There’s a discussion currently going on over at New Church Perspective on the issue of women in the ministry. Something that has come up a few times is the question of a “call” – if someone feels a call to serve as a New Church minister, does that mean the General Church ought to ordain them? I’m interested in the specific question, but I’m more interested in what I see as a larger trend, which is not just a trend in the New Church: a trend toward people expecting a direct, clear calling from God to make a specific decision. There was a great article by Phillip Cary on the topic published last year in “RELEVANT” magazine. An excerpt:
The practice of listening for God’s voice in your heart is a very new development and it’s deeply flawed. It has only recently displaced Scripture as the most important way, in the view of many Christians, that God reveals Himself to us, thanks in no small part to widespread promotion of the idea by otherwise evangelical churches and youth groups.
Some people say this way of understanding revelation is more “personal,” but I don’t see how. You can’t listen to another person just by hearing what’s in your heart. Other persons live outside your heart, and that’s where you have to listen for them. So Scripture says Christ dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17), but directs our attention outside our hearts to find what we should put our faith in: “faith comes by hearing,” says Paul, “and hearing comes by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The word of Christ that he’s talking about is not a voice in our hearts but the preaching of the Gospel in external words we can hear with our ears.
I actually don’t think I’d go as far as Cary does – I think there is a way that God speaks into our hearts, that God flows into our minds, that happens especially in response to prayer and when we are reading Scripture. But I don’t think it’s ever as direct and clear as some people seem to make it out to be; I don’t think we can ever say, “I know this is what God is telling me to do.”
I wrote a comment to that effect on one of the recent articles on New Church Perspective; the conversation has since moved on more directly to the topic at hand (ordaining or not ordaining women), but this is still something I think is worth discussing: to what extent can we hear God speaking to us in our hearts? How do we know what we are being called to?
My comment from the blog:
A note on a sense of “calling” in general – and please do read this as a separate issue from the women in the priesthood issue, even though they’re obviously related. I’m writing this comment because I think I’ve noticed a trend in the General Church in all areas (not just controversial ones) to talk about being called directly by the Lord to do something. And I do want to say from the outset that my mind isn’t settled on this – I’m still trying to understand the way that the Lord calls people. On the one hand, the Writings do say that if a person is shunning evils as sins, the Lord will flow in and show them the good that they are supposed to do. There are the passages in Conjugial Love that talk about people knowing by an inner dictate that “she is mine,” or “he is mine.” They do talk about perception, and although only celestial people have perception in its truest sense, they do talk about lesser degrees of perception that seem to be available to less regenerate people.
But on the other hand, I do not see the majority of the passages in the Writings indicating that people receive direct, unmistakable calls from the Lord. Even in the case of a couple that meets in heaven, they deliberate in themselves and talk about it after some time – they don’t get engaged then and there. As I understand it, we should listen to where the Lord is guiding us – but I don’t know that it’s ever a good idea to think that we’ve heard completely.
A passage that comes to mind is Divine Providence 321, which is about people who look for direct influence from heaven:
Of those who wait for influx this further may be said. They receive none, except the few who from their heart desire it; and they occasionally receive some response by a vivid perception, or by tacit speech in the response, in their thought but rarely by any manifest speech. It is then to this effect: that they should think and act as they wish and as they can, and that he who acts wisely is wise and he who acts foolishly is foolish. They are never instructed what to believe and what to do, and this in order that the human rational principle and human freedom may not perish; that is, that everyone may act from freedom according to reason, to all appearance as from himself. Those who are instructed by influx what to believe or what to do are not instructed by the Lord or by any angel of heaven but by some Enthusiast, Quaker, or Moravian spirit and are led astray. All influx from the Lord is effected by enlightenment of the understanding, and by the affection for truth, and through the latter passing into the former.
Divine Providence 265 says something similar: “No one is taught immediately from heaven, but mediately through the Word, and doctrine and preaching from the Word.”
This isn’t to say that anyone who says they feels called to something is claiming that they were instructed by direct influx to believe or do something. And it’s not to say that anyone’s sense of call is wrong. It’s only to point out that the Writings seem to me to emphasize that when we feel a call, we shouldn’t rest and assume that’s all there is to it – we should continually examine it, to see if there’s more to hear, and to act based on our rationality, not only a sense of a dictate from heaven.