'Calling' and guidance | Christian Vocations

'Calling' and guidance

How can I discern what God wants me to do with my life?

Because there is confusing and often contradictory advice about ‘calling’ (and especially the ‘missionary call’), it can seem difficult and overwhelming to find a way through. Some people talk about a deep sense of personal 'call' - perhaps a mystical experience or a 'voice from God'. Others have a very rational, logical approach of gathering information, praying and simply making a decision.  And there is everything in between!

So how should we approach this important subject?

Four things to remember:

  • The primary image of calling in the Bible is the calling to follow Jesus. The living out of our personal gifts and abilities in such a way that God is glorified (our vocation) is secondary to that. Our jobs are not necessarily the most important aspect of our calling or our service in Christ’s work in our lives.
  • We are all different and God often works in different ways in our lives.
  • God's 'call' and guidance is not discovered in a 'vacuum'. As you think and pray these things through it is vital that you seek wisdom and advice from others who know you well, and particularly those whom God has given responsibility for your spiritual life - your local church leaders. Discernment is a corporate, not just an individual thing.
  • The consideration of 'calling' - in terms of the work that we do - is often done from a position of privilege, and we would do well to remember that. Most people in the world do not have the luxury of choice - see Why we shoudn't be chasing our vocation for some healthy perspective on this.

Some helpful suggestions:

Tim Keller gives a 3 point approach. We can discern God’s 'calling' when three factors come together for us: 

  • Affinity          (What human needs do I ‘vibrate’ to? What interests me? What are my passions?)
  • Ability           (What am I good at? What do other people say I am effective in?)
  • Opportunity  (What doors for service are open? What needs to be done?)

Clarifying the Call by Christopher Ash answers the question in discerning a 'call' into pastoral ministry How do I know that Christ has called me to "prayer and the ministry of the word"?  The most important principle to bear in mind is stewardship. Rather than asking what we want, we need to ask what gifts we have been given. So the question is not, ‘How do I discern whether I am called?' but rather ‘How may I discern what gifts have I been given?' 

  • Try it and others will tell you  - as you serve, so the fellowship in which you serve will see what you are gifted at and what you are no good at. The latter experience may be painful, but is usually a part of the process.
  • Church leaders will tell you – they will be looking for four qualities: a godly character, a clear gospel, the ability to teach, and a love for people
  • Conclusion: you are free to decide! - remember that the decision is yours before Christ. You must neither let yourself be pressured into pastoral ministry by pushy leaders nor dissuaded by worldly motives. Pray for purity of heart. Listen to wise leaders who know you. And then decide.

Bill Taylor (abridged, from Send Me! Your Journey to the Nations) encourages us to consider the different ways that God leads different people:

  • Path 1:  A few people really will have some kind of 'personalised call', vision, powerful encounter, or voice from the Lord.
  • Path 2:  Other friends tell me theirs is not a matter of a 'personalised call' to missions. It's more a matter of obedience to God.
  • Path 3:  Still others find that they end up in missions after a serious evaluation of prime factors: deep commitment and obedience to Christ, plus a personal assessment of interests, gifts, experience, and dreams, combined with a heart of compassion for those who are lost or living in proverty, and an opportunity to serve and to make a difference in the world. These all converge to form a path into missions.
  • Path 4:  Some report that the prime factors leading them into missions were rather simple: a radical obedience to Christ that meant a willingness to do anything, go anywhere, pay any price, plus an identification of their gifts and others' needs.

Blogs, books, articles and other resources

  • 3 things your calling is not - your 'calling' is not for you, your 'calling' is not from you, your 'calling' is not future tense. Excellent blog post from Ivan Mesa, the Gospel Coalition.
  • Missionary Call: The Definitive Post - an excellent blog post from Eddie Arthur.
  • Stop Overspiritualising 'Calling' - Bethany Jenkins writes about how we too often overspiritualise 'calling' and make it about self-expression instead of faithfulness to God.
  • Why we shouldn't be searching for our vocation - this blog post from Christian Today offers some really important reminders about the place of work in our lives.
  • How Martin Luther transformed work: "With few exceptions, all vocations were a calling from God". A helpful blog post from Intersect.
  • Common Sense and the Will of God - "Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that God’s guidance will normally be through something spectacular or unique. Usually he guides us by simply letting us use our heads. The choice that makes sense is often the one God would have us do." A very helpful blog post by Bruce Waltke.
  • Calling & Vocation: Overview – a longer article from Theology of Work Project looking at issues such as types of God’s 'calling', discerning God’s guidance to a particular kind of work, the needs of the world, your skills and gifts, your truest desires and more.
  • The Call - an excellent short book by Trevor Archer and Paul Mallard giving wise, biblical and practical advice to those considering full-time Christian ministry. 
  • Just Do Something - a short book by Kevin DeYoung offering "a liberating approach to finding God's will."
  • Options Coaching - a one-to-one service provided by professional Christian coaches helping you reflect on your agenda and a way forward into God-honouring and God-given paths with your gifts and life.