Over the last posts we have considered the big picture of vocation. But there still remains the question of discerning our unique calling within the big picture of God’s call for all his people and all of life. Jeremy Hatfield explores the whole matter of discernment–our gifted passions, the world’s needs, and how we listen to God as we make specific choices about our work.
Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself. Martin Luther King Jr.
At this point in our study, we arrive at an important question: how am I to discern my vocation? For Christians both in and out of the academy, this question can be fraught with anxiety; how can I know for sure what God is calling me to do? What if I choose the wrong profession? For those in the academy, these questions may be particularly troubling, as many young academics may find themselves pursuing degrees that reflect a deep sense of calling and passion, only to discover upon graduation that the job market offers them no clear pathway to put the knowledge and skills they have developed into use for gainful employment.
Promises in Which We May Rest
Because the process of discernment can be an anxious one, it is prudent to begin our discussion with a reminder of God’s care and provision. We may enter times of discernment with the assurance that God cares for us and is not indifferent to our concerns for the direction of our work and lives. We may rest in the assurance that the same God who “fearfully and wonderfully” made us (Psalm 139:14, KJV) and who exhorted us not to worry about our lives–including what we eat, drink, and wear– (Matthew 6:25-27, NIV) will not desert us in the midst of discernment. We rest in the same comfort of the Psalmist who wrote, “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, KJV). The same rod and staff that comforted, protected, and directed the sheep in that Psalm is the rod and staff that leads us forward in our journey with the Shepherd. These Scripture passages and others that speak to God’s care for us (e.g. Romans 8 and Ephesians 1) may provide tremendous help in feeding our spirits as we try to discern the places to which God is calling us. Resting in these promises of God’s care and provision, we can begin discernment with the hope and expectation that we will be loved and taken care of in God’s Kingdom regardless of what happens to us in the future.
Most of us begin our vocational discernment by asking a series of introspective questions. The two foremost questions typically employed are “what am I good at?” and “what do I enjoy doing?” For Christians in the academy, answers to these questions may seem obvious; few people enter master’s or doctoral programs without some idea what their interests are, what they are good at doing, and how they might use their graduate studies toward gainful employment. Still, many of us have not considered all the options. Many graduate degrees can be used in a variety of different fields of employment and a fast-paced, ever-changing economy and job market, coupled with a myriad of available options, mean that much work still needs to be done in the continuing discernment of vocation. This is especially true given that, as we have discovered in earlier modules, vocation is more than simply a job.
We may find ourselves able to easily answer questions about our passions and skills and perhaps even where we would like to be employed and yet unable to express how our job represents a calling. With this challenge in mind, we return to a quote that opened the introduction to this project: as Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Taking the spirit of Buechner’s words to heart, we may ask as we discern not just what we are good at doing and what we enjoy, but where specifically we envision our passions and skills meeting a need in the world. This question shifts our discernment of vocation from a mere assessment of skills and options toward an orientation of service to others. This idea comes into even sharper relief when we consider the larger context of Buechner’s quote:
“[Vocation] comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Other questions can guide us in discernment. For instance, we may reflect on the areas of our lives where we have felt God’s pleasure both in and out of our work. How might these areas of life contribute to our sense of vocation? Also, how might the character of and issues involved in our field of study contribute to meeting the world’s needs? We may also look to the examples of those we admire. Are there certain people-–family members, teachers, Christian leaders, scientists, and others-–whom you admire and whose example you wish to follow? What are the qualities they embody and how might you embody those same characteristics in your vocation? Might God call you to be mentored by someone into a particular vocation?
Discernment and our Relationship with God
All these questions, coupled with seeking the perspective of others who know you well and perhaps completing career aptitude assessments, are good first steps in beginning the process of vocational discernment. Ultimately, however, we cannot discern well unless we are in an active relationship with God, meaning that we are practicing spiritual disciplines–-Scripture reading, prayer, and others-–that God has given us as means of grace for maintaining a relationship with Him. We turn now to the ways that these disciplines may help us to discern vocation well.
As we read the Scriptures, we not only see many stories of the people whom God has called throughout history, but we also see that God has employed many different methods for calling people to a vocation. For example, Moses received the call to lead God’s people out of Egypt while tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. Jesus called his disciples to follow him while they were at work as fishermen. Paul met the Lord in a dramatic flash of light while traveling on the road to Damascus, where the Lord told him to “Get up and go into the city” (Acts 9:6, NIV) where he would be told what to do.
While all these stories show God working in different ways to call Moses, the disciples, and Paul to different missions, we may note one significant similarity between them: Moses, the disciples, and Paul were all going about their daily, routine business when God intervened in their lives to call them; God met them where they were. Dallas Willard observed, “God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right,’ we will simply have no place to receive his kingdom into our lives. For those situations and moments are our life.”
Willard’s point is especially important in vocational discernment. It can be tempting, particularly for young Christians, to feel that discerning rightly about vocation is important because our vocation will, in theory, involve the rest of our lives. We therefore may be especially anxious about discerning the “right” profession for fear that discerning wrongly may lead us down a perilous path of dissatisfaction, wasted time, or worse, displeasing God. Yet a combination of time-tested spiritual wisdom and practical observation tells us otherwise. A broad survey of the lives of God’s people throughout history demonstrates that God has called people to different vocations at different points in their lives and that some followers of Christ have served in more than one vocation in the work of God’s Kingdom.
The search for vocation is often difficult and can be a process of trial and error over an extended period of time. Just because we have not arrived at our ultimate vocation does not mean that we are not on the way, being shaped by our dissatisfactions and failures to gain insight into our vocation. There is no guarantee that God’s call to us in this present moment will be His call to us for the rest of our lives. God rarely shows us His long-term plans for our lives. As we encounter a world that is rapidly changing, we may expect that changing jobs-–if not necessarily vocations-–is more likely to be a feature of our lives than it was in the lives of previous generations of Christians.
Prayer and Discernment
With these observations in mind, we may revise our earlier question from “how do I discern my vocation?” to “how to I discern my vocation in this present moment?” First, we begin with prayer. We may pray, as Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10, KJV) In employing this prayer, we are reminded that God’s best and ultimate will for the lives of his followers is that they become agents of bringing God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven. We pray this prayer, then, not just in the broad hope that God will bring His Kingdom to bear on the grand scope of world affairs, but also in the earthy and practical matters that concern us in our daily lives. How, Lord, may I bring Thy Kingdom and do Thy will through my calling, in this small area of the world that I inhabit, in this temporary life that you have given me to live?
Prayer can guide our discernment of vocation. In Teach Us to Pray, Gordon T. Smith shares some helpful suggestions for praying prayers of discernment. He defines discernment as “…seeking to recognize and confirm how we are called to participate in the kingdom purposes of God.” He suggests that those praying for discernment would be wise to follow three “rules of discernment” distilled from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. First, it is important to make sure that “we are seeking the best.” Many fine opportunities may lay before us on our journey, but that does not mean that all opportunities represent God’s best for us or our best for God. We need God’s wisdom to discern what is best. You might even write out your possibilities and pray over them asking, “Lord, out of all the good options I see, show me your best for my life. What is the good to which I am called?”
Second, Smith advises that, “it is imperative that we recognize and affirm that the Spirit guides in peace and that the inner witness of the Spirit leads to joy.” Discernment is done best in what Smith called periods of “consolation” rather than periods of “desolation.” “Consolation” is anything that draws me toward God and “desolation” is anything that pulls me away. Consolation can include circumstances as well as inner attitudes such as love, peace, and joy. Desolation can come from external circumstances and can manifest in inner attitudes like anger, guilt, pride, or fear. We do not make any major decisions when in desolation. We stay the course until the desolation resolves. God’s leading is always in gentleness and peace.
Finally, Smith suggested, we must test the peace that we feel about our discernment; our capacities for self-deception and hearing God poorly are great. “…discernment requires that we test and confirm this peace genuinely comes from the Spirit.”
Smith proposed three questions that discerning Christians may ask as a means of testing decisions. First, is your peace consistent with the will of God as presented in Scripture? Second, what are your motivations for making this choice? God’s best or money, power, or position? Are you in a state of “holy indifference”, i.e. not preferring one outcome to another but willing to pursue whatever God wants? Third, do those we respect in Christian community affirm our decisions or do they suggest, for legitimate, substantive reasons, that we should choose differently? While humility may keep us from ever saying we know the will of God for our lives with absolute certainty, we can have great assurance that we are acting wisely if our decisions are able to pass these rigorous tests.
Solitude and silence are also essential in hearing the voice of God. In solitude, we separate ourselves from the input of other voices to be alone with God. While the classic picture of solitude may be a hermit or monk living alone in a remote location, one need not isolate from society to achieve solitude. It is possible to achieve solitude in a crowded library or coffee shop, so long as one is not receiving input from electronic devices, reading material, or other people. Creating distance between one’s thoughts and the ongoing clamor of the world and the opinions of friends and relatives is the key to solitude.
Likewise, silence does not necessarily mean shutting down all external audible noise–though doing so may prove useful to the practice of solitude and silence. In silence, one ceases to need to talk and, as in solitude, to receive input from the outside world. Silence is especially useful for shutting down our need to control the circumstances of our lives and other’s opinions of us through talking. Without creating space to listen for God’s voice amid the noise of our world and our own thoughts, we may find that our prayer and Scripture reading are ineffective in discernment.
Knowing ourselves is also important. One of the great gifts of vocation is the chance to be me––the real me, the one God created. As Henri Nouwen has said:
Often we want to be somewhere other than where we are, or even to be someone other than who we are. We tend to compare ourselves constantly with others and wonder why we are not as rich, as intelligent, as simple, as generous, or as saintly as they are. Such comparisons make us feel guilty, ashamed, or jealous. It is particularly important to realize that our vocation is hidden in where we are and who we are. We are unique human beings, each with a call to realize in life what nobody else can, and to realize it in the concrete context of the here and now.
We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself!
At this point, having discussed some useful questions and spiritual disciplines for discernment, one may rightly ask, “Now what?” Are there practical things I can do, beyond asking questions and practicing disciplines, to be active in discerning my vocation? Thankfully, yes there are. First, one may simply go about doing what one is already doing, asking God to reveal, through daily work and routines, what His will is for us now in the areas where we are already at work. You may be surprised to discover that some small form of service that you have been doing has been shaping you and giving you a vision for your vocation without you realizing it. In considering this point, it may be useful to think holistically about life, going beyond the compartmentalization of work, family, friends, and church that is often typical of the mental organization of our lives. If we are only thinking about our vocation in terms of the things we do for work, for instance, we may ignore our gifts and talents in church or family life that may speak more to us about our vocation than what we do to earn a living.
Second, one may explore different avenues of work and service for limited times as a means of testing one’s fitness for a particular vocation. Are there internships that would allow you to do some aspect of a particular vocation for a time? Would you be able to shadow a person who is already doing a job that you are interested in trying? Or perhaps, more consequentially, are there job openings in an area where you believe you may be called to work? If so, those openings may be the only sign you need from God to jump right in and do the work, trusting God to show you whether you are suited for that work by actually trying it.
The experience of the late Henri Nouwen, quoted above, a Catholic priest and noted author, offers one example of this idea. After several years of teaching at Yale, Nouwen wondered if God was calling him to live among the poor in Latin America. Nouwen tested this calling by going to Latin America to live among the poor for a time. He ultimately discerned that God was not calling him to this mission for the long term, but wrote, “What I learned from testing a call in Latin America is that my broader vocation is simply to enjoy God’s presence, do God’s will, and be grateful wherever I am. The question of where to live and what to do is really insignificant compared to the question of how to keep the eyes of my heart focused on the Lord.” Nouwen later found vocation in living among and pastoring the people of L’Arche, a community of individuals with intellectual disabilities, a vocation he embodied in the final ten years of his life.
With Nouwen’s story and words in mind, we arrive at a final point: vocation is a gift of God’s grace. It is not unusual for Christians in the academy, who may be used to the constant assessment of the value of their work, to believe that God’s call on their lives is based in part on their worthiness to receive the call. While one cannot ever fully discount the role of aptitude in vocation-–it seems unlikely that God would call someone who has never been athletic into a career in professional basketball, for instance-–there is a significant difference between mere aptitude and the more fundamental issue of our worthiness before God. Our aptitude may be derived from years of study and practice, but our worthiness is derived only from God’s grace.
This gift of worthiness, joined with the promises of God’s provision and care illuminated at the beginning of this module, makes it possible for Christians not only to discern vocation well, but also to be freed from the tremendous burden of self-creation that weighs down so many people who are trying to find direction in their personal and professional lives. We may be assured, then, that even when seasons of discernment are long and tedious, and God seems to be silent in the midst of our search for direction, that the answer to the fundamental question of our identity is not shaken. Our identity is God’s beloved, and our most fundamental vocation–-to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39)–-is always sure.
- Consider reading one of the books on discernment from the bibliography.
- Write out your best sense of God’s call on your life at this moment.
- Can you “shadow” someone who has the job you would like to have?
- Pray the following prayer for vocation:
Lord, let me know clearly the work which You are calling me to do in life. And grant me every grace I need to answer Your call with courage and love and lasting dedication to Your will.
- If God has led you to decisions or choices in the past, how did He do that? How did you come to believe that He was leading you?
- Pick one or two of the discernment ideas from this module and practice them. Make notes about any insights gained.
- Who will you include in your “discernment community”—the trustworthy Christians who will help you hear God’s voice?
- Who is the real “you”; that is “…God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [you] to do”? And what are those good works that He has prepared for you to do?
Previous Posts in this Series:
 Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row: New York, 1973, p. 95.
 My thanks to Bob Trube, author of Module 2: “Work and the Missio Dei,” for contributing this question as part of our discussions about discernment.
 Dare to Dream: Creating a God-Sized Mission Statement for Your Life by Mike Slaughter, Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2013, pp. 26 – 29.
 The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard, HarperCollins: New York, 1998, p. 348.
 Teach Us to Pray, IVP, p. 73.
 Ibid., pp. 83-84.
 Ibid., p.85.
 Bread for the Journey: A Daybook Of Wisdom And Faith, by Henri Nouwen, HarperCollins: New York, 1997.
 Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, HarperOne: New York, 2013, p.107.
 The Essential Henri Nouwen, by Henri Nouwen, ed. Robert A. Jonas, Shambhala Publications: Boston, 2009, pp. xxxiii – xxxiv.
 Will Willimon, “’What Should I Do with My Life?’ a Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C,” February 3, 2019, video, 14:46, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ybXbFUF8RQ&t=81s, accessed 10/13/20.
 Vocation Prayer from Saint Meinrad Prayer Book, By Saint Meinrad Alumni Association: St. Meinrad, IN,1995.
 Ephesians 2:10, NIV.
About the author:
Jeremy Hatfield served as a Campus Staff Minister with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Ohio University from 2017 to 2020. He also received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American history from Ohio University.