What Does It Mean to be Called by God According to the Bible

RVWD is my abbreviation for Religious Vocabulary Word of the Day. (You can read my introduction to the RVWD series here.) I do not intend for these word investigations to be exhaustive, but I hope they stimulate some thinking about assumptions. Possibly they will help with honest evaluations about what is truth and what is unnecessary baggage in life.

It turns out that to be called by God is not that complicated. At least not if it is looked at from a Biblical perspective. In the Bible, the English word call (or called, or calling) is mostly translated from the Greek verb kaleo, or some version of it with a prefix that sharpens its meaning. Even with these prefixes, most of the meanings of “to call” have more of a sense of invitation, rather than of command or directive. “Come on in and join us!” or “Look at the great things going on over here, why don’t you!?” It implies enthusiasm, possibly with some clamor, but not lack of choice.

The Greek noun, klesis, is related to the verb kaleo. It is used to include the ideas of “where the invitation comes from, the core of its implications, and the future for those who accept.” So, in Ephesians 1:18, it is not saying Christians need to looking for this calling, like it is a new thing, but can come to understand more deeply that which is already theirs. It is like knowing you have found a good friend and now get to enjoy spending time with them.

From this basic connotation, comes the bulk of the use of the words call, called, or calling in the Bible, in context to Christians. Those who have chosen to follow Jesus Christ have already been called, that is, we have responded to an invitation. The message of the invitation is not vague or illusive. It doesn’t require years of study or decoding. It is not outside the sphere of everyday life.

The other somewhat common meaning of call is simply “what something is named,” which is how the word calling comes to be associated with job titles, or vocations. There may be some mixture of the two meanings, as in when God quite obviously inspires Saul of Tarsus to believe in the truth and tell others about it; but, even then, it is always an invitation on God’s part to come into alliance with Him.

The fact that some are “called” apostles, or what ever other Biblical description, does not mean that anyone necessarily received as “special” message to function in this capacity. It means they are called that because they are doing that. As people act and live according to the clear Biblical principles of love your neighbor and encourage your fellow believer, by the grace and power of what God has done in their lives, they will naturally do things that could be classified according to these popular designations. This may be obscured and hindered by the misapplication of these adjectives to roles of office in man-made organizations. There does not, however, have to be any formal recognition by self-proclaimed authorities to love your neighbor according to the talents and skills God has made available in your life.

Some of the confusion may be due to the fact that when God “calls,” many people might assume it is really an authoritative command, since He is, after all, the Highest there is. They don’t seem to understand that having authority and power doesn’t mean He isn’t nice. There is evidence He wants to give us choices. And enjoy seeing us enjoy the choices He gives us.

The shades of meaning of the English word call indicate this trend of sometimes using the word in a commanding way. Traced from German roots, the English word call takes up about half of a dictionary page. Several of it’s meanings tend toward commanding, but even there, the editors give some very good suggestions for synonyms that would be more precise, like summon, which implies authority more clearly.

Calling gets its own entry in the dictionary, which is much shorter. It can be 1) the action of calling, 2) one’s occupation, or 3) an inner urging toward … some activity. This seems more honest than how the word tends to get used in many religious venues. We all have a sense we should do this or that. Sometimes they are virtuous urgings, sometimes they are not. When they are something to be proud of and fit a certain religious mold, they tend to get labeled a “spiritual” calling. This is a little tricky to respond to, since what can you say to “God told me to do it.” So convenient when such people are asking for money to fund the “calling,” or neglecting other things that seem to more obviously be a priority.

But the rest of us need not worry. We are not missing out on our callings. If we are living life loving others, we are living according to how we have been called. It isn’t a secret club and it doesn’t mean trying to live separate from the normal responsibilities of life, or add to them in stressful ways. “But we urge you brethern, to excell still more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands,…” (1 Thessalonians 4:10b-11a.)

Resources:

Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Indexed Fourth Edition
New American Standard Bible
etymonline.com

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