When Your Calling Feels Like Death
What makes you flourish?
It’s a helpful question to ask when discerning our calling. It assumes that God’s call grows from our gifts and passions, that we experience blessing as he works through us to bless others. And that’s scriptural and true.
But what about when our calling feels not like flourishing but like dying?
Yes, I’ve known seasons when following God felt like life and growth. Times when praying for someone brought transformation, when obeying the call to start something new brought growth. But I’m not in that season right now.
Right now it feels more like obedience. Like setting aside what I’d like to do and choosing instead to do what he asks. More like endless spreadsheets and emails and starting big challenges and less like seeing lives transformed. Seasons like this mean stepping into places that feel unsafe, that make me look foolish, daring to care about broken things that may never be fixed. God dares me to pray for release for the person who seems beyond hope. Personally, I’d rather not go there. I might be disappointed.
Yes, I believe that God leads us into life and growth. At times, though, I believe he prunes us.
We have admiration for martyrs—people who die publicly because of their faith. We know their stories from the Bible and church history. But what about the kind of martyrdom that slowly draws the life from us, not in an execution, but from a daily choice of being poured out like a drink offering?
In today’s ministry, we easily equate our work with life fulfillment and career goals. So what do we do with these words of Jesus?
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
In a culture that loves to measure success, how do we accept the example of the prophets? They were called to say and do faithful things to an unhearing, uncaring crowd, hammering on hard hearts. Prophets were called by God to feel his own pain, to long for things they would never see.
Dare we risk equating our story with the martyrs and the prophets, as ordinary as we are? It may be the only way our own story can make sense. The stories of martyrs and prophets may help us set aside other stories we’re tempted to believe. Twisted stories like these:
- When you’re not seeing fruit, it’s because you’re doing it wrong.
- When prayers aren’t answered, it’s because you’re unfaithful.
- When ministries elsewhere seem more successful, it’s a sign something’s wrong with you.
- When you don’t see God making all things new, it’s because God has forsaken you—or maybe doesn’t even exist?
One of the reasons I’m feeling this at the moment is because God is daring me to hope for a homeless couple. The first time I came across the surprisingly domestic scene of a couple sleeping under comforters on our concrete church entryway, I felt a love for them that I knew was not my own. I resisted it. I knew that to care was to confront my own inadequacy. To pastor them meant failure and frustration. But something asked me to love this couple. Reluctantly I obeyed and soon was part of the daily drama of their existence.
Their names were Theo and Lily. I learned why she was in a wheelchair and that she carried her mother’s Bible and read it every day. He was charming and chatty, an Irish redhead with an Italian name. But as I stepped into their world, far from my world of health insurance and hot showers, it was not a place of flourishing. How could it be that following the Lord’s prompts took me to a place where answers were scarce and God seemed absent? I’d obeyed because I wanted to be closer to him. But if God’s presence was found in answered prayer and solutions to problems, he had ceased to exist.
This kind of discomfort can become a moment to discern if we’re in the right place. Sometimes lack of outcomes may be a sign something should change. As leaders we can use discomfort to motivate those we lead (or to guilt-trip ourselves) to try harder and longer: “Ministry is hard. Suck it up.” But when we’ve discerned those things and still our work is hard, when we’ve prayed for release and no change comes, it may simply be that this is the life obedience has led us to.
In one of his last concerts, Rich Mullins said this:
When I read the lives of most of the great saints, they didn’t necessarily feel very close to God. When I read the Psalms, I get the feeling David and the other Psalmists felt quite far from God most of the time. Closeness to God is not about feelings, closeness to God is about obedience. ... I don’t know how you feel close to God. And no one I know that seems close to God knows anything about those feelings either. I know if we obey, occasionally the feeling follows, not always, but occasionally. I know that if we disobey, we don’t have a shot at it.
This life of obedience will likely call us to do things we don’t actually want to do.
We may be called to say goodbye to people we’d rather be with, to be with people we wouldn’t choose.
We may be called to stay in places we’d rather leave, and leave places we’d rather stay. He may call us to long for healing for someone who may never be healed, to pray for someone who may never be “fixed.”
Giving up our time and energy and control all feel like death. We may not admire these deaths as much as martyrs’ physical deaths, but what is a life if not our will and time and energy? This is living sacrifice.
According to Paul, we carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that his very life may be visible in our bodies. While we live a life that daily becomes less and less our own, Jesus’ own life becomes more and more evident, not just in a sermon we preached but in our bodily witness. As we become less, Jesus becomes more.
During this season of serving Theo and Lily, I vented to a wise mentor about my pain. I had felt the Lord so strongly in the prompt to care for them. But caring for them meant working toward miracles I rarely saw, hoping for changes that hadn’t come. How could the prompt that grew from his presence lead me away from his presence? I thought those who made sacrifices for him would at least get the pleasure of sensing him with them. My wise friend smiled kindly and said, “It seems you think your pain is your own.”
Could it be I was feeling the Lord’s pain every time Theo wondered how he’d care for his disabled wife every night she slept on concrete? Could it be that by daring to care for this couple I was being shown a tiny corner of God’s heart for every way this world is lonely and cold? Perhaps he was giving me a glimpse of Jesus’ obedience to step into this broken, sinful world. The suffering face of Jesus on the cross had always made me feel guilty. I didn’t want to be reminded that he suffered for me. Now I knew he suffered with me. That he suffered with Theo and Lily and every lonely, poor, weary person around the world and throughout history. Jesus’ obedience to the Father had taken him into intense suffering. And now I knew that his physical pain was only part of the suffering.
While this may not bring the pleasant flourishing our younger selves imagined when we first followed this call, a life of obedience certainly brings another kind of flourishing. Day by day, we slowly die to our own preferences. It may feel like being buried. But with Christ’s example we see that burial as a planting of something hopeful in the soil, something that dies only to burst into life. So we learn to live out Jesus’ own story:
“I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Mandy Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and author of The Vulnerable Pastor.