How to Discern Your Calling
Instead of expositing a particular passage, I’m going to draw from many different passages of Scripture to give you some pastoral advice. Imagine that we are sitting on my front porch and talking about life and career (something I’ve done many times with my boys).
Theologians have developed the concept of vocation—the idea that people are called by God to certain kinds of work—through passages in Genesis 4, and Exodus 35, and 1 Corinthians 7 among others. Vocation encompasses our calling as husbands, wives, and parents, as well as our calling to be masons, ministers, managers, and mechanics. We can be devoted followers of Christ wherever God has assigned us while doing whatever he has called us to do. (That’s the message of 1 Corinthians 7 in a nutshell.)
Martin Luther really developed this doctrine in his many writings. He said that when we worked, we were serving as the “fingers of God.” (I love that expression.) We, as creative image bearers, are working to make this world better and serve creation. Perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of Luther’s doctrine of vocation comes from the theologian Gustav Wingren in his classic bookLuther on Vocation.
In his vocation man does work which effects the well-being of others; for so God has made all offices. Through this work in man's offices, God's creative work goes forward, and that creative work is love, a profusion of good gifts. With persons as his "hands" or "coworkers," God gives his gifts through the earthly vocations, toward man's life on earth (food through farmers, fishermen and hunters; external peace through princes, judges, and orderly powers; knowledge and education through teachers and parents, etc., etc.). Through the preacher's vocation, God gives the forgiveness of sins. Thus love comes from God, flowing down to human beings on earth through all vocations, through both spiritual and earthly governments. ~Gustav Wingren, Luther on Vocation
Do you hear what he is saying? The way God cares for his world is through the various vocations or callings. When you understand this, you will begin to see it throughout Scripture. God calls and gifts Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. God calls and gifts Aaron and the priests to provide spiritual guidance. God calls and gifts artisans to build the place of worship, to design clothing, and even to make perfume. God calls and gifts kings, judges, and prophets. God calls disciples and apostles. Even within the church he has gifted some people for teaching, others for serving, others for leading, and on the list goes. In this way, God is at work in the world THROUGH the various vocations!
So how do I figure out what God has called ME to do? The simple answer is that we must listen to the voice of God to hear his calling. But, how does anyone do that?
A lot of people immediately run to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. “Just listen to the Holy Spirit,” they will say. I want to affirm that I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us and I am going to address that topic. However, I think it is a grave error to think that there is the only one way God speaks. Sometimes God speaks to us through his Spirit, but often times he speaks to us through means. In fact, as we read the Scriptures, it seems to me that God usually speaks to us through means—through preachers and teachers and friends and opportunities and experiences. Sometimes, but certainly more rarely, he speaks out of a burning bush, or in a dream, or directly. And when he does so, it is glaringly obvious and often quite startling.
So you might say that God has a usual voice and an unusual one.
Part One: THE USUAL VOICE OF GOD
I’m going to give you an acrostic, and I know it’s kind of silly, but it will help you remember the usual means that God uses to communicate with us. The usual ways he calls us to our vocations or jobs. The acrostic will be VOICE. (Of course.)
V – “Voices” of others (from God)
God often speaks to us through others. For example, Paul wrote to Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished an appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5). How did Titus know he was called to pastor in Crete? Paul left him there. How did these elders know they were called to serve the church? Titus appointed them.
God often calls us to vocations in the most usual ways, but it is still his sovereign calling. He can speak to us through coaches, parents, mentors, friends, pastors, managers, peers. Just about anyone. Sure, some people are more trustworthy sources of wisdom than others, so you have to weigh that. But if you have had more than one person say to you, “You would make a great manager,” or “You would be fantastic at sales,” or “Did you ever think about law,” or “Have you considered going into counseling,” it is good to listen to those voices. Others can often see what we cannot. They can see talents that we do not realize we have or can identify ways that a particular profession may not suit our personality or skill set. You need people who are close to you, who are wise, and whose voices you listen to when they speak.
O - Opportunities from God
Paul’s writings come in handy yet again. “I will visit you after passing through Macedonia,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 16:5-9, “and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.”
The great church planter isn’t sure where he’s been called to go next. God’s Spirit hasn’t told him. So he’s made tentative plans to pass through Macedonia and possibly spend the winter in Corinth. For the foreseeable future, he is pursuing the opportunity before him in Ephesus.
Sometimes God opens doors. A friend calls and says, “I know a guy who is looking to hire someone.” A company calls and says, “We’d like to make you an offer.” A college sends you an acceptance letter. You can certainly go knocking on doors, but God has to open them. And if there is more than one open door, then go in and look around. Sometimes God gives you options.
I – Inward desires from God
Paul again, “Here is a trustworthy saying, ‘If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer [pastor], he desires a noble task’” (1 Timothy 3:1). Inward desire is something I want to do. Do not diminish desire. It’s a good thing.
Now there may be more than one thing that you are interested in or more than one thing you would like to do. Nothing wrong with that, although you will have to consider the other ways in which God might be speaking to you so you narrow down your options.
C – Capabilities/abilities from God
“I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you” (Exodus 35:6). God has put us together a certain way—physically, mentally, and emotionally. And it is important for us to know that and embrace how God designed us. Look, I may want to be the second baseman for the Houston Astros, but I don’t have those capabilities! (Although, as bad as they are right now, I actually might have a shot.)
Sometimes we need a little help with this one. This is where other voices can help us to determine when we’re thinking too little or too much of our abilities. Recently, I spoke with a dad who said that sending his son, who was the top baseball player at his very large high school, to a winter camp in Arizona was the best move he’d made. His son was determined to play DI baseball, but one of the coaches sat down with the two of them and explained, “There are 400 kids here. I do 10 of these a year. However, I need 4-6 outfielders every four years. So I have a spot for 1-2 guys out of the thousands I see a year. If your son wants to play baseball, he needs to go D2 or D3.” His son listened. He accepted the advice of someone who helped him assess his abilities and capabilities. Now he plays baseball for Wheaton College, and he’s having a blast.
If you aren’t gifted to be a musician or a writer or a professional athlete or whatever, it doesn’t mean you aren’t gifted! Embracing how God made you and listening to his voice can be the most freeing and beautiful thing in the world. Aren’t you glad we have automakers? Aren’t you glad we have people who can write music and sing? Aren’t you glad we have people to fly airplanes? Aren’t you glad we have people to protect us?
E – Experiences from God
This one is especially valuable when you are young, but it remains important even as you get older. There is nothing like experience to help you discern the voice of God. All the different jobs I have worked have taught me something about myself and have helped me discern the voice of God. It didn’t take me long to figure out I was lousy at sales. I learned I was a good painter, but I didn’t want to do that forever. I worked as a professor overseas and I loved it, but I missed being your pastor. I liked the experience, but I didn’t want to do it all the time. God can and often does speak to us through our experiences.
Part Two: THE UNUSUAL VOICE OF GOD: HIS HOLY SPIRIT
Let me talk for a moment about the unusual voice of God, his Spirit speaking to us. Yes, God does speak to his people. We see him doing so throughout Scripture, and we hear about those experiences from other believers. In fact, it has happened to me.
I had been here at Calvary only a short time and we were going through some changes. Some very unkind people were assaulting my reputation. When I received a call from a larger church to come and meet with the leadership team, my wife and I went. I wondered if God was calling me to another job. As I was sitting at home reading and reflecting, I sensed God saying something to me. It wasn’t audible, but I believe it was God’s spirit.
“Do you trust me, Lionel?”
“Yes I trust you.”
“Do you trust me with everything? Your family and everything you own?”
“Do you trust me with your reputation?”
At this, I began to weep. I was holding on to that, but I sensed God saying to me, “Stay where you are and let me take care of that.”
Let us listen for God’s voice in usual and in unusual ways. Let us live out our calling for the good of others and for the glory of his name.