Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion, “I’m supposed to do that” – “that” being some out-of-your comfort zone, new kind of thing?
Okay – that’s kind of vague. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when God calls us to do something, partly because it hits many of us differently. Very seldom does it happen like it did for Jeremiah, a James-Earl-Jones-sounding voice telling us to “GO, THEREFORE, AND PREACH!” And very seldom is the thing we’re supposed to do as epic as Jeremiah’s: taking God’s message to a whole nation. For most of us, God’s call is more like an urge or an out-of-nowhere thought. The thing we’re supposed to do can often be done right in our own neighborhoods.
It can be like this: Noticing a group of people that’s underserved, and feeling like someone’s got to do something about that. Or seeing a need in your community and thinking that you’ve got a skill that could help meet that need. Or feeling like you’ve got a message in your heart and there’s a Sunday School class or a pulpit where that message needs shared. All of those can be the Holy Spirit communicating God’s call to us.
Which is kind of exciting to think about. Out of love, God created us: “before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah, and we can imagine God saying those same words to each one of us. Out of that same love, God saved us from our sin; and then, God loved us enough to make us like partners in God’s work! God designed each of us with certain skills and passions and personalities that fit into God’s kingdom plan. We’re like superheroes just waiting to discover our origin stories! When God calls, surely we’ll choose to accept our mission and march off valiantly into the adventurous sunset!
Except that most of us don’t – not right away, and sometimes not ever. When God’s call to action comes, it can catch us off guard. We doubt whether it’s real; we doubt whether we can live up to it. Jeremiah doubted; . Most of the leaders in the Bible doubted. And probably, you did, too – or you will, when the feeling comes to you.
God’s call is not something we want to miss. In order to hear it and obey it, we need two skills: (1) how to know when it’s really God speaking, and (2) the ability to take a leap of faith and do the thing.
First things first: How do we know when it’s God who’s calling us?
This would be a no-brainer if God’s call was delivered in lightening and angels, or in a booming, audible voice. Who could miss those divine messages? But no – the Holy Spirit’s tug on our hearts is usually strong, but subtle. It can feel a dangerously lot like a self-inflated ego or a misguided desire to help or just plain indigestion. How can we tell the difference?
Here’s some hot tips from a longstanding church tradition: our cues are both internal and external.
If we assume that Jeremiah’s conversation with God was a private one-on-one, it falls in the “internal” category. No one else heard it, only Jeremiah.
Here’s how I heard it: One day, when I was an elementary school student attending my home church, I was minding my own business and doodling on the back of the attendance pads. Gradually, my attention was drawn away from my artwork and toward the pastor. I watched him give his sermon and felt a frightening curiosity. A thought occurred to me that I had never been there before: “I’m supposed to do that.” It was all “internal” – my mom, sitting right next to me, probably thought I was daydreaming like always.
I wasn’t so sure about it, though. I had never seen a woman preach – is that allowed? (Yes, I figured out a few years down the road.) And I was TERRIFIED at the idea of public speaking. As the thought persisted, I raised these objections to God. Kind of like Jeremiah saying, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Who was he to be sent to kings and a whole nation of people? And who was I to think I might climb up in a pulpit one day?
These are normal responses to God’s call in our lives. God often calls us to do things we couldn’t do without God’s help – which makes them seem a bit unrealistic. And also: What if this isn’t God calling us? What if we’re just getting a wild hair, thinking some crazy things?
That’s why we should test the internal cues with some external ones.
After at least 5 years of feeling this “call” feeling, I actually stepped into a pulpit. It was “Youth Sunday” and some poor soul was needed to fill the role of “preacher.” I was more than reluctant, but a lack of any other willing participants got me signed up by default. The congregation’s reception shocked me. They were positive, affirming, excited, even. People in my home church were like, “You should do more of that!” For the first time, I started to believe in the internal feelings that had been there for so long.
I wonder if it felt like that for Jeremiah. After his objections, God reassures him and literally touches his mouth – maybe that was all it took for Jeremiah to know this was legit. But maybe, it was only after he marched up to Jerusalem and the right words came pouring out of his mouth – maybe only then did he think, “Well, alright – this is for real!”
So, how do we know when it’s really God calling us?
Internal + External = Call.
Except – there’s a flaw here. Do you see it?
Sometimes we can get that “external” confirmation by asking around. “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this new thing – crazy, or no?” But often we have to actually do the thing and see what happens. And maybe doing the thing is a little risky. Maybe we’d like to be a little more sure before we take that leap out of our comfort zones.
So let’s figure this out: How do we take a leap of faith to follow God’s call?
There’s a new trend among the 12-and-under age group lately: trampoline parks. I’ve got a couple kids who fit in that category, so I’ve spent a couple field trips and birthday parties hanging around these places. There’s trampolines all over and the kids can jump to until they’re breakdown-level exhausted. But there’s also obstacle courses and basketball hoops and even… a climbing wall.
Parents get to have fun, too – and I think climbing is pretty fun. There’s no harnesses or anything, just three walls full of hand- and foot-holds stretching all the way up to the ceiling. I jumped right on there and started to see how high I could get. My thighs started burning and jackhammered; my fingers got tired and slippy; but with the boldness of a professional free-climber I just went all the way to the top.
And do you know why I was brave enough to do that?
Because there’s a huge foam pit at the bottom.
Every time I climbed, I was unafraid to try because I knew as soon as my legs got tired or my fingers slipped, I’d just fall backward like Princess Buttercup jumping into Fezzik’s arms and splash into a delightful pile of foam.
When we have a safety net – or safety foam pit, as the case may be – we can take some risks.
When exploring what God has called us to do, Jesus’ teachings are that foam pit. Jesus told us some things we were to do, top among them: love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. When we feel a nudge to do this or that, A or B, fork left or fork right, it can sometimes help to ask: “Does it line up with what Jesus taught us to do? Does it fall under the umbrella of loving God and loving neighbor?” If the answer is a definitive, “yes,” then I propose that we can’t get too far gone.
Let’s say we feel a call to start teaching a children’s Sunday School. We set aside the time and get the curriculum and start working with some awesome little people. But the lessons don’t go over well… and we can’t seem to get control of the classroom… and we realize that this isn’t exactly what we’re called to do. Not a total loss, though! It was well within the safety-foam-pit of Jesus’ greatest commands. We pass it on to someone else and see what we learned about our own call. Maybe we’re called to teach a different age group – or to work with kids in a less-structured way. We keep praying and listening for God’s direction.
On the flip side, I once heard of two already-married pastors who left their spouses for each other. When their supervisor sat them down to talk about what was happening, they really felt like God had “called” them to do this. If you’ve fallen for someone before, maybe you can imagine how the feeling of infatuation might be so strong it felt like a “call.” And when the other reciprocated the feelings, that could seem like an “external” confirmation of call. But would God call us to do something that hurt our families and broke the marriage covenant? Heck no. That’s not loving God or loving your neighbor as yourself.
So when we seek God’s call, stay over that safety-foam-pit. God isn’t going to call us to do something that’s contrary to what Jesus taught. Try things that are within those parameters and – even if we “fail” – we’ll learn from the experience and get closer to what God has designed us to do.
And God has designed us to do something.
God is calling YOU. I know it. I just don’t know what it is. Figuring that out will take some time, some prayer, and some trial-and-error.
But it’s worth it – because serving God is what we’re designed to do.