What happens when God's calling and our own vocational aspirations conflict?
The word "calling" in the New Testament is used in several ways. But what I am referring to here is "career calling," God's plan for your life. Some of us discover much later, long after we have been converted, what God is going to do with our lives. Some also find that they are not happy with what God is planning in their lives, because it isn't happening like they thought it would happen.
To Peter and Andrew, Jesus said, " 'Come, follow me ... and I will make you fishers of men'" (Matt. 4:19, NIV). Peter had been a fisherman, and God called him to be a soul-winner. It was not something that Peter had wanted.
There is also a close connection between our natural gifts and God's calling for life, or career calling. We all have gifts, but they are not all used in the same way (see 1 Cor. 12:14-20).
Some people might want to be the head or the eye, but they are only the foot or the hand, figuratively speaking, and they get frustrated. They want to be in a high-profile position in the church. They say, "God, why can't I be up front where people will see me?"
God says: "Sorry, you are to be like the small intestines or the pancreas. You are like those organs in the body that aren't seen but are very necessary" (see 1 Cor. 12:22-24).
There are those who want to be behind the scenes, and if you gave them their choice, they would rather be the "liver" or the "kidneys" or the "lungs" where they are not seen. But God instead makes them be the eye, the ear or the head. It is an unwanted calling. It is when God's plans overrule yours. It is when you have been kept from doing what you wanted to do, and it's frustrating to you.
To be converted is one thing, but when you are subsequently called to do or be something that you hadn't wanted to do or be, that's quite another.
As for your education, it all seems to have gone down the drain. You went to the university to study a specialized field, and now look at what you do for a living!
When it comes to where God has placed you, you may feel overqualified and frustrated, or you may feel underqualified and frustrated. Maybe you work with people with whom you never would have chosen as co-workers. Maybe you are in a place you never would have chosen to work.
Could this be a thorn in the flesh? Yes! You have never been happy over the years with the work you have had to do, the workplace, or your co-workers. It's not even work that you were trained to do. It is not what you had planned to do, and over the years you have kept thinking this must be going to change: I'm not always going to be doing this!
But then the years go by, and you are still doing this work. I'm not always going to have to be with these people!, you say to yourself. Years go by, and you're still with them, and you keep thinking, It will end! But it hasn't yet. God has led you to where you are, but inwardly you think: Surely there must be something better in life for me than this. Is this it? Is this all there is?
Life is passing you by. You grew up looking forward to becoming maybe a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe you wanted to become a nurse or a computer programmer. It seems that nothing has gone according to your plan.
Could this have been Paul's thorn in the flesh? I believe that it could have been. After all, after he became a Christian he had to work with his hands and with a people whom he had been brought up to believe were second class: Gentiles. Had he managed to do what he wanted to do, he would have been able to work with his own people. Do you know, as long as he lived, he never got over that? (See Rom. 9:1-5.)
I wonder how many people are afraid of becoming Christians because they fear that the moment they become Christians God is going to send them to some far-flung place.
To us, it just doesn't add up. All of his life Paul was looking over his shoulder, trying to reach Jews at every opportunity. He said, "The gospel is to the Jew first" (Rom. 1:16), and I can tell you, every chance he had, he was talking to a Jew. I am quite convinced this is what eventually got him into real trouble.
There is little doubt in my mind that when those people came to him and said, "Don't go to Jerusalem," they were led of the Spirit (see Acts 21:411). Luke says, "By the Spirit they said, 'Don't go.'" Paul said, "I'm going!" He kept thinking that one day, somehow, he was going to convert the Jews. When he went to Jerusalem, it was a big disaster. It didn't happen.
Maybe that's you. You are still hoping somehow to do something else. You say, "I am not going to do this all my life!" You try to do what God won't let you do, and it just doesn't happen. Paul's lasting success was with the very people he had grown up to think very little of. It was an unwanted calling.
I met a Harvard man who became one of David Brainerd's biographers. Had Brainerd lived, he would have been Jonathan Edwards' son-in-law, but he died at the age of 29. Edwards went on to publish Brainerd's journal and that journal was once said to have inspired more people to be missionaries than any body of literature next to the Bible.
After the biographer relayed this story, he said something I was not prepared for: "David Brainerd did not really like the Indians that he had to witness to in New York state. He actually couldn't stand them!" Yet here was this godly man who became a legend because of his ministry to the American Indians.
Take an unwanted calling as to secular involvement. You took certain subjects at school and later concentrated on a certain field. Perhaps you studied law, French or medicine.
Then when it came to finding a job, no jobs were available in the area of your preparation or training. Perhaps you learned Chinese, and now you are working as a secretary.
You studied philosophy or theology, and you are working as a taxi driver. You went to a university and graduated, and now you are working as a salesperson in a department store.
Perhaps you felt called to be a foreign missionary, and you are still living and working in your own country. Or, maybe you have to do a kind of Christian work as plan B--waiting for that more fulfilling opportunity.
One must take into consideration the providence of an unwanted calling. Perhaps God has given you a mission you didn't ask for. "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11:8).
How's that for trying to impress your friends?
"What are you up to, Abraham?"
"What do you mean, 'not sure'? What's happening in your life?"
"Well, I am obeying God!"
"Where are you going?"
That was it. In fact, "the Lord had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you'" (Gen. 12:1). What kind of a mission is that? Yet Abraham became one of the greatest men in all history. He is known as the father of the faithful. He had no idea what it would lead to.
Jesus said, "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much" (Luke 16:10).
Do you feel that life is passing you by although you have kept your eyes on the Lord? He has led you from one place to the next, and you recognize His leading, but you think to yourself, This is not what I had in mind! But it is not over yet! There was a lot for Abraham to discover.
What if, like Jonah, you are given a mandate you didn't ask for? The same Jonah who prayed he wouldn't have to go to Nineveh now prayed, "O God, please let me go!" It is amazing how God can get our attention. The very thing you said no to is the very thing you end up praying for!
He was given a message he hadn't wanted to deliver. God may give you a word you have to preach. It is not what you wanted to preach, but you do it because He tells you to.
There is great potential in an unwanted calling. It refers to what you are capable of becoming. God sees what you are capable of becoming and saying. If you could always do only what you wanted to do, you would never know your full potential in other areas.
Your potential is what God sees, but you can't. God can see a potential in you that you can't see, so He leads you in a way, which, at first, doesn't seem to make sense.
Consider Daniel, whose captivity allowed him to be used in giftings that otherwise would never have been discovered.
The way we have been led we cannot understand at the time, but time shows there is purpose and meaning in it all. So it is with you. God knows your potential, and it may seem wasted at first, but one day you will see a reason for all that you have learned and the explanation for all your training.
What if you even sacrifice that career?
What is the purpose of an unwanted calling? It is the reason for the thorn in the flesh in the first place. God directed you differently from what you wanted in order to give you the usefulness and intimacy with Him you would not have otherwise experienced. If you are like me, then you would have been too proud had you gotten what you wanted.
God's purpose is twofold. First, everything that He does in our lives is geared for one purpose: to know the Lord (see Phil. 3:10). I find it very interesting that Philippians was written after Paul had that disaster by going to Jerusalem (see Acts 2126).
Nothing happened as he had hoped, and he alludes to it in Philippians 1:12: "Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel."
The Philippians were worried about him, but he says, "As for what happened to me, it doesn't matter; it hasn't hurt the gospel." It is as though he says, "I may not be in good shape in some ways, but it advanced the gospel."
That is what it is all for. God doesn't care whether I am seen as a great success. He cares about one thing, and that is that I get to know His Son. He says, "R.T., I am sorry about having to disappoint you in some things, but there is only one way that you are going to get to know My Son, and that is to put you through all this."
Everything that has happened to us--whether it be an unwanted calling, living in unhappy conditions, working with people we don't want to, studying in a specialized field only to have a career doing the opposite--is because God wants us to know His Son.
The potential that you have for intimacy with God would never be discovered if you got to do what you wanted to do. If you had the success you wanted, you wouldn't be teachable. God knows where to keep us. So when we get to the place where we say, "I just want to know Him," God says, "Good."
But there is another purpose, and it is this: that we might have a reward at the judgment seat of Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:6-8).
In other words, the thorn of an unwanted calling is the best thing that could have happened to any of us. We all need a thorn to save us from ourselves, and Paul could say at the end of the day, "It is worth it all!" *
R.T. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for 25 years. The author of more than 30 books, he was educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Oxford University. This article was adapted from Kendall's new book, The Thorn in the Flesh (Charisma House). In this book, Kendall explores the challenges of life that God allows for the purpose of drawing us closer to Him. Kendall combines pastoral wisdom with a solid theological understanding of God's sovereignty to bring readers to a greater sense of acceptance--and victory--in the midst of disappointment. For more information about this book, visit www.charismahouse.com, or call 1-800-599-5750.