What does it mean to be called? More specifically, what does it mean for the Christian to be called?
Does it mean being called to a radical, life-changing adventure? There are a number of recent books that seem to suggest that's exactly what it means to be called.
In her recent review for the Christian Chronicle, "Misadventures in Radical Christianity," Laura Anderson Kurk points out that my new book, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis's House and Back Again, appears to be one more of a slew of recent books that suggest this idea of calling:
Pemberton’s book seems to turn on the same motif of the radical Christianity bestsellers: A young Christian liquidates his bank account, quits his dream job and sells his things in order to move to a foreign land to follow the path to which he believes God has called him.
Flipping the Radical-Adventure Motif
On paper, Called looks like simply one more of those books, Laura notes. But then she has this to say:
But readers must look more closely at “Called” because this is a story that builds slowly and shines light into the private and needy places of the human heart.
Pemberton asks the question that’s on all our lips — What if what we thought was a calling was just a personal dream?
And this is, I think, just the question that Called asks: Is this God, or is this just me giving a divine stamp of approval on my own personal ambitions?
Is this act of surrender what I genuinely believe God to be calling me to, or is this just me looking for greener grass and a bit of excitement? Or, perhaps, is this my best attempt to live into the type of Christianity I've been told is reserved for real Christians?
What so many of these divine, radical-adventure books suggest—intentionally or not—is that what is required to be a real Christian is to live a truly radical life, involving a deep amount of suffering "for God." This literary trend has the effect of creating a kind of one-upsmanship among Christians, as if to say, "Look how much I'm willing to give up for God."
But if this radical adventure of leaving all the security of a great job and a loving community is simply my own doing, then even the most extreme amount of suffering faced in such a journey is little more than self-seeking suffering. Far from the humble, obedient faith Jesus desires, such suffering is a sort of upside-down humility, as I suggest in a recent interview with author Laura Smith:
I think as our story shows, [following Christ] will cost everything, no doubt. As Christ says it will for any who come after Him. (Which is not the same as me giving up everything of my own accord, by the way. Self-seeking suffering as a kind of reverse-humility is not at all what Christ is talking about).
Jesus tells those who desire to follow Him that they must know in advance that it will cost everything. But being called by the living Christ to give up everything that is getting in the way of following Him is different than me simply deciding to sell all my things and calling that following Christ.
The Cross is Never a Self-Chosen Way
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer's classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, the German theologian, pastor, and Christian martyr reflects on the scene of a wide-eyed, would-be-disciple who comes to Jesus and declares, "I will follow you anywhere!", noting what a letdown Jesus' response must have been:
“And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'" (Luke 9:58).
As Bonhoeffer explains, the problem with this would-be-disciple is that, in his over-eagerness, he has not waited to be called. Or, to put it another way, he's trying to get to the cross on his own.
But the cross is never a self-chosen way.
And that’s exactly what we see Jesus teaching here, in Luke 9: You have no idea what you’re doing. In fact, he could not, because he’s not interested in waiting on the Living Lord. He’s too busy chasing after his own idea of his calling.
This man is speaking to the One who is already on His way to the cross, and yet he has absolutely no idea, because he’s way out in front of Jesus, rather than following after Him.
As Bonhoeffer writes, “No one can choose such a life for himself” (The Cost of Discipleship, 60). Or, to use language of calling, the Christian can never be self-called.
Is this You, or is this me?
Which brings us back to my original question: What does it mean for the Christian to be called?
Is this radical journey of leaving home, stable career, and community really what God wants for me, or is this just my own doing, out of some sort of self-interested, over-eager attempt to follow Christ?
Christ may very well call me to give up my misplaced security for the kind of security found only in Him. And that call may require me to leave behind a job, particular relationships, or a place. Equally, I may also call myself to such a path and refer to it as "Christ's call" or "my calling."
And, of course, any suggestion that such a life is what Christ's call means for all believers everywhere is a complete misunderstanding of the dynamic nature of discipleship.
Not only is it likely that Christ will call me to different needs at different points in my life— rather than coming as a single, static call for my entire life—but Christ's call on your life will inevitably look different than Christ's call on my life, as I suggest at the end of Called:
I hope I am never so naïve as to think the journey of a twenty-something and his wife who left home, community, and their jobs is somehow prescriptive for all Christians everywhere.
Maybe for you being called means following God by staying where you are, but in a way you never have before…[Or] maybe for you, following God will involve leaving everything and going, not knowing exactly where the road is leading, but knowing the road you’re on is the road where he is leading you. Whatever it may look like, the important thing is that you follow…And that when he calls, you go, even if going means staying. Beautiful things happen when God’s people “go” (Called, 242–43).
So, is this the living Lord's call, or is this my own self-interested call on my life?
The truth is, it's not always clear. Which means we need to be incredibly careful, deeply honest, and perhaps even a bit agnostic on the question of calling.
The Importance of the Body
It also means that it makes little sense for any Christian discerning questions of calling to do so in isolation. We need to be attached to the body that is the Church so that others—ideally older, committed believers who know us deeply, who are actively seeking God's will in their own lives, and who are willing to be honest with us—can help discern this question.
"We are opaque mysteries to ourselves," my old Professor and theologian Stanley Hauerwas once wrote. And I think that's right. I also think this is just as true of Christ's call on our lives.
We need each other to reflect and discern Christ's call to one another, helping to guard against the threat of a prideful, upside-down humility that leads me to surrender all and simply call that my way of following Christ's call, without regard for the living Christ's actual call on my life, which may very well be calling me to stay.