Gently Glowing Bushes: Demystifying Discernment of Calling

It’s one of the most common–and paralyzing–questions that Christians ask, “How do I know my vocation?” Many times I’ve talked to folks who are afraid to make a bold move forward, or are stuck between good options and unable to move for fear of missing God’s will. Karen Yates writes:

How do we find what we are meant to do?  This is the infamous and expansive search–the quest for our unique calling.  This is the question that keeps us up at night, that makes forty-somethings leave their lives in search for something better, that keeps twenty-somethings from staying at a job for more than a year at a time, that causes many dates to never turn to wedding bells.

What on earth am I here for?  What am I supposed to DO with my life?

We bounce, slamming ourselves into walls.  We sit and ponder.  We write how-tos: 20 Ways to Find Your Calling (Forbes) and What You Are Meant To Be Doing–Find Your Calling (Oprah) and How To Find Your Calling (Institute for Faith, Works, and Economics).

…We look upon people living out their calling with envy — what’s wrong with us that we don’t know what we’re supposed to do with our lives?  Why does He have something unique for them, but not unique for me?

As a pastor, I’m frequently asked to share the story of my “call to the ministry”. And over the years I’ve noticed with some consternation that my answer begins apologetically, a bit sheepish for its lack of fireworks and burning bushes. But on further reflection and with more experience telling the story, I’ve come to gently delight in not having particularly miraculous story. (I’ve got other ones that are…this one’s not of them!) I’ve been able to turn it into an encouragement for any who are longing for clarity on their own call, or burdened with anxiety for not having it. It’s led to identifying some key questions when we are seeking to discern God’s call on our lives and clarity in our own vocation.

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Very simply, in college I started out as biology major, until organic chemistry directed my attention towards communications, for which my gifts where much better suited. I was also involved in the spiritual life activities offered by the campus.

Three things guided me in the direction of seminary. First, I enjoyed activities easily identified as church sorts of work: leading small groups, being a resident director, Bible studies, and so on. I felt alive with what I was doing, and remember specifically delivering a chapel sermon for the student body with a sense of “I was made for this!”

Second, others affirmed this direction towards seminary and full-time church ministry, my parents, my older and wisers, and my best friends, who even sent me off to seminary by laying hands on me.

Then third, seminary worked out. I was accepted, which was not guaranteed given a less-than-serious approach to academics in my freshman and sophomore year.

So I went, without clarity on what came at the end, but as confident as I could be that seminary was the next clear step. Over time and very slowly, it became clear that the direction to head was not towards a PhD and a career in the academy, but rather take the MDiv and apply it towards parish ministry. And that’s what’s happened, and I couldn’t be more satisfied looking back on 20 years of a path that there was no way to anticipate or strategically plan!

From this and other experiences of recognizing the gently glowing bushes as well as the burning ones, I’ve identified seven key questions to ask when we’re seeking God’s will for out next step and general direction. I fill these out a lot more at a recent talk for The Washington Institute entitled “Demystifying Vocation, found here.

  1. What do I Love?  Sister Ita Ford was one of the four nuns murdered in El Salvador in 1980.  Three months before her death, she wrote to her niece, “I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you; something worth living for – maybe even worth dying for; something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be – that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in the search.”  Annie Dillard puts the same idea another way, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
  2. Who am I?  Some answers to this come by reflecting on: What am I good at?  What are my gifts? What is my temperament?  What does my history equip me for?  Os Guinness writes, “The main way to discover calling is along the line of what we are each created and gifted to be. Instead of, ‘You are what you do,’ calling says: ‘Do what you are’.”
  3. What is affirmed by others?  Every major step in my life has been made in consultation with others who know me well and love me deeply, whose counsel is separated from their own self-interest. I can’t imagine doing life differently than this, and when the majority of these friends and mentors affirm a way forward, it give great confidence to take steps in that direction.
  4. What’s going to do some good for somebody?  Leo Tolstoy observed, “The vocation of every man and woman is to serve other people.”  This makes sense, since our deepest vocation is to love.
  5. What do I want…what do I Desire? In the Christian tradition, our deepest, visceral desires can be underrated as a means to discern God’s voice to us in both small and larger steps.  We’re not talking about surface and shallow wants, but the desires that emerge from the True Self which is the deepest part of us. When deciding on a path to take, St. Ignatius suggests that we imagine ourselves on our deathbed, and ask “Which do you wish you chose?”
  6. What will grow me and will require greater faith?  This question is not fool-proof, for there are many foolhardy things we could do that would put us in the position of requiring a lot of faith. But when choosing between options, the path that leads to spiritual growth and requires increasing faith will often lead to a greater adventure with God and places that could not be planned, but are most wanted, and most useful to others.
  7. What are circumstances telling me?  One of the best and easiest ways to discern God’s will is to look at our actual circumstances. For example, if I’m applying to three graduate schools and don’t get into any of them, well then, it’s clear that that grad school is not God’s will for me. Like our desires, circumstances can be underrated in our discernment as well.

None of these questions are necessarily silver bullets to discern God’s call on our lives.  Sometimes different questions are more pertinent than others. And sometimes (not uncommonly actually), life throws at us challenges and changes that clearly reveal God’s will for us in given season. Vocations change. And this is precisely why it’s good to keep listening for God, and these questions help us do that, whenever we ask them.

Pedro-Arrupe-at-prayer1Pedro Arrupe, a Jesuit who lived through the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, offers a final word of counsel:  “Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

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