29 July 2006

How to Refuse a Calling

Some callings in the Church are coveted; others are feared. Whether one accepts a calling or not is ultimately a private matter between one and the Lord. But to suggest that it is a matter of personal preference ignores two important facts:
1. The Lord rarely issues the calling himself. Instead, he goes through one of his servants on earth—be they a prophet, bishop, or Relief Society president.
2. The Lord has given examples in the scriptures of how to act when called to do something that seems impossible.

I believe there are many scriptures that address this issue, but none better than 1 Kings 17:9-16. Elijah has been sent to Zarephath, in modern-day Lebanon, to be cared for by a widow. The widow, whose name remains unknown, has been "commanded…to sustain [Elijah]" by the Lord (1 Kings 17:9). Unfortunately, we have no record of how or when she received this commandment.

As we follow the narrative, we immediately see a problem:

10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said,

Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.

11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said,

Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.

Due to a curse on the land by the hand of Elijah, there was a severe drought, and we can assume that this contributed to the impoverished state of the widow and her son.

12 And she said,

As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

What a heartbreaking reply from this poor widow! Not only would it be a sacrifice for her to feed Elijah, it would be the ultimate sacrifice. In her answer we find a noble example: she does not ask for pity, nor does she ask to be released from Elijah’s request. She simply and plainly tells the prophet the facts as she sees them.

This makes Elijah’s response seem all the more demanding:
13 And Elijah said unto her,

Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.

With her heart already beaten down by her situation and her inability to provide for her son, we can only imagine how hard these words were to hear. "I have nothing," she said, only to hear the charge, "Then give even that." Elijah’s command, however, is not without hope: she said there was enough meal for one cake only, yet in saying, "after make for thee and for thy son," Elijah hints that there will be enough for at least three. Indeed, Elijah promises much more:
14 For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth.

What an uplifting—and yet, seemingly impossible—promise in the face of such a demoralizing request! It is in this moment, in the way that she responds, that we learn the most from this faithful widow:
15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.

Those three words—"went and did"—tell us everything we needed to know about this woman. Furthermore, they tell us everything we need to know about what the Lord expects when he issues a calling, "whether by [his] own voice or by the voice of [his] servants" (D&C 1:38). The widow did not refuse, but she did not immediately agree to something she felt incapable of doing either (see Mosiah 4:27 and D&C 10:4). Instead, she informed Elijah of her abilities and concerns, then left it up to him to retract or to repeat his demand.

The closing sentence does more than just give us a happy ending, it emphasizes the major themes of the story: first, that the Lord is faithful to those who are faithful, even to fulfilling all of his promises (Alma 37:17); and second, that those promises are made by the Lord through his servants.
16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah.


Robert C. said...

Great insights BrianJ, thanks for posting this (and for the T&S link which brought it to my attention, I really need to swing by here more often!).

BrianJ said...

Robert C: Thanks for stopping by. Praise from one as well-read as you is praise indeed!

Bookslinger said...

Sometimes callings are not inspired. Some leaders' SOP is to just heap callings on someone until they say "stop."

I believe that all priesthood leadership callings, at the bishop level and above, are inspired.

However, that doesn't mean the people called to the position are perfect. The Lord often uses imperfect people, using them for something they do well, regardless of their other flaws. And yes, sometimes people who are unworthy do get called by inspiration, for reasons that only the Lord may know.

And sometimes, the Lord just has to make do with the people who are available. And he's not going to, or can't, wait until the perfect person comes along.

However, I've had bishops tell me that many of their callings are just best-guesses, and are sometimes made when they don't know the full situation regarding the call-ee. In those cases, the call-ee should inform the leader about the things in their life which will affect their ability to do the calling.

One man, who was well-loved, and who I thought was a very good bishop, told me that inspiration rarely played a part in the callings he issued. He studied things out, and tried to do the best, and prayed for guidance, but he couldn't claim inspiration for most of the callings.

Sometimes, when callings are issued by someone other than the bishop, such as the EQ pres or RS pres, the relevant issues in the call-ee's life may not be any of the call-er's business, and the response to the calling should just be a "no" and nothing more.

Another point is that call-ee's generally have a right to receive their own personal revelation as to whether a particular calling is the Lord's will.

"Always accept a calling" is the rule. But there are exceptions.

Ryan said...

Interesting thoughts.. My wife and I gladly accepted the calling to team-teach the sunbeams. Every week we leave clss exhausted. Church has become a major chore for us.. like a babysitting job. My solace is in this, for years I have been able to pretty much relax at church at the expense of others. Sure I've had a few slightly demanding callings here and there but in general I have had the luxury of other members shouldering the real burdens. I feel like it's time I paid my due. Kind of like tithing. How can I expect to enjoy the buildings and the temples and free broadcasts of general conference, etc.. if I don't pitch in and share the load.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts from all. Might I add another one. Have you considered that even though a call may be inspired, and the Lord knows our circumstances and will not give us more than we can bear, perhaps he is giving us the opportunity to make our circumstances known to those capable of getting us the help the Lord knows we need? So, the issuing of the call is the method he uses to help us instead of telling the bishop outright what we need.

The Lord has told us numerous times to ask him for what we need. Is this because he doesn't know? No. It is because we need to humble ourselves and admit our weaknesses to him in order to receive from him. In all things the Lord teaches us what to do. Here he has taught us how to approach those that have stewardship over us--the bishop especially.

I am married to a bishop and he has often told me that he has been inspired to visit people without knowing why. The why is eventually revealed by the person visited, not by the Lord.

He has also told me that he has issued calls unaware of a persons circumstances and appreciates it when the callee says 'these are my circumstances', as the widow did in BrianJ's example, giving him the opportunity to withhold the calling or still issue it.

BrianJ said...

All: Thanks for your thoughts.

Bookslinger: I'm curious about your friend/former bishop who told you "that inspiration rarely played a part in the callings he issued." The process he described: "He studied things out, and tried to do the best, and prayed for guidance..." sounds like the way most inspiration works in my experience. I agree that it is no "burning in the bosom," but the D&C also describes the mental aspect to following the Spirit.

"...call-ee's generally have a right to receive their own personal revelation as to whether a particular calling is the Lord's will."

How are they to do this? There are many examples in the scriptures of someone gaining a testimony after accepting a call. What are some examples that teach confirmation before acceptance?

Ryan: I have never served in the Primary or Nursery. I admire your willingness to serve despite "exhaustion."

Anon: When I was in a position of issuing callings, I experienced on two occasions exactly what you describe. It was a major blessing to them in both cases.

Floyd the Wonderdog said...

I wonder. . . Doesn't the Article of Faith say that "a man MUST be called of God"?

Bookslinger said...

re: What are some examples that teach confirmation before acceptance?

The almost constant teaching that we receive about how everyone is entitled to revelation about their own life.

The many admonitions Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and all the rest of the prophets gave when they said things like "Don't follow me blindly, pray to God yourself and get your own answers." That's a big one in the "Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual" (CES, Religion 333).

I did not mean to imply that every calling entitles the call-ee to a confirmation. I believe it possible to receive an inspired calling, but not get a confirmation for it. The Lord may indeed want a particular individual to accept a particular calling on faith, and not after a confirmation. So you're right, sometimes the confirmation comes afterwards. That's why I qualified my original statement with the word "generally."

re: the former bishop. I certainly hope that his decisions were inspired or at least influenced by the Spirit, but he said that he could not actually claim that most of them were.

Floyd: re: Article of Faith #5. That specifically replies to "preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." There are tons of callings outside of the preaching/administering stuff. Plus women get called a lot too.

BrianJ said...

Bookslinger: When you wrote, "'Always accept a calling' is the rule. But there are exceptions." you were very clear. I just wanted to read more of your thoughts about the exceptions.

So to press this issue a little more: What I put forth as "the rule" is: "Always be open about your concerns before accepting a calling, then accept it if it is still extended." You have presented a modification to that.

It's easy to counter with, "The absence of a confirmation is not the same as the Lord saying you shouldn't."

But let me propose something that is harder for my "rule" to handle. Suppose instead that someone prays and is told not to accept the calling. Under my "rule," this would be one of the concerns that they should share with their leader. My guess is that if that happened, the leader would most likely reconsider and end up not calling the person. Of course, if the calling were still extended, it would be a sort of stalemate.

As far as Smith/Young saying, "Don't follow me blindly," is that the same as saying, "Don't follow me until you have a confirmation"? Please see this post for more background to my question.

And--thanks again for sharing your thoughts.