Part Three: The Conundrum of Calling

“Calling is a much abused word today. In the church it can be little more than a pious euphemism for doing what we feel like doing. Such abuse is brought to celebration in the secular culture, when doing what we feel like doing, attained by any way we feel like doing it, seems often to be what lies behind ‘career development.’” —Tilden Edwards

When God saw that Moses had settled down enough to listen and pay attention, he finally began to speak. Finally, the true God was able to address the real Moses. And the first thing God wanted to talk to Moses about was his calling.

Hearing the Call

In our day, it is easy to dismiss the idea of calling as an antiquated, overly-spiritualized concept, but in Moses’ case God called to him—literallyout of the burning bush. It was as if God was saying, “I know the questions about your identity have been a little confusing for you, but I have always known who you are. You are a Hebrew. No matter where you live, no matter who raised you, no matter how anyone tries to beat it out of you, no one can take your fundamental identity away from you.

“You know what it is to be displaced. You know what it is to live your life on someone else’s terms, to see the injustice of it all and want to do something about it. In the very essence of your being, you are someone who is not willing to let injustice go unanswered; your care for your people and their well-being is deep and genuine.

“Now that you know who you are, I am calling you to do something out of the essence of your being. You have submitted to the rigors of the wilderness. Come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

When the Pieces Come Together

In this moment, all the pieces of Moses’ life started to come together. Finally it was becoming clear that his calling was inextricably interwoven with his human situation and his own personal history. His passion for his people and the strong sense of justice that caused his violent outburst back in Egypt was at the heart of what God was now asking him to do. Even though his out-of-control reaction to the injustice he had witnessed back in Egypt was terribly wrong, the incident itself was not irrelevant. It was connected to something real within him. Before his encounter with God he had been propelled primarily by his own raw, human anger.

But being angry is not the same thing as being called.  Now God was calling him to move beyond his undisciplined, angry outbursts to a more substantive and helpful response. Now God was guiding him to embrace even more fully the person he had always been and, paradoxically, to also transcend it!

Turns out that naming and letting go of what was false within him was just the beginning; now God was calling him to claim his full identity and to lead boldly from that place. To go back to the place of his greatest pain and lead there was a lot to ask, but now—forty years later!—Moses’ time had come. God was asking him to step up and be everything he was and everything God would call him to be, for the good of many.

Moses discovered, as we all do, that our transformation is never for ourselves alone. It is always for the sake of others as well.

Holy Ground

When God calls, it is a very big deal. It is holy ground, producing within us such reverence and awe that it is hard to know what to do with ourselves. Finally, the whole of our life begins to make sense and the awareness of the Divine orchestration that has brought us to this moment makes us want to take off our shoes and fall on our face in worship and surrender.

We might even argue with God about the improbability of it all (as Moses did) but no matter how we might want to resist, suddenly the landscape opens up. Every single thing that didn’t make sense when it happened or that seemed too harsh or too random or too shameful, now finds its place in the storyline that brought us here.

We “see” with new eyes that God’s call upon our lives is so tightly woven into the fabric of our being, so core to who we are, that to ignore it or to walk away in refusal of it is to jeopardize our well-being. If we were to try to compromise or live it only halfway, we run the risk of being plunged into the darkness of emptiness and meaninglessness. This is Jonah trying to walk away from his calling, but ending up in the belly of the fish… or Jeremiah trying to abandon his call to be a prophet only to discover that it was like a fire shut up in his bones and he got weary from holding it in.  Somewhere along the way, we discover that the soul of leadership begins with who we are—really—not who we think we are, not who we would like to be, not who others believe us to be.

Let Your Life Speak

Who we really are includes (but is not limited to) the particularities of our own life, our heritage, our personality, our foibles, our passions and deepest orientations, and even our current life situation. Being called by God is one of the most essentially spiritual experiences of human existence because it is a place where God’s presence intersects with a human life. Our calling emerges from who we really are—in all the rawness and sinfulness of it—as well as in all the glory and God-given-ness of it.

There is no escaping who we are. Before calling has anything to do with doing, it has everything to do with being that essence of yourself that God knew before the foundations of the earth, that God called into being and that God alone knows–really. It is the call to be who we are and at the same time to become more than we can yet envision.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer observes, “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”

Being, Belonging, and Doing

The Biblical idea of calling is not easily dismissed. In its simplest and most straightforward meaning, the verb to call refers to the capacity that beings have to call out to one another, to stay connected, to communicate something of importance. This reminds us that calling is first of all highly relational; it has to do with one being (God) reaching out and establishing connection with another (us). It is an interpersonal connection and communication initiated by God and thus demands our attention and our response, even as a basic courtesy.

In the New Testament, the idea of calling is almost synonymous with salvation and the life of faith itself. We are saved from being who we are not and called to be who we are. God calls us first and foremost to be who he has created us to be.  Then God calls us to belong to the One who created us and to cultivate that belonging-ness with all of our hearts. Then only thirdly are we called to answer to God’s personal address to do something out of our being. We are called to say yes to God’s summons to serve him in a particular way at a particular point in history.

To say yes to our calling is one more step on the journey of faith which involves a glad, joyful self-surrender. It is living in the awareness that the most wonderful thing in the world is to be completely given over to a loving God.

The Fatal Question

At the heart of it, Moses’ story is one of calling. Why else would one choose to leave security and wealth, power and influence for such a risky proposition? After the initial pomp and circumstance, it was just plain hard—pretty much all the time. There was very little glory and a series of small humiliations. But there were also encounters with God that were profoundly disorienting, reorienting AND utterly satisfying.

In the book, Spiritual Pilgrims, the great psychologist Carl Jung once made this observation: “To the extent that a [person] is untrue to the law of his being and does not rise to personality, he has failed to realize his life’s meaning. Fortunately, in her kindness and patience, Nature never puts the fatal question as to the meaning of their lives into the mouths of most people. And where no one asks, no one need answer.”

Some people seem to make it through life without ever having to wrestle with the fatal question. Somehow they seem to move through life with the greatest of ease—making a living, enjoying the fruits of their labor, taking what seems to be an easy or at least a more clearly marked path to security and success—while others of us seem to be called to do strange things and orient our lives towards realities that others do not even see.

It is hard to be this kind of person—a person who has a fire shut up in our bones that we can’t seem to set aside without doing damage to the soul, a calling that continually takes us right out to the edge of our faith.

Saying Yes to God

And yet, a true leader is one who has heard the fatal question. S/he has seen a vision of what could be and continues to take steps in that direction against all odds. We might argue with God a bit. We might put forth every excuse that comes to mind. But God always wins this argument because every time we go down deep inside to listen, we know that what God is calling us to do is ours to do and that the path before us is ours to walk. We know it is the meaning of our lives. And so we say yes. For better and for worse, we say yes to meaning. We say yes to God.

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for
may for once spring clear
without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
These deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,
Streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

Rainer Marie Rilke

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. Adapted from Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity Press).

Expanded edition includes a group experience

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

All, I am really struck by how many of you are commenting that somehow this came to you right when you needed it! In paying attention to that it feels like being in the middle of the mystery we call God b/c it could not possibly have been humanly orchestrated. Thanks be to God! And thanks to YOU for responding and letting us know. God is using this today to keep me going. 🙂

Such a powerful article that resonates so deeply within me. As I’m knocking on the door of 70, I understand much of this at a deep, personal level. “Moses discovered, as we all do, that our transformation is never for ourselves alone. It is always for the sake of others as well.” Thanks for your continued excellent writing and sharing!!!????

Blessed be His name. Thank you.

Thank you – for these truths shared truly ‘from another world’ which we so desperately need in this present world. Much love and blessings!

Thank you for your words of wisdom today! Owning a business that was born out of my calling (who I am) has been an emotional rollercoaster. It was so encouraging to hear your words about Moses. So many gold nuggets. These especially rang true. Loved the poem as well.

“To embrace even more fully the person he had always been and, paradoxically, to also transcend it!
Turns out that naming and letting go of what was false within him was just the beginning; now God was calling him to claim his full identity and to lead boldly from that place. To go back to the place of his greatest pain and lead there.”

Peace & Grace!

But how to not lose heart while we are in the wilderness? What if we know our calling, know our purpose, feel like we’re suffocating on the inside to not live into it, but God has not yet made a path? What about when we feel all of the above you’ve described, but God says ‘not yet’?

Hi Jessie! I was in that ‘not yet’ season for quite a while before God gave me a resounding YES, THIS IS IT! During that time, I continued to dig deep in my studies (I had started seminary at 54!), continued to volunteer where He had already said yes in Outreach, and continued to stay in the Bible, developing strong faith relationships, etc. So basically, doing all the things. But when God opened the door, it all fell beautifully into place. So please keep doing with your doing, dig deeper if you need to, and trust that God has it covered. I will be praying for you for patience and peace in the waiting season…because the RUN season may be right around the corner! In Christ

Jessie, I hear your heart, your question, your longing….and Paula, this is such an encouraging word. If I might add one more thought… don’t confuse context with the calling itself. Sometimes we get overly attached to a particular context in which we see ourselves living out our calling–and sometimes its a bit grandiose. The problem is that when we focus too much on a particular context for living out our calling, we miss the simpler and less pretentious opportunities to just be the person God created us to be. Ultimately, nothing can keep us from being who we are right where we are in the life God has given us. This is calling in its most essential form. And as we stay faithful to that, even when it is mostly hidden, way opens in God’s time. There is more I could say but I will leave it here for now. 🙂

Thank you Ruth. I am very much looking forwarding to TC15 and expectant of what God will reveal.

Thank you Paula 🙂

Thank you
Thank you
Thank you

Thank you. I really needed this today.

Wow. It’s like this was directly written to me today. Thank you.


Your willingness to answer your “call” is making a difference in my life.

Thank you for saying “yes” !

Words of comment escape me…thank you. As always, this was right on time.

So incredibly timely. I needed the reminder to BE first. Thank you!

Excellent! Amen, amen, amen!

Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders

Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.