31 January 2014

Phrases that Steal Praise: Dissecting Christianese

Two popular Christian phrases can pack a destructive punch. You'll probably recognize them:

Find your calling.
Do great things for God.

What could be wrong with these positive, motivational sentences? Aren't they pointing people toward influential, meaningful lives? Don't they encourage us all to use our gifts and impact the world?

Well, if you can, try to see these words with a fresh perspective with me. It's hard to redefine what's been treated like a catechism, but the Bible's focus is not aimed at the same goals inspired here. Reread the statements above. Who is being highlighted?


"Find your calling" and "do great things for God" are usually advice given to the aspiring young, and they are meant to stir up a desire to reach the world, make a difference, and use their talents to convert the masses.

But . . . does this vision create far-sighted Christians?

For example, if a college student is fired up to hit the mission field once he's graduated, he may slack in classes he labels irrelevant.

Likewise, if a mother sees a church ministry as her most important duty, she may neglect her husband, children, and home in exchange for recognition, appreciation, and affirmation from others outside her family.

Or, if a missionary values his monetary support more than honesty and vulnerability, he may tweak his newsletters to highlight success and growth instead of acknowledging struggle, inertia, and need.

Of course, no one will admit this. There are other phrases that go well with these decisions--"God called me to do this,""I am feeling led," and "This is God's will for me"--all which conveniently put the entire decision out of our hands so no one can contradict us.

Where, then, is there room for accountability?

So many questions here. What are the answers? As always, we must look to the Bible.

1. "Find your calling."
When Paul talks about "callings," he is referring to our calling into God's family (1 Corinthians 1:26, 2 Timothy 1:9) which includes our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Paul further describes our role as that of a slave--one who submits, obeys, and disciplines himself for service. So the Biblical definition of "calling" would refer only to our separation from the world and adoption by Christ.

The present church's use of calling is for a type of work, even though this isn't found in Scripture. Paul encouraged workers to glorify God in their situations (1 Corinthians 7:17). While he did say to desire the greater gifts, he did not advocate that everyone seek out a certain God-ordained path and forsake everything to find and follow it. We've taken a word and given it magic--now when we say "calling," we seem to speak for God. 

Did we stop to consider that we may not need to change our situations but rather be faithful in the little things already in place?

2. "Do great things for God."
"Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men" (Colossians 3:23).

Doing great things should not be on our agenda. Jesus could have started a revolution against Rome. He could have overturned slavery. But instead His definition of greatness was obedience to His Father--His greatness was sacrifice, submission, and compassion. And He is our example.

3. "This is God's will."
The "will of God" is known and revealed in the Bible. It is how we are to live as Christians--becoming more like Christ. Colossians 1:9 says we may be "filled with the knowledge of His will" and Ephesians 5:17 says, "So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is." The will of God is for us to obey the Bible.

Again, the present church's use of this word is different. We say "God's will" now and mean a mystical revelation of what decision we are to make. Frankly, if it is God's will, then it will happen. Until then, we cannot claim anything is His will unless it is explicitly stated in Scripture.

"I must love my spouse and take care of my children." Yes, that is God's will for me.
"I must be a good stewart of my resources." Yes, that is God's will for me.
"I must disciple others in the Bible's truths." Yes, that is God's will for me.
"I must become a missionary and move overseas." No, I cannot say that is God's will for me.

What can I say, then? Try this:

"I see an opportunity for me to move overseas and disciple others there. I can do this while still being faithful to my other responsibilities of family, finances, and church. I've prayed about this big decision and feel peace about doing it, so I'm starting the process. If God wants to use me in this way, then it will happen."

Playing "the God card" closes conversations and dodges your part in the decision. Respectful discussions are the better option.

(This conversation can go much deeper: dividing the use of "God's will" into the three categories of God's sovereign will, His moral will, and His specific will in individual's lives. See the resources at the end of this post for further reading.)

The third commandment is "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" (Exodus 20:7), and while most people loosely paraphrase this as "do not swear," it has broader implications--ones that hit home to anyone using these common Christian phrases. When we justify our actions using God's name, may we dare not attribute our own choices to His special revelation. We are prideful by nature, and the temptation to erase opposition is high; however, we are instructed to speak truth, live wisely, and walk in the Spirit. Claiming a calling, pursuing great things for God, and declaring God's will in our own decision-making are all uses of God's name--and we must be careful for He says He "will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain."

As Christians, our daily aim should be God Himself--over ministry and over greatness.
Our life's mission should be sanctification, discipleship, and worship.

May we use God's name with reverence.
May we know and do His will as revealed in the Bible.
May we embrace what responsibilities are ours and glorify Him with hard work, regardless of recognition.
Then humbly, may we be useful to Him.

I realize not everyone will agree with this post, but I welcome all to a respectful, Bible-based conversation. Do you use these phrases differently? Are you confused by the church's present use of "calling" and "God's will"? Do you wonder if your situation is "great" enough? Please comment. Let's talk. 

For further reading on these difficult topics:
Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen (online overview)
Slave by John Macarthur (video promotion of book although note that the free offer is expired now)


  1. How about instead of doing great things for God, let God do great things in/through us? Great article. Very thought-provoking.

    1. Yes, that is the perspective we need--getting close to God who THEN uses us. Instead, with the focus reversed onto doing great things, too many people bypass the oneness with God. I like Hudson Taylor's quote: "All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them." He was an amazing example of someone who accomplished much not because he set out to do so but rather because he was totally submitted to God.

      Great insight, Angie. Thanks for sharing!

  2. "Playing "the God card" closes conversations and dodges your part in the decision."

    VERY well put!

    I remember hearing years ago of a man who was asked to serve on the board of a Christian organization. He was brought out for the interview process, and went to the first board meeting. There the chairman constantly said, "God told me to do this" "God is leading me to do that" The applicant was asked after the meeting if he was willing to come serve on the board, and replied "Don't expect me to come here & vote against you & God!"

    All to often "God told me to" is just a person's way of saying "Don't dare to question me!"


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