Back when I was 23 and raising support to be a missionary in Tanzania, you would have heard me say, “God is calling me.” I would have told you that I had a heart for teaching missionary kids. I would have told you that I loved Africa and wanted to see God’s kingdom built there. And those things were 100% true. I wasn’t a deceiver who was trying to pull the wool over my supporter’s eyes. But there was more to it than that.
As a teenager, I was terrible at sports and fashion, and my very introverted personality meant that I had all sorts of interesting thoughts going around in my head but they rarely came out articulately. My best friend was a cello player and a track runner and Valedictorian; I was always a few steps behind. But I had spent six years of my childhood in Africa. That was my thing. That I had experienced this whole other life–that’s what made me different. And I clung to it. A guy in college told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was so set on living in Africa, but that just made me more resolute.
And evangelical Christian culture made it easy. I could express my individuality and get lots of gold stars and pats on the back at the same time. Saying “God is calling me to Africa” put me on a higher spiritual plane; so very few people probed with deeper questions. But sometimes saying “God called me” can actually mask a lot of other motives.
When we want to be missionaries, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say
“I really love traveling.”
“I’m looking for adventure.”
“I want to stand out, to be different.”
“If I start a new life, I can leave my problems behind.”
“If I do this big thing for God, he will give me what I want.”
“I really like looking/feeling spiritual and all the attention that gets me.”
“I want my life to feel significant.”
Equally important, when we want to go back home, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say
“I don’t get along with my co-workers.”
“I can’t hack the way of life here.”
“My leadership hasn’t given me the support I wanted.”
“I miss my family too much.”
“I hate feeling incompetent all the time.”
“I’m so depressed/anxious/burned out that I can’t function anymore.”
The reality is, everyone falls for it. Saying, “God called me” shuts down any questions. No one is allowed to argue with that statement. Because who wants to argue with God? But that’s why saying “God called me” can be dangerous. And we need to challenge the culture that allows it.
What do we even mean when we say, “God called me?” Christians will give various answers, but a call from God often boils down to some kind of supernatural experience or a very strong feeling. The same line of reasoning is used with “God hasn’t called me.” If a person hasn’t experienced some sort of supernatural experience or strong feeling, then we believe that is an indication that the status quo is sufficient.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Often, “God called me” basically means, “I want to” but with a spiritual veneer. So let’s think this through. Can God work through our desires? Absolutely. God gave us our emotions, our personalities, and the way we’re “wired,” and he will use all of these to lead us and guide us.
Our emotions are often selfish, fickle, and foolish. It’s quite possible for us to feel good about a terribly sinful choice (at least for a while). We are very capable of ignoring the Holy Spirit, misinterpreting Scripture, or “hearing” what we want to hear from God.
So how do we know when God is actually leading us in a certain direction? And if we discover that hiding behind “God called me” are some selfish motives, does that mean he hasn’t?
Not necessarily. It’s very possible to have noble motives and selfish ones mixed in together. I once read that as fallen people, our motives are never going to be completely pure. We must remember that we are complex beings–capable of feeling multiple emotions and desires at once. We aren’t usually honest even with ourselves, and sin will always be there, even when we’re being our most honorable.
So what does that mean for us as missionaries, whose whole lives are built on “a calling?” It means we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. We need to root out our deeper motives–all of them, even the ugly ones. And senders need to be careful not to be so dazzled by “God called me” that they hold back from asking those same hard questions. We (both the goers and the senders) need to remember that being a missionary doesn’t put us on a higher spiritual plane, immune from sinful motives.
When someone says, “God called me,” that should be the starting point for a lot of good questions and conversations. Why do you want to go (or return)? Why is it important? What does your church think about this? What does the team on the field think about this? What might you be running away from? How has God uniquely prepared you–not someone else–for this specific time and place? Or if you are leaving, what circumstances assure you that God is releasing you? And how does all of this match up with what God has spoken to us through Scripture?
This is why we need the Body of Christ. This is why we need to put ourselves under godly, strong, but humble leadership. This is why God intended the Church to be a part how he calls us.
When I think back to the mess of motives and emotions I felt when I was 23, I truly believe God did call me to Africa. But I was equipped: I had grown up on the African continent; I had been certified as a teacher; I had spent years in cross-cultural ministry in the States. I had the blessing of my church family. I had been well-vetted by my mission organization. Yes, I wanted to go. But it was the culmination of all of those things that confirmed that God was calling me.
Did that mean my motives were entirely pure? Absolutely not. And it would have been helpful if I had been honest with myself about it, or if I had someone in my life who asked me the hard, penetrating questions. Back then, coming to the realization about my desire to be different and significant probably would not have negated my assurance that I should go, but it would have helped me to learn some hard lessons a lot sooner.
Because that’s the thing about selfish motives–they are always there, but God has his ways of purifying them. Every missionary who stays on the mission field for any length of time knows this. I might have dreamed of gold stars or adventure or fulfillment, but that all came crashing down pretty quickly. And when it did, I needed a strong foothold to assure me that God really had directed me. But the weight behind “God called me” had to go a lot farther than just a feeling. God’s promises in Scripture, the Body of Christ back at home and on the field, and the ways God had uniquely prepared me for my role gave me assurance of his calling. Seventeen years later, that’s the calling I still lean on.