I remember well the feelings of frustration and disappointment. After moving to Louisville, Kentucky, to finish school and work with Muslim refugees, four different work opportunities with ministry organizations had unexpectedly fallen through. Friends and mentors had encouraged me that these opportunities were a really good fit and surely would work out. Yet there I was, freshly back from the Middle East, jobless in a new city, and almost completely broke.
I knew the need. The Middle Eastern refugee population was woefully under-engaged by the thriving Christian community in Louisville. I knew what I had been called to, reaching Muslims with the good news of Jesus Christ. So why weren’t the pieces lining up like I had been told they would? If I were to be effective while a full-time student, I’d need the time to engage refugees that a paid ministry role provided. I wouldn’t have the opportunity I needed to go deep into the Middle Eastern community if I had to divide my week between my classes and a “normal” job.
I remember pacing and praying in the upstairs apartment I’d moved into with some friends. I was alone that afternoon in the heat of a sticky Kentucky summer. “God, you have been so clear with me about my calling, and the need is real… why aren’t you allowing this to work?”
I kept pacing, praying, and thinking. My heart did not want to reenter the secular workforce. I had a deep, inner resistance to this idea and a lot of thought-out reasons why I shouldn’t just go get a job “like a normal person would”. I had a calling. God had been very clear about that. It had been demonstrated as being truly from the Lord through a year of testing it in the dust and wonder of the Middle East. So many had affirmed this and pledged willingness to support me financially.
And yet, there I was. There was no organization that would take me on and let me raise support through them to do Muslim ministry in Louisville. I was too new and unknown. Refugee ministry was not on most’s radars. And I was at a dead end. God was silent and I was basically penniless. Why had I made this move based on assurances and not based on an actual position offered?
It was then that this conversation started happening in my head:
“If you went to prison for Jesus in the Middle East, wouldn’t you accept that as from the Lord?”
“Well, yes, of course. That would be clear.”
“Even solitary confinement?”
“So being put in solitary confinement with no access to anyone, no one you could share the gospel with or disciple, that would still be enough?”
“Well, yes, because I would still have Jesus, and that would be enough.”
“So Jesus could call you to lose your ministry and go to solitary and you would accept that because you’d still have him.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Don’t you see? Your primary calling has never been to Muslim ministry, your primary calling has always been to Jesus.”
I stopped pacing. My brow furrowed.
“If you lost your ministry because of a season in prison, you’d still have Jesus, and you would see that as from his hand. So, what if Jesus asks you to step away from ministry now? To go out and get a normal job? Why would you not also accept that as from him? Is he not your real calling?”
Once these words were formulated in my mind, there was no undoing them. The logic was sound and biblical. I had never been called to a particular ministry in some kind of fixed, immovable way. I had only ever served at the pleasure of my king. And he was free at any point to ask me to change my role.
I would always be called to him. Other secondary callings were not forever and unchanging as this primary calling was.
What followed was peace – and a clearer view of my identity issues. Turns out I am prone to putting my identity and my value too much in my ministry, in what I do for God, in being a missionary. This is what was underneath my emotional opposition to going out and getting hired to do a typical college student kind of job. There was pride there, confusion, and some fear.
God’s plan was better. I would go on to work some good, normal jobs. I would tutor, mow lawns, paint porches, deliver furniture, deliver sandwiches – and learn hard lessons just like many of my peers of how to share the gospel with unbelieving coworkers in the workplace. I would learn how to still somehow reach out to refugees, even when I was working multiple jobs and taking a full credit load. My best friend, a refugee himself, would come to faith in this season.
When God eventually opened up paid ministry opportunities for me again, I was able to approach those roles with a greater humility and appreciation. I was also able to step into those ministries with much greater freedom, because the pressure of my value and identity was not placed on them. I knew my primary calling was to Christ and I sought to submit to the twists and turns of how he wanted me to live that out – ministry role or not. Some have said, “If God calls you to be a missionary, do not stoop to be a king.” I have learned that it’s just as true that “If God calls to to be a furniture delivery man, do not stoop to be a missionary.”
Yet I do find these old struggles cropping up again these days. Here we are, unexpectedly stuck in the US on medical leave, unable to return to Central Asia while the Covid-19 cases rage in our adopted city and region overseas. So far we’ve been unable to get permission to return due to the high-risk factors our family’s health poses. Once again, the work that we know we have been called to has been temporarily taken away. But consider the needs! Are are we not called to plant healthy church among our Central Asian people group? Yes, but first we are called to Jesus. And he has asked us to stay put for now, to rest, to visit lots of doctors, to drink lots of iced coffee and eat lots of bacon (unavailable where we serve), and to write more than we have ever written before.
I don’t know exactly what God is doing in our extended season of transition. But I am comforted knowing that so many of us in the Church are wrestling with these very same identity issues at this time of global pandemic. I trust that God will help us to remember that our primary calling is to Jesus, and not to whatever ministry activities we may not be able to do right now.
So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10 ESV)
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32 ESV)