Compromise is woven throughout our lives, whether in politics, workplaces, churches, marriages, or families. We compromise our preferences, our dreams, and (sometimes) even our values. In a broken world, and with broken lives, none of us gets what we want, does what we want, or even knows what to want all the time.
But when we talk about the call of God, compromise feels uncomfortable. We want to be resilient, loyal, faithful, and uncompromising.
Jeff and Terri felt called by God to provide short-term foster care for kids, but quickly felt out of their depth, emotionally overwhelmed, and spiritually unprepared for the stresses and challenges they faced. They stepped back from it, feeling guilt and shame for their “failure.”
Rebecca felt called by God to lead the compassion ministry at her church. She worked hard as a volunteer and served with great empathy. But when she got full-time work as an elementary school teacher, she found that the lesson prep and emotional drain left her with little energy for the compassion ministry. So with a sense of guilt, she pulled back.
Jerry had ministered to small churches for 30 years. He listened to colleagues insist that “preachers never retire.” Yet, he felt drained and depleted. He couldn’t tell anyone that he felt burned out and ready to quit. The fear of compromising a lifetime of ministry left him increasingly ineffective and discouraged.
You know some of these people. You may be one of these people. Challenging seasons come and go with their varying requirements. How do we stay true to God’s calling on our lives without compromising ourselves in these seasons?
We might begin by identifying two separate and significant aspects of our call.
Our First Call
The Bible makes it clear that all of us share a common call—the first call—to be (and live like) the children of God.
In the sixth-century BC, Daniel found himself swept up with other Jews and carried into exile to Babylon. He had little idea of what he should do in this foreign land, but he knew he belonged to God and the people of God. So, whatever happened, he had to be (and live like) a child of God.
In Daniel 1, we meet this extraordinary young man and read that “Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with [King Nebuchadnezzar’s] choice food or with the wine” and “God granted [him] favor” (Daniel 1:8, 9, New American Standard Bible). There’s no indication that God had specifically called Daniel to a vegetarian fast, but Daniel decided he would honor God by not integrating himself fully into the Babylonian culture.
Our first call is to be (and live like) the children of God.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Roman believers, “You are the called of Jesus Christ . . . called as saints” (Romans 1:6, 7). That holds true today for us too.
Our first call is not to greatness or unique tasks but to belovedness and to the family of God. This is not a call that we fulfill, but that God fulfills in us. We are the children of God because we accept an invitation (from Christ) to belong to him. We trust this truth; we don’t produce it. And this first call forms our primary call regardless of our circumstances, experiences, or efforts.
Beyond this first call, we may also receive a unique call—the second call—to serve in a particular way within the world and the kingdom of God.
Our Second Call
The apostle Paul had such a second call. He opened his letter to the Romans with these words: “Paul, a bondservant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). He had responded years earlier to the call to follow Christ and belong to God, but now he identified a subsequent and particular call; to be an apostle (a missionary).
Daniel also may have experienced this. We read that following his decision not to defile himself with the king’s food or wine, God granted him knowledge, intelligence, and the ability to understand visions and dreams (Daniel 1:17); skills that would prove critical in his service to the king.
Many of us have experienced “the second call.” We know the joy of God opening a specific door for service, inviting us to walk through it, and empowering us in it. Some people (and ministers) describe this as “finding our purpose.” And it can feel very fulfilling. It can also feel confusing, even devastating, when things don’t work out well. Think of Jeff and Terri who could not continue to foster. Or Rebecca who had to step back from volunteering.
So, how should we think about this second call?
First, it does not define who we are. Activities, achievements, actions, and accomplishments mean relatively little to the Father. We are not the children of God because we obey a commission or do something impressive.
Second, this call is subject to change. Some people may receive a specific call for a lifetime. Others receive a momentary or seasonal call. Samuel was a prophet for a lifetime; Amos delivered only one short message and then went back to his work.
Furthermore, this call may be to a specific place and time. In Acts 16, “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit” Paul (v. 7) from going to Bithynia on a missionary journey. Then, in a dream, Paul received a message that he was to travel to Macedonia instead. And the ministry in Macedonia lasted just days or weeks!
This highlights a common pitfall with identifying God’s second call on our lives. We might assume that this call covers a much longer season and has a much grander purpose than Christ really intended. And if we look to “the second call” to give our lives significance and meaning, then failure or the change of that call can leave us feeling empty and aimless.
Staying True When Times Are Tough
It can be difficult to stand firm in our “second call.” Life happens. Suffering comes in inescapable and painful ways. New demands and opportunities arise. Sometimes it can seem impossible (or perilous) to persist. And “letting go” can feel like failure and compromise.
Ultimately, the uncompromised life reflects Jesus’s own approach to calling. Even on the cross, in his moment of greatest anguish, Jesus cried out to God and called him “Father” (Luke 23:46). In the midst of his own great suffering, Jesus held first and foremost to the fact that he was God’s beloved Son.
We tend to think that the compromised life is the one that fails to fulfill the “second call” when times are tough. But the truly compromised life is the life that switches our calls; our primary call becomes secondary, and our secondary call becomes primary.
Ultimately, living a truly uncompromised life is about being a child of God first, and being willing to discover what it means to be (and live like) God’s child in whatever season and place we might find ourselves.
David Timms is Dean of the Faculty of Theology at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California.
Matt Timms has an MA in Theological Studies from Regent College, Vancouver, Canada.