On the Call to the Unlikely—More Reflections on Discipleship

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” —Acts 9:10-16 (NIV)

So those who imagine that they are called to contemplation because they are attracted by contemplation, when the common duties of existence steadily block this path, do well to realise that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit.

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognise not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this—and they are constantly happening—gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.

—From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill

The story of St. Paul’s conversion found in Acts 9 fascinates me, puzzles me, inspires me, and gives me hope. It is yet another story in a long line of biblical stories in which God uses the most unlikely folks to advance his work and will (see, for example, Joshua 2ff, Ruth, Isaiah 44:28-45:5, Jeremiah 25:9, and Christ’s interesting genealogy found in Matthew 1). I take heart and courage in this because like the psalmist, I “know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). This is not false modesty on my part; rather, it represents a profound sense of my own sinful rebellion against Christ. If I were to put forth a litany of my sins, the sheer scope and volume of them would be staggering—they are a source of both personal embarrassment and shame. Yet it is to God’s glory that the Bible makes it quite clear that our Lord uses the most unlikely suspects to accomplish his will. This is truly Good News because in the final analysis we are all unlikely suspects since we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That means there is hope for every one of us because God can and does use us irrespective of who we are or the personal baggage we bring to the Table. I can really appreciate and love a God like that. What about you?

Moreover, as Underhill makes poignantly clear, if we can overcome our self-doubts and answer God’s call to us, it sometimes manifests itself in ways we do not expect or anticipate. In each of her examples (as well as her own personal life), the person denied himself, took up his cross daily, and followed the call of his Lord, and in doing so, found profound blessing. Once again, there is Good News to be found here. God is gracious enough to use us, irrrespective of who we are, for his work and will. When we are wise enough to respond to God’s call (and it does NOT have to be to the ordained ministry), we find additional blessing when we deny ourselves and work to serve the Christ who loves us and gave himself for us.

And so while I have to scratch my head in wonder about God wanting to use me as an ordained minister, I must always remember that I am in good company of the redeemed and forgiven; I am part of the Communion of Saints and this great Cloud of Witnesses. As such, my faithful response is not to question God’s wisdom in using me for this work but rather to be as faithful as I can to his call and just do it. That means denying myself, taking up my cross daily, and following Jesus. As I begin a very heavy load of seminary work, continue to teach at Ashland University, work a part time job in Toledo, remain active in my church, and maintain the daily disciplines of prayer and reading the Bible, I will count on Christ to sustain me in the work to which he has called me. This is my only hope because if left to my own devices or if I revert to sinful self-reliance, I’m toast.

What about you? Have self-doubts prevented you from answering Christ’s call to be his disciple? If so, how did overcome your doubts (or did you)? How can Christ use us to help each other overcome our doubts and fears? How can daily Bible reading, prayer, tithing, weekly worship, and small group fellowship be important in helping us overcome our doubts and fears so that we might respond faithfully to Christ’s call to us? Tell us your stories so that we might take heart and hope, all the while continuing to watch over each other in love.