Saturday, March 31, 2007

Discerning God’s Call

Is there any way to really know God’s call and purpose for our lives? God was thinking of us long before we ever thought about him. His call for our lives predates our conception. Knowing our life’s call and purpose begins with knowing God. In his best seller, A Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren writes, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope. The greatest tragedy is not death, but life without purpose.”

There are two types of calling that the believer will experience, the general call and the specific call. I believe that we can all know God’s general call. God’s general call for you and me is to serve and glorify him in whatever we do—whether it be as an engineer, social worker or student. The general call of God is imparted to every Christian through the scriptures. Romans 12:1 states, “I ask you therefore, brother and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you present your lives as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” The apostle Paul wasn’t saying that our lives had to achieve a certain status before we could serve God, no, God’s general call is not dependent on feelings or a “Damascus Road” experience. When we surrender our lives to God, we can all accept the commission of Romans 12:1 as God’s call to us—no matter who we are, what we do or how high up the societal ladder we may reach.
Only as we mature in our walk with God, will he reveal specific calls to the believer. Though the general call will never change, a believer’s specific call will usually change throughout one’s lifetime. We can compare God’s general calling as a military commission. When an officer receives that commission, he/she is imparted with a duty to serve and defend his/her nation regardless if he is a combat officer or staff officer. Within the life of the military officer, he/she has a number of different missions or assignments, which only lasts until that mission is completed. The servant of God, like the military officer, will have a series of missions, some longer, some shorter. Sometimes we confuse God’s calling, thinking that we are not called at all by God if we don’t have something specific or if that specific call seems to end. We need to learn to differentiate between God’s general call, which is permanent and given to every Christian, from God’s specific call, which are assignments that could and will often change.

More than ever today, the Vietnamese community needs people able to both discern and accept God’s call to serve him. How can one discern God’s specific call? A specific call is unique to the individual. It is an assignment that God has for that individual as the result of that person’s first and foremost availability—then background, personality, temperament and experiences. Thus, when a person is discerning his/her specific call, it is perfectly acceptable to consider how his/her background, personality, temperament and experiences will be compatible with that ministry.

Just as God will not want us to enter into a marriage with a spouse having very little compatibility with us (unless you are a Hosea or Gomer), so why would we think that God will usually want us to be in a ministry where we will lack the background, personality, temperament and training? It is true that He sometimes allows that to happen but more common than not, He will likely assign a ministry that will be compatible with the individual. Thus, when discerning God’s specific call, it is acceptable to consider if you have the background, training and experience for that type of ministry and whether you can see yourself enjoy doing that type of ministry. These compatibility issues are a good first step to discerning God’s specific call.

The second step to determining God’s specific call demands more of a spiritual discernment of how God calls. God’s calling can be direct; it can be indirect; and it can be through a godly restlessness of the soul.

The apostle Paul received a direct call through a visionary encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s calling was a radical event which does not happen to everyone who serves God. However, if one receives a call through this manner, rejection of that call is a tragedy.

Why doesn’t God make more direct calls to his people? I believe because God is more pleased when his followers both respond and walk in complete reliance by faith. Faith is a trust that does not require direct evidence. The scriptures in Romans 1:17b states, “The just shall live by faith.” God will often use circumstances in our lives to indirectly call us to Himself. At the turn of every decision, our circumstances will point to service in Christ. He will bring ministers to our lives who will inspire us. Every time we read something, he places before us the lives of people who have answered His call. When these circumstances and others similar surround us overwhelmingly, it may be that God is knocking at our hearts, calling us to Himself for service.

For those who fail to discern God’s call through indirect promptings, that person will likely experience a restlessness of his/her soul, as though he/she has been running away from God’s call but cannot seem to escape no matter what he/she does. Psalm 139:7-10 says, “Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, Thou art there. If I go to the darkest places; if I dwell in the remotest parts of the world; even there Thy hand will save me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” If you have been spiritually restless and suspect that you have been running away from God’s call, just stop, allow Him to take hold of you and give you peace and purpose.

Is God speaking to you? Has He placed before you an opportunity or ministry that you can relate to and would probably enjoy? Are there signs and circumstances that He has called you directly or indirectly to that ministry? If you can answer yes or maybe, you may be closer to discovering God’s specific call for your life. If you desire to discern God’s specific call for you, I would encourage you to talk with a pastor or Christian leader who has experience in spiritual direction (this is a type of spiritual counseling ministry).

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Simplicity as a Practical Discipline (Part 1)

According to the Washington Post, the consumer debt in America exceeded 2 trillion dollars in 2004, rising from 1 trillion in 1994. According to the College Board, the average college student accumulated roughly $2,700 of credit card debts by graduation in addition to $20,000+ of school loans. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, the credit card debts for low to middle income Americans show an average of $8,650 in 2005 as compared with Australians of the same level at only $2,500.

Many Americans, including Vietnamese-Americans, are living beyond their income levels. The American dream of a small house with a white picket fence has evolved into a 3000+ square feet house in a gated community, an SUV and several luxury sedans.

In my practice and ministry, I have been seeing an increase in individual and family stress for the past 10+ years, largely due to the desire for more material things. Unfortunately, this occurs at similar rates even among Christians. Sometimes a person strives to keep up with the Jones’ without even realizing it. In an age of consumerism, society makes it easy to borrow money. Instead of buying what we can afford now, we charge it with the confidence that it will be paid next month. However, next month comes and years go by, and we find that the credit card really hasn’t decreased that much.

In the desire to have a bigger and nicer house, many people take out a much larger loan then they can realistically afford. What is the responsible standard for taking out a home loan? While there are many views, my own is to only take out a loan based on what you can afford on your average income for the past three years—and for a working couple, base that on the highest income. This way, in the event of a loss or change of employment (for the working couple) by one person, the remaining income may be tight, but will not cause the stress of a foreclosure during the time that the unemployed person looks for alternate employment.

In an age of consumerism and easy loans, it is not easy to refrain from taking out a home loan based on the maximum combined income of both you and your spouse. It is not easy to refrain from using your credit card as a loan source for the family vacation, home furnishing or other enjoyments. Though the quick gratification will provide satisfaction for a time, the potential ramifications from the stress that it produces is far beyond its temporary worth.

In his book, Celebrations of Discipline, Richard Foster states that simplicity is freedom. Would you like to reduce stress in your life, your marriage? Consider learning to practice the discipline of simplicity. Whereas materialism and consumerism often brings bondage and stress, simplicity brings balance and freedom.

The discipline of simplicity involves both an inward acceptance as well as an outward lifestyle. In the coming months, we’ll briefly consider how the discipline of simplicity can reduce stress and bring more happiness to family relationships.