A Sense of Calling

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.

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About Coleman Glenn
  • Jeremy Simons


    Thanks for those thoughts. I’m amazed at how big a thing the concept of “calling” is in many people’s minds, even though the Writings say virtually nothing about the call to any specific use, much less the call to the ministry.

    It’s not that the idea is invalid, since the Lord leads everyone in all paths of life, and His providence is present in the smallest detail.

    But there is simply no basis for believing that a person’s subjective sense that they have called by the Lord to do a particular thing obligates others to support it.

    If a person has the desire and the conviction that they can best serve the Lord in some specific way, then it needs to be demonstrated through their actions and abilities. This is true of all forms of service, not just the ministry.

    This is what I hear you saying. I’m glad you wrote this since I think that many people misunderstand the concept of the calling, and especially the call to the priesthood. It is a concept that comes directly from the Old and New Testaments, where individuals were manifestly called to service. But the Writings explain that wherever this occurs in the Word it is about the call to every person to regenerate.

    Good job!


  • http://allinitsplace.blogspot.com/ Deev

    Interesting timing on the article. Have just recently experienced what some could, I suppose, consider a calling. I experience it as a revelation, a new awareness of something that I’m unusually – perhaps even uniquely – suited to doing. It’s not something that I could have ever anticipated, yet makes total sense; is unpredictable, yet feels inevitable.

    I can understand how people might experience finding what they believe is their truest of true life purposes as a “calling” since my own feels very… supernatural. Super & yet natural.

    And just because I experience as a spirit-based calling & just because I ~ without a moment’s hesitation ~ call on others to support me in making the potential a powerful reality is NOT to say that any of those asked are obligated to help out, simply because I’ve been called. It’s up to me to do everything in my power to make it so, then work with what shows up.

    Not very doctrinal in content, but it seems to me to very much touch on the topic.

    Thanks for the conversation-starting article!

  • Chelsea

    Hey Coleman!

    I’m glad you carried this thread on over here. I like what you wrote and it reminded me of this bible study of my dad’s that he did on prayer: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/15838119

    The subject there is how to make sense of “answers” we might feel we get from the Lord after we pray. The main point I took away from it is the idea that no matter what “answers” or “callings” we get, we need to, with our freedom, run it through our rational mind and decide for ourselves.

    I like the way Jeremy puts it above, that our sense of a calling needs to be demonstrated in our actions and abilities. And I love the point that the only thing we’re all called to is to regenerate! And we’ll be given the opportunity to regenerate no matter what life-path we chose to follow!

    Lots of good things to think about. Thanks!

  • Coleman Glenn

    Thanks for all the thoughts! I do want to mention a few of the passages that to me speak positively of a kind of call – just not a clear, direct dictate. I already mentioned the passages about couples in heaven thinking, “He is mine,” and, “She is mine.” AC 2535 is about prayer:

    “If the man prays from love and faith, and for only heavenly and spiritual things, there then comes forth in the prayer something like a revelation (which is manifested in the affection of him that prays) as to hope, consolation, or a certain inward joy.”

    Again, that does not sound like a direct dictate, but it DOES sound like a kind of calling.

    There’s also AC 6737:

    “Moreover, when they who are in perception feel compassion, they know that they are admonished by the Lord to give aid.”

    Now, this may only refer to celestial people, who have perception in the truest sense, but even so, it does indicate a kind of calling from a person’s compassion. It still doesn’t dictate HOW a person is supposed to give aid, but this to me is the strongest passage in the Writings I can think of that talks about a call.

    I don’t think any of this contradicts anything I said earlier, or anything anyone else has said in the comments – I just wanted to mention some of the specific passages on the way the Lord DOES speak to us via influx.

  • Erica


    I’m pro-women in the ministry, and I seriously love this.

    Especially this: “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”

    Basically, I think you hit on why religious fundamentalism (well, actually a lot of religion in general to be quite honest) is so scary to me. It involves a remarkable amount of arrogance (in my opinion).

    That being said, I think that saying women can’t follow what they want to do based on a rational consideration about what they will be good at and what will make them happy, simply because you are sure that God wouldn’t want them to – because it would “just feel wrong”, is basically the same thing. Not that that’s the only anti-women-ministers argument (or that you are making it! Definitely not), but I’ve certainly heard it. It applies to both sides, is what I’m saying.

    Thanks for the insight.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Great point, Erica – I’m not a fan of either side saying, “I know for sure what God wants.” “I think,” “as I understand it,” and “I don’t know,” are some of I favourite phrases.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Although if something is clearly stated in Scripture, e.g., “Thou shalt not murder,” I’m fine with people saying, “I know for sure that God does not want me to murder” – as long as the person knows that even what qualifies as murder is never going to be absolutely, 100% clear.

  • Miriam

    Hey Coleman,
    Been meaning to read this and comment for awhile. I really appreciate your treatment of the topic. It’s something I’ve been confused about for some time. I often experience an inner leading and a certainty about the path I am to follow, but I feel it’s really important to acknowledge that’s actually me following my own desires. Yes, I can have a clear sense of “this is the right way for now,” or “no, that’s the wrong step to take.” And I believe that sense in myself will lead to much greater happiness when I am cultivating an open and loving relationship with God by reading the Word, praying and living by what I believe He has taught in the Word.

    But, often one person’s “calling” is in direct conflict with another person’s – as I believe you mentioned, for example, when a person feels called to marry another but the feeling isn’t mutual. Then?? Does that mean the person who doesn’t want to marry the other is refusing or not hearing a call? Hardly!

    It’s a slippery slope when we start giving our personal “callings” equal weight to what’s in the Word. That said, it IS important to “follow our hearts,” but such a thing can be done by people with or without religion. I think it’s just better informed, and therefore more “real” when we are doing the work of becoming better people internally.