Perhaps one of the most confusing pieces of Christian vernacular is the language of being “#Called.” Someone who claims a “calling” is typically sharing how God has called her or him to go into the full-time, ordained clergy service or travel abroad to be a missionary or evangelist – something exclusively and, generally, professionally in service to the Church. Preachers and devotional books often look to scriptures such as the ever-famous Jeremiah 29:11 to guide people toward a calling:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11 NRSV
While this is typically quoted to encourage an individual, leaving those without a clear sense of calling bewildered about “God’s plans” for them, let’s explore 3 ways in which this scripture might just be the best advice for those who can’t seem to figure out what God is calling them for.
You Means Y’all
Depending on where you travel in the United States, there is a special word that covers the 3rd person plural. I’ve heard “you-ens,” “yous guys,” “ustedes,” and the more southern variety, “y’all.” I often joke that “y’all” is the most inclusive word in the English language, despite any grammarians who might balk at such rudimentary choices in my speech. What I find more confusing is when people try to say “you” as a plural noun.
The Hebrew word for “you” in Jeremiah 29:11 is plural. If academics accepted the word “y’all,” it would have almost certainly replaced “you” in nearly half of the Old and New Testament passages in which “you” is found. Jesus often speaks to all of us, but it is translated as “you.” Jeremiah’s exhortation of hope is meant for the entire nation of Israel, many of whom are receiving Jeremiah’s words while exiled in Babylon while the remaining are under Babylonian rule. All of Israel needs a word of hope, and all of Israel needs to know that God is thinking of them. All of Israel is included and has a part in what God is going to do.
Everyone is called.
Plans, Thoughts, or Steps?
Another translation issue between Hebrew and English in Jeremiah 29:11 is the word “plan.” The translators and editors of your Bible didn’t do a bad job, it’s just very hard to accurately portray the entirety of the meaning of a word in one language to another language that is used in a different culture and way of thinking. For example, the Inuit people have dozens of words for “snow,” whereas most English speakers simply say “snow.” The same goes for New Testament Greek, where we find 3 different words translated as “love,” but each word connotates a different kind of love inferred by the Greek word and culture.
The Hebrew word translated as “plans” in Jeremiah 29:11 would probably best be the word “thoughts” in English. In Hebrew, there isn’t a big difference. If God is thinking of you, then it means God is planning something for you. If you are close to God’s mind, then you are close to God’s heart. In Ancient Hebrew culture, God is responsible for all things.
The word “plan” in English connotates strategic efficiency, or at least we like to think that it does. What makes us so confused about Jeremiah 29:11 is that our expectation is that a plan is well mapped out for us with definite steps, and while at first, it seems remarkably clear something eventually goes wrong and the whole plan seems to blow up. This leaves us wondering “Does God have a plan?” because we don’t see a clear path, or we falsely assume that inconsequential events that God didn’t have anything to do with are clearly part of some plan that is unfolding but is so mysterious and grand that we’ll never know until we get there.
Perhaps a middle way would help us better understand God’s plans and thoughts, and what our steps need to be. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The human mind plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.” While we could read this to mean “the LORD plans every step for me,” that’s not what is meant in the context of Proverb 16 or the entirety of Proverbial wisdom. Proverbs 16:9 gives the reader permission to make overarching plans as long as the details of these plans is in accordance with the way of life God desires.
When Israel is called in Jeremiah 29:11 because God has plans for them, it’s part of a general calling versus a specific calling. Israel was given instruction and detailed dreams of what God hoped for, just as we are today. But none of those details dictated specific historical events or occurrences that needed to happen in order for them to fulfill their mission. The thoughts, dreams, and plans God has for us are more general, things like mercy, justice, peace, love, patience, kindness, and the other fruits of the Spirit.
If you don’t know the specific calling you have, try to change what you are already doing to match the ways of God in a general sense. That’s as authentic of a calling as any specific plan by God. As it says earlier in Proverbs 16, “Commit your ways to the LORD, and your plans will be established (16:3).
Perhaps our calling doesn’t mean always waiting on God for something new. Perhaps our calling has been there all along for whatever we’re passionate about.
But What About Me?
A general calling is typically where one starts. Most people need to gain a little spiritual maturity and practice before they may begin to sense a specific calling to their lives. We see this in Jeremiah 1 as Jeremiah is called specifically to deliver a specific message to the Israelites before, during, and after their exile. Jeremiah does claim, “I am only a boy (1:7) but Jeremiah’s family lineage of priests suggests he’s not a random person off the street. He might not be a priest himself, and may never be a priest, but he’s most likely been raised around the Torah and absorbed the law of God enough to recognize where Israel would be off-track and God might have a word for them.
Do you have to be a Biblical scholar to receive an individual calling? Absolutely not. But most people who receive a specific calling for a specific purpose generally do so in spiritually-adjacent moments of church camp, serving in ministry at a church or mission, or in a situation where they develop a deep concern for those around them. Frederick Buechner wrote, “To discern what God is calling you towards you need to discern the work you need to do and the work that the world most needs to be done.” Others have paraphrased him by saying, “Your calling is where your passion meets the world’s needs.” It can be argued that life apart from relationships, community, service, learning, or engagement will not help someone learn the world’s needs enough to discern a calling, and this is where most people miss where their personality, skills, or gifts would be especially useful in a specific way for building God’s desired world.
What about you?
Do you feel especially led in any certain way that jives with God’s desired way of the world?
Do you put God’s ways and dreams at the forefront of your mind in even the most mundane of the world’s tasks?
Are you seeking to be a part of the work of Christ even in the most general sense?
If you are, you know what it means to be #Called.
To find out more about how God may have called you or designed you for ministry. Check out the Spiritual Gifts Assessment provided by the United Methodist Church.