A little over a year ago, I felt a crippling anxiety about whether God was calling me to move. For weeks, that pernicious anxiety ate away at me, making me a basket case—all in the name of following God’s will.
It was a problem. And many Christians seem to face the same problem: we worry whether God has called us take this job, or to move to this place or even to marry someone.
As I learned, the root of the problem is that “calling” is ambiguous. Callings can be general or specific. General callings fall under the umbrella of stewardship: We are called to make good decisions with what we’ve been given. Specific callings are directives. A directive from God is a call to perform some particular action.
For some reason, we are attracted to the idea that God generously doles out directives, especially when a decision seems big and important. I suspect that the attraction arises from uninhibited indulgence in the vice of vainglory—but that’s a separate discussion.
Scripture offer examples of both kinds of callings. In the Old Testament, Abraham is given multiple directives: for instance, he is told to pack up and move—and he is told to sacrifice his son.
But in the New Testament, we read the parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-30). In this parable, the master’s reactions to each servant’s actions make clear that he expects them to use the money in some way rather than bury it in the ground, even though they were not given specific instructions.
So how likely is it that you will receive a direct instruction from God? Scripture offers a way to answer the question. And the answer is: not very likely. It’s easy to check this on your own. Pick any biblical figure (except Jesus—it’s cheating to use Him since He’s both God and man) and count the number of times God gives that person a directive, then compare that number to how long the person lived.
What you’ll find is that even for someone like Abraham, directives were relatively rare. So if God rarely gave directives Abraham, Moses or Mary, maybe we need to adjust our expectations for receiving directives ourselves.
So if God doesn’t give you directives, does it matter what you do?
Absolutely. Christian tradition uses the language of stewardship to help us here. God is the master, we are His stewards. Everything you have—even your life itself—has been given to you by God. The only way not to be a steward of something you have is to own it. And nothing you have is truly yours—everything is on loan from God—so stewardship pervades every aspect of your life.
As stewards, we are expected to do something good with what we’ve been given, and that is why what we do with our lives matters. Moreover, in contrast with directives, which cover only a part of your life, the call to be a good steward lasts a lifetime. Jesus called Peter to walk on water only once; but he was to walk with Jesus for his entire life.
Stewardship—of your time, talents, resources, relationships and anything else you’ve been given—is your primary calling. And if stewardship is your primary calling, and if that call pervades your entire life, you need not worry about missing God’s calling for your life. Your call is simple: Use well the abilities that God has given you. Even for those decisions that seem big and important—where to move, what job to take, who to marry—your only call is to make a good decision. That is all there is to good stewardship.
But even this might seem stressful: You’re expected to use well the abilities that you have been given—yet you also haven’t been given explicit instructions for what that means. How do I know whether I’m using well the abilities God has given me? And how do I know whether I’ve made a good decision for those seemingly big and important decisions?
These questions point out that stewardship is hard work. We won’t always know what to do; sometimes we’ll screw up, and our mistakes will have painful consequences. But the goal of stewardship is not to avoid painful consequences. The goal isn’t to make all the perfect decisions, either. The goal of stewardship is to honor God. If that is our goal, then our focus needs to move away from what particular actions we take to what kind of person we are. For if we are people who desire to honor God, we will be good stewards, and therefore will use well the abilities that we have been given.
It takes training to be someone who desires to honor God. Sin leads us to do everything but that. Thankfully, there are a number of habits and practices—such as prayer, reading Scripture and fasting—that help us become good stewards. The Christian tradition calls these habits and practices spiritual disciplines, and there are many of them. While spiritual disciplines are often practiced individually, they are most powerful when practiced as a part of your life in a community of faith.
We don’t have to worry that we are going to make the wrong decision about what to do with our life, because stewardship is work that is filled with grace. God is sovereign over everything, and we can never mess up His plan. He is already pleased with us, no matter what, because through Jesus, we are His beloved children.
As Thomas Merton wrote, the desire to please God does, in fact, please Him. If the goal of your actions is to please God, you will use well the abilities that God has given you. And this is why the call of good stewardship is not, ultimately, terrifying. If I sincerely desire to honor God, to be a good steward of my life, I cannot fail to please Him, even if I pick up some cuts and bruises along the way. And that is good news.
Dan Padgett is a Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy department at Baylor University. He teaches philosophy, rides bikes and enjoys lots of good coffee in San Antonio, TX. For more information on Dan's philosophical projects and contact information, please visit his website.