A Cross-Shaped Calling
Now, as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
When it comes to missionary calling, Saul of Tarsus had the ultimate one—bright light, a voice from heaven, along with clear instructions. It doesn’t get any better than that! But the rest of us mere mortals should manage our expectations when it comes to the ways in which the Lord will direct us. As David Sills points out in his helpful book The Missionary Call, there is much mystery and misunderstanding about “the call.” He observed that with the Damascus Road encounter, “We must keep in mind that this experience was descriptive of what happened to Paul, not prescriptive of how every missionary call should be.”1
Over the years, I have had countless conversations and cups of coffee with Christians who are often sincere but genuinely confused about “being called.” I’ve encountered two sides of the pendulum’s swing in regard to “the call.” The first is those who “are called” but seem to be the only ones aware of it. They toss around the word “burden,” as if it weighs nothing at all. And they love to travel to “the mission field,” which by definition is everywhere outside the Lower 48. While I appreciate their initiative and enthusiasm, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between their personal calling and their personal ambition.
Often, this group has little connection to the church—outside of the need for financial help. Churches exist mostly to enable them to fulfill “God’s calling”—and if they ever make it to another country, they will likely expect the local believers to continue to make their missionary dreams come true. Counsel regarding getting involved in disciple-making now (before attempting it in another language) is met with a polite smile. Some of these individuals are head-strong, but many have just never had the opportunity to be discipled by mentors in the church, mentors who themselves have a big view of God and the gospel.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who are waiting for “a call” that never comes. They are faithful in their church, are there whenever the doors are open, and are seriously and prayerfully interested in missions—but they haven’t had a Damascus Road-type experience. Without such a calling or a sign or a soaked sheepskin, they are afraid to venture out. While it’s true that God doesn’t call everyone to serve him on the foreign field, it is equally true that we build walls out of our own fears. Often the first obstacle to overcome en route to reaching the gospel-destitute half of the world isn’t border crossings or barbed wire or ISIS; it’s the truly good walls of the truly good works that surround our current comfort zone.
In counseling, the place to take both the “frequent flyer” and the “pew sitter” (and everyone in between) is the cross. In Matthew 16, Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem, has just told his disciples that suffering and death are at the other end of that road and that “he must go.” The Lord went on to say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
This calling—this radical, death-and-life demand—has already been given to every believer. This stunning, cross-shaped call is better than a lightning bolt and more enduring than feelings or fleeces. Christ’s followers are, in fact, to follow him. They are to fully identify with him, fully embrace him, fully follow Him—whatever that will cost and wherever that will lead. Unlike the disciples who first heard this call when crosses were not ornamental, by grace we receive this call on the other side of Golgotha and the empty tomb! He is risen. He is with us. Always.
This is why the “missionary call” that I most hear described by those who have served Christ for years in hard, distant places is a settled, life-changing conviction that Jesus is alive and present—an all-important realization that they share with Paul on the Damascus Road. And because of that, whether they are serving in Afghanistan or China or North Africa, what I have heard repeatedly is, “Coming here was just the next step for me in following Jesus.” Though they have felt the bruising weight of the cross, they have caught a glimpse of Jesus and are hastening after him.
I think Hudson Taylor’s missionary calling is typical. You would think that Taylor, the pioneer missionary who opened up the interior of China for the gospel and mobilized thousands to eventually follow his footstep, would have a dramatic encounter with God. Well, actually he did—but without lights and voices. After his conversion at 17, Taylor poured himself into his church’s outreach and, according to one biographer, he “soaked up Scripture until he thought in its language.”2 Later, Taylor described a day when alone in prayer, he met with God:
In the gladness of my heart I poured out my soul before God, and again confessing my grateful love to Him who had done everything for me . . . I besought Him to give me some work for Him, as an outlet for love and gratitude; some self-denying service, no matter what it might be, however trying or however trivial. . . . The presence of God became unutterably real and blessed, and . . . I remember stretching myself on the ground, and lying there silent before Him with unspeakable awe and unspeakable joy. For what service I was accepted I knew not. But a deep consciousness that I was not my own took possession of me.3
Hudson Taylor’s missionary calling was the joyful overflow of the Gospel. It was his Damascus Road encounter with Christ, who said, “Follow me.” And he did. The missionary calling is not about us going so much as it is about us following in the bright wake of our risen King.
1. Sills, M. David. The Missionary Call, Moody Publishers, 2008, p. 55.
2. Broomhall, A. J. The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy, Volume 1, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 2005, p. 156.
3. Broomhall, A. J. The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life and Legacy, Volume 1, Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 2005, p. 157.