“When [Moses] was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites. When he saw one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his kinfolk would understand that God through him was rescuing them, but they did not understand.” (Acts 7:23-25)
What is the connection between what we feel on the inside, on the one hand, and divine providence, God’s plan for us and for the world, on the other? Does God’s providence work like that sometimes? Does He operate by putting a desire to do something in the heart of a person? If that is so, how can a person know whether that desire is really from God, i.e. whether God truly intends for that person to undertake the respective desired work, or not? What happens in the case when a person finds himself with a strong desire to do this or that for the sake of the Gospel, is fully convinced that this desire comes from God and represents God’s calling for him, and yet it doesn’t work out?
The narrative about Moses, here being retold by Stephen before his martyrdom, is quite interesting. On the one hand, Moses has a sincere and proper desire to see that his people be freed from the yoke of Egyptian slavery. On the other hand, he attempts to bring about their liberation in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and he fails. And yet Moses is the man chosen by God to lead the Hebrews out of slavery and subjugation into the freedom promised them by God. But the people do not recognize this calling on the part of Moses, even long after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds.
There is even more to this interesting story. Moses initially feels a strong desire to save his people, as Stephen says. But when God actually calls him from the burning bush, Moses presents excuse after excuse, seeking by any means to avoid the calling which God placed on Him. He was receiving exactly what he wanted — or in any case, he was receiving what he had wanted some years before that, but now he thought it too much for him. From this I understand that we might at times have a proper sense of God’s calling for us, but we do not understand the proper time. And it is even possible that, when the time comes, we no longer find ourselves equally desirous to do the thing to which we are called.
Thankfully, from the episode with Moses we can understand that God, if He has a special calling, seems to insist on its being fulfilled. He does not take No for an answer from Moses and even makes concessions to his weaknesses, such as letting Aaron speak for him to the Egyptian rulers.
But it is also true that God’s calling for Moses was confirmed by some external means. Moses was not just someone with a desire to liberate the Hebrews. His calling from God was confirmed by something outside of himself, by the miracle with the burning bush and the signs and wonders of the Exodus and, in the end, as God Himself specifies, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).
There arose many other would-be liberators of Israel in history. Gamaliel mentions them in the council when they discuss the pesky Galilean movement of Jesus followers — Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:35-39). They were not called by God. We can know for sure that they had a very powerful desire to see Israel freed from captivity. But they were not so sent by God, in spite of the piety and respectability of their wishes. God was not with them in what they were doing. This is why discernment is so important. It is not enough simply to feel a strong desire for something. Our desires may be good ones, but it does not follow from the fact that I have a desire for something that therefore God is calling me to do it.
I remember I once read a book on discerning God’s will when I was doing my MDiv. Around that time I had applied for a PhD program and, despite my every expectation, I was not admitted. I was very disappointed by that and I wanted to know why that happened to me. Reading this book on discerning God’s will, I came away with the conclusion that discerning God’s will is next to impossible. For every event that takes place, there are multiple possible interpretations, multiple ways of fitting it into a more general idea of what God is up to. Things only make sense looking backward from a distance, so to speak — i.e., once much time has passed and you have moved on from the thing in question. Like someone once said, life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.
What does this mean for the question of divine calling? In many evangelical circles, faithful persons are concerned to try to discern “what it is to which God is calling them in this season of their lives,” to use the evangelical jargon. Many times I wonder whether or not this is just a waste of time and a source of needless anxieties. In the case of Moses, there was a clear calling, accompanied by signs and wonders and the very insistence of God. It seems to me that if there is some important calling for your life, God is more than capable of making it clear to you as such. Otherwise, perhaps nothing remains except for you to make good use of your time and resources in whatever you judge to be best.