3 Principles for Understanding Our Purpose and Calling

“God didn’t just stumble across your life and decide to use you.”

This is a quote from my pastor’s sermon from this morning, as he talked about the calling that God has placed on all of our lives, and the fact that none of us has been forgotten when it comes to God unfolding His sovereign plan.

He talked about Jeremiah’s call into the ministry of being a prophet. God told Jeremiah that He had known him, sanctified him, and appointed him and that he would use him to fulfill a certain task – to go and preach a specific message to the people of Israel for a specific period of time.

Jeremiah didn’t FEEL called. He couldn’t see how he was in any way qualified for the task that God was laying before him. But the Lord made it clear that He had been preparing Jeremiah all along – from his lineage, to his birth, to his training as a young Hebrew child. All of these things had been ordained by God in order that He might one day use them to bring about His ultimate calling for Jeremiah.

The same was true for the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:15 he describes God as being “he who had set me apart before I was born and who called me by his grace.” Paul understood that God had been preparing him and equipping him all throughout his lifetime, and that God had designated a specific time to reveal Himself to Paul and then to call him into the ministry. This calling and appointment was from God, not something that Paul had manufactured on his own.

With all of this in mind, here are some important truths that we need to understand about our God-given purpose and calling:

God has specially designed each of us for a purpose and a calling.
Those words that God spoke to the young prophet Jeremiah about being known and sanctified and appointed can just as easily be appointed to us. Our callings are different, but the New Testament is clear that all of us – if we are saved and a part of God’s family – have been given a ministry. Paul calls it a “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians. In Ephesians he says that we have been given spiritual gifts so that we might use them for the work of the ministry. What all of this tells us is that every single believer is just as known, sanctified, and appointed today as Jeremiah was thousands of years ago. We all receive a calling from God – to be disciples and make disciples, to love others and point them towards Jesus, and to remain faithful followers all the days of our lives. There are other, more specific callings too. But God reveals those to us at different times and for different seasons.

Our lives, experiences and backgrounds are essential to our callings.
Throughout our lives He has been preparing and equipping us and getting us ready to carry out the tasks to which He has apppointed us. As my pastor said, God didn’t just stumble across our lives and decide He wanted to use us for something. He already knew, before we were born, what His plans were for us, what He wanted us to accomplish for Him, how He had designed us to serve Him. Another pastor once said that God has pre-designed each of us with certain spiritual gifts that He intended to use to bring about His glory in the reaching of the nations. The backgrounds, experiences, and prior training of our lives (even if we didn’t realize we were being trained) are all essential parts of the unfolding of our callings. Even right now, I have to believe that God is going to put me in a role one day that will make sense of my years spent as a high school Spanish teacher. This experience is somehow vital to my preparation. I need to walk by faith every time I carry out my work, knowing that it is a part of God’s bigger plan for me.

Our purposes are revealed in His timing, not ours.
Someone once told me that, when you stop trying to control things and just surrender it all to God, that’s when He begins to work. I think this principle should apply to our callings too. I can look back over my life and identify all the times when I tried to manipulate or force my calling or role, thinking that I could get God to let me do things my way and just bless all of my efforts and work. I spent years trying to force myself into full-time ministry and escape the “secular” world, only to realize that God had me in that world for a purpose and that it was actually my calling, the place where He wanted me to serve and bless and make a difference. I then took on a mininstry role that, after four years, I realized was not really what God had designed me for, which is why it felt like an utter failure and was so easy to step away from. When we let go of our need to control our destinies and our purposes in life, then we get to experience the work that only God can do. He WANTS to use us. He has created us and endowed us with certain gifts that He desires to use for His glory and for the sake of the gospel. We are all called to be ministers. He isn’t going to look at any of us and say, “I want to use everyone except you. You just sit there and be quiet.” So, if we believe that God wants us to serve Him and has a calling for us, we need to wait patiently for Him to open up the opportunity and point us in the right direction. And we also need to pay attention to how He might want to use us right where we are at the moment.

Discovering our purpose from God is not hard. God is a mystery, yes, but the call to follow Him isn’t supposed to be complicated. Remember, when Jesus found Peter and Andrew and invited them to become His disciples, He simply said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He didn’t tell them how. He didn’t tell them what eactly that meant. He didn’t give them any indication what their decision to follow Him would involve. He wanted faithful obedience. And, as it turned out, He wanted to use them for Kingdom work for which the Father had already been equipping them.

Let’s not miss out on the purpose and calling that Jesus has for us. Let’s just faithfully follow Him and walk in humble obedience. When we do this, we can experience an abundant assurance that God has designed us for the very things He has put in front of us. No more guessing or stressing or worrying that we missed something. Just obedience in every moment until God moves us into something different.

Viewing Enjoyment as Worship

I have come to greatly enjoy the art of fly fishing. I call it an art, because I’ve learned that it involves way more than just tossing a hook into the water and waiting for a fish to grab it. Fly fishing involves a technique that needs to be finely tuned and practiced. It may not be that the cast makes much of a difference when it comes to actually catching a fish, but it sure looks a lot better when you’ve figured out the form.

One of the reasons for my newfound love of fly fishing is the setting in which it takes place. The caricatures we tend to imagine of fly fishermen standing waist deep in a river throwing a line back and forth isn’t actually too far from the truth. There is something deeply peaceful and calming about wading into the cool water, quietly casting the line and waiting for something to happen. Even if the fish just aren’t biting and the hook never feels a tug, at the very least a person was able to stand in water up past their knees in peace and quiet for a few moments or more. This is hard not to enjoy for most people.

For me, fly fishing is therapeutic. When I feel the stress of my life beginning to weigh me down, when my shoulders feel the pressure of all of my responsibilities, when I’ve been too much in my emotions or my thoughts have been clouded and confused, these are the times when I need to be in the water. Some might call it “communing with nature.” Others might see it as an escape. I consider it a recentering of my life and a maintaining of my sanity. Not only this but I see it as a gift from God – this opportunity to find calm and tranquility and practice a skill – and it’s a gift that I want to enjoy for as long as I can.

Art. Therapy. Skill. Peace of mind. Recentering. It’s amazing how many benefits one simple activity can bring about in a person’s life; how simply devoting two or three hours to something you love, even once a week or once a month, can bring so much good to your mind, body, and soul.

These lives of ours are gifts themselves. And they are gifts that we need to be cherishing and caring for and keeping a close eye on if we want them to be enjoyable for all the days that we have been given here on this earth.

I’m reminded of some words from the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer has this to offer about this life we’ve been given:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.”

Ecclesiastes 5:18 ESV

Finding enjoyment in the toil. That seems rather oxymoronic. But I wonder if this is what the author is saying to us:

You are going to have toil in life. Not necessarily trouble or grueling pain or hardship or suffering but, very simply, work. You are going to be busy. You are going to have experiences that make life less than easy sometimes. You are going to have to carry out tasks and perform functions and fulfill responsibilities. This is everyone’s “lot in life” and this itself is a gift from God.

But, in the middle of all of that “toil”, you can find enjoyment. You can eat and drink and enjoy what you partake of. You can enjoy the fruits of your labor and the blessings that come from the work that God has given you to do.

But, when that toil becomes overwhelming, you can still look to God for the enjoyment that He wants to deliver to you, because God wants us to experience His joy and goodness and to give glory and honor to Him for what He allows us to have.

So, for me, fly fishing is more than just therapy and art and skill. It is worship. It’s the manner in which God has allowed me to experience the kind of enjoyment in life that comes from Him. And, even through standing waist deep in water and casting a line to wait for a bite, I can glorify Him.

Our worship of God is not just in song or Bible reading or prayer. Those things are necessary and good and right. But our worship of God is also in the way in which we receive the blessings He bestows upon us – eating and drinking and enjoying the fruit of our labor and experiencing the enjoyment of life in a million different ways.

So, worshiper of God, enjoy your life. Find a river. Pick up a book. Take a nap. Find a trail to hike. Sing a song. Write a poem. Build something. Create something. Do the thing that God has put in your heart to enjoy, the thing that brings you peace and joy and satisfaction, the thing that you can use to bring more worship to Him.

The Church, Disciples, Christianity: Sunday Scripture Thoughts

Today is Sunday – the day that millions of Christians will wake up, get themselves dressed and ready and “go to church.” They will worship, pray, hear some teaching, and (hopefully) find fellowship among other believers who encourage them for the week ahead.

It’s a Sunday tradition that I myself grew up with and practiced for many, many years (although it’s been kind of different for my family for the last year).

But as I’ve considered this habit of many Christians, I’ve often wondered if many people have a real understanding of why we do this, or what God actually envisions for “church” in the first place. In that process of wondering I frequently turn to Scripture, in order to get a better idea from God Himself about what “church” is supposed to be about or how we are supposed to value and view it. In that search through Scripture I come across verses like this one, from the book of Acts –

“For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”

Acts 11:26 (ESV)

Reading this verse, three words jumped out at me and made me really consider how I’m viewing the things that God has called us to do and be. Let me start at the end of the verse and work backwards.

CHRISTIAN and DISCIPLE
From this verse, it’s clear that “Christians” were originally seen as “disciples” of Jesus. From the Greek (mathetes), we understand the term “disciple” to mean that someone is a learner or a pupil, someone who follows one’s teaching. This passage in Acts tells us that, here in Antioch as Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught them the Scriptures and helped them to grow in their faith, these disciples – these people who had committed themselves to following the teachings of Jesus – first began to be called “Christians.”

The word “Christian” comes from a Greek word that simply means “follower of Christ.” In essence, they were called Christians because they were seen as “little Christs” in their beliefs and their behavior. And this all stemmed from the fact that they had already applied themselves as disciples – learners, pupils – of Jesus, determined to follow His teachings and live like Him daily.

Here’s what I think after reading this part of the verse:

We need to restore the “disciple” identity and characteristic to what it means to be “Christian.” It’s time to change the label.

It’s way too easy to be a “Christian” today. And, in our culture, what does it tend to mean? Someone who “goes to church.” Someone who is religious. Someone who simply believes in Jesus. But, according to the Bible and the example of the church in Antioch, Christians were “Christ-followers” and disciples, not just “members of a church.” This is an important difference, and one that I think every “Christian” needs to consider for their own faith practice.

CHURCH
When you look at not only this verse, but throughout the rest of the book of Acts and into the New Testament epistles, here is what you see about the church: the “church” is the gathering together of the disciples. It’s not a building, not an event (like a scheduled “service”), and it’s not an “institution” or a “denomination.” It can INVOLVE those things, but it is NOT those things. When the disciples of Jesus gather together, form a community, have an assembly, this is the church. The church the way God envisioned and designed it is made up of all the people who follow Jesus – both all over the world and in local contexts.

It’s clear from Scripture that the church gathers together (in homes, in buildings, or even outside or in public); the church learns the Scriptures together (from those who have been called and designated as teachers and ministers of the Word); the church prays and worships together; and the church – all the disciples, young and old – gathers to encourage each other to follow the teachings of Jesus more faithfully (to live holy lives, to walk in God’s wisdom, to grow spiritually and display the fruits of the Spirit, to love like Christ, to give generously, to overcome temptation, and to be more like Jesus every day).

This is what I want my “church” experience to be. I don’t want to just be a church member. I don’t want to just attend a service. I want to be a part of the community of disciples who commit themselves to following the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I want to value the church and to be a part of it both for my own edification and that of others. I want to be a follower of Christ, not just a “Christian.” And maybe this can serve as an encouragement for all of us to reexamine our own “Christianity” and our own understanding of what it means to be a part of God’s church.

Transforming your thinking to discover an abundant life

Allow me to share a bit of insight that hit me like a ton of bricks as I sat with the Scriptures one morning.

This powerful truth was a hard reminder that what goes on inside of me has a direct effect on what comes out of me, and those things ultimately influence my life.

When we begin to grasp this truth, we begin to experience the kind of healthy and abundant living that Jesus actually wants for us. Hearing it, though, is one thing. The question is, what will we do with it?

So, what was this message that gripped my heart? Here it is:

What I allow into my mind and heart on a regular basis has a significant impact on my thoughts, my attitudes, and my actions. What my mind feeds on – the images, the messages, the perspectives, the reactions that arise at different times during my days – has the potential to either pull me down or to edify me.

I constantly need to remind myself that what I allow to have a place in my head will ultimately trickle out and affect me. Not only is this fact true, but another reality is that – on the inside – I am already prone to weakness and sin and carnality. Because of this, I need to be careful about what I put IN, knowing that what goes in mixes with the wickedness that is already there and produces even greater corruption.

I need biblical truth to saturate my mind. I need to take in God’s Word and allow those messages to fill my head, not worldly wisdom or human logic. No matter how intelligent I think I am or how much wisdom I think I’ve picked up along the journey of my life, the fact is that the Scriptures are the words that God wants me to dwell on. I need God’s truth to guide and influence me – whether it’s about ambition, my work, what I think I’m owed, or what I think I deserve. These things need to exist in submission to what God says, and when His truth takes up residence in my mind, my heart and my will are going to be conformed in these areas.

I need God’s perspective on my situations and circumstances. I don’t need to look at things from a human-centered perspective that’s rooted in the flesh. I need to remember that I’m owed nothing, that my life is all about grace, and that as long as I’m following and obeying Jesus, I am in His will.

I need to know how to shut out the messages, intelligence, wisdom, images, and the lies of my sinful heart and the world around me, and I need to let my mind be filled with things that will lead me to greater peace, more joy, contentment, faith, and assurance of the promises of God.

What am I listening to? What am I tuning into? What am I allowing to take up residence inside of me? What thoughts and outlooks and beliefs are swirling around in my head that are affecting my emotions and influencing my actions?

Too often I allow myself to carry on thoughts or beliefs or outlooks or attitudes that really don’t reflect the character of God or His truth – distortions of the mind that come from distortions of the heart. Things like:

“I deserve better. People need to recognize that, or I need to make it known somehow.”

This life does not make me happy, and that’s what I really need – to be happy. I need to do whatever it takes to achieve that”

“I work hard. I deserve success. If things don’t work out in my favor, then it’s just unfair.”

When I fail to reject these patterns of thinking and I allow them to take up space in my mind, they then ultimately affect the way I feel, the way I experience my circumstances, and the choices that I make.

The Scripture says that we are to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2), and that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person (Matthew 15:18).” I would argue that “the heart” in this verse can also refer to “the mind” – to our innermost being. What is swirling around in there is what tends to come out of us when we are shaken. I want truth and holiness and the grace of God to be what spills out of me. And the only way for this to happen is for me to constantly avoid the lies and dwell on the truth.

This is my challenge today, and with God’s help I can walk this path towards transformation and renewal.

God help me to know what to avoid, what to stay away from, when to be ambitious, when to sit still, how to see things from a Christ-centered perspective, and how to follow my Savior more faithfully through this life.

Finding Freedom in the Gospel

The Gospel is not just a section of the Bible.

It isn’t just a story you read about in church.

The Gospel is a message. It’s a truth. It’s a living reality.

It is the message that Jesus died in order to set us free from sin and hell and even from ourselves.

The Gospel is a story of rescue. Because of faith in Jesus and a relationship with Him, you and I can be rescued from all the broken parts of our humanity.

And we all know that there are lots of broken parts in our humanity.

Believing and receiving this gospel – this good news – is something transformative and life-changing.

When we know that we are accepted by God because of Jesus, that the brokenness in us is forgiven and is being healed, that we have been rescued by His love and don’t have to worry about fixing ourselves, THIS changes everything.

That Gospel sets us free from the need to change ourselves, because we learn that Jesus wants to come inside of us and change us from within.

It sets us free from the need to be perfect, because we quickly discover that we never can be, but that God is working on us to make us more like Him. And only HE can do that work.

The Gospel sets us free from the need to make our lives what we think they need to be, because we learn how liberating it is to surrender our lives to God and let Jesus live through us.

The Gospel sets us free from this compulsion to perform in order to please God or to please others, because through the Gospel we find out that Jesus already did what needed to be done in order for God to be pleased with us.

God looks at us through the lens of His Son and He. Is. Pleased. With. Us.

Believing the Gospel sets us free from the unnecessary work of being better. Self-help books and exhausting efforts at improving our humanity become unfruitful and unimportant, because we learn through the gospel that we can never make our own selves good enough. And our version of good enough will always fall short of God’s version of perfection.

So, in the gospel, we find rest, and we find the permission to simply BE and to be loved and accepted for who we are.

The Gospel reminds us that Jesus loves us just the way we are but He wants to grow us and change us. And because of our relationship with Him, that becomes possible.

The Gospels sets us free. Not just a little, but wholly and entirely.

Who among us doesn’t want that liberation and freedom?