My kids and I were reminiscing recently about the day their Dad got the phone call with the offer of the job that had him traveling more this summer than any of us has would have preferred. I was the one who jogged the girls’ memory, because I didn’t want them to lose sight of the way we waited and waited for it to come, and then rejoiced when it did, even as we lived in a season of struggle with how saying “yes” to the call made our summer different than we would have preferred. This job was one my husband wanted because he knew it was a great fit for his skills, and it would provide for us sufficiently that I wouldn’t have to work so much. Bu it wasn’t, the job he wanted most, or at least first, when he first started his job hunt after being laid off. There was another one, with a local company, that was one of those on-paper positions that read like someone had taken my husband’s resume and written a job description just for him. So my husband applied for it, and then he waited, and waited. But the call never came, so that’s not the job my husband took.
Most of English dictionaries definitions of the word “calling” are something along the lines of “a strong inner impulse or desire to pursue a particular course of action or vocation.” It doesn’t account for the strong desire’s origin, or for what happens if the strong desire suddenly evaporates. Vines Dictionary tries a little better, orienting some of its definitions in God’s action, versus our reaction to His action. But for the most part, “calling” has become the default term for the inclination of our heart that leads us into particular work, with the emphasis on us as the called, rather than God as the caller.
That emphasis can be more than a little problematic. Just imagine if my husband had been so convinced that the local job he wanted was the one he should have, that he just showed up at the front desk one day, asking where his new office was going to be. The only call someone might make would be the one to the security office so they could drag him bodily off the premises.
The fact is, when you look at the ways God calls people to do a particular work for Him in Scripture, you’ll notice that the people He calls aren’t exactly checking their phones for messages from Him.
Moses certainly didn’t telegraph any aspirations to lead the people of his natural birth out of his adoptive home.
Esther didn’t volunteer to be a Miss Persia pageant contestant and the eventual wife of an infamously cruel foreign king.
Jonah’s response to God’s call to preach repentance the Ninevites was running, not rejoicing.
There’s little in any of these stories to indicate any of these followers of God felt much like joy or fulfillment in their callings. It’s more the opposite. Faithfulness to their calling probably looked a lot more like isolation, struggle, and a regular battle with discontent than anything else.
And that’s probably what the calling of motherhood might have felt like for the Christian women of Crete.
American Christians place marriage and motherhood on high and decorated pedestals, but the newly converted women of ancient Crete viewed these states far differently. Women in Crete were literally given in marriage by their parents at a very young age, to far older men, for the sole purpose of caring for the house and producing children, preferably boys. They were kept isolated in their homes and spent their days caring for it, and their children, many of whom would die in infancy. To be called by God to love their children, and the husbands to whom they had been given without their consent, let alone choice, was a radical reversal of their expectations, and not a calling they would have easily understood. No wonder Paul exhorts the older Christian women of Crete to “teach” that kind of love to the younger women. It was hardly what would have felt natural – it was, and is, supernatural. It can only come from God.
I cling to this truth in seasons when my calling as a mother feels similarly challenging. My experience of coming into parenthood was the near opposite of what the woman in this article at Desiring God describes. Having been taught that marriage and motherhood was a woman’s highest callings, I was certain of this calling and longed for it with all my heart, not for God’s sake, but for my own. I wanted them as the symbol of God’s blessing and affirmation I believed them to be. But when God finally granted them, I experienced far less joy, and far more isolation and difficulty, than I ever would have imagined or had been lead to expect. When my first daughter was born, I dutifully left the full-time workforce to care for her and throw myself wholeheartedly into that most blessed of identities, the SAHM. But the isolation, the sleep-deprivation, and the 24-hour-ness of it all crushed me. In feeling crushed instead of complete, I was forced to re-examine the legitimacy of all the expectations and assurances about motherhood I’d been given, how self-motivated my desire had been for them, and how lacking and inadequate they were. Meanwhile, the times when I felt the most joy, the most certainty of my gifting and ability to do good for the Kingdom, was when I was able to work.
But the joy and deep fulfillment I felt, and still feel, in my paid work, and the desire to pursue it, were no more justification for me to set aside my calling to love my children, any more than the joy and fulfillment I’m tempted to think I might find in another relationship might justify my setting aside my calling to love my husband. Over the years, saying “Yes” to God’s call to love my children has meant saying “No” to a myriad of different professional opportunities to which I would have dearly loved to say “Yes” and said “No” to with regret, and even tears. It’s also often meant hearing “No” from companies who don’t like the gaps in my resume, or who want the experience I most certainly would have had if I’d stayed in fulltime work all these years. This summer, fulfilling God’s call to love my children has meant saying “Yes” to beach days and endless Monopoly games, and “No” to my writing gifts and ambitions, and the long list of half-written articles in my Drafts folder.
The struggles I’ve experienced in my calling pale in comparison with those of others I know and love:
The calling to celibate singleness when you long for marriage, and the world offers a pale substitute it promises would do just as well. The calling to care for a dying or disabled family member, when you thought your calling was to care for others elsewhere.
The calling to work to keep food on the table and a roof over your head, and to rely on others to help care for your children, when your greatest desire is do it all yourself.
These are the callings God gives that we in our flesh would sometimes prefer He didn’t. But these are the callings in which we discover what it means to truly die to our self and follow the One who emptied Himself of His glory to die for us. It is in our days when we feel powerless, that we most experience His power in us; in the days of weakness when we most experience His strength. The fruits of faithfulness that the Holy Spirit bears in us are all the more sweet for their being borne on the tree of sacrificed, and sanctified, desires, rather than fulfilled ones.
Whatever our earthly calling, whether longed for, long endured, or long enjoyed, we ultimately wait for the day when the final call we receive will be the cry of command to leave all our other callings behind and be with Jesus.
That will be the last, and the best calling of all – to be forever with Him.