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In Defense of Calling

by Mike Ayers July 27, 2021

The idea of God’s calling has been over-spiritualized, used to justify one’s own self-made ambitions, and marginalized due to people’s discomfort with the notion of a supernatural prompting by God. Yet, the Scripture is filled with example after example of people whose lives were interrupted by a call from God and who, by faith, went to lead others to achieve it. Hebrews 11:1–40 includes only a handful of them.

Why is calling so important to understand today?

Well, if we’re not careful, the things we set about to do will turn out to be something we invent rather than something we discover from God. The term “calling” possesses the inherent idea that purpose comes from God to us—not the other way around. With a calling, after all, there must be a Caller. (See Genesis 12:1–4, Exodus 3:1–6, 1 Samuel 16:12, Isaiah 6:1–13, Jeremiah 1:4–7, Mark 3:14–15, John 15:16, Acts 9:1–16, Romans 15:15–18).

Often, a leader’s plans get confused with God’s plan. We have a dream, an aspiration, or a goal, and it becomes what we believe is God’s “vision” for us. We then go to God to convince him to get on board with what we want to see happen in the world. In essence we say, “God, please bless and resource MY plans.” This leads to failure, frustration, and misguided achievements, since God did not author the objective in the first place. Here, leaders achieve only to realize the achievements were not of God. As Howard Hendricks profoundly said, “The fear is not for leaders to fail, but to succeed at doing the wrong thing.”

The fact is, God has not committed himself to finance our dreams. He’s not a genie in the bottle who exists to grant our wishes. He wants us to get involved in his plans. Calling therefore communicates something received from God (the One calling) to us (the ones called)—and God is always faithful to supply and sustain that which he initiates. The great promise to leaders who follow God’s call is that he will be faithful to resource it.

Additionally, calling is an inherent biblical concept, as compared to the popular, modern idea of “vision.” The actual word vision in the Bible almost always refers to prophetic visions. This is different from the way vision is described in modern leadership. The term today, prominently used in business and corporate settings, blurs the lines between the purposes of a business and that of the church. Calling, on the other hand, is unique to people of faith.

While vision (a mental idea of a preferable future) certainly flows from calling, leaders should first process and possess a strong sense of God’s compelling call to join him in the work he is doing. After their response of faith to God’s call, vision will begin to develop within the hearts and minds of the leaders—and most importantly, that vision will be rooted in a call from God, not in self-centered ambition. (see for example the Apostle Paul’s calling in Ephesians 3:8 and the resulting vision for his people in Ephesians 3:14-19).

Those who seek to lead as the Bible describes must embrace this notion of God’s call. When they do, and when they receive resolution to some of the questions associated with that call, there are tremendous benefits.

1. Real courage.

Some leaders express a form of courage that is self-deceiving. False courage is not based upon a clear and accurate sense of God’s call. Rather, it is a dangerous and odd mixture of a leader’s selfish ambition and noble desires to expand the kingdom of God. Without ever coming to understand the inner motivations for leading others, these leaders use the commands of God as a way of meeting inner needs for power, approval, or the admiration of others. They mistake their obsessive and compulsive drive for the passion that should accompany the gospel.

Here, the legitimate objective of building the kingdom is made illegitimate by the leader’s need to achieve certain outcomes. In essence, they are doing God’s will, but doing it in their flesh. These individuals determine that they must have the courage to demand that others conform, to stand up to any resistance against their agenda, and to risk everything in order to achieve the outcomes they so desperately must have. False courage is presumption, not faith. It is testing God, not trusting him; getting ahead of him rather than walking with him.

Courage is a key trait of biblical leadership, but false courage deceives a leader. It’s not enough to do God’s will. We must do God’s will God’s way. False courage does not flow from obedience to the call of the Father, but rather from deep insecurity. Here is an individual who must prove himself right—or more accurately, he must not be proven wrong.

Yet when leaders attain a clear and accurate sense of call from God—one that is founded upon a proper theology and a truthful view of self and that brings distinct guidance as to what God wants to do in this world—the result is real courage. Leaders then determine to remain true to their calling, and they do so with moral standing.

2. Purpose.

In the initial stages of leadership, calling and vision are predominant, but there is a natural tendency to drift away from original motivations and purpose. Over time, needs surface that result in programmatic and even bureaucratic elements being set in place. Leaders get busy doing things that may be good but are not the things that are most effective in relation to their calling.

Before leaders can find their way, they must first find their why. A clear and accurate calling of God directs the leader’s efforts toward what matters most. Calling answers the question of “Why am I doing this?” with “Because God called.” With the clarity of the call comes a potency to the call, a potency that protects leaders from forgetting the priorities necessary for the achievement of their mission.

3. Perseverance.

Let’s face it: leadership is challenging, and when leaders determine that they will practice biblical leadership, the enemy gets involved. However, when one possesses a clear and accurate call from God, he or she is more equipped to endure. When times are difficult, these leaders come back to answer the most basic question of their leadership: “Why am I doing what I am doing?” If a leader is leading for any other reason than the call of God, in time those reasons will be insufficient to motivate the leader to endure.

Leaders who are not driven by God’s call are leaders who are apt to quit. When they do, they miss out on the experience of benefiting from the investment of all their hard work. In essence, leaders who give up preempt God of the opportunity to grow them in faith and character as well as to bring eventual change in the people they are leading. Jimmy Draper says, “The lack of certainty of a divine call to the ministry is one of the main reasons why approximately one-half of seminary students leave the ministry within 5 years after leaving the seminary. Without the assurance of God’s call on your life you will not make it in ministry! The ministry is a terrible vocation, but it is a wonderful calling!”

4. Integrity.

The greatest personal fulfillment inherent in God’s calling is the deep sense of integrity gained as a result of staying true to it. Calling, when clear and accurate, provides an inner power leading to a conviction that says, “I will die doing what God wants.” Frankly, we are missing much of this among Christian leaders today. Here, the leader’s faithfulness is directed toward the Father and flows from obedience to him. The person called understands that life on this earth is brief and that the years God has given him or her must be leveraged toward what God wants.

Biblical leaders do not live for the temporary pleasures afforded through positions of leadership. Rather, they have a clear sense of what is truly their “business,” and by default, what is none of their business. The result of living in such a way is a feeling that they have stayed true to their most deeply held value. They live and lead for an audience of one. These are people who end their lives with few regrets regardless of the outcomes gained.

In the closing weeks of his life, the apostle Paul reflected upon his leadership. He made a great statement of personal fulfillment and integrity in 2 Timothy 4:7–8, one that every biblical leader should aspire to make themselves:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)