Calling – What, How, Why

by Jeff Haanen

“Everybody has a vocation to some form of life-work. However, behind that call (and deeper than any call), everybody has a vocation to be a person – to be fully and deeply human in Christ Jesus.” – Brennan Manning

Christians often allude to a sense of calling that guides their lives, but they may mean different things when they talk about “calling”:

  • God called me into ministry
  • I think God is calling me to trust him more
  • Being a teacher is such a worthy calling
  • We’ve called a new pastor to lead our church
  • I don’t feel called to work in the church nursery

Regardless of age, life stage, or role, Christians long to know they’re living in step with God’s plan for their lives. Yet, misconceptions about calling can lead to confusion, frustration, and passivity.

As leaders who help people live before God in all of life, what you teach about calling matters. This short resource will address three common questions believers have about their vocations and offers helpful resources you can use with your congregation in answering them.

3 Key Questions

What does it mean to be called?

The words vocation (Latin, vox) and calling (English) are synonymous, even though people often use them differently. Theologically speaking, they both suggest a response to God’s voice or leading in one’s life. Historically, “vocation” was often used to describe a person’s specific call to religious service, such as the priesthood or convent life. However, a closer examination of Scripture reveals truth about calling that can enliven and empower daily work for all Christians.

Before God offers a detailed plan for our lives, He offers the general, but life-changing invitation to “Follow me” (Mark 1:17). This is lived out by all Christians through the Great Commandment, bidding us to love God and neighbor as motivations for the whole of our life activity.

The Puritans viewed this response to God’s command as our primary calling –“by God, to God, and for God.” A secondary response to this calling is to “everyone, everywhere, and in everything.” Knowing that God extends this general call to all believers answers the major questions that orient our lives: To whom are we called? How? And Why?

Consider the following thoughts from author Os Guinness:

“We are not called to do something or go somewhere; we are called to Someone. We are not called first to special work but to God. The key to answering the call is to be devoted to no one and to nothing above God himself… Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion, dynamism, and direction lived out as a response to his summons and service.”1

Over the course of a lifetime, believers may or may not receive specific direction from God regarding life choices — nevertheless, all believers are called.

While personality tests or career counseling can help us better steward our God-given gifts, understanding this fundamental premise can eliminate the angst that often accompanies the question, “To what has God called me?”

For expanded information on this topic, download these digital resources:

How can we discern our call?

If by “calling” we mean an unmistakable command from God to take on a specific task, project, or type of work, then calling is rare in the Bible. While people like Noah, Sarah, or Moses received specific instruction, very few people received an individual call from God in this same way. Since examples of supernatural calling were rare in scripture, we can assume they may be equally rare today. Waiting for this type of call can result in a harmful passivity that keeps us from engaging God’s broader work in the world, in response to how he has already called us.

Rather, our vocations often unfold over a lifetime and may shift according to circumstances or stages of life. As we expectantly respond to God’s general call, he shapes us to suit the opportunities to which he leads us.

Academic Tod Bolsinger clarifies:

“The God who calls our names and offers us life and partnership in his own redemptive purposes fits us for the call…That requires us to grow, to be transformed—to become who God intended us to be…One’s calling in life is not so much found as formed. Or to say it more clearly, our vocation is not truly found until we are fit for it.”2

Discerning a personal sense of calling (“secondary calling” above) is a process that we undertake over time. It involves listening to God’s leading, reflecting on our past life experiences, considering all of the talents and experiences we have to steward, and perhaps most importantly, inviting other wise and discerning people to help confirm and challenge our developing sense of call.

For expanded information on this topic, download these digital resources:

Is calling limited to our careers or does it transcend them?

In the Bible, the concept of calling goes deeper than any one aspect of life, such as our career. God calls us to be united with him in every aspect of life. Our vocation flows through the various roles, responsibilities, and seasons of our lives—including our careers, marriages, parenting, community involvement, or church service. Our call is not something that is added on to our lives, but is integral to our purpose and identity.

Pastor Tom Nelson explains:

“We all have a vocation, a calling. And it is important to recognize that a calling is much more than a career; it is the empowering summons of God to participate in his grand plan of renewing everything. A career isn’t big enough for us. A career is something we choose, something we push to succeed in. But a calling is something for which we are summoned. And God has our telephone number and he keeps redialing.”3

To learn more, check out the “Calling – Recommended Resources” document for recommended reading, videos, and movie clips.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. He has previously served as a school administrator, a pastor and missionary. He holds a B.A. in International Economics and Spanish from Valparaiso University and a Master of Divinity from Denver Seminary. Jeff attends Littleton Christian Church with his wife and four daughters.