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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Calls and Feelings

Two weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the “gift of singleness” that didn’t conveniently fit into an earlier post (the one in which John Piper gives advice about marriage to a single mother).

There was another interesting thought-thread associated with the woman’s question, and since Piper hasn’t addressed it, I think it’s time to take a whack at it. It’s this statement I’m referring to:

“Now, as I attempt to wrap my head around the overwhelming task of raising this boy into a man by myself, I do not feel called to marriage.”

“Feeling called” may be a very common evangelical trope, but ask yourself this: Exactly how biblical is it?

No Thunder, No Fire, No Rain

To answer that question we need to have some idea what the Bible teaches about God’s call, otherwise we are just talking out our ears.

For the purposes of this study I’m going to stick with post-Gospel New Testament uses of the word “call” that we can confidently apply to ourselves today. This is not because the OT or the Gospels don’t matter, but because the sort of call we find there for the most part does not apply in this present era of God’s dealings with mankind. People do not hear voices coming from burning bushes or speaking their names quietly to them in the temple during the night. Angels do not materialize to announce the destiny of sons to their fearful parents. God does not appear to us as he appeared to Abram, Isaac and Jacob. Prophets do not pour oil over our heads to announce that we are “called” to be king over Israel or anywhere else on the planet. It doesn’t happen.

People who claim it does have their judgment or their truthfulness called into question, and with good reason.

There is a perfectly sensible explanation for God’s change in methodology since the first century, but it does not involve a one- or two-sentence answer. Furthermore, this phenomenon (or rather, this observable lack of phenomena) is generally recognized within Christendom even where the reasons for it are not fully understood. If there is sufficient interest, I’m happy to do a post on it one day.

So then, on to the New Testament: What do its writers tell us about God’s call and how this call may be recognized?

Call Me, Maybe?

The apostles are consistent in how they talk about God’s “call” (in Greek, kaleō or klētos). They employ these words hundreds of times in their epistles.

Now, this part is important: their usage demonstrates that God’s call is general in nature. It applies to all believers. We may be called to some very specific things, but we are ALL called to exactly the same things. Nobody gets special treatment.

(There is a single exception to note. Twice, Paul says he was “called to be an apostle” (this would be “apostle” in the Capital A sense, not merely someone who is sent out). But Paul’s calling was unique, miraculous and unrepeatable. It has more in common with the Old Testament calling of kings, priests and prophets than it has with New Testament calls to believers. In fact, we might argue Paul’s was the last major invitation to service under the old sort of calling.)

New Testament “Calling”

So here’s what Christian “calling” looks like. Ready? Paul tells us believers are called to the following things:
Peter supplements Paul’s list by declaring we are called:
Finally, John announces that believers are called to:
There are further references we might consider, though they are all very much of the same sort. It’s quite a list, and it’s quite a calling when we see it outlined for us in all its aspects. And nobody is excluded: every single believer on the planet is called to each and every one of these things. I, for one, am immensely grateful. What a wonderful Saviour and what a spectacular destiny!

What About Me?

And yet I can almost hear the cries of protest now: “What? That’s it? Really? Where’s my call to study at a particular university? Where’s my call to the pastorate? Where’s my call to missions in a specific country to share the gospel with a very specific people group? Where’s my call to set up or work within a parachurch organization or a Bible school? What about that call to political office that I’m totally feeling ever since conservatism has been taking a pounding in the polls? Surely God cares about the details of our lives and has preferences about them that he communicates to us!”

More to the point: “Where’s my call to be married, or single, or anything at all unique to me and only me?”

Exactly. You find these sorts of personal, specific “callings” in Christian bookstores. You find them in Christian conversations. You find them when we feel the need to justify our choices to ourselves or our fellow believers by invoking a mutually-respected authority. “God called,” we say. No further discussion is needed.

Really? Who says?

You find these sorts of personal, specific “callings” wherever superstitious believers gather (and we have lots of those around), and you definitely find them wherever Christians have insufficient confidence in the wisdom of their own decision-making to name their choices for what they are: personal, subjective preferences. You find them wherever Christians use the jargon they hear around them without questioning its origin or validity.

You do not find them in the New Testament, so far as I can see.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feeeeeelings

Having established that the “call” of God in this very personal and extra-biblical sense is a dubious prospect indeed, we should consider for a moment how God’s call might be heard.

When we talk about a “call” in the sense the apostles use it, there is nothing remotely subjective about it. The Holy Spirit declares unequivocally that you are called to freedom, peace, eternal life, glory and so on. There is no debate about these things. You can feel them or not feel them. You can enjoy them or fail to enjoy them. You can be aware of them or not, and they remain yours. You’re called to these glorious blessings of God regardless of where you are in your own thinking today.

Our common Christian “call” is based on the unchanging, unshakable word of God. There’s nothing in the world that ought to make us more confident than that.

But if we are going to talk about things like marriages, missions or the embracing of particular religious causes or positions, we are left with nothing to rely on but our feelings. God has not given us any warrant to apply the word “call” to our own preferences, desires and aspirations. I can find no scriptural authority to tack God’s name onto our plans in order to invest them with the sort of gravity and dignity they would not otherwise command.

But It Sounds So Much Less Impressive ...

It’s not complicated: If you don’t feel like getting married, then ... don’t. You are not wrong to marry (assuming you are morally free to do so and are using good judgment in your choice of partner), and you are not wrong to refrain from marriage if you have misgivings about commitment.

I know, I know, it sounds so much less impressive coming from you than from God. But it also sounds a great deal more honest and less pretentious coming from you. So have the confidence to say what you mean: “I don’t FEEL like getting married. I don’t WANT to get married. I’m SCARED of marriage. I LIKE playing the field. I’m NOT READY to settle down yet. I’m not GETTING married, and nobody can make me.”

Cool. We’re all good with that, whatever your reason may be.

Just don’t bring God’s call into it. Tomorrow, having met someone you never expected to come across who, surprisingly, is exactly to your taste, you may suddenly “feel called” to marry.

Would that mean God changed his mind?

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