God acts. He chooses. He calls.
But “call” isn’t just about invitation. Like the gospel, the call must be “received.” It must be acknowledged, accepted, and acted upon. It must be counted a precious thing, worthy of whatever sacrifice, protected and handled faithfully. “Call” is never unilateral. It requires response. It is a dialogue between a purposeful God and his chosen instrument. It is a dance between a God who would lead and someone invited to match his steps to the Lord’s.
Scripture has a number of examples of people who were called (in the “commissioned” sense), but treated the calling lightly, held it loosely, or refused it altogether. Saul had the call of God on his life but proved unfaithful. Judas heard the call as surely as Peter or James, but was not willing to sacrifice everything on its altar. Esau was the firstborn, owned the birthright, was heir to the promises, and gave away his call for lunch.
Not all who are called accept. Not all who accept act. Not all who act conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the call. In such cases, God must cast about for another, find someone else upon whom to lay his hand; or—as with Judas—find a way to make even refusal an integral part of accomplishing his purposes.
But even a “successful” call is not a simple thing. Rarely does God say “Go,” and some Moses respond “I will,” with God’s purposes resulting. Rather, in Scripture, there is a progression to this “dance,” a pattern to the call, that crops up with some frequency, transforming the “call” from an event into a process, and complicating the simple command/obedience sequence you might expect.
Initially, for instance, the call of God is often heard with skepticism, confusion, and outright resistance. Samuel did not recognize the voice in the night when he himself was called (1 Sam 3). He did not understand God’s criteria for calling David (1 Sam 16:6ff). Gideon required proof that it was, in fact, God who was calling him (Judges 6:17ff). Moses offered all manner of excuse to evade the call (Exod 3 and 4). Claims to unworthiness (and an implied request to be excused from the call) are common: Moses, David, Gideon, Saul, Isaiah, Peter, Paul.
The story of Jonah, of course, portrays a resistance to the call of God that moves beyond timidity and confusion to active disobedience and vigorous attempts to escape God’s call. Jonah “ran away from the Lord” (Jonah 1:3); he was “displeased” and “angry” with his commission (4:1). He obeyed God’s call late, reluctantly, and only kicking and screaming.
Most resistance to the call of God does not go so far or tread so close to blatant defiance. But the fact of resistance is common, almost “usual.” This resistance is, to some degree, a testament to one’s understanding of the seriousness of the call. The call is disruptive. It usurps personal agendas and dreams. It requires much and promises only the pleasure of God in return. The way of the call is fraught with danger, difficulty, discouragement, and discomfort. Someone who does not resist the call of God simply fails to understand what is being asked.
Once the call is heard and initial resistance is offered, there comes that beautiful moment when the call is accepted—when invitation morphs into submission: Moses yielding to the insistence of God; Jesus obeying with “not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42); Isaiah offering “Here am I, send me” (Isa 6:8); Paul testifying that he “was not disobedient to the vision from heaven” (Acts 26:19). Time after time in Scripture, God’s call meets with human submission. The commission, however burdensome, is embraced. And the stage is thus set for God to accomplish his purposes through partnership with some chosen man or woman.
Even that does not finish the process, however. Often, submission to the call is followed by a long (sometimes very long) period of preparation. Paul is the example most ready-to-hand. His commission on the Damascus Road was followed immediately by three years in Arabia (Gal 1:17-18). Another fourteen years (Gal 2:1) were spent in Asia Minor and Antioch as Paul learned the ropes of a ministry to the Gentiles. Samuel apprenticed under Eli for years following his call. David was honed and readied for his calling through long years of warfare and political maneuvering and avoiding Saul’s anger. Jeremiah was called but had to endure the exile before he was given a meaningful message for Israel.
Even this does not encompass the process of calling. Often, there is a time of testing associated with the call, a time when rebellion or betrayal or awful ordeal must be endured for the sake of the call. Always, perseverance is required of those who have been called … a stubborn, dogged pursuit of calling in spite of circumstance or resistance. In the end, it is not hearing and accepting the call that makes the difference in accomplishing God’s purposes. It is proving faithful to the call over time, respecting the call to such a degree that nothing can dissuade or deter or distract, that permits call to bear effective fruit for the Kingdom.