It's an important question. In fact, there is no question more important for Christians. For how can we follow Christ, if we can't tell His call from that of the culture, or from an echo of our own desires, the product of misplaced guilt, or another have-to, got-to, need-to duty that seems good and feels good—and maybe, is good—but is not God-sent?
The answer is, we can’t—without first recognizing the means by which God calls us.
Prior to Pentecost, God called individuals in four ways: directly, through some physical manifestation of Himself (the burning bush); indirectly, through divine messengers (angels); subconsciously, through a dream or vision (Jacob’s “stairway to heaven”); or personally, through God incarnate (during Jesus’ earthly ministry).
But what was the norm then is exceptional today. The Christian who waits for a theophany or Danielic dream to receive a word from God, could be waiting a long time. And yet, while God’s call may no longer come through angelic visitations or blinding lights, it can be discerned with the help of two books: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture.
The Book of Nature
The psalmist tells us that God speaks through His creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hand. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” And since humans are part of His creation, God speaks through human nature too.
Our design, as with any intelligently crafted object, reflects our purpose and thus is indicative of what God may or may not be calling us to. Here, the Socratic dictum “Know thyself” is particularly apt.
At 6’4” and 200 lbs, I am not fit to be a jockey, nor is a jockey fit to be an NFL player. From design considerations alone, the desire of either of us for those careers can be dismissed, out of hand, as originating from God.
The same goes for someone contemplating a same-sex relationship. Because homosexual couples cannot combine in a way to accomplish the primary function of sex—namely, reproduction—God’s call would not be to a same-sex union, committed or otherwise, but to celibacy or to a union that, by design (if not in effect), is compatible with that function.
Added to a unique mix of inborn physical, mental, and psychological features, each Christian is endowed with spiritual gifts that equip him for service in God's kingdom. Thus, spiritual gifts—and how spiritual gifts align with inborn traits—are important "pointers" to calling.
For example, a Myer-Briggs ENFJ personality type combined with the gift of shepherding could point to a calling as a pastor. On the other hand, an ISTJ who has the gift of teaching is not likely to be called to a ministry of hospitality. (By the way, that's me.)
But while spiritual gifts and natural traits can indicate a calling, they are not sufficient to confirm a calling. For that, we need the other Book, the Book of Scripture.
The Book of Scripture
We know, or should know, that God will never direct us to something that is contrary to His Word. Thus, any notion enticing us down a path that is intrinsically sinful (adultery), or that will lead us into sin, is counter-indicative of God’s calling.
Rather, God’s calling will always be consistent with His revealed will. It is a tragedy that many Christians have left their spouses, aborted their children, or taken on huge debt in the belief that God’s will for them is to be happy. But God’s will is not that we would be happy, but that we would be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
His ultimate intent, of course, is that we "be conformed into the likeness of His Son." With that in mind, we should be wary of any nudging that, while not sinful, immoral or unethical, is not conducive toward that end.
Thankfully, believers are not left alone with a Bible and their unaided reason to puzzle this out. We have the indwelling Word, the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised, “will teach [us] all things” and “guide [us] into all truth.” But to receive His counsel, we must create space for Him to speak through the disciplines of prayer, silence, contemplation, and study.
We also have the corporate Word—that is, the Church—the body of one-anothers knitted together under the Lordship of Christ for mutual support, accountability, encouragement, and, let's not forget, teaching, correction, and discipline.
As to how the Books of Nature and Scripture might apply in a real life situation, I’ll share a recent personal experience.
For some time I had been praying about how best to care for my elderly parents. Mom is 87 with diabetes and other issues, and Dad is 90 with advancing dementia. They were living in their own home four hours away, and I’m their only child.
The Book of Nature told me that, as their son, I was the person best suited by nature to provide for their care. The Book of Scripture told me that my duty as a son is to honor them. But that required a move, either for them or Joanne and me.
For the last couple of years, I had lobbied (quite well, I thought) for an assisted-living facility near us. My pitch, while initially entertained, was repeatedly shot down by Mom. Even at 87 Mom was very active in several local and regional organizations. What’s more, she lived in the town where she was born and raised and where many of our relatives are buried. I continued praying for direction.
Then early last summer, while visiting my parents with our daughter and son-in-law, our daughter asked, “Grandma, if Mom and Dad got a house big enough for all of you, would you consider moving up with them?”
Whoa! I didn’t see that coming. The option had never crossed my mind, which was now aswirl with all the difficulties and obstacles (not the least of which, were financial).
Looking for Mom’s reaction, I noticed that for the first time she seemed open to the idea. After extended discussions over the next few days, Mom decided that they would make the move. Thanking God, I was still uncertain as to how all those obstacles would be overcome.
Joanne and I immediately began house hunting, with the goal of having Mom and Dad settled in by Thanksgiving. Being that it was late July, it was an ambitious goal: Available homes with the features we needed were scarce; the physical move of two households, one of elderly parents, would be difficult and time-consuming; and financial institutions were tightening the requirements for home loans. That last item turned out to be the biggest threat to our plans.
By mid-September, after wrangling for nine weeks with a non-local lender, our loan had yet to be approved. Although I had experienced sporadic moments of doubt from the start, I was beginning to seriously wonder if we had made the right decision: Was it really best to move my parents from their familiar and comfortable surroundings? Would a move be too taxing for them? Was it good stewardship to go into debt, especially in this economic climate? In short, had I heard God?
Overwhelmed with uncertainty, I did something that I recall having done only once before: I opened my Bible with my eyes shut and pleaded for a sign of affirmation or correction. When I opened my eyes, I gazed down at Isaiah 58. The chapter heading in my Bible read, "Right and Wrong Fasting."
Fasting? I slumped in my chair, thinking this some sort of divine barb. (For some time I had been temporizing over a conviction to include fasting in my Rule of Life.) I braced to receive my medicine and, through squinted eyes, began reading.
Sure enough, the chapter was about fasting, but of a different sort. This was the fast:
“. . . to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke…to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood. . . .”
It was like the plot twist at the end of a novel when several seemingly unconnected story lines are suddenly resolved. Here, in the short bandwidth of ten words, the Lord answered not one, but two prayers: The “fasting” I should attend to in this season of life, is the care of my “own flesh and blood”; and the call I had “heard” from the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture was correct.
Four weeks later, Joanne and I moved into our new home. On November 19 Mom and Dad joined us. Five days later, the four of us, and six members of our extended family, sat around the dinner table for what we all agreed, was the best Thanksgiving we ever had!
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.