Providence – calling and guidance
1. The common way of talking about calling and guidance
One way in which providence shows itself is in how we believe God guides people today – particularly into ministry. And very popular in some segments of Christianity is a way of talking about guidance in which God calls people into ministry through their feelings. And so you might hear these kinds of things:
- “I feel that God is calling me to be a missionary in Spain.”
- “Tell us about your calling.”
- “It was in 1995 that God called me into the ministry.”
- “To be truly effective in ministry, it is vital to have a clear calling.”
And when pressed further, it turns out that what people generally mean is not something objective, unmistakable or external to them – instead it’s a subjective, internal feeling.
But the thinking is that here is one way in which God is directly involved in our world – he is involved in setting aside particular individuals for the work of the gospel.
2. Common – but not a biblical way of talking about calling and guidance
Matthias Media have recently put out a book by Michael Bennett on this specific topic of calling and guidance, titled Do you feel called by God? Rethinking the call to ministry (here). It basically takes a biblical studies approach to the topic of calling and guidance – and it does much to reveal how the common way of talking about guidance is not actually biblical.
Bennett’s argument goes along these lines: when prophets were called, it was always distinctive and external to themselves (ie. not merely a feeling). And when the Bible talks about calling in the life of the Christian, it always means (a) the call of the gospel to repentance and faith, and (b) the call to godly living. And when the Bible talks about qualifications for elders, it never makes use of the language of calling.
Bennett therefore argues that when we use the language of calling to refer to feelings that we have, this may sound very spiritual – and everyone else around us may be using this kind of language – but Bennett has done a great job in showing very clearly that there is no biblical support to claim this kind of language.
Bennett’s book deserves to be carefully read and its implications for the way we talk about ministry pondered.
3. Inductive and deductive thinking
However I’m aware that Bennett’s book won’t help everyone. And that’s because this is an essentially inductive approach. It basically says: nowhere in Scripture is ‘calling’ used like this, and so we should not use ‘calling’ in this way.
When presented with how ‘calling’ is actually used in the New Testament, someone who still wants to cling to the language of calling might say, “Maybe calling is used differently in the New Testament – but I know that I have been called, and it’s important to me.” This is the weakness of the inductive approach: it can show that calling is not used in these cases – but it can’t show that it is illegitimate to use it in every case.
Here is an example of inductive thinking: “is not snowing in Sydney because there is no snow in Parramatta, there is no snow in Chatswood, and there is now snow in Mascot” (different suburbs of Sydney).
However a stubborn person might still say, “But what about Hurstville? what you say about Parramatta, Chatswood and Mascot might be true – but there is still the small possibility of it snowing in Hurstville. And so it might still be snowing.” The inductive approach is a bottom-up approach to thinking, and this is the general weakness of the inductive method.
The deductive method takes a different approach: it says that “snow only falls in certain conditions – yet none of these conditions have been present across the Sydney region. Therefore it cannot have snowed.” The deductive approach is a top-down approach to thinking.
I once knew someone who would defend things by saying, “yes I know it’s not biblical – but that doesn’t mean it’s unbiblical.” And unfortunately, that is the problem of the inductive approach. You may be able to say that calling isn’t used in these places – but you can’t say that calling isn’t to be used everywhere. There is always the possibility – however slender – that it could be acceptable. Which therefore gives people an ‘out’ to keep on using the language of calling.
4. Deductive thinking
This is where the doctrine of providence becomes useful. It provides the deductive framework to think about all situations, not just the ones specifically mentioned in the Bible.
In Peter’s Acts 2 speech at Pentecost, Peter declares the following:
22 “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
Acts 2:22-23 (NIV)
What this shows us is two things: (a) God is sovereign over all events – even the handing over of Jesus to the Jewish religious authorities, yet (b) that did not constitute divine moral permission to put Jesus to death. God is sovereign in the situation – yet they still sinned in their actions. What was the morally right thing to do in this case? It was to not bear false witness, and instead preserve the life of an innocent man!
Clearly God had other purposes in mind at the cross (also see Genesis 50). But for the purposes of this discussion, focus again on those two facts: (a) God sovereignly created the opportunity for the Jewish leaders, yet (b) the Jewish leaders should not have acted on their opportunity. This is helpful as we consider the case of guidance because it shows that we can never read off the circumstances of history to say what is the good we ought to do.
Here is how Paul Helm sums up the situation:
The fact that the providence of God presents Christians with opportunities does not mean that they ought to seize them, that they represent God’s will (in the sense of his command) for them. [...] We may have the opportunity to steal, to murder or to commit adultery, but this does not mean that we may, much less that we ought, to do any of these things.
Paul Helm, 136.
In his providence, God is in control of all things in this world. This means that the current circumstances of my life, the feelings I have, the opportunities that suddenly open to me – these are all God’s doing in my life. Yet we cannot take these as guidance from God towards or away from a certain course of action.
It may be a fact that a door is opened to a new business opportunity. It may be a fact that a door has shut to a gospel opportunity. It may be a fact that I have a strong feeling that it is right to pursue a relationship. And more to the point, it may be a fact that I have a certain feeling inside of myself that I should pursue full time ministry. However I cannot say that this constitutes a divine call.
The right course of action may instead be to resist the temptation to start a new business opportunity – and grow in contentment. It might be to push through that shut door, bearing suffering and hardship with perseverance. It might mean resisting the temptation to go out with that non Christian girl. Or perhaps to channel one’s passion for gospel ministry into greater giving.
You can see that it would be foolish to simply act on circumstances that present themselves to us – an open door doesn’t mean that we should walk through it. And feelings – even strong ones – do not mean we should act on them.
If we aren’t to read off God’s purposes from current events in history, how else are we to know what to do? Paul Helm writes:
A person ought to do what God commands, as is repeatedly taught by Jesus (eg. Mat 20:34-40) and by the apostles (eg. Gal 5:14). Nowhere in Scripture are we taught to look for guidance elsewhere.
Paul Helm, 134.
The answer is simple – perhaps too simple for some, who feel that we should have a more spiritual and experiential answer. But our circumstances – and that includes our feelings – are a dangerous source for guidance. God only promises to guide his people through his word. And our task today is to live out the implications of Scripture with wisdom.
The point of this is not to say that Michael Bennet’s book has taken the wrong approach. It is a great book and helps those who already have misgivings about ‘calling’ theology put their finger on what’s wrong about this language. However it’s unlikely to change the language of those who are used to ‘calling’ theology. And that’s because the inductive approach it takes still leaves the loophole of “yes, but it might still be snowing in Hurstville.”
However the case against ‘calling’ theology becomes much stronger when we also take a deductive approach.
All things fall under God’s providence. This includes doors that open, doors that shut – and strong feelings that we have. Yet it is illigitimate for us to take open doors, shut doors, and strong feelings as God’s direction for our lives. For that, there is only one place that we should go – the word of God.