One of the most thrilling moments in Christian history, even world history, came on Sunday, October 28 in 1787, when a young William Wilberforce wrote in his journal, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” And then with friends he set down to a decades long work, and against all odds of what should have happened, those two things indeed happened. First the slave trade was abolished then slavery itself in Great Britain without bloodshed, introducing a new era of better morals with a lasting impact for Victorian England.
To be inspired by Wilberforce’s call is not wrong. It keeps us close to the reality of a God who cares, a God who calls, and a God who acts through our actions. Wilberforce’s call raises our sights to live outside ourselves, to be empathically engaged with the suffering of others often inflicted by systemic sources, to work long and hard for a goal that is godly and at the same time seemingly impossible, to do what is right even when it attracts the ridicule of a yet-converted culture, to call evil evil and seek good for God’s sake and the sake of the whole family of humanity. Wilberforce’s call stirs our own deep desire to something good in the world—to leave a mark for the blessing of many.
However, inspiration flowing from Wilberforce’s call is not without deep and very subtle dangers. I’m sensitive to these because I’ve seen them in myself, precisely because Wilberforce’s story has had such an inspiring and enduring grip on my own vision and efforts. One danger is to desire a similar ‘great call’ in order to become great or famous. Another danger is that waiting for the great call obscures the way God normally calls and impedes our ability to hear what God is saying to us and how he is in fact leading. Yet another is that focusing on a great call can make us lose sight of the great calls that come to us every day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote truly and annoyingly in Life Together, “God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.” Underneath the desire to do something great can often lurk the desire to be somebody great. This is first danger. It is not uncommon that amongst the holy desires are not so holy ones: we hope to receive notice or even fame for godly successes or the nobility of our passions. We might hope for a special calling from God with some right motivations, but also for our own ego needs and self-gratification, or the need to feel special because we don’t know that we are in fact special simply by virtue of being the Beloved of God. Wanting a great call can prohibit us if what that it is doesn’t seem to us like it will lead to some greater thing.
But thankfully, mixed motives do not inhibit God from still calling and seeking to use us. Often obedience to God’s call provides frustrations, failure, and lack of satisfaction—laying bare the darker motivations for us to identify, confess, find healing, and grow beyond them. When this happens, we can respond to God more purely, and be in a better position to receive harder callings because we are less inclined to use them for our own ends. This is Moses (Exodus 3), who received his call only after his ego and self-reliance was dismantled in Midian. It only took 40 years.
Our response to this is honest self-reflection, the fearless spiritual inventory, to ask the question, “If I want to do something great for God…why? Really, why?”
A second danger of wanting ‘the great call’ is that it can obscure our ability to hear God’s call in the way he normally speaks, and that is to give the next clear step without telling us where that step leads. Throughout the Bible God often calls individuals to do something, without telling him or her where that call will lead.
This was true for Philip in Acts 8.26-40 and his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. God simply told Philip to go out to a road in the desert in Judea, without any other instruction. When he got there he saw a chariot and God said, “Go join the chariot.” Philip obeyed and there met an Ethiopian court official reading the Scripture but not understanding it. Philip taught him, opened his eyes to the Scripture, to Jesus and the man was converted, and he took the gospel home. In this way, Philip was obedient to a simple, clear call and his faithfulness resulted in the good news of Jesus Christ reaching the continent of Africa for the first time!
If Philip desired to reach Africa with the gospel, and was waiting for that clear great call, he may have missed this opportunity because he was unable to see how going to a desert road in Israel had anything to do with reaching Africa. And yet the call to road in Israel had everything to do with Africa, for God sees the big picture that our small acts of obedience paint. The big picture is God’s; our call is remain faithful with our brush-strokes, no matter how small or whether or not we can see how they fit.
Our response here is to respond faithfully to what we know, not to stress about the calling we’ve not yet received or is yet clear, and to take the next clear step.
The third danger of wanting or waiting for the great call is that it can make us miss the great calls that come to us every single day.
If Wilberforce was one of the great change agents of 18th century Britain, the 20th century equivalent for India was Mother Teresa. She had no aspirations for greatness, or desire to change structures or change the world. But in hindsight, she was like Wilberforce—receiving a clear call from God leading her to great impact and witness. Like Wilberforce’s her call was as clear and seemingly impossible. For her, it was to love the poorest of the poor in the darkest parts of India.
She famously and rightly said, “I am a pencil in the hand of God.” She understood that her life (and ours) was simply one with which God could draw, and what he drew was not her concern. She also said, “We can do no great things. We can only do small things with great love” and in that is the greatness of what we do. The Bible is very clear that if we do anything without love, even the things we may think are great are dust or worse. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) The great call that comes to us every day is to do everything for the glory of God, and to do everything with great love.
In this way, all that we do, even the smallest things, can be great. We start the day, survey it, and think about how we do our best unto God. We start the day, and ponder who we will encounter, and how we can simply love them as best as we can. This is a great call. It is nothing less than the call to image God in the world and be God’s agents of incarnating love in the world. This is not small. It is only our failure to recognize what really matters that makes it seem so.
Our response here is to do all things well and with love, and gladly know that these are great indeed, and be thankful that we’ve been given work to do, that we can worship and have others to whom we manifest the love of God. This is a great calling, and everyday is full of them.
And if in the midst of our faithfulness in the small things, the everyday great callings, if there God speaks to us as clearly as he did to William Wilberforce or Mother Teresa or Moses, we’ll respond faithfully because we’ll have been prepared to and shown able to handle it, and it won’t be about us. Through us God will do his great work, in all things, and keep painting his great canvas with whatever brushstrokes or pencil lines our lives add to his artwork of redemption.