What Does it Mean to be Called?

Today on the show, I want to give you a small taste of Os Guinness’ book, The Call

While many other books will give you tactics and tools to discover your calling, or to focus your vision, and so on – I want to start with The Call because it gives us a foundation, which I think most of us understand is absolutely essential before you build anything that’s going to last.

I’m definitely not going to cover everything the author has packed in here, so I recommend you get the book and read it for yourself. 

The Call is not a recipe book. By that I mean it’s not a plan-you-life by following these 5 or ten or twelve steps to whatever book. Rather, it is an invitation to examine calling, what calling is and what it is not, and the dangers of the distortions of calling. 

What is Calling?

A quick trip to the dictionary offers these definitions:

  1. the act of a person or thing that calls.
  2. a call or summons
  3. a strong impulse or inclination
  4. a convocation (like a meeting)

The origin of our word for the vocal meaning of “calling” has its origins in the Old English “hildecalla” which means “battle cry.”  Calling also shares roots with the Latin word for “glory” – ”gloria” – and this is where the vocational meaning of calling, the one associated with purpose and meaning comes from. 

The idea of calling and vocation is important to us because it affects our personal identity, humanness, and significance. 

The main idea for The Call is that there is no calling without a Caller. As Guinness says, “If there is no Caller, there are no callings—only work.”

Here is how the Guinness defines Calling: 

“Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.”

Os Guinness, The Call

We are called by someone, to someone, and for someone. And that someone–the One who calls us– is Christ. This is our primary calling.

That which we see as a vocational or occupational calling – those things we do in response to the primary call, are the secondary callings.

Calling, when it is seen as a response to God‘s call, requires us to stand up as in the image of God not only in the exceptional moments when people are watching, but also in the quiet, the mundane, and in the hidden places of our lives. We are called not only into an occupation, but to life itself. And that life transcends our own frame of reference, and reaches beyond our understanding. 

“God’s call is God’s word to each of us, powerful, precious, and deeply personal.” he goes on to say “Our calling is the sphere of our responsibility. But we are not responsible to our calling. We are responsible to God, and our calling is where we exercise that responsibility.”

Os Guinness, The Call

My interpretation of Guinness’ point is this – that our primary calling is to follow Christ. Our secondary calling is the way in which we exercise the responsibility He gives us to act and  influence within the sphere of our responsibility. Every part of that secondary calling is saturated with the primary calling. The two are intertwined. If I pursue my secondary calling in a way that is inconsistent with the primary calling, then I have missed the point. 

Distortions of Calling

Guinness points out two distortions to calling, The “Catholic Distortion” so named for the time when it first gained traction – this distortion elevates the spiritual over the secular. Think about the sacred life of monks versus the mundane lives of those outside the church.

Then there is the “Protestant distortion” which elevates secular over spiritual so that work becomes the thing we serve. Consider the term “full-time Christian service” – is someone who practices their calling outside of what we consider ministry work, or work within the church or a para church organization then not practicing their primary calling? Not at all! But our language gives away what we truly believe. 

Then there is the term “vocational calling” which – remember our definitions – means “calling calling.” So what we mean by “vocational calling” is actually “occupation” or work, and before we know it we’ve separated that area of our lives from our primary calling.

Consider these distortions as evident in the myriad of personality tests, gifts inventories and so on. Think about such tests you may have encountered in the workplace or as part of a self improvement program. The results can be useful to find what our natural tendencies are, but they are largely too broad and don’t really consider specific individual gifts. 

Now think about such a test you might encounter at church. These tend to focus on spiritual gifts, and ignore natural gifts. Often, it seems these tests are geared toward filling up volunteer positions within the church, separating them from life outside the church. 

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Other gifts assessments combine the two, but, in Guinness’ words, “they divorce the discovery of giftedness from the worship and listening that is essential to calling”

God's Call

Four Key Distinctions

If we are not careful, the two great distortions take hold. The key, according to Guinness, is to balance giftedness with stewardship. How do we do that? Guinness offers four distinctions – four areas where we must carefully watch the way in which we view calling.

First, we should remember the distinction between individual or particular calling and general or corporate calling. If I elevate my personal calling and giftedness about that of the community, then it’s a sign I have gotten my secondary and primary callings mixed up. 

Then there is the distinction between a special calling and original or ordinary calling. By this the author means we are all called, but there may also be a specific, supernatural and direct calling from God. Everyone has an original or ordinary call. Not everyone has a special call. The ordinary calling is not a “lesser” calling.  

And we can inordinately elevate either the special call or the ordinary call. In one case, everything is treated as supernatural and nothing as ordinary. Not to say we don’t live with a sense of awe and wonder. But there is a real danger if we think we need a special call before we can do anything, because if we wait and ignore the ordinary call, then our gifts and talents remain unused. 

Think about social media and the many opportunities we have for comparing ourselves with others. It’s so easy to fall into the comparison trap and to believe that whatever calling or gifts we have are somehow inferior—or superior. Either of these is destructive. 

The third distinction is between something being central to our calling and something being peripheral. Importantly, we must remember calling is central to the whole of our lives. So it is not only what we do and who we are; it also includes our relationships, and a fallen world.

Guinness says: 

If there had been no Fall, all our work would have naturally and fully expressed who we are and exercised the gifts we have been given. But after the Fall this is not so. Work is now partly creative and partly cursed. Thus to find work that perfectly fits our callings is not a right, but a blessing.

Os Guinness, The Call

I wanted to highlight this because it’s easy to fall into the platitudes and the tactics and the pathways that we pass around on social media. It’s easy to find ourselves in these echo chambers where everybody’s “crushing it” and we can chase after gurus and get caught up in the next big thing. It’s like binge dieting for our minds, consuming content out of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and it’s not healthy. 

It is possible to nail it – to know your calling and pursue it with excellence, and still not see it come to fruition yourself. I’ll refer to Hebrews 11. We love the first part where the dead are raised and blessings flow, but what about the last verses of that chapter? The ones that come after “There were others who…” and “By the same faith…”  I’ll let you look that up.

Finally, there is the distinction between the clarity of calling and the mystery of calling. As Guinness writes, “What may be clear to us in our twenties may be far more mysterious in our fifties because God’s complete designs for us are never fully understood, let alone fulfilled, in this life.”

I’m on the older end of this one. And I know if I had known at the start what I know now, I may have been too frightened to take the first step. But I’m glad I did. 


Set aside some time over the next few days to sit alone and present yourself and your gifts, your talents and your tendencies to God. 

There’s a song that says “Here’s my heart, Lord–speak what is true.” It makes a wonderful prayer.

Somewhere in that quiet place and in that surrender, may the God who created you speak truth about who you are and who He created you to be. 

Let’s hear from you

What are some books you’ve read about calling and purpose? What stuck with you or helped you–and why? Record a short voice memo one minute or less-and let us know. Email the audio to connect@lifeandmission.com – we might play it on a future episode. Or, you can write your answer in a simple email message.  Either way, I’d love to hear YOUR recommendations.

Part Two – Ep. 33 – Living for the Audience of One

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