or sinful decision on my part – is outside of the Lord’s ultimate control. The Sovereign Lord is never caught on the hop by me making the ‘wrong’ choice and is still able to work out his plans and purposes for my life. He can find a way to lead me to those good works that he’s prepared in advance for me to do. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).