Calling: Hearing God’s Voice

This year marks my 20th anniversary of answering God’s call to ministry, so as an exercise of ‘recalling’ that experience, I have been studying and meditating on the many ways God’s people have heard God’s voice over the years. Both in scripture as well as in modern times, people have answered The Lord’s calling to serve Him in this world as ambassadors for a heavenly kingdom. While God speaks to everyone differently, according to their unique design, I have attempted to categorize the different ways people have heard from God so that a new generation of Christ followers can hone their listening skills to hear His voice.
Just to demonstrate a stark contrast in the way God has called his people in scripture, consider the different callings of Moses, David, Esther and Paul:
The call of Moses– Exodus 3:2-10
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians… Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
Later, in Exodus 33:11, scripture says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
The call of David– I Samuel 16:1-13
The Lord said to Samuel… “Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons… And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you… Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart… And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.

The call of Esther– Esther 4:13-14
Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
The call of Paul– Acts 13:1-3
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
These four call experiences from scripture highlight some of the many ways in which the Lord interacts with His people. Moses heard from God directly, with no intermediary. David was anointed through a prophet of the Lord. Esther was placed by God into a circumstance where only she could be His vessel to accomplish His purposes.
In this one instance, Paul was called out and sent by a body of leaders from the church. However, he also had other interactions with God through visions and dreams (Acts 18:9), through the person of Ananias (Acts 9), and by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12).
Theologians like to put the call of God into two neat and tidy categories: general revelation and special revelation (see Erickson, Christian Theology P.175-198, 1993).  For the purposes of this exercise, I have decided to broaden these terms to understand calling in a more practical way and to help a new generation of church leaders and missionaries hear the voice of God as He calls them to serve.
Types of call experiences:
1.    Invitational– Jesus was walking by men at work on the sea and invited them to “Follow Me”. Those men became His “disciples”, meaning followers, learners, students, protégés or mentees.  Today, there are pastors, retired missionaries, and church leaders who can look around their congregations and, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, invite people to step up and serve alongside them in some way. They could say, “I sense God moving in your life and I would like to invite you to join me in serving the Lord.” This begins a mentoring relationship that will guide and shape the future direction of the follower. Steve Harling, President of ReachBeyond (formerly HCJB) preached a sermon one time on mentoring and described the “Three Gifts of a Mentor”:
a.    Affirmation – “You are really good at this. You have a gift”
b.    Inspiration – “I saw you do this and I want you to continue and grow in it”
c.    Elevation – “Here is your opportunity and I’m getting out of your way”
2.    Scriptural– Some of the ascetics, like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, will emphasize that when someone engages in spiritual disciplines like prayer, reading scripture, meditation and solitude, people open their hearts up to hearing a message from God. “Specifically, in our attempts to understand how God speaks to us and guides us we must, above all, hold on to the fact that learning how to hear God is to be sought only as a part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and his other subjects within the kingdom of the heavens.” (Willard: Hearing God, p. 39) “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline, p. 17) While reading through scripture, some believers will sense God’s prompting, either by reading something like the Great Commission in Matthew 28 or by praying from Luke 10:2 “Pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers.” They will accept this as God speaking directly to them and thereby accept His call to serve.
3.    Supernatural– I realize that just by including this category, I have excluded myself from many evangelical social events, and have just been labeled a Pentecostal / Charismatic / “Strange Fire” neophyte. Personally, I have not experienced the miraculous, but I believe that others have. Even though I have not seen a miracle, I still believe that God can (and does) work in supernatural ways. This portion of my blog may not be acceptable for the “Friendly Fire” conference (oops, I mean “Strange Fire”), but please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there are abuses that take place in every arena of Christianity (including cessationism as well as continuationism), but I implore you to leave your mind open to the possibility that God could choose to use dreams, visions, miraculous signs and even an occasional burning bush to call His people into His harvest.
4.    Experiential– Early in my walk with Christ, I was exposed to the writings of Henry Blackaby and his work “Experiencing God”. After fifteen weeks of in-depth study, I walked away with the summation that we should be ‘reading the signs’ that God is giving to us. When we do this, we will see where God is working and be compelled to join Him. This has been my favorite part of the faith journey as a pastor and as a mobilizer for missionaries. In those times of confusion, where I begin to wonder what the Lord is doing, this simple yet profound teaching has always taken me to a new depth of understanding God. The gift of being able to look around with my five ‘temporal’ senses, and discover an eternal perspective, requires intentionality, determination, and will-power, but the reward is a greater connection with our creator.
5.    Affirmational– There are times when people have come to me and said, “Dave, I want to serve the Lord, but I don’t know what He wants me to do or where He wants me to go.” At those moments, unless I have a specific prompting from the Lord, I take a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous and say “Just do the next right thing.” If the Lord affirms that, then keep doing it. If not, stop it, then “Just do the next right thing, again.” (Wash, Rinse, Repeat) At some point, the Lord will make His will clear if you put your trust in Him. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5)
6.    Personal– What is your story? There are numerous occupational style assessment tools available that take into consideration your spiritual gifts, background and experiences, recurring themes in your life, your passions, desires and abilities. It may be as simple as your love for accounting which is pre-wired in your heart for the purpose of managing the books for a missionary sending agency. Recently, a Psychology student mentioned to me that he was sensing God calling him to be a missionary, but he was almost finished with his graduate degree. He asked, “Why would God call me to be a missionary, when I am training to be a therapist?” I shared with him that missionaries have strained relationships, unhealthy marriages and have traumatic experiences just like everyone else. There is a specialty in the mission world called “Member Care” and we need people with a psychological background to provide care for front-line workers. So, what is your story?
7.    Circumstantial– The book of Esther is unique in many ways, but one difference from all the other books of the Bible, is that God is never mentioned. Of course, He is assumed, but there is not the typical appearance nor interaction of a Creator with His creation. Queen Esther is the heroine, not because of her obedience to the Lord, but because she was in a certain place, at a certain time, when she was the only person who could affect an outcome. Her uncle Mordecai proclaims his faith by saying “…if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place”. By this, he is proclaiming that God’s purposes will be accomplished, regardless of who makes it happen, thereby describing both free-will at the same time understanding the determinism of God’s will.
These categories are not meant to be exclusive or exhaustive, but they should serve as a starting place for your quest to hear God’s voice as He is calling you into His harvest. The important thing to consider is if you’ll be obedient to Him and surrender your will to His will. Generally speaking, God’s calling is not always comfortable. Consider the four examples from scripture given above:
Moses resisted God at first and Exodus 4:14 states that “Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses…” because he kept coming up with excuses to not do what the Lord was calling him to do.
David was the least likely to succeed in his family. He was the small, ruddy, shepherd boy and was not even considered an option by his family when the brothers were lining up to be seen by the prophet of God. The Lord even prepared Samuel ahead of time by saying, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
If Esther had not accepted this responsibility, then the story would have been the same, but the name of this book would be ‘Deborah, or ‘Elizabeth’, or ‘Hannah” or someone else other than Esther. Praise God for Esther, but I wonder if there was someone else who did not step up to the challenge “for such a time as this”.
It took Paul seventeen years of preparation to go from being a persecutor of the church to serving as a carrier of Christ’s message to the gentiles. We do not have the ability to fully comprehend the significance of how a “Pharisee of Pharisees” would feel about being called by God to serve the “gentile dogs”, but it may be similar to a neo-nazi skinhead being called to serve the multi-ethnic communities of Manhattan’s lower east-side or south-central Los Angeles.
Even though someone may experience a call to full-time ministry or missionary service, there still needs to be some checks and balances in affirming the call. God created us to be social beings and to be held accountable by each other. Because of this, there are some authority issues that should be considered based on one’s ecclesiology. For the sake of simplicity, here are four basic sources of authority to consider in affirming the call of an individual and the assumption of responsibility by mission/ministry leaders:
1.    Scripture– Evangelical / Protestant traditions will raise scripture to the position of highest authority in the matter of any issue regarding faith or practice. The call of God must fit within the parameters of “what the Bible says”. This would include Baptists and other Evangelicals.
2.    Counsel / Elders – in the Presbyterian form of church governance, they place authority in the office of a representative body (or Elders). These delegate officials make decisions and approve any appointment based on their corporate understanding of God’s divine will (the group must agree). This would include the Presbyterian church and the Reformed church.
3.    A person – In the episcopal form of church governance, the Bishop, Priest or Pope is the ultimate authority and His decisions can override previous decisions as well as scripture itself.  The Catholic church and the Episcopal church are examples.
4.    The Holy Spirit – Charismatics and Pentecostals rely heavily on spiritual inspiration, intuition, emotional awareness and supernatural stimulation. In this category, there are many types of churches, but I would also include the Quakers who emphasize the “inner light” as well as the Plymouth Brethren who avoid any organization, while fully trusting in the Holy Spirit as a ruling force.
As you can see, the question of authority can vary greatly from one church, denomination or organization. It would be a very important and valuable conversation to have with your church leaders, for anyone who is sensing God’s call to full time ministry or missionary service.
Another important consideration is equipping. It has been said that “God does not call the equipped, but he equips the called.” Sometimes, the Lord uses people in ways that are outside of their comfort zones, so that He can demonstrate His power. Moses had a speech impediment, so how could he speak with authority to crowds and to kings? David was a shepherd boy from a working class family, so how could he be a king? Esther was breaking all the rules by approaching the king without being summoned first. Paul had a thorn in the flesh, yet he understood that the Lord was ultimately in charge of the outcome when he said:
“But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Most serious mission leaders find it difficult to separate ‘the call to missionary service’ from ‘the call to suffer for the cause of Christ’. Suffering is a part of the job description for missionaries on the field. Consider the one aspect of this calling is to leave your friends, family, culture, language and the day-to-day sense of normalcy, and move to a place where you do not know the people, the cultural nuances, the ways of thinking, and the local expectations. This scenario is wrought with potential suffering before the adventure even begins. This is particularly relevant for those who choose to make their new home in a land that is hostile to their message.
Anyone who considers a call to the ministry or missionary service should at least know what Tertullian said in “Apology”
Go zealously on, good presidents! You will stand higher with the people if you sacrifice us, kill us, torture us, condemn us and grind us to dust, as they demand. Your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. That is why God allows us to suffer… Your cruelty, however great, is no benefit to you, however it serves as an attraction to our sect. The more we are mown down by you, the more we grow. The blood of Christians is seed of a new life.
So, have you heard God’s voice? Do you sense that He is calling you to serve Him in His harvest? Are you willing to obey? Is there something you feel led to do, but you don’t feel like you are capable? Trust Him today and He will guide you tomorrow.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5
Question for discussion and thought:
What is the difference between Call and Clarity?
Is Clarity “to this place” and “for this purpose”?

Can we know Clarity, or should we just accept Call?

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