"Calling" vs. choice


The abuse of the concept of "calling" creates serious injury to people in the church and can lead to poor or cowardly choices. There is no need to spiritualize good desires. I started thinking about this when a friend told me that he's staying in his current city because he felt "called" there? I thought, "How does he know that?" Does God "call" people to ZIP codes? What is wrong with just saying that you want to live somewhere because you like the place? Why spiritualize it?

For some perspective on this problem I asked a New Testament scholar to reflect on evangelical abuse of "calling." Dr. James Meek, now in administration at Lock Haven University, had this to say:

"Evangelicals have developed an unfortunate habit of seeking and claiming divine direction to a degree that Scripture does not appear to justify. We deceive ourselves by claiming that our wishes and hunches are divine instructions when we have no solid reason (biblical or otherwise) for believing them to be so. But once one person begins talking this way, it's hard not to want to sound as 'spiritual.'

I think what we actually do is to baptize hunches and wishes in the mistaken belief that these represent divine guidance. It's a way of thinking (and talking) that has simply become accepted in many evangelical circles.

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Meek went on to say that reducing our hunches and desires to a "calling" saves us the trouble of thinking, drawing on Scriptural principles, and wise understanding of the world, and absolves us of responsibility when things don't work out well. The false spirituality and false humility of "waiting on the Lord" to avoid wrestling over a wise course of action "in the flesh" results often in sitting passively while waiting for God to drop something in our laps. Not taking risks, moving forward, or taking decisive action could actually be a sign of cowardice or lack of faith. Dr. Meek said that he's been around long enough to have seen far too many things that "God directed" accomplish nothing. But you can't question failure because "God directed" the action in question.

Here's the bottom line: the Bible simply does not generally use "calling" to justify everyday choices or big-life decisions. There are a few notable exceptions for a few biblical characters. The Bible, however, does not generally use "calling" in terms of vocations, college attendance, numbering children, whom to marry, house purchases, which city or neighborhood to live in, and so on. In fact, the Greek word for "calling" is only used in the New Testament around 11 times and its almost always in reference to a divine callings related to salvation or callings to live a holy life. This is what it means to "live in God's will." God's "will" may have nothing to do with whether or not one should move to Seattle instead of Chicago but it does have something to do with what kind of person one will be in either Seattle or Chicago in whatever job one chooses while living in whatever neighborhood one desires.

Until Christians adopt better language we will continue to set people up for disappointment and theological crises when their "callings" don't work out. You do not have to be "called" in order to choose something good. If your choice turns about out to be a disaster, it's OK, God is sovereign.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of The Political Economy of Liberation and Black and Tired. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.


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