He Qi: The Burning Bush
One thing that all sending agencies agree on is that before serving God overseas long-term, there must be a sense of calling. We may make exceptions for short-term trips as they are sometimes seen as exploratory, rather like putting a toe in the bathwater to see if it’s too hot, but before making a long term commitment, there has to be some sort of calling.
But what exactly is a calling, and how do we know when we have it?
A sense of calling is the deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you, or a place for you to be. It is essential if you’re going to be effective in your ministry; it motivates and energises you, and sustains you through the difficult times. Yet it’s also something that’s extremely hard to agree on. It varies from person to person, and depends on how they relate to God, and on the type of church they’re part of. Some people feel they have prophetic words spoken to them, others have a vague sense that something is right, or a deep empathy for a place or a people. Who is right?
Well, they all are, because a calling is as unique and personal to you as your relationship with God. But let’s look as some of the Biblical models of calling and see what we can learn from them.
Abraham (Genesis 11:31-12:3) is given a cryptic call in which he is told to go, but is not told where, although it appears that they originally had the intention of going to Canaan when they set out from Ur. Cross-referencing to Acts 7:2-3 it appears that this is the renewal of a call originally given in Ur, and that Abraham had got stuck in Haran – possibly because his father did not want to move any further. Sometimes we need to hear our call again as circumstances can cause us to lose sight of it. Sometimes a call is on our heart for many years before we can fulfil it.
Moses (Exodus 3) of course received a most spectacular call, involving a fireproof shrub and a lengthy conversation with God, of the type for which he would become famous. Yet the key to it all was his own curiosity – on seeing the burning bush, he went to investigate. If we are aware of what is going on around us, and are open to inspiration, God can get our attention.
Isaiah (Is 6:1-8) made a devotional response to God. He did not have any idea what God was planning, but out of his profound awareness of being forgiven, his worship overflowed in a desire to serve.
Elisha (1 Kings 19:15-21) had a call which was adoptive. God sent Elijah to anoint him and Elisha accepted. He started out being a manservant to Elijah (2 Kings 3:11) but due to his zeal took over his mentor’s ministry and became one of Israel’s greatest prophets.
Saul & Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4). Someone in a leaders’ meeting had a prophetic word telling them to consecrate Saul and Barnabas for ‘the work to which I have called them’. There seems to be no further divine direction, so we must conclude that they were already mulling over the idea of a mission to Cyprus and this was confirmation.
Ezra (Ez 7:6, 9-10) went to teach in a Bible college. It seems that he went out of a sense of personal conviction, yet it is clear that ‘the good hand of his God was upon him’.
Nehemiah (Neh1:2-5) received a call which was both locational and vocational – he had a specific task to do. But his call arose from his compassion for a specific locality. We should not underestimate the significance of how concerned we may feel for a particular people, group or place.
Philip (Acts 8:26-40), an accomplished evangelist, is told by an angel to go to somewhere specific. When he gets there, he is prophetically given further instructions.
Paul and his team (Acts 2:6-10). After experiencing some sort of closed doors to widening his team ministry, the nature of which is not exactly clear, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man asking for help. The whole team responds.
So we can see from the above that a calling comes in many forms. It can be circumstantial, revelatory, prophetic, general, locational, compassionate, vocational, devotional, educational, adoptive. It can be a call to a specific task or place, or something more general. Many times there is some form of direct communication from God, but not always. Of course, the most all-embracing call of all is the one found in Matthew 28 – Go and make disciples of all nations – which was originally given to the eleven but is commonly understood as applying to all believers for all time.
It is certainly one commandment of Jesus that the church has not yet completed.
Other aspects of discerning a calling can be found in our worksheet on this subject, which is part of the Syzygy guide on how to prepare for going.