The voice startled him into wakeful alertness. He sat up on the edge of the bed. Did someone call?” His question was answered by silence. Perhaps it was a dream, though if it was, he had dreamed it for the second time that night. Perhaps he should inquire of his mentor, but the bed was warm against the chill of night air, and its comfort beckoned him with the promise of a few more hours of sleep. Just as he had burrowed back down beneath the blanket, he heard the voice again. This time it was more insistent. He knew he must get up. He must go. He must answer the call. Soon he would discover that the voice was not the voice of an ordinary mentor or friend. It was the voice of the Holy One of Israel summoning Samuel to serve.
Few of us have had, or can expect to have, as dramatic a calling as young Samuel. Many have sensed God’s calling with as much certainty through far more ordinary events, while others wish we could reassure ourselves with the memory of an audible voice telling us God’s specific will for our lives. We wonder, “How would I know if I were called? How can I discover if God is calling me?” Some who once felt a measure of certainty find themselves wondering, “Have I really been called?”
The world is filled with voices that continually call out to us, beckoning us to take a certain path or urging us to join a particular cause. Some voices soothe us into indulging ourselves while others call us to involve ourselves in noble causes. Either way, the din of voices can confuse us, and for some it might even drown out that still, small voice that may be calling our name. The heart speaks loudly, confidently and reassuringly when it is leading us to deceive ourselves.
As followers of Yeshua and members of the mishpochah, we need to separate out the voices and develop ears to hear that still, small voice so that we may know when God is calling.
The Scriptures are full of examples and instruction concerning God’s call. First of all, it is clear that God is actively calling everyone to recognize who He is. Psalm 19 describes how He does this in two ways. First, God reveals Himself in a general way through His creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (verse 1). God also calls to us in a specific way through the revelation of His written Word. Scriptures speak to our hearts, “converting the soul” (verse 7).
How gracious our God is to speak to us both in the wonders of His creation and in his wonderful Word. However, this calling and evidence of God’s grace does not ensure an answer. God is willing that none shall perish (2 Peter 3:9), yet many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14). In His sovereignty, God allows human beings free will, and some choose not to come when He calls. The mystery of God’s calling is great because for those who have received His effectual call, the call that leads to salvation, our choice is very real, and yet it is just as much a product of His gracious choosing. “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Romans 8:30).
God’s general calling to all people includes a presentation of the facts of the gospel and an offering of salvation with an earnest exhortation to accept God’s grace. The effectual call provides the moral persuasion and the power of the Holy Spirit to effect new life and new birth. It leads to redemption and salvation in the Messiah. I trust that if you are reading this Mishpochah Message you have experienced this calling, as have all blood-bought, heaven-born believers.
In calling us to salvation, God did not merely grant us a fire insurance policy to snatch us from hell. Salvation is a complex gift, consisting of more than one good. In fact it is a bundle of benefits. What many people commonly think of as salvation is actually justification. When we trust Jesus as our Messiah, we are made just in God’s eyes; God imputes Yeshua’s righteousness to us and writes us into His book of life. It is justification that rescues us from the jaws of eternal death and destines us to be with God forever.
When God saved us, He not only justified us, but He also called us to be sanctified, and He called us to serve. Each one of God’s children is called to be a living example of His grace in the world today. When God saved us, He extended to us a whole new way of living, thinking and being that leads us to become like Yeshua. All believers and followers of Yeshua are called to be renewed and transformed.
It is a high or upward calling to standards for what we do, say and even think—standards that require us to rise above what the world considers acceptable. It is a holy calling. We are to be separated out from others who have not heeded the call. That does not mean that we should ostracize them but that we are called to be different from those who do not share our dedication to the One who called us. It is a heavenly calling. We have a destiny far above and beyond this world and its limitations. Like our ancestors when God called them out of Egypt, we are called to freedom from all that would hinder us from belonging to God. While we can attain a measure of that freedom here, we are ultimately destined to a place where nothing will impede our dedication to God.
Some believers in Jesus receive a further call to a special kind of service to God. This calling might come in a supernatural way. Those who are sensitive and tuned in to the Lord’s leading may hear an audible voice as Samuel did or receive something so profoundly personal that it is just as clear as if it were an audible voice. But God also intervenes now and then in the lives of those who are not tuned in to His will and His ways. Like Saul of Tarsus, some of us had our minds and hearts set on something other than what God wanted, until He knocked us off our horse with a blinding light to get our attention.
Whether you have had an amazing or an ordinary experience of God calling you, we would love to hear about it and perhaps we will publish a version of your story in the next Mishpochah Message. I suspect that the majority of us who have been called to some specific task as a lifelong ministry did not have such a spectacular call.
As the Jews for Jesus Minister at Large, I often speak to people who wonder how they can know whether they are being called by God for special service.
We all have dreams, desires, goals and ambitions. If we recognize them as noble and God honoring, it is easy to elevate them, to attribute a higher status to them, to believe that our plans are God’s plans. The problem is, if the plans do not come true, there is a tendency to be angry with God, and angry with the people we expected to help us carry out what we thought was God’s call.
On the other hand, what if this thing we find ourselves preoccupied with doing really is God’s call? If we ignore it, or if we are afraid to give ourselves to the task, how much less will our lives count for? What glorious crowns that we might have presented to the King will be discarded by the wayside?
It’s serious business to be able to discern the difference between our own inclinations and God’s call. There are several indications to help people discern such a calling.
Know Your Own Will
It is very important that you be able to discern what your own will is if you want to be able to know God’s will. People who piously insist that they have no will other than to do God’s will can easily mistake their own will for God’s will. That is not to say that God’s will is always diametrically opposed to our own. But once you admit that something is your will, you can be pleasantly surprised if you find that it seems to be God’s will as well.
The Scriptures tell us to delight ourselves in the Lord and He will give us the desires of our hearts. Some people interpret this from a selfish perspective, taking it to mean that if we get the hang of delighting ourselves in the Lord, whatever that means, we will then have whatever we want, be that material possessions, a spouse, children or a particular position in our chosen vocation. In reality, delighting ourselves in the Lord has a direct bearing on the types of things we will be likely to desire. When His delight becomes our desire, when His Kingdom becomes our calling, when His desires become our privilege to fulfill, then His will and our will are in harmony, and we have the confidence of His call.
A Compelling Desire to Do for God
When a person is called, he or she becomes conscious of a compelling desire, even need, to do something for God. Often our most compelling desires are to do for ourselves, for our mates or for our children. But a burning desire to do something for God might be an indication of calling. The Apostle Paul said, “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). John Knox said to the Lord, “Give me Scotland ere I die.” If you are called, you will feel an overpowering burden that something must be done and must be done by you, a feeling that you will explode if you do not loose your energy for the doing of this task. Such a calling is a wonderful merging of God’s wooing and our own desires.
A Confirmation in the Community of Believers
A second indication of your call is when others testify that you are intellectually as well as spiritually qualified to serve in a particular way. Brothers and sisters in Israel have lamented, and I can empathize with them, over some who came to Israel because they felt God had called them there to minister—yet they had not the slightest idea of what life is like in Israel. Some have remained in the land with little or no knowledge of Hebrew, the heart language of the people they want to reach. They seem as confident as ever that God has called them, though there is no indication that ministry is taking place, and there is no one who can confirm the calling.
On the other hand, confirmation does not always come when we would like it to or from the people we might expect to give it. For example, Gladys Aylward was turned down by the China Inland Mission at the age of twenty-six. She was considered academically deficient and had done quite poorly on her theology exam. She was also considered too old to learn all that was necessary for the field. Yet she had an all-consuming desire to get to China on her own. She spent everything and risked her life to get there—and was used by God in a mighty way. The people whom she led to faith and those who worked by her side did confirm God’s call in her life. Perhaps it was necessary for Gladys Aylward to be rejected by the China Inland Mission in order for her to fulfill her destiny.
A person’s calling may or may not be obvious to others from the start. But if someone is called by God, they will be used by God. And if someone is used by God, there will be others who can confirm it. God’s call is not issued into a vacuum. It echoes; it resonates in the hearts of others.
If you believe that God is calling you to ministry, then be willing to subject yourself to self-examination as well as the scrutiny of others who have experience in ministry. Allow the collective wisdom of those whom God has placed in your life to be further guidance for you.
Objective Tests of Truth
There are three tests of truth that we can reasonably apply to the question: How can I know that I am called?
The first test of truth is pragmatic. Does it work? For example if you feel that God has called you to be an evangelist, a fair question to ask is, “Have you led anyone to the Lord?” If God is calling you to evangelism, there should be some visible demonstration of that calling in your life and of the gifts that are necessary to the office of evangelist.
If your calling involves travel and a major transition, be willing to test it where you are before you actually go. Returning to an earlier example, many people have told me that God has called them to reach our people in Israel. I usually ask what they are doing to reach our people where they are. Some are offended by the question, but usually not those who are involved or willing to involve themselves in Jewish evangelism. After all, why wouldn’t those who are called to reach out to Jewish people in Israel have made the effort to reach out to the Jewish people in their own community? Does anyone think it is easier to take a stand for the gospel in Israel?
If you feel called to be an evangelist but have never led anyone to the Lord because you don’t know how, there are short-term evangelistic programs whereby you can receive both the training and the opportunities to test your calling. Be selective in choosing a program; there are many worthwhile projects, such as building homes or churches, which may not provide training and opportunities for you to lead a person to Christ. Not everything that falls under the label of “missions” actually entails personal evangelism.
At Jews for Jesus, we encourage people who are interested in serving with our mission to try a short-term ministry such as our Summer Witnessing Campaign. I often tell people it is like dating before getting engaged. Short-term ministry allows you to experience what it is like to serve the Lord and can be a reality check. Romanticizing ministry can only lead to disappointment, but sharing in the joys as well as hardships can lead to a well-balanced and informed decision.*
The second test is that of cohesion. Does it fit together? To overstate an example, let’s say that an individual is convinced that God has called him to serve in another country, but he is enlisted for a three-year term in the military. The only way he will be able answer such a “call” is if he goes AWOL from the military. The profession of calling has no cohesion because it doesn’t fit together with the other facts of the person’s life. God does not call people to dishonor their commitments.
The third test of truth is correspondence. Does what I say God has called me to do correspond to what is evident to others? For example if I say God has called me to write, direct and act in a screenplay that will attract secular audiences to the gospel, there are many facts that must correspond. Who, besides me, finds my screenplay worthy of production? What will draw unbelieving audiences to this movie? Who believes I am a good actor? What other talented actors and actresses will take my direction? How will I pay for this project to be completed and publicized? The answers to all of these questions must correspond to reality and to what I say my calling is and what I am capable of doing or producing.
God does not call without providing the means for us to answer. That is not to say that God makes it easy for us to obey Him. More often than not, just the opposite will occur. For example, if you are a school teacher and you believe God is calling you into ministry, it would not be unusual for you to receive several “breaks” just when you are ready to make a ministry move. It will suddenly become very comfortable and secure for you to stay where you are. Perhaps you will receive a big raise, more academic freedom, the outstanding teacher of the year award. In other words, if you believe God is calling you, do not be surprised if suddenly you are offered all kinds of blandishments for not doing what God is calling you to do.
It’s easy to view worldly incentives as God-given opportunities to continue on in the same direction or to take a different direction from the one that God had seemed to indicate. And if God is not calling you to ministry, that might well be true, since God certainly can use these types of things to bless us. But if God is calling you, “blessings” might actually be obstacles. More obvious obstacles might also crop up, such as difficulty obtaining a visa if your call requires one. Yet even opposition can serve as an indicator of God’s call. Some of the volunteers for our New York City Campaign experienced such obstacles, and they served to strengthen the volunteers’ determination to participate. For those whose hearts are set on truly discerning God’s call, opposition and temptations will not overshadow God’s provision. He will provide the circumstances or experiences or whatever indications are necessary to confirm His call in your heart.
The Mystery of God’s Call
There are people who attach great mystical significance to the calling of God, the leading of God and the empowering by which God enables us to follow His leading. Remember, God does not play guessing games with His children—especially concerning those things He wants us to do. Nor is His calling a reward or sign of recognition of our virtue. Remember God used Balaam’s ass to convey His message. While the call of all believers is high, holy and heavenly, the mystery of God’s call is that He is pleased to use weak and imperfect people like you and me to His glory. If you want to be part of God’s team to confound the wise, you have to be willing to become foolish. Whether we are called by God for a specific task or simply called to be His children, transformed into the likeness of Yeshua (and isn’t that more than enough?), it is a mystery of grace that He chose to call us at all.
Yeshua said if the people who welcomed Him into Jerusalem were silenced, the stones would cry out in His honor. Some of us whom God is calling to ministry are just about as hardheaded! But hardheaded as we might be, let us also be humble. Why? 1 Corinthians 1:22-29 says it all:
Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.