Back when I was 23 and raising support to be a missionary in Tanzania, you would have heard me say, “God is calling me.” I would have told you that I had a heart for teaching missionary kids. I would have told you that I loved Africa and wanted to see God’s kingdom built there. And those things were 100 percent true. I wasn’t a deceiver who was trying to pull the wool over my supporters’ eyes. But there was more to it than that.
As a teenager, I was terrible at sports and fashion, and my very introverted personality meant that I had all sorts of interesting thoughts going around in my head but they rarely came out articulately. My best friend was a cello player and a track runner and Valedictorian; I was always a few steps behind. But I had spent six years of my childhood in Africa. That was my thing. That I had experienced this whole other life—that’s what made me different. And I clung to it. A guy in college told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was so set on living in Africa, but that just made me more resolute.
And evangelical Christian culture made it easy. I could express my individuality and get lots of gold stars and pats on the back at the same time. Saying “God is calling me to Africa” put me on a higher spiritual plane; so very few people probed with deeper questions. But sometimes saying “God called me” can actually mask a lot of other motives.
When we want to be missionaries, it’s easier to say “God called me” than to say:
“I really love traveling.”
“I’m looking for adventure.”
“I want to stand out, to be different.”
“If I start a new life, I can leave my problems behind.”
“If I do this big thing for God, he will give me what I want.”
“I really like looking/feeling spiritual and all the attention that gets me.”
“I want my life to feel significant.”
Equally important, when we want to go back home, it’s easier to say “God called me” than to say:
“I don’t get along with my co-workers.”
“I can’t hack the way of life here.”
“My leadership hasn’t given me the support I wanted.”
“I miss my family too much.”
“I hate feeling incompetent all the time.”
“I’m so depressed/anxious/burned out that I can’t function anymore.”
The reality is, everyone falls for it. Saying “God called me” shuts down any questions. No one is allowed to argue with that statement. Because who wants to argue with God? But that’s why saying “God called me” can be dangerous. And we need to challenge the culture that allows it.
What do we even mean when we say “God called me?” Christians will give various answers, but a call from God often boils down to some kind of supernatural experience or a very strong feeling. The same line of reasoning is used with “God hasn’t called me.” If a person hasn’t experienced some sort of supernatural experience or strong feeling, then we believe that is an indication that the status quo is sufficient.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Often, “God called me” basically means “I want to” but with a spiritual veneer. So let’s think this through. Can God work through our desires? Absolutely. God gave us our emotions, our personalities and the way we’re “wired,” and he will use all of these to lead us and guide us.
Our emotions are often selfish, fickle and foolish. It’s quite possible for us to feel good about a terribly sinful choice (at least for a while). We are very capable of ignoring the Holy Spirit, misinterpreting Scripture or “hearing” what we want to hear from God.
So how do we know when God is actually leading us in a certain direction? And if we discover that hiding behind “God called me” are some selfish motives, does that mean he hasn’t?
Not necessarily. It’s very possible to have noble motives and selfish ones mixed in together. I once read that as fallen people, our motives are never going to be completely pure. We must remember that we are complex beings—capable of feeling multiple emotions and desires at once. We aren’t usually honest, even with ourselves, and sin will always be there, even when we’re being our most honorable.
So what does that mean for us as missionaries, whose whole lives are built on “a calling”? It means we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. We need to root out our deeper motives—all of them, even the ugly ones. And senders need to be careful not to be so dazzled by “God called me” that they hold back from asking those same hard questions. We (both the goers and the senders) need to remember that being a missionary doesn’t put us on a higher spiritual plane, immune from sinful motives.