Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Doctrine of Calling

[By Douglas Groothuis, adapted from Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity Press, 2000).]

One potent dynamo of postmodernist instability—intellectually, morally and spiritually—is the rootlessness and restlessness of many postmoderns concerning the meaning of their identities. The self becomes saturated, sated with possibilities, options, and preferences—yet without an inner gyroscope for direction, correction, and inspiration. When all values are constructed, no hierarchy of objective values is possible, no guiding ideal is available, and no taboos intrude; there are only experiments, amusements, and diversions. The postmodern self is protean and dynamic, but also fragmented and ultimately empty of objective meaning. The self was made for better things.

In this toxic cultural environment, the Christian needs to know who she is and who she serves. She should be crystal clear on what she is summoned to know, who she is summoned to be, and what she is summoned to do before the face of God. As postmodernists vainly pose and preen for effect, experience and power, Christians can and must lodge their identities firmly in the transcendent reality of the triune God.

As their primary calling, all Christians are enjoined to love God with all of their beings (Mt 22:37-39), to exemplify virtue in the Holy Spirit (Mt 5:1-12; Gal 5:22-26), and to obey God’s commands (Ex 20:1-17). But followers of Christ are also called to find their unique life purpose, in order to use their particular gifts and abilities to their utmost for God’s glory.

The doctrine of calling has fallen on hard times in the postmodern world. People speak of their “religious preferences” and “spiritual lifestyles” instead of their God-ordained duties, responsibilities, and privileges. I cannot adequately broach this weighty subject, but I will offer a few ideas that might assist us to better represent “the fixed point” of truth today. On this matter, Os Guinness’s excellent work, The Call, is pivotal.

First, Christian calling brooks no separation between the secular and the sacred. All of life is to be lived under the comprehensive Lordship of Christ (Matthew 28:18). One does not don a spiritual self for religious activities and another self for entertainment or one’s profession. All of our actions should be unified in obedience to God and for God’s glory (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17). Similarly, neither are church-related work nor missions is more spiritual than other professions such as law, business, education, journalism, or politics. The Kingdom of God bears on every dimension of life, and agents of that Kingdom serve as salt and light wherever the Spirit leads them. As Christians incarnate their world view in public life they help reverse truth decay in myriad ways. In the midst of the fragmentation of postmodern pluralism, the Christian sees all things as unified in God’s over-arching plan for the universe, summed up in the supremacy of Christ. All has meaning in reference to that fixed—and living—point (Col 1:15-20; Heb 13:6).

Second, the discovery of one’s particular calling involves aligning at least three key elements. One should focus one’s life on: (1) what one is good at doing, (2) what needs to be done for the common good, and (3) what gives one deep satisfaction and meaning.

1. Christians have natural and spiritual gifts that ought to be identified and utilized to the utmost. In a fallen world, we cannot always employ our talents to the fullest, but we should strive to find our areas of excellence and develop them for God. We identify the truth about our gifts best through the dynamics of personal Bible study, prayer, Christian friendship, and in the matrix of the church community. In this way, we model what biblical community should be, a community where we “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15) to one another, to stimulate each other to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24). It should be noted that this is not the postmodernist sense of community or lifestyle, which is self-contained and horizontal, without a stable, vertical reference outside of itself.

2. However, our gifts need to be coordinated with those that stand to benefit from them. Professor Howard Hendricks reportedly once said that if you think you have the gift of teaching, you had better be able to find a good number of people who have the gift of listening to you! What does the church and world lack that we can uniquely provide? We are gifted to serve, not to glorify our gifts or to duplicate what others have already done well in their place of service. Just as Paul’s ambition was to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that he would not be building on someone else’s foundation (Rom 15:20), so should we employ our gifts where they are truly needed.

3. Lastly, if we are employing our real gifts for worthy purposes, this should give us a rich sense of joy and even adventure in knowing that we are moving in God’s will for our lives (Rom 12:1-2). “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). This is not a superficial titillation or (heaven forbid) a postmodern diversion, but a purpose and practice that orients one’s fundamental identity toward specific ends. As Frederick Buechner wonderfully phrases it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” The soul should celebrate its contribution to others’ well-being.

As followers of Jesus refuse the false seductions of style, hype, and spiritual consumerism, they regain and retain a resonating sense of what it means to hear and heed the call of God, come what may. While postmodernists madly “reinvent” themselves (to no ultimate end) ever more rapidly, radically, and frantically, the Christian can rest in his or her identity in Jesus Christ, his Kingdom, and his calling. As we “seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness” (Mt 6:33), our lives are brought into greater harmony with God’s truth and, therefore, into greater disharmony with all untruth, postmodernist or otherwise. In so doing, we serve as signs, clues, and rumors of God’s objective reality in a world moving toward depravity in nearly every direction.


Jeff Burton said...

This is very helpful. Thank you.

Michael Russell said...

I agree with your argument, but wonder how we're going to keep the church viable and informed during the transition (if that's what it is) from modernism to postmodernism - or at least find a way to accommodate and minister to both species of Christians in the same local body.

It would seem that a re-training of the men and women already in ministry is required - a program of some sort to educate pastors and minister so they understand the issues and new mentalities of many people in their flock. How can we "retro-fit" the existing clergy so they might be equipped to deal with this tectonic shift in our culture?

Discovering a sense of calling is certainly important and necessary, but if it is as you say (and I think it is) then many of the postmodern people in the pews aren't going to have the categories to think in such terms. I've run into hints of postmodernism here - in the buckle of the Bible belt - and I'm sure pastors are encountering it, too: people that don't grasp absolutes or authority.

Something needs to be done to equip pastors already in the pulpit. But what?

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

To Mike: For starters, have leaders read my book, "Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism" (IVP, 2000).

Ted M. Gossard said...

I think most emergents I know (a limited number- I am part of a church that says it is going emergent and am acquainted with a few others in this area) do believe in absolute truth but do so with some emphasis on subject (and thus the subjective aspect) with reference to the object (the reality). They are not saying, however that we can't know truth from God or that we can't receive revelation from God.

I don't speak for all the young people who blog and are participating in emergent. Some of them do seem to be more hard in their postmodern stance- i.e., thinking that because of the subjective they cannot attain to any true object- or at least not so with any assurance. But thankfully their leaders would assert a faith that is given true revelation from God- and thus have confidence at least (I unhesitatingly say for myself- certainty- though at the same time knowing that this certainty is a gift from God- Heb 11:3).

I would think, except for your overgeneralization of postmodernism (in my opinion), emergents would agree and more than that, appreciate what you have to say here.

Just some thoughts I hazard to put forward with reference to my limited reading and observation.

Ted M. Gossard said...

By the way, I do intend to get hold of books you have written. Tried one library, need to get to a university library in town.

Ben said...

What can we do to me the post-modern challenge? Good question. I think our seminaries desperately need to incorporate more apologetic training in the basic ministerial programs. I was so delighted to find apologetic degrees at the Southern Baptist schools that I left my job and became a full time student (thanks also in part to Dr. Groothuis and his lecture at the apologetics conference two years ago in Atlanta). One unfortunate aspect of seminary training these days is the disproportionate focus on counseling and psychology as opposed to logic and theology. We are producing ministers that can hold folks' hands and talk about their feelings, but fail at addressing the larger issues of society. We're emotionally validated while our society and even our own churches slide into irrelevance for the lack of a strong and reasoned voice. That's what I appreciate so much about this blog.

Michael Russell said...


Are you saying I shouldn't write in library books?!?

Uh oh . . .