Question: How do I discern between God’s calling for my life and what I feel are my passion and giftedness?

Frank answers: The short answer is that you shouldn’t discern any difference between God’s calling for your life and your interests and gifts because they should be one and the same. But some people get caught up in the conundrum of God controlling our lives versus free will. The fact is that God doesn’t control our lives precisely because we are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27) and are therefore endowed with free will. Free will includes the ability to make decisions.

One should pray that our free will decisions conform with God’s will for the world and for us individually.  But it is clear from our own experience as well as from Scripture that we humans often use our freedom in ways that directly contradict God’s will.  People are not puppets that God secretly controls, but free agents who possess significant control of their own lives. We can either cooperate with or resist the will of our Creator.

So where does that leave us on the question of our vocation, our calling in life?  The question of what God wants us to do with our lives can bring great anxiety.  Our Creator endows us with gifts that can be used in our callings to bring glory to God and to serve our neighbors.  But does God call us to specific areas of employment, or even to particular occupations? Is having a vocation the same as having a job?

We have learned in this time of economic change and job insecurity that we have transferable skills.  On our resumes we list our skills as well as our employment history.  The issue of finding a job is a matter of matching what we would really like to do with the skill sets we have, some of which are natural endowments and others of which are acquired through education or training.

Some career paths or job possibilities are clearly opposed to God’s will.  These are the kind of things that are covered in the Ten Commandments, and the early church didn’t mind spelling them out to those who were seeking baptism.  Those making idols or engaging in prostitution, for example, were told to find new careers and jobs before they could be baptized.  Emperors and magistrates even delayed baptism until their death beds because their job required putting people to death.  But careers or jobs that honor God’s will for the human community and serve the neighbor certainly reflect God’s calling for our lives.  The mainline church has believed that government or military service can also be an honorable vocation. Martin Luther once wrote a tract affirming “That Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.”

Can we get more specific?  Don’t some people feel called to particular vocations, such being a lawyer or doctor or school teacher or carpenter or auto mechanic or even a pastor?  Yes.  But what people want to do has to be tested in terms of their aptitudes for the work.  A person who can’t think logically will probably not make a good lawyer, and a person who is all thumbs will be a poor carpenter.  There are a lot of things we might like to do, and think we would find fulfilling, that we just don’t have the gifts or abilities to do.  Career counselors can help people discern what they will find fulfilling using the gifts and skill sets they do have.  There’s an old story about a farmer who saw clouds in the shape of “P C” and took this to mean that he should “preach Christ”.  After his first year at seminary the faculty told him his cloud vision really meant “plant corn”.

Another matter in this age of specialization is what job a person will do in a specific field.  One doesn’t just become a lawyer or a doctor.  One finally becomes, say, a real estate attorney, or a urologist.  One just doesn’t become a carpenter.  One builds houses or makes cabinets.  One just doesn’t become an ordained minister.  One becomes a parish pastor or an academic theologian or a specialized chaplain of some sort.

And then in many lines of work there’s the matter of gaining acceptance, whether by one’s peers (through accrediting associations, trade guilds, professional boards, etc.) or by those whom one would serve (such as clients, patients, customers, parishioners, etc.).  You can’t practice a career without affirmation from peers and those you serve.  It’s really pretty complicated, isn’t it?  Dealing with certification processes can be frustrating, but the fact is that others should see in us what we think we see in ourselves. If they don’t, we need to reconsider what we want to do. Certification protects the people we serve from  charlatans and incompetents.

But here’s what we must also understand.  Our jobs are not necessarily our calling, and here’s why.  Most of us change jobs during the course of our life.  We may even change careers.  Having a second  or even a third career over one’s lifetime is not unheard of today.  Even if you’re in a church-sponsored ministry, that particular ministry will end.  We all hope to retire someday.  But opportunities for ministry will not end until death claims us.  This is true for laity as well as for clergy. One can pursue one’s calling in a volunteer capacity or “after hours,” as it were; pursuing your vocation doesn’t require earning money. I’ve pursued my vocation to be a writer, but I don’t think I would care to be employed as an editor or publisher. And I certainly couldn’t make a living by writing books and articles. Writing has been my calling, not my job; my vocation, not my occupation.  Many people find themselves in this situation in which what they most enjoy doing doesn’t pay. But they find ways to pursue their vocation anyway.  Our job is an instrument that helps us carry out our calling.  Some people’s jobs are closely related to their callings.  Other people’s jobs are done just to put food on the table and perhaps to provide for their families.

Most of us don’t have one vocation. Being a spouse or parent or care giver is also a calling. Martin Luther said that there was no higher calling than to be a pastor or bishop to one’s children. He didn’t mean this in the sense of holding the office of pastor or bishop. He meant it in the sense of caring for the souls of our children as well as their physical wellbeing. Some are called to a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. God’s will for us in our callings is how we serve God’s will for us all in whatever we find ourselves doing in our everyday lives.

You raise the issue of “discernment”. Some people think that discernment is about making a decision about what to do with one’s life. The noted Christian spiritual director Henri Neuwen wrote a book entitled Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life (HarperOne 2013). Here’s what he says about discernment as opposed to decision making.

Christian discernment is not the same as decision making. Reaching a decision can be straightforward: we consider our goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goal most effectively. Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desire. As discerning people, we sift through our impulses, motives, and options to discover which ones lead us closer to divine love and compassion for ourselves and other people and which ones lead us further away. (p. 17)

Discernment is an ongoing activity in our lives. Every time we make a change in our lives, or change happens to us, we need to go through a discernment process. What is God calling me to do with this possibility or in this situation? There are issues like: should I go to this school? Should I marry this person? Should I accept this job offer? Should I move to this location for better job opportunities? But actually, vocation is not so much about education, career, or livelihood, though in some cases they might overlap. It is really about discerning my true self in all that I undertake to do. But as a baptized Christian my true self is not just me; my life is “hidden with God in Christ” (Colossians 3:3).

Think about what that means. I am Christ living in the world—that’s my true self.  Luther said that we are called to be “little Christs” to our neighbors. If my vocation is to be Christ to others, maybe it doesn’t matter so much what my livelihood is. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter by trade and did his teaching and healing on the side. St. Paul was a tent maker by trade, and did his preaching and congregation organizing on the side. I’ve been a pastor and teacher by profession (and also because of a sense of calling), and I’ve done my writing (which I think is also my gift) on the side. But in all this my only discernment question is to whether I have pursued my true self—my self in Christ—in all that I have done.

So I recommend discerning (maybe with the help of others) who you are. If you also consider whose you are, it actually becomes easier to figure out your vocation.

— Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS