People often use the words “calling” and “leading” interchangeably. We say things like, “God is calling me to serve” or “I sense the Lord is leading me to take this opportunity.” While there is nothing wrong with this, a calling and a leading really are two different things.
A leading is a form of general guidance or direction given by God. The Lord promises to be with us and to work in and through our lives. This means we can pray and ask God for guidance concerning whom to marry, what job to take, where to move, etc., and we may feel promptings from God to do things like get baptized, take a mission trip, or engage in a ministry. These are leadings. We should pray for them, and we should respond in obedience when we receive them.
However, a calling is much bigger than a leading. A calling is all-encompassing and affects all areas of life. When Jesus called the disciples to follow Him, they left their careers, their security, their friends, and their homes. When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he began by saying, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Being an apostle was not just a job or a title for Paul—it was lifestyle.
Leadings can occur without a calling.
We can receive the Lord’s guidance and direction with or without a clear sense of calling. In prayer, we should ask God to open doors, close doors, and direct us and guide us in the path He has for us, but if we don’t have a sense of calling, we shouldn’t worry. Instead, we should continue in prayer. We can always pray for healing, opportunities, and guidance. In fact, many people who didn’t have a master plan for their lives approached Jesus, asking Him to do something for them, and Jesus often intervened. The Lord also used multiple people in Scripture who didn’t have a sense of calling, and He still does the same today.
Leadings can occur within a calling.
For those who do have a sense of calling, God gives leadings within a call. At the Passover, prior to His arrest and death, Jesus directed His disciples to go and find a man carrying a jar of water. “Follow him,” Jesus told them and ask him for a room to prepare the Passover. Jesus was preparing for His sacrificial death and the conclusion of His entire purpose for coming to earth. Within that grander vision, Jesus was celebrating the Passover with His disciples. At this Last Supper with them, Jesus would give final instructions and implement a new ordinance for the Church to carry out. So, within Jesus’ calling—God’s eternal plan of salvation—Jesus followed God’s specific leading, directing His disciples to prepare and ultimately share in the Passover. When God gives people or churches a calling, He also provides direction within that calling for specific aspects of the journey.
Leadings do not guarantee that we are following a calling.
We need to be careful not to confuse following leadings with following a calling because we can follow leadings without following a specific calling or even without following God’s overarching plan for our lives. In the Old Testament, God led the Israelites everyday for 40 years. He used a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and an anointed man named Moses, whom He spoke to as face to face. Yet even though the Lord led Israel everyday, the Israelites refused to walk by faith and trust in God’s larger calling of going into the Promised Land. As a result, they went in circles. This is important because if we don’t make this distinction and we mistake God’s leadings for a calling, we may also find ourselves going in circles, even though the Lord is giving direction to our lives. Or, we may simply be content with small directives when God may have something larger for us.
The point in all of this is that, whether we feel a sense of calling or not, whether we have accepted a calling or are running from one like the Israelites, God will still lead us and offer us guidance. In the midst of following this guidance, however, we should be careful not to mistake a leading for a calling. A calling is much larger and all encompassing. It is a summons to a way of life and will require much more of us than a leading.