One year from now, we’ll find ourselves again amidst the drama of another election that promises to be fiercely contested. For now, political wonks must content themselves with watching Republican candidates fight each other in debates and “out-religion” each other in attempts to woo the religious right.
Several of the current candidates have claimed divine calling to the race. It appears God is either hedging His bets by placing several horses in the race, or some of the candidates’ hearing is off. And the secular press has again had a field day mocking “silly evangelicals” for still believing that God speaks.
But the language of calling isn’t primarily a political word, it’s a word with a deep religious heritage. Even when we don’t use the exact words “God called me,” we subscribe to the same idea when refer to “promptings” or “leadings.” The idea is an important part of all our communities of faith as we discern how best to direct the energies of our lives and churches.
But what’s behind all this talk of calling? Do we really mean God speaks audibly? If so, and if political candidates have such clear, unambiguous directions from God, why don’t most of us have the same experiences? And when we do have a leading, why do we fail to have the confidence of former president George W. Bush who reportedly told a senior Palestinian politician in 2003, "I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.’ "
Any discussion of calling inevitably starts with the calling of Moses. The Scriptures informs us that a bush was on fire without being consumed and in that place, Moses had an audible conversation with God. To avoid confusion, Moses argues with God about the exact nature of His instructions, demands a sign, then turns down the job, whereby God recruits Moses’ brother Aaron to be his assistant.
But this isn’t the only instance of a direct calling from God recorded in Scriptures. In various times and places it appears God speaks audibly and calls specific people to a specific task. Abraham receives an unambiguous call from God to leave Ur, a donkey speaks to Balaam, and Saul has a brief post-ascension conversation with Jesus.
And whenever a politician or preacher invokes divine calling, these exceptional examples are cited. The intent is clear; one invokes divine calling in order to marshal strength behind one’s position. Apparently one can be 100 percent sure about something but to invoke divine calling is the adult equivalent of declaring “my dad is stronger, infinity plus one.” Furthermore the declaration “God called me to do this” is used as the ender of all arguments. As many students in campus ministries have learned, “God is calling me to break up with you” doesn’t leave much room for response!
However, there are dozens of biblical characters who didn’t receive such clear instructions. David received an anointing from Samuel but then seemed left to his own passions—for good and evil. Zerubbabel was called to rebuild the temple in the form of a decree from Cyrus the Persian. The disciples threw dice to replace Judas, and the early church convened a church council to settle disputes from the mission field.
In fact, we can probably say that most Bible characters, in most of their decisions, didn’t hear an audible voice from God. Instead they used their own reasoning, sought wise counsel and made the best decisions they knew how.
But a concept of calling reduced to simply making wise decisions, bankrupts the term. When Christians invoke calling, we don’t use it only to manipulate others. “God called me” is more to us than simply evangelical vernacular for, “I feel passionate about this.” And while the assuredness with which politicians, preachers and ex-girlfriends declare divine mandate does indeed arouse healthy skepticism, it’s important we understand carefully what we mean when we invoke divine calling.
Embracing the Subtlety of Calling
While we might all like a burning bush to direct our career path or tell us whom to marry, any discussion of calling must start with the admission that for most of the thousands of decisions we make in life, the waters are murky. Burning bushes and talking angels are exceedingly rare after all, no matter how badly we desire those kinds of experiences.
Instead, we deal in subtleties, promptings and leadings, which require a different set of listening skills than many of us are accustomed to.
As we seek after God, listening for the gentle prodding of Holy Spirit, it’s often found in spaces of silence and retreat, where we unplug, shut up and listen. In these quiet spaces we sometimes hear God’s voice. But it’s rarely audible, distinct or unambiguous. Instead, we hear God like we hear the approach of a coming thunderstorm. At first, we’re not sure if what we’ve heard is really thunder, or someone moving their patio chair across the wood decking. Then, having thought we heard something, we consult our friends, “Was that just thunder?”
In terms of hearing God’s voice, we ask small groups, mentors, spiritual friends to join us in our listening. After all, as Paul reminds the Ephesians, “There is one body, and one spirit” at work among us. And maybe, through all this hard work of listening together we arrive at a sense of call—that this really is what God is saying to us.
Having thus arrived on this hard-fought ground of understanding, we don’t use calling simply as a replacement for wise thought. We don’t substitute leading for solid advice but see the synergy between all our ways of discerning. So, if we were asked, “Do you really believe God tells people exactly what to do?” we would humbly answer that God’s instructions are mysterious, subtle, often misunderstood by the listener, subject to the wisdom of the faith community, but yes, we believe God still speaks.
As for to the politicians, we can’t really know the private religious experience of a political candidate. Maybe some who claim such confidence in calling really are having burning bush experiences. But for the rest of us, we hold out hope that God speaks, even if it’s as subtle as approaching thunder. And maybe we can’t have confidence “infinity plus one,” but we still listen and when we think we hear, we lean in, and ask others to join us in the listening.