Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on discerning God’s will.
Guidance concerning God’s will pervades organizational life at BMS World Mission.
Those who inquire about mission service with us speak readily of their conviction that God is calling them. We too will invoke the language of calling as a way of expressing our belief that we have discerned God’s will.
The language of calling is deep-seated in most Christians. It is also understandable.
As Christians, we believe in a God who is present with us, immanent while simultaneously transcendent, one who can be encountered yet remains unseen.
Such encounters with God are necessarily profound and demand the use of language to describe something essentially intangible and elusive, but which we experience as personal.
And there is nothing more personal than to say God has spoken to me.
At the heart of this use of the language of call is what I perceive to be a danger that this is the defining factor in making decisions about someone’s future. After all, if God calls, who are we to deny that call?
So a missionary candidate uses the language of call. Their church will often write words to the effect that “we are sure God is calling them to be a missionary.”
In testing the rightness of whether someone works with BMS, we will also say something to the effect that “we want to work with you to explore whether God is indeed calling you into mission.”
“Calling” is the cipher we all agree to use.
I want to argue that in discerning the rightness of someone serving in a mission role or church ministry, we have to be ready to dispense with the language of call, or at least set it to one side, and be much more down-to-earth in the scrutiny we apply.
Further, I want to argue that this “down-to-earthness” is entirely biblical.
I remember thinking a lot about my Christian life in the early 1980s. At that time there was a particular spirituality both in America and the United Kingdom that seemed to endorse the view that discerning God’s unique plan for your life was of the greatest importance.
Interestingly, this spirituality had different starting points. In America, it was rooted in a growing biblical literalism or fundamentalism. In the U.K., it was rooted in the emergent charismatic movement.
This spirituality lent credence to the view that God’s plan for your life was discernible in some detail. Discovering God’s will was vital. To discern God’s will incorrectly could take you outside of God’s will.
And having decided that God’s will has been discerned, it is just a short step to use language such as, “I believe God is calling me to become a teacher” or “to go to university” and so on.
I spent some of my hard-earned cash on exactly the book I was looking for. “Decision Making and the Will of God” by Garry Friesen addressed the very thing I was wrestling with: namely, how we are to know God’s will for our lives.
Friesen concluded that God does not have a specific plan for our lives, if by that we mean a meticulously detailed, step-by-step blueprint. Then and now, I find this conclusion pastorally wise, intellectually sensible and biblically consistent.
It is pastorally wise because to believe in the “blueprint” model of guidance raises the specter of all kinds of damaging “what ifs” regarding job choice, spouse choice and so on.
I am not saying these decisions are unimportant – quite the contrary. I am simply saying that in life no major decision is other than a step of faith.
We have wrestled with this from time to time within BMS. How do you handle someone who adamantly declares that they – and they alone – have discerned God’s will in a particular matter, often in contradiction to the views of others?
I found Friesen’s conclusion to be intellectually sensible. While we do struggle with the tension between the providence of God and the freedom of humankind, these two are not inconsistent as long as we have an overarching long-term view of providence, rather than a short-term “it actually matters to God whether I buy a red car” approach.
In matters of aesthetics, I suspect God is color blind. What matters to God is my wise stewardship of all I have, and my care for those who don’t.
I found his conclusion biblically consistent. It is clear that God does sometimes call people into particular roles, both in biblical times and today.
The Bible also commends a general understanding of discipleship and decision making that is devoid of moments of specific revelation and is more dependent on the development of character.
I have found myself often saying to people that God is less concerned with what you are planning on doing than he is about the person you are becoming.
It matters not to God whether you paint houses or masterpieces, build a business or build a house.
What matters is whether you are growing into the fullness of Christ.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column is adapted from his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society. The column also appeared in Ministry Today.