God gives each of us a different blend of skills, inclinations, instincts, mental capacities, emotional strengths, tastes, etc. So how do I know what role I am supposed to play with my own set of gifts? It’s a perennial question, and today it comes from a college student named Sandra.
“Pastor John, hello, my name is Sandra. I’m a junior at Ohio State University. Thank you for this podcast and your eagerness to hear from college students. I have been saved for about a decade, and I love Christ. In books I read and in conferences I attend, it seems more and more that I am being told to understand God’s calling over me and my life. And I would sure love to know it! But I struggle here.
“Maybe I will go into business. Maybe I will be a mom caring for a home. Maybe I’ll even be a missionary? It would be helpful to know what God has for me, but I don’t even know where to begin this process, other than to pray. How can I discover God’s calling over my life? Where do I even begin?”
This question will never grow old because generation after generation must answer it. It is rarely easy to answer, so thank you, Sandra, for the chance to dig back into some of these great biblical truths.
In fact, I find myself praying here at the front end of this question that God would use it to make hundreds of people find his precise, glorious, wonderful will. It may be obvious to you, but I’m sure it’s not to everyone, so I’m going to distinguish three kinds of calling.
Called from Death to Life
First, there is a kind of calling that God speaks when we are dead in sins — that calling which brings us out of deadness into life in union with Christ. This is the calling Paul comments on when he says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).
“God, don’t let me make choices about what I do that would waste my life.”
Millions of people hear the general call of God in the preaching of the gospel. But Paul says that some among those millions regard this message as foolishness. Some regard it as a stumbling block. But some experience, through it, a divine, inner call of God that causes them to say, “Christ crucified is the wisdom of God. Christ crucified is the power of God.”
They embrace it, and they are saved. All Christians are called in this sense. We were made Christians by the sovereign call of God that brought us from death to life.
Called to a Covenant
Second, there is another kind of calling that we have in lifelong covenants that we make under God. The main one that the Bible ordains is the covenant of marriage. When God joins two people together in covenant — mainly on the analogy of Christ and his covenant with the church in Ephesians 5 — when God joins a man and a woman like that, then Jesus said that God has joined them together in such a way that no man may put this asunder (Mark 10:9). So the calling that we have in marriage is unlike the calling that we have to any particular vocation.
When you take a job, you’re not forming a lifelong covenant before God. You can change jobs. When you marry, your calling is “till death do us part.” That’s a second kind of calling. It is not like the third kind I’m going to talk about now, which is really the kind Sandra is asking about.
Called Through a Process
The third kind of calling is a process. I’m saying this call of God is a process by which God leads his children into fruitful positions of service, whether in the church or in the marketplace or in the home.
The way we hear this kind of calling is to be attentive to six ways that God acts on our behalf to bring us into a fruitful position of service in the world. Not necessarily a position that we’ll have fifty years. We might experience movement as God’s call moves. But the next calling? That’s what Sandra is asking about. What’s the next one that might be a lifelong calling or might be a ten-year calling?
Here are these six things, and I’ll just say them very briefly. She said, “I don’t know where to begin except for praying.” Well, praying is one of my six. So here are five more for you to focus on.
1. Pursue Good
God gives us in the Scriptures a worldview with Christ at the center, and reveals to us that certain vocations and certain industries, or certain ways of running industries, are good and others are bad.
“In a world where choices are many, God’s gifting becomes a more significant part of God’s calling.”
When it’s not crystal clear what’s good and bad, he shows us that certain paths of service are more helpful or less helpful in the world.
In showing us this, he works to keep us out of callings that would be evil or hurtful or unhelpful in the world. Not every vocation is open to the follower of Christ, and that’s a very important point of guidance that God gives us.
2. Run Toward Need
God has spoken in his word to show us both what true need is in the world and what the world really needs. He has acted to incline us, his people, to lean in to those needs, rather than thinking of only our private security and comfort and wealth and ease, as though that should guide us in our vocation.
He has said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). He has made us aware of how to define human need. He has given us eyes and ears to discern where those needs are. So part of his acting to guide us is to incline us away from selfishness, toward need-meeting, and then to show us the real needs of the world.
3. Don’t Forget What You Love
God has acted in every Christian to grant them various abilities, or we could call them gifts. Listen to the way Paul speaks about this, because if you do, you’ll get a flavor of what I’m talking about. I’m not just talking about something that you might say, “Well that’s just spiritual. It belongs in the church.”
Here’s what he says in Romans 12:6–8: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” — differing grace — “let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
“If holiness is God’s will, it is safe to say that desires produced by holiness are significant for your guidance.”
Now, those last three — contributing, leading, and mercy — should cause us to sit up and take notice that these gifts have application to both life in Christian community and life in ordinary human relationships in the marketplace.
My only point here is that we all have different inclinations, intuitions, different instincts, different skills, different mental capacities, different emotional strengths, different tastes, different capacities for stress and endurance, different capacities for crowds and solitude, and on and on and on. Oh, how different God has made us! Which means that he has designed us to be more effective at some things than at other things, more at home in doing some things rather than other things.
Mentioning being at home, I don’t mean to absolutize that. I don’t mean to say that we should do only what we feel at home doing. I think that’s a big mistake lots of young people are making today. They’re saying, “I’m going to do only what perfectly suits my gifts. I’m going to do only what perfectly fits my inclinations. I’m going to do only what makes me feel really fulfilled, because it fits like a glove on my individual hand.”
Well, there have been many times in history when people, in order to stay alive, or in order to do much good, had to do many things they did not feel suited to do because they needed to be done.
Nevertheless, I’ll back up and say in a world where choices are many, and that’s pretty true in the West, God’s gifting becomes a more significant part of God’s calling.
4. Be Quick to Listen
God has put in our lives wise counselors and has ordained in his word that we listen to them carefully. One of the real needs around us is that we listen to counselors.
This is Proverbs 11:14: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” So we don’t act in a vacuum. Don’t try to find God’s will for your life in a vacuum. We are part of a community of wisdom and love.
5. Fall to Your Knees
God has given us the gift of prayer precisely for the purpose of becoming wiser in the choices we make. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). So we pray over every one of these points, day in and day out.
I still do this at age 72. I pray, “God, don’t let me make choices about what I do that would waste my life, or what’s left of it.”
6. Consider Your Holy Desires
This one’s a little controversial because it’s the most subjective. But I would say that God, through all these things — and that’s important, through all those five things — and then by his Spirit, more subjectively, works in our minds and hearts to produce recurring, strong desires for a certain kind of service in the church or in the marketplace. These inclinations are very significant — they are very significant in guiding us when they occur in our holiest moments.
Yes, I’m saying that your desires are a very significant means by which God acts on your behalf to give you the guidance you need into the service where you belong. I’m saying that those desires have three characteristics about them when they’re most reliable.
- They are recurrent. They’re not a flash in the pan. They come back again and again and again.
- They’re strong. They’re not passing and weak and insignificant, like changing tastes.
- Most importantly, number three, these desires are not desires that are awakened while you are walking in sin, feeling distant from God, not enjoying worship, not spending time in the word, or not active in serving others. No, no, no. Desires that happen during those times are probably not very reliable at all. Paul said, “This is the will of God, your sanctification [holiness]” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Students used to ask me, “How can I know the will of God?” I’d say, “I know exactly what the will of God is for your life: holiness. Period. That’s the will of God.” If holiness is God’s will for you, it is safe to say that desires produced by holiness are significant for your guidance.
So here they are:
- What kinds of service are good and beneficial?
- What are the needs of the world, the true needs?
- What has God gifted me to be more or less fruitful at?
- What is the counsel I receive from godly people?
- Am I covering all of this in constant prayer for wisdom?
- What are my recurring, strong, holy desires?
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