We get so many questions from listeners who are wondering about God’s calling for their lives. Whom should I marry? What field should I pursue in school? What job should I take? Where should I live? And of course, where should I be serving in ministry? Glenn, one listener, asks, “Pastor John, how do I know if the Holy Spirit is calling me to international missions?”
Deciphering His Call
Let me start by saying that that is the right question. The reason I say that is because a student just asked me two days ago whether I agreed with Hudson Taylor’s comment that no one needs a call to go into missions, but only a call to stay. In other words, should everyone be planning to go to the unreached peoples?
I said to this student: I don’t agree with that. I don’t think that is the biblical pattern. It may have some things to commend in terms of compassion and proportion, and we should listen to those things, but biblically I can’t support it.
“The renewed mind takes seriously the needs that you see in the world and the ones that move you most deeply.”
Regularly, God called his prophets, not the other way around. God does not say that all men should plan to be pastors unless they are called not to be pastors or elders. Rather, he sets up patterns of assessment and assumes that relatively few — just the needed number — will be led into the office of pastor, teacher, elder, or shepherd.
Paul writes to the Romans to solicit their support in his mission to Spain, and he doesn’t say a word about anyone in Rome going with him (Romans 15:22–29). All the epistles of the New Testament are written with the explicit or implicit assumption that people stay right where they are, salt and light in their present vocations. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:20: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
So, that is the right question. That was my point: Glenn is asking the right question.
Let’s start with Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Discerning the will of God assumes a renewed mind. I am assuming that the will of God here refers not to commandments of Scripture, which you don’t need a renewed mind to read and know — commandments like “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). You don’t need a renewed mind to know that is against the will of God.
I am assuming what Paul is talking about in Romans 12:2 is how biblical teachings and all the other relevant factors conspire to produce a direction for my life that God approves and will bless, which leads now to a second point: renewal comes mainly through the word of God and prayer.
When he says to “be renewed in your mind,” I think he means to soak your mind, marinate your mind, saturate your mind with the word of God. The Christian mind is shaped by the word of God, all the while praying, “O God, shape me. O God, make me. O God, bring me into conformity to this word at the depths of my being.”
Now out of that renewed mind, and that prayerful experience, what the mind does to discern a call to missions is to take seriously these seven things.
1. Grace-Wrought Gifts
The renewed mind takes seriously your spiritual gifts. What are they? God is not calling you to do something he has not gifted you to do. What is the gifting?
I think the gifting that Paul and Peter have in mind is summed up in 1 Peter 4:10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” That is what gifts are: varied grace incarnate in human personalities, which we steward for the good of others. Do you know how God is gifting you in this way?
2. Moving Needs
The renewed mind takes seriously the needs that you see in the world and the ones that move you most deeply. I wonder if we have thought enough about the implications of what Paul says in Romans 12:6–8 when he is talking about gifts. He says, “The one who exhorts, [let him do it] in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
“The renewed mind wants to glorify God above everything. It wants to see the glory of God celebrated in the world.”
Now, every Christian is supposed to exhort. Every Christian is supposed to be generous. Every Christian is supposed to show mercy. Yet Paul treats those three things as gifts. It seems to me that some people will study a cluster of needs in the world — a people group, a crisis situation — and a very special, God-given compassion or mercy or generosity or bent to give would be imparted to that person. That should constitute a very significant component of a person’s calling.
So, take seriously not just the real, objective needs that you are looking at in the world — in the lostness and the hurt of people — but also how they affect you. Then study that in relation to Romans 12:8, where one who does acts of mercy is to do it with cheerfulness, as though there is some special mercifulness that God gives to some people and some special compassion that he gives to some people for missions.
3. Practical Knacks
The renewed mind takes seriously its skills. By this I am not thinking mainly of spiritual gifts — and they may overlap — but of practical skills that God may put to use in a special way in some context. Take, for example, finances or carpentry or organization or dozens of possible abilities that may flourish in an especially helpful way on the mission field.
4. Recurrent Interests
The renewed mind takes seriously recurrent and growing interest and awareness of a place or a people. When God is moving someone into missions, he is ordinarily giving them a recurring — not just a flash in the pan — and growing interest and awareness of a need he is leading them to.
So, my question for people is this: What are you reading about? What are you investigating? What do you return to again and again? What are you finding compelling as you ponder the needs of the world?
5. Missional Desire
The renewed mind takes seriously the growing desire of the heart for the work of missions — in other words, desire. First Timothy 3:1 says that elders are to aspire to and desire the work of the ministry. I take that as a principle that God uses to draw us into his work: Do you find this work desirable? Is your desire growing? Is it reaching the point of irresistibility?
That is what happened for me on October 14, 1979, when I was struggling with whether to stay a professor at a college or to be a pastor. All I know is that at about midnight that night, it became irresistible, after years of brewing.
6. Local Confirmation
The renewed mind takes seriously the affirmation and confirmation of the local church. It is essential that you be part of a local church. This is the normal way of being a Christian, and it is the only way I know how anybody can go to the mission field and know what to do once he gets there.
It is churches that we want to come into being, so that believers have a way to be discipled there. Part of the experience of the local church is to confirm our gifts and to confirm our desires and to confirm our skills and to confirm our compassion. Without that confirmation, we will tend to be loners who very easily mistake God’s leading.
7. God’s Glory
The last thing I would say is the renewed mind wants to glorify God above everything. We want to see the glory of God celebrated in the world. Ask yourself: “In all these things, are we pursuing the glory of God? Do we see what I am being led to as what would glorify God most?”
So, immerse yourself in the word and pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Take these seven factors seriously, and the effect will be that you will know — eventually.