DO YOU FEEL CALLED BY GOD?
Michael Bennett’s book is brilliant. I loved it. Let me tell you why.
Ever since I became a Christian at age 19 (1989) I have been baffled and confused by the way Christians speak about decision making.
I was always hearing people say stuff like, “I feel God is calling me to do, x, y and z”.
They seemed to put an awful lot of emphasis on 2 four letter words. The “Four Letter F word” – feel. And the “Four Letter C word” – call.
After a while I facetiously created a precise theological category for this phenomenon – “Four Letter Word – Guidance Theology.”
This infatuation with “feeling” and “calling” really confused me because the rank and file Christians I read about in the Bible didn’t speak that way.
But I kept my mouth shut because I was a baby in the faith. But as the years rolled on, I realised that this “Four Letter Word – Guidance Theology” was everywhere. It transcended denominations, demography, geography and even the generations.
What baffled me even more was when the “Four Letter Word – Guidance Theology” did and did not get used. I noticed the following:
- It often got used when discussing occupation – e.g. “I feel God is calling me to be an accountant.” I remember reading Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne’s book, “Guidance and the Voice of God” many years later where they commented that it was amazing how ‘middle class’ God was in that he always seemed to call people into white collar professions. That’s what I noticed big time too.
- It rarely got used for godliness – e.g. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Christian Father say something like, “I feel called by God to stop exasperating my children and to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord; I really need to regularly read the bible with them”. (Ephesians 6:4).
- It often got used to avoid evangelism – “I don’t feel like God is calling me to teach Scripture in the local Primary school”. I shudder to think where I’d be now if Rhys Bezzant* had uttered those words in 1988.
- It often got used by those in paid ministry positions – If I had dollar for every time a missionary or pastor or a church planter used the phrase, “That was when I felt the call of God into the ministry”, I’d be listed in the BRW Richest 200.
As a younger Christian I kept hearing this and asking myself, “What do they mean by “called by God”? Did God audibly speak to them with a special revealed word to them about going to Pakistan? Or do they mean something more like, “Well all the circumstances seemed to coincidentally, by God’s providence, point us to Pakistan?”
All this has been percolating around in my mind for years. Then I picked up Michal Bennett’s book and read the blurb on the back:
“When Michael Bennett took the first steps towards full-time, ordained Christian ministry, he dreaded being asked if he ‘felt called’. Because in all honesty he didn’t.”
Hallelujah I thought to myself.
This bloke might have some insights we can all benefit from.
So I bought the book and devoured it in about 4 hours (145 pages). I LOVED it.
The book is excellent for the following reasons:
The Autobiographical Thread
It has an autobiographical thread all the way through it. Sometimes that is really irritating in a book because some authors want to argue their theological position from their life experience. Bennett doesn’t do that. The autobiographical stuff helps you to see that this topic REALLY matters in real life. Now. Today!
“As I mentioned in the previous chapter, before I could be allowed to enter college to study the Bible and theology, I was required to appear before a selection committee; and as I sat nervously in a small room with another candidate, waiting to be interviewed, I asked the other young man the question that was troubling me, and which I was sure was going to be asked of me on the other side of the door.
“Why do you feel God is calling you into the ministry?” I enquired.
As I said before, his reply rather surprised me.
“Recently,” he answered, “the minister of my church was going to be away on holidays, and he asked me whether I would lead one of the church services in his absence. I had never done this before, but I agreed to help. When I entered the church to begin the service, the whole congregation stood up. Now, no-one had ever stood up for me before, and I enjoyed this so much that I decided I would like to go into the ministry full-time!”
My immediate unspoken reaction was to think, “There must be a better reason than that!” I felt in my bones that there had to be a worthier motivation for considering full-time ministry, but I could not think what it might be. I certainly felt no such inner conviction.”
Bennett is Hilarious.
He is a very funny man. Humour and seriousness are not opposites. You can use humour to say some very serious things. Bennett uses humour to say serious things in a pastorally sensitive way. (The Lord knows the church could do with a good laugh eh? Too many Christians walk around looking like they’re getting a daily root canal. This book is a hoot.)
It is Biblical.
His exegesis is careful, well argued, and traverses the sweep of the Biblical data. Bennett writes in his introduction, “I have discovered that the word ‘call’ is used more than 300 times in the pages of the New Testament, and with at least 11 separate meanings.” This bloke knows the Scriptures well. His chapter headings testify to his exegetical method.
- Chapter 3: The call of God in the Old Testament
- Chapter 4: The Call of God in the New Testament – Jesus and the Apostles
- Chapter 5: The Usage of ‘Call’ in the Greek New Testament
Bennett pins his colours to the mast right from the start
He writes his conclusions on page 2 – I find that helpful, because sometimes you just want to know the bottom line.
“Out of this detailed examination I have arrived at two conclusions in regard to the important subject of the ‘call of God’, conclusions that I think can fairly be described as radical within the context of everyday evangelical piety today. The rest of this book explains the process by which these conclusions have been reached. The conclusions are:
- The often-heard and almost universally accepted expression “I feel God is calling me” is totally foreign to the revealed content of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The continued use of this unscriptural pietistic language may be having negative consequences for churches, missionary societies and other Christian organisations in the choosing and training of future leaders.
- Without denying in any way God’s ability to call people into ministry by overt and supernatural signs it is argued here that this is not usually God’s method today. The motivation to serve the Lord, particularly in what is termed full-time ministry, is a human desire to do so and not a felt call. However this human desire, which must spring from one’s love for Jesus and the gospel and genuine compassion for people, is not sufficient or valid in itself: it must be rightly motivated and rightly tested.
He also repeats these findings through out the book and so you really feel like you’ve “got” what he’s saying by the end of it.
Bennett Addresses the “Called by God” Pin-Up Boys
“Did God call Hudson Taylor?” is the title of chapter 6. Bennett details some very interesting facts about Hudson Taylor’s upbringing; namely that his parents were praying (before their first child was conceived), “Dear God, If you should give us a son, grant that he may work for you in China”. Hudson’s father, a Methodist Lay Preacher, was deeply concerned at the turn of the 19th century that there was not one Protestant missionary in all of China. That is the kind of family Hudson Taylor was raised in. Chapter 6 is a riveting read and delves deeply into the “calling” of one of the Church’s most evangelistic heroes.
It is Pastoral and straight talking
You can tell Bennett has a pastoral heart and a deep concern for the glory of God. He wants people to use language in a way that is clear and unambiguous. Why? Because it matters.
“To what are we called? In summary, based on the 300-plus uses of the word ‘call’ as they relate to the church period following the ministries of Jesus and the apostles, you and I are called by God in two ways. First we are called to be Christians – to be disciples of Jesus. Second, we are called to be holy – to grow in Christlikeness. If we accept these two statements, then I believe answers to all the other questions about guidance and vocation will be much more straightforward. But let me say one more time that the concept of ‘feeling called’ to some particular Christian service finds no support within Scripture.” (page 60-61)
“You may think this is merely a haggling over terminology … But I want to suggest that there are two nasty practical and pastoral problems that flow from a consistently unbiblical use of the term ‘call’, especially the commonly heard ‘feeling called’.
The first is that such usage may be used as an excuse for Christian laziness or even fear … This concept of ‘feeling called’, I believe, can often be used as a cop-out from Christian Responsibility …
“The second pastoral area concerns Christian ‘failure’. … I would be willing to claim that almost every person who has been ordained in Australia or who has applied for missionary service has expressed or been asked to profess, a distinct sense of divine and personal call to the role. But to my mind, this places an unfair and unbiblical guilt trip upon the person. If Christian workers should fail in their ministry or have to give up, are they forsaking the call of God? Are they being an ‘un-Jeremiah’? People give up all kinds of ministries for all kinds of reasons: burn out, culture shock, discovered unsuitability not apparent previously, attacks by other believers, sickness, disillusionment, or lack of support or care.” (Page 61 and 62).
I thoroughly commend this book to:
- Christians pondering how they’ll use their gifts to serve Jesus – “A believer cannot ‘go into the ministry’ any more than a newborn baby can go into the human race. You are in it by reason of your human birth, or in this case, new birth.” (page 99) You don’t need some super spiritual experience, some angelic tap on the shoulder to be keen to make disciples or become a gospel worker.
- Pastors & Christian Leaders – to encourage you to modify you own speech and to avoid teaching the wrong nomenclature – it may cause, as Bennett warns, the pastoral problems of (1) providing an excuse for Christian laziness and /or (2) feelings of failure.
- Denominational Leaders who Assess Ordination Candidates – ponder this books truth and stop asking people, “Do you feel called into the ministry?” Ask them Biblical questions like, “1 Timothy 3:1 speaks of the desire to be an overseer; do you have that desire? 1 Timothy 3:7 talks about having a good reputation with outsiders; do you have a good reputation with outsiders? 1 Timothy 3:2-6 speaks of the qualifications of the elder; Do the brethren agree that you are qualified for the task?”
- Leaders of Mission Organisations & Missionaries – I don’t mean to be rude, but in my experience of life you are most prolific users of the “feeling called to the mission field” talk. It is so TERRIBLY unhelpful. I reckon I’ve had 50 conversations in the last 5 years with people who have said stuff like, “My wife and I are feeling called by God to preach Christ in <>”. When I ask them the question, “When you say ‘called by God’ do you mean that God spoke audibly and specifically to you and named that specific country?” Not one of the 50 people have ever answered, “Yes”. Yet their language implied that to be the case. I then ask, “So when you say, “called by God” you mean, that weighing up all your life circumstances, your background, your interests, your relationships, your everything that God has used these providentially to direct you towards proclaiming Christ in Pakistan?” Uniformly they answer, “Yes, yes that’s what happened”. Well say that! And stop making your decision out to be far more super spiritual than it really is.
I will be making this book a part of the core reading for all MTS Apprentices in Australia.
Rooting out a wrong view of guidance matters too much.
Too many people are going to hell while Christians stand back with their hands held out saying, “But I don’t feel called by God to make disciples of all nations … I don’t feel called into the ministry”.
You might be asking, “Is there anything wrong with the book?” Well it meanders across a few topics which at first glance seem tangential, but when you’re talking about guidance & calling you end up covering the territory of a lot of topics.
I’m hoping that this book might bring some freedom to the church.
That people can say stuff like,
“I was in a Café at The Rocks during Long Service Leave downing an ice cold Stella Artois when it dawned on me, “I suck as a Senior Minister”. My missus has been telling me for years that I’ve been a grumpy pain in the neck ever since I took on the job. I realise now, after 5 years, that I’m not wired to be a senior minister, I can see that now. So, I’ve decided to resign and I’m going to look for a job as an Assistant Minister who does a lot of outreach”.
That is the kind of holy speak we need, not the other “holy speak”.
“Do You Feel Called By God?” can be purchased from the Matthias Media online store.