One of my students asked if it were possible for someone truly called to the ministry to ever doubt that call.
“If a man ever has doubts about being called to the ministry, do those doubts indicate that God certainly has not called him?”
The internal call and the external call
First of all, the question presumes there is such a thing as a call to ministry, that is, a subjective sense of guidance from God into vocational ministry. Personally, I believe those God chooses for vocational ministry do receive such a call, and I have written about it here. When Paul says in 1 Tim. 3:1, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task,” I believe that “aspires” and “desires” speak of internal realities initiated by the Holy Spirit.
Second, I will assume that the minister who is experiencing such doubts had his internal sense of call affirmed by at least one local church. In other words, a local church has, to a greater or lesser degree, inquired about the man’s aspirations, observed him using his gifts in ministry to others, and concurs with the man’s sense of call. This is the “external call” to the ministry which a local church acknowledges after evaluating a man according to the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:2-7.
Any biblical examples?
Given that context, we can begin by saying that there’s no clear New Testament example of a God-called minister of the gospel doubting his call. One might infer that when John Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas early on the first missionary journey and returns home (Acts 13:13) that he was doubting any call to ministry he might have had prior to that time (even though he later returned to ministry). But there are so many potential difficulties with that inference that it’s not worth addressing. Any other speculation about what might have been occurring in the mind of the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament preacher while they were in the midst of suffering for the sake of the gospel is likewise unhelpful.
In the Old Testament some of the prophets certainly complained about the ministry to which God called them. Perhaps the best-known occurrence of this is when Jeremiah protested, “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. . . . For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20:7).
But Jeremiah expresses no doubts about God’s call. Rather he’s complaining that being God’s prophet was much harder than he expected, so much so that he accused God of deceiving him. Doubtless every God-called minister occasionally encounters the awareness that ministry is much tougher than he anticipated. Like Jonah wanted both before and after going to Nineveh, Jeremiah wanted to abandon the role of delivering God’s message. But wanting to turn away from God’s call is not the same as doubting God’s call to proclaim His Word.
In the end, Jeremiah stuck it out. Despite the difficulties and the cost of remaining faithful, he couldn’t walk away. He knew that if he did the internal pressure to declare the Word of the Lord would ultimately prove irrepressible. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9).
Doubts in the down times
So while there are no explicit examples in Scripture with men struggling with this precise issue, that alone doesn’t mean it never happens. The New Testament does tell us that men called by God retain the capacity to doubt, as Peter did when he stopped walking on water and started to sink (Matthew 14;31). It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, for a person genuinely called by God to the ministry to sometimes doubt whether they misunderstood what they once believed was a call to the ministry.
I don’t think it unusual at all for someone to doubt a call to ministry during a season when their ministry bears little evident fruit. Especially in the early years of one’s ministry, I believe it’s rather normal to question one’s call to ministry when the Lord doesn’t seem to be blessing your ministry.
Moreover, when a man receives unexpected and/or undeserved opposition—and again, particularly in the early phase of his ministerial labors—he may take this as an indication that he misinterpreted the Lord’s will for his life. But since all ministers experience opposition, this by itself is no evidence either way regarding one’s call.
Therefore . . .
Every God-called minister will pass through seasons—sometimes very long ones—of little apparent impact or of strong resistance. Even Jesus reached a point where few beyond his twelve disciples continued to follow Him (John 6:66ff.), and He experienced constant opposition to His ministry.
This is why it is crucial to be as certain as one can be about his call to ministry at the start. There will be many times when this sense of call, this “fire in your bones,” will be all that keeps you in the ministry.
But if you are questioning that call, first pray and ask the Lord to clarify matters for you. If He’s called you to His service, you’ll never be more miserable than you’ll be doing something else besides vocational ministry. As my dad once said to me (and I know this counsel didn’t originate with him), “Son, if you can do anything else except pastoral ministry and be happy, do it.” He was right. In time I began to see that I could never have found anything else more fulfilling than vocational ministry.
Second, get counsel from other godly ministers. No one will understand both the call of God, the challenges of the ministry as they will, and the struggle you are experiencing as they will.
For additional resources on this subject, consider:
The Call to Ministry, by R Albert Mohler, Jr., with Daniel S. Dumas and Donald S. Whitney.
Am I Called? The Summons to Pastoral Ministry, by Dave Harvey.
Called to the Ministry, by Edmund P. Clowney.
Is God Calling Me? by Jeff Iorg.
When you see few, if any, conversions in your place of ministry, it can be hard to believe that what Jesus said in John 4:35 is true.
In that verse He said to His disciples, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”
It’s important to realize that He said this in Samaria—a place where Jews (like Jesus and His disciples) weren’t welcome and where Jesus had seen only one convert, and that one just a few minutes earlier
In other words, the twelve apostles did not consider Samaria a place where there had been, or likely ever would be, many conversions.
And yet Jesus said it was—and by extension the places where we serve Him now are—fields white for harvest.
But most of us know too well the grim reality that you can labor faithfully for a long time and see few, if any conversions. Hosea prophesied God’s Word for seventy years. Isaiah preached faithfully for fifty. But both of them had reason to pray the prayer of Isaiah, “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (Isaiah 53:1).
J.I. Packer, in his great book, A Quest for Godliness, writes of one early Puritan preacher who knew what it was like to preach God’s Word for years and see little evident fruit.
Richard Greenham was [pastor] at Dry Drayton, seven miles from Cambridge, from 1570 to 1590. He worked extremely hard. He rose daily at four and each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday preached a sermon at daybreak, to catch his flock before they dispersed into the fields; then on Sunday he preached twice, and in addition catechized the children of the parish each Sunday evening and Thursday morning. Mornings he studied, afternoons he visited the sick or walked out into the fields “to confer with his Neighbors as they were at Plough”. In his preaching, Henry Holland, his biographer tells us, “he was so earnest, and took such extraordinary pains, that his shirt would usually be as wet with sweating, as if it had been drenched with water, so that he was forced, as soon as he came out of the Pulpit to [change clothes].” . . . He was a pastoral counselor of uncommon skill. . . . His friends hoped he would write a book on the art of counseling, but he never did. . . . In a letter to his bishop he described his ministry as ‘preaching Christ crucified unto my selfe and Country people”. . . . Yet for all his godliness, insight, evangelical message and hard work, his ministry was virtually fruitless. Others outside his parish were blessed through him, but not his own people. “Greenham had pastures green, but flocks full lean” was a little rhyme that went round among the godly. “I perceive no good wrought by my ministry on any but one family” was what, . . . he said to his successor. In rural England in Greenham’s day, there was much fallow ground to be broken up; it was a time for sowing, but the reaping time was still in the future.
Of course, he never saw the results during his lifetime, but it’s hard to say that Greenham’s ministry was unfruitful when we’re still talking about it more than 425 years later.
Nevertheless, occasionally, if not often, most ministers feel about their ministries as Greenham did about his—virtually fruitless.
Another who ministered quite a bit later in Cambridge was Charles Simeon. He faced something of what Greenham experienced. For twelve years he was so opposed that those who rented the pews (which was the custom of the day for providing financial support for the church) would not only stay away from worship, they kept their empty pews locked so no one else could sit in them. Those who wanted to hear Simeon had to stand in the back of the church or in the aisles for the entire worship service, and this went on for twelve years. Despite such opposition, he persevered as pastor and eventually enjoyed a fruitful ministry for half-a-century.
Speaking on this same statement of Jesus in John 4:35, Simeon said regarding those who don’t see a harvest, “The Lord of the harvest will not suffer any one of his labourers to work for nought. In the very work itself he shall find a rich reward.”
The Apostle Paul was inspired of God to put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” [emphasis added].
One of the reasons Richard Greenham kept preaching and ministering so faithfully, even though there was absolutely no response was because he believed that the fields are white for harvest. Even when like Greenham we see few conversions, and when like him we are in a ground-breaking, foundation-laying, reformational ministry, we must see with spiritual eyes that the fields are white for harvest.
And yet, while it is true that faithful men can labor long without conversions, one of those familiar with Greenham’s life, Charles Spurgeon, said,
If I never won souls, I would sigh till I did. I would break my heart over them if I could not break their hearts. Though I can understand the possibility of an earnest sower never reaping, I cannot understand the possibility of an earnest sower being content not to reap. I cannot comprehend any one of you Christian people trying to win souls and not having results, and being satisfied without results.
Let us “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” even when we see few conversions. But may we never be “content not to reap.”
Preach the Word. Remain faithful. Share the Gospel. Pray for the Spirit’s blessing. For “the fields are white for harvest.” And “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
 J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) 43.
 Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible: Luke 17-24, John 1-12, vol. 13, Outline 1621, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1956), 311.
 C. H. Spurgeon, “Tearful Sowing and Joyful Reaping,” in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1869; reprint, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1970), 237.
I’m sure you are right even more than you realize when you say you are learning a great deal through this. Be assured that your sufferings will not be wasted. Many texts tell us this, but 2 Cor. 1 is one that particularly comes to mind. Moreover, I was reading in 2 Cor. 5-6 today, and was reminded how Paul proved himself a faithful minister by undergoing so many terrible ordeals. Your perseverance in your discouraging circumstances likewise proves your own faithfulness to God’s call on your life.
I was also thinking about your struggle with assurance. Two thoughts occurred to me. One, the salvation you hope for is not something you must wrest from God, but is an offer, and offer He has already made—and willingly. In other words, God has offered salvation to you; you do not have to make Him willing to save you. He has already demonstrated that by sending His Son for sinners, and then willingly offering that salvation to you.
Second, no one who came to Christ, no one who wanted Him, was turned away. No matter how unworthy they were and felt (e.g., the woman caught in adultery; Zaccheus), no matter how weak, no matter how undesirable (lepers), no matter what. Jesus has promised that He will cast out none of those who want Him, including ministers (like Peter) who disappointed themselves by not being as strong as they thought they would be.
Further, a bruised reed He will not break off, nor will He put out a smoldering wick (Matt. 12:20). A bruised reed is one stepped on and almost broken, hanging by a thread. A smoldering wick is all smoke and almost no light, only a glowing edge along the top of the wick. As worthless as these may feel and are to others, He will not break them or snuff them out. (Incidentally, Richard Sibbes’ A Bruised Reed might be very sweet to you right now.)