The Call-Book Summary
“The Call” by Os Guiness
Book Summary – Jeff Stauffer
Os Guiness is a prolific writer and well-versed historian of the Christian faith and western culture. In this book, he explores what it means to be called by God. This is not a “how-to” book in the sense of helping us find our true calling from God. But instead, he tackles the issue of calling itself: what is calling and what does it look like? Almost every chapter begins with an historical account of someone that exemplifies the topic at hand, and Guiness shows his mastery of history as he weaves in characters throughout the pages. Common guests are Winston Churchill, Nietzsche, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and Andrew Carnegie among many others. Each chapter is short, but as the book unfolds a well-rounded view of the concept of calling comes together from all angles.
1 – The Ultimate Why
“As modern people we are all on a search for significance. We desire to make a difference.” This introduction sets the stage for Guiness, where he points out that satisfaction with life will only come when we recognize that God calls each of us individually for His service.
2 – Seekers Sought
Guiness comments on how it is in vogue to be a “seeker” but with the caveat that seeking itself is the goal, not necessarily finding. But our seeking will always fall short unless God lets Himself be known. “We start our searching, but we end up being discovered” he concludes.
3 – The Haunting Question
“Who am I? Why am I alive?” Such questions are answered by our culture in 3 general ways:
- “Constrained to be” – We categorize groups of people (baby boomers, generation X, etc.) and thus limit our options, as we are individuals not generalizations. The labels become constraining.
- “Courage to be” – Many in society view life with no meaning, so it’s up to us to forge ahead and “invent ourselves.” We must have the courage to be who we want to be.
- “Constituted to be” – This is often described as the “acorn theory,” where we must realize who we are destined to be, and only in recognizing this will we become the oak tree we were meant to be. We’ll only be happy when we realize our life story written for us from birth.
Guiness contrasts these with a Christian view: We are not constrained but called by God in person. We can’t courageously raise ourselves up by our bootstraps without calling on God’s help. And we shouldn’t look backwards to determine who we are, but look forward as we follow God’s lead.
4 – Everyone, Everywhere, Everything
We should recognize calling as primarily a call to Christ. Secondly, we are called to specific tasks or occupations. The 2nd will not succeed without prioritizing the first. Guiness goes on to point out how historically the Catholic church elevated the spiritual above the secular. So the life of a monk was more valued to God than a farmer. However, the Protestant reformation reversed this by elevating the secular above the spiritual, reducing the role of leaders in the church to a lower status. Guiness asks us to put asides these distinctions and to realize that one’s calling involves our whole lives, no matter what occupation, as we interact with everyone, everywhere, doing everything.
5 – By Him, To Him, For Him
Guiness gives a brief overview of the Protestant reformation’s effect on “calling,” and how the word has morphed into “vocation” instead. He quotes from Oswald Chambers: “The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for Him.” His conclusion reminds us that we are not “called to do something or go somewhere, but we are called to Someone.”
6 – Do What You Are
In modern society, we are typically identified by what we do. It is the first question we ask when we meet someone, and it provides a frame of reference to overlay upon those we meet. But calling reverses this; calling says “Do what you are.” This requires God’s help.
Also, Guiness makes a distinction between corporate and individual calling. Corporately, we are all called to be holy, to be peace-makers, etc. Individually, we are called to specific duties. But there is a danger in our individual calling becoming so specific, so narrow that it becomes definable in a single sentence. Our calling is not so easy to pin down, but we gain glimpses of it as we grow, it expands as we experience more of life, and becomes more comprehensive over time, versus a specific one-item task in life.
7 – A Time to Stand
In this brief chapter, Guiness laments the grave challenges facing Christians today around the world and their lack of recognition of what lies before them. Our sense of calling has primarily been personal, but Guiness pushes us to see it as cultural as well, to change the world around us.
8 – Let God be God
Providing a few examples from biblical stories, Guiness portrays those in the Bible who hear God’s call and obey without question. He contrasts this with our modern society and claims that “our familiarity with the Gospels breeds inattention.” He critiques our reliance on the modern world that has no practical need for God, and states that our effectiveness will only be regained when we fear God more than we fear the powers of modern society.
9 – The Audience of One
We should live our lives with the constant reminder that all we do and think is on display in front of our Creator. “The greatest deeds are done before the Audience of One, and that is enough.” Guiness compares and contrasts the lives of famous individuals (who are deeply narcissistic) with those who boldly and humbly live their lives as if God is the only one watching.
10 – Our Utmost for His Highest Still
Despite society’s general skepticism, there is still room for heroes in the world, according to Guiness. Recounting stories of giants who lived before us and led passionate lives for greater causes (Winston Churchill, Blaise Pascal, and Augustine), Guiness asks us if we still believe in excellence, encouraging that excellence is possible in our own lives. Are we willing to use our deepest passions for God’s calling, and actually believe that real heroism is still possible?
11 – Where the Buck Stops, There Stand I
This chapter discusses the virtue of responsibility. Guiness points out that even though modern society calls us to be responsible for many things (our families, our bodies, our environment, community, etc.), we are no longer told to whom we are responsible to! And when all of these societal burdens pile up, but beholden to no one, then it is easy to shrug off this load and responsibility collapses. Modern society also provides greater anonymity than ever before, which also breed irresponsibility. This is why the concept of the Audience of One is more important now than ever.
12 – People of the Call
When we speak of calling corporately, Guiness reminds us to guard against “casual individualism,” where we put too much of an emphasis on our individual view of our corporate calling. He sites the explosive growth of Christian denominations as one prime example of a “theological disaster” where people believe God has spoken definitely about everything, leaving no room for diverse views among believers. While there are certainly boundaries, we have drifted far away from any communal sense of God’s calling.
13 – Followers of the Way
Guiness reminds us that following our calling is a journey, not an arrival, during this lifetime. The implication is that we are all at different points along the way, and to be weary of sharp lines of distinction involving who is “in versus out,” or highly critical assessments of theology. He reminds us of how shocked the Pharisees were to see Jesus having dinner with sinners, and asks us to compare ourselves to them: “Are we saved by believing in Jesus or by trusting theologically correct formulations of believing in Jesus?”
14 – There but for the Grace of God goes God
“The reverse side of calling is the temptation of conceit.” Here Guiness warns us of the danger of feeling “gifted” or “chosen.” History is full of examples of those whose pride clouded their vision and their sense of God’s direction in their lives. He states that pride is the first, and worst, sin. But lucky for us, grace is available, and is the quickest way to dissolve our “I” centered focus.
15 – What is that to You?
Using an illustration from the life of Mozart and an envious contemporary of his, Guiness lays out the danger of envy and how it clouds one’s calling. We see other’s succeeding and it boils up bitterness in us towards God, produces a corrupting competitive spirit, and a yearning to bring others down to our level.
16 – More, More, Faster, Faster
As true with almost every facet of life, the subject of money arises when discussing one’s call. As successful as capitalism has been to change the face of the world, it also provides grave threats to society. Guiness warns how money can become our authority over Christ, and how a money/market mentality has a different set of priorities from one’s calling. And without a strong ethic among its participants, he wonders about capitalism’s long-term prospects.
17 – Combating the Noonday Demon
Here Guiness discusses the danger of sloth (The ‘noonday demon’ from medieval times). He clarifies that this term is different from the modern example of the couch potato. Sloth is more of a spiritual condition than physical. It is the “giving up of the pursuits of God, the true, the good, and the beautiful.” Our modern consumer driven, sanitized and comfortable way of life only adds to this condition. He discusses the effect this has on ones calling if we choose a comfortable life with a well-paid salary over the adventure that God offers us.
18 – A World with Windows
Our modern scientific world is one that is a “world without windows,” where we no longer recognize the supernatural side to reality. This secularization of all areas of life has pushed traditional religion into a marginal role. Guiness reminds us though that Jesus called on us to exercise our spiritual disciplines and to experience something beyond the cold, calculating and categorized culture we live in today. This requires a place of solitude, where one can pray and separate ourselves from the constant drumbeat of society.
19 – Locked out and Staying There
Guiness warns us about three trends that are developing in regards to our faith:
- Privatization: We’ve become comfortable with practicing our faith only in the private space of life, avoiding the public square.
- We’ve tried to change people through public policy, and he reminds us of Europe’s tumultuous history with these attempts.
- We’ve become satisfied with building “pillars,” or institutions that parallel society, keeping our Christian faith sheltered among private groups and not being salt and light in the world.
He concludes by stating that our calling resists each of these: “Calling resists privatization by insisting on the totality of faith. Calling resists politicization by demanding a tension with every allegiance and association. Calling resists pillarization by requiring an attitude that is … constantly engaged with society.”
20 – A Focused Life
With modern society and its infinite number of choices, we are often paralyzed to make any decision, or stick to it for any length of time. There is simply too much else to do. This amount of freedom can become a point of deep anxiety, according to Guiness. He quotes from George Santayana: “In accomplishing anything definite, a man renounces everything else.” A sense of calling “provides the bull’s-eye” that we need to be focused. We must look beyond our own finite minds to choose wisely, to reach out to God. “Is a sense of calling your ultimate compass in life?” Guiness asks in closing.
21 – Dreamers of the Day
There are those who dream and act, and others who merely daydream. Our heroes of past ages are examples of the former. Guiness critiques our modern culture with its “try anything and everything” attitude, and laments at the loss of tradition and moral standards. It is one thing to stand apart from the crowd as you boldly dream of a future and act upon it. It is yet another to do so with the confidence that God has called you on this journey.
22 – Patches of Godlight
A section heading in this chapter is probably the best way to summarize Guiness’ point: “The Splendor of the Ordinary.” Here he points out how calling causes us to see the world differently, so that even the menial has a special color to it, and that the drudgery of a daily life is part of discipleship. He shares a notable story about his great-great-grandmother who stopped short of committing suicide by the simple observance of a nearby farmer who meticulously and skillfully worked their field.
23 – Let all your Thinks be Thanks
Our modern world has lost all sense of gratitude as it has lost God. Since we have abundantly, Guiness notes that we have forgotten what it is like to be in need and cannot lower ourselves to appreciate life. He quotes from the cartoon character Bart Simpson who says grace at dinnertime, “Dear God, we pay for all this ourselves. So thanks for nothing.” As we read in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving debtor, as much grace has been bestowed on us, so we should grant it to others. A sense of calling, writes G.K. Chesterton, makes us believe that “Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace.”
24 – Everybody’s Fools
A central element of calling is renouncing oneself, and instead identifying with Jesus and his suffering. In essence we become “fools” in the eyes of the world. Guiness points out how counter-cultural this concept is, to not be in control of your life, but let it be guided by God’s sovereign hand.
25 – The Hour has Come
“Timing is everything” so the saying goes. This is never more true than when we consider God’s timing of events in our lives, when we give up the reigns and let him orchestrate the movement. Calling is a matter of relying upon God, for his timing. It is also a matter of being ready, for the future is only known to Him. Guiness reminds us to not be anxious about the future, but watch for His handiwork
26 – Last Call
In this concluding chapter, Guiness recounts stories of those who “finished well,” and who were able to at last see the fruits of their labor, such as William Wilberforce who died only 3 days after his life-long pursuit of the abolishment of slavery in England was achieved. As we are all on a journey, sometimes we get frustrated at not seeing the success of our labor, but Guiness encourages us to keep up the faith and not rest until “the scaffolding of history is stripped away and you see what it means for God to have had his say, and made you what you are called to be.”