Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, July 2017, 244 pp.
The following article is a modified excerpt from Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation throughout Life’s Seasons, which was released on June 5, 2017. This book is one of several that has emerged from the Collegeville Institute Seminars. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
“I wish God’s voice would be as clear to me as it was in the Bible,” people often say, as they approach the significant decisions of adulthood. The classic model for vocation seems to be that of a voice that comes clearly and surprisingly to a person caught in the midst of some other activity: to Abraham standing in his father’s tent; to Hagar in the wilderness; to Moses while shepherding his Father-in-law’s flock; to Miriam as she raises her tambourine; to Elijah at the entrance to his cave; to the young Jeremiah at the time of Josiah’s reforms; to Mary of Nazareth in her home. Traditional paintings of the angel’s annunciation to Mary show her surprised as she looks up from her book, or her knitting, or her prayers.
In none of these stories is there any doubt that God, or an angel of God, has appeared and made a direct request to the person. Yet rarely is vocation so clear for most people.
An example of the dominance of this kind of story is in the disjuncture between the way in which Luke describes Paul’s life-changing revelation in the book of Acts and Paul’s story as he tells it in his own words in Galatians. Luke tells of Paul’s encounter in this dramatic and memorable way:
Now as Paul was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. (Acts 9:3–7)
Luke’s narrative has become the way in which most people think of Paul’s radical change of life. In fact, the phrase “a Damascus road experience” has come to mean a dramatic, life-altering encounter with God. Not only Paul, but also his companions, hear Christ speaking. Note, too, that the directions are clear, and more specific details are said to be coming.
But when Paul recounts his story to the Galatians, it sounds like this:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterward I returned to Damascus. (Gal. 1:13–17)
The most critical difference between the two accounts is so small that you might miss it: the preposition “in” in Paul’s own account (“was pleased to reveal his son in me,” 1:16). His sense of the revelation of Christ was apparently an interior one, a feeling in his gut rather than a vision for the eyes. The feeling rocks his world so much that he goes off alone for several years to ponder and process what has happened and how to respond.
Another interesting aspect of Paul’s self-understanding is the way in which he uses Jeremiah’s call story to shape his understanding of his own calling, including both his early zeal for all things Jewish and his insight that the God of the Jews (the God of Christ) was calling him now to a special role, to proclaim God’s sovereignty to the nations (“I appointed you a prophet to the nations,” Jer. 1:5). Paul’s understanding of his call includes both phases: his preparation as a devout young man and his sending forth by Christ to the nations. Sorting out vocation in young adulthood is not automatic. It can take some time.
Paul’s story of the revelation of Christ within him contains many of the elements that make a calling difficult to perceive for many people, especially in their younger adult lives: the ripening of an interior sense; the need to process and ponder what God seems to be doing in one’s life; changes of course and abrupt turnarounds; and sometimes the need to grieve and repent of earlier decisions and actions. Yet among all of these changes, Paul expresses the sense that his calling by God has been deep within him from his birth, like a single river flowing through varied terrain.
The way I hear people express this feeling sometimes is, “I was made for this!” They might be at work on a project in their cubicle or hiking up a mountain trail, holding a child or a book, chopping vegetables or digging into black soil, singing or painting, comforting a friend who has moved to long-term care, bandaging a wound, giving wise counsel in a meeting, or hosting friends around their table, when the feeling comes over them: “I was made for this.” These are the manifold ways in which the adopted family of God senses a vocation, ponders it, and lives it out, loving and tending the world as God loves it.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.