One of the most challenging, but also one of the most important things, we will ever do as believers who strive to follow God’s will is to discern His calling or purpose on our lives.
How do we know what God has planned for us? What if we make the wrong choices? Will we find ourselves living contrary to God’s will? These aren’t just big questions—they are haunting questions that can give us a lot of anxiety. Ultimately, we find that there is less to worry about that many of us assume. But first, we have to understand what it means to be “called” by God.
Finding Your Calling: Everyone Has One
It isn’t just preachers and missionaries who have “callings” from God. In truth, everyone has a calling, or purpose, in life. The very word “calling” has some interesting, Biblical, origins. The Greek word for the noun “a calling” is kalesis. When Christians first translated the bible into Latin the word vocatio was used for kalesis. If you just sound those words out in English you can probably figure out that two English words we’ve taken from both Greek and Latin, respectively: “vocation” and “calling.”
Finding Your Calling from God Involves Your Whole Life
It wasn’t until the industrial era when we began to compartmentalize our lives and think of our “jobs” as something outside of who we were, as something we do simply to earn an income or provide, without a definite sense of any greater purpose. When we speak of our “vocations,” then, we often think about our jobs—and we might imagine that our “jobs” are unrelated to our callings as believers. For the greater part of Christian history, however, theologians and common believers alike knew that our vocations were not mere tasks that we performed to survive but were actual callings from God, unique “stations” in life where we could serve as God’s representatives to the unbelieving and suffering world.
Finding Your Calling: Our Main Calling from God is be “little Christs”
Through our various callings, or vocations, God uses us as his representatives to accomplish his will in the world. The protestant reformer, Martin Luther, said that through our vocations we become like “little Christs” to our neighbor. Rather than speaking of one’s “calling” (singular) or vocation it might be better to speak of our various callings or vocations (plural).
You might be a parent but also an employee, an employer, or a student. You could be a son or a daughter but also an athlete, or a singer, or an artist. These various callings intersect in our lives and create different stations, or locations, which we can view as missionary outposts, places where God has placed us in our lives in order to demonstrate his love to our fellow human beings.
Finding Your Calling: What is My Purpose?
Still, in the middle of the muck and mire of life it can be very difficult to discern God’s purpose for our lives. Not everyone can—and not everyone should—become a missionary. God has given us responsibilities, families that need to be provided for, and other tasks that we must fulfill. While Jesus once bid some of his followers to be willing to leave behind even one’s family, to take up their cross, to become a disciple (Luke 14:26) he did not teach that we should neglect the people God has commanded us to serve and care for in order to pursue ministries that we merely think God wants us to pursue.
Finding Your Calling from God: Sacrifice and Duty
Clearly, following Jesus’ call involves sacrifice. It often comes with a cost. But Jesus was not teaching us to neglect our duties as parents, or even our daily responsibilities, to become missionaries. In context, it’s the willingness to leave anything behind if he calls us with a faith that He will nonetheless provide for us that Jesus is speaking of. And very few of us receive a word so clear about God’s purpose as the original disciples whom Jesus called directly. But that does not mean that God does not have a purpose, or a calling on our lives. The question is how to seek and discern what God’s calling truly is for us.
In truth, the Bible doesn’t give us a clear example or an easy seven-step method to discern for certain what God’s purpose is for us. Nonetheless, we can discern a lot from several Biblical examples. Let us consider one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament—the cases of Joseph and Paul—to discover what we might learn from how God works to manifest his purpose for us in our lives.
Finding Your Calling: Hardships Will be Used for Good
Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers. As a slave in the house of Potiphar, he was falsely accused of attempting to seduce his master’s wife and thrown into prison. Joseph, who was to ultimately be in a position of great power, had just experienced what the abuse of power felt like. In his innocence, he had experienced stark injustice. (No doubt when he got in power, he kept this as a valuable lesson.)
In prison, Joseph’s gift to interpret dreams was discovered and it eventually earned him an ear with Pharaoh. At that point, the once-favored son of Joseph became favored by who might have been the most powerful man in the world at the time. Accordingly, God gave Joseph a calling that couldn’t have made much sense. A godly man serving a ruler who imagined himself a sort of god unto himself!
Joseph must have been wondering what in the world God’s plan for him was at this juncture in his life. The answer came when, to his total surprise, the very brothers who sold him into slavery showed up begging for grain. When Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers they are struck with fear—would Joseph exact his revenge on his brothers who betrayed him before?
Instead what we learn is that Joseph discovered, now in hindsight, how God had used everything that had happened to him to call Joseph to a special role that he might be in a place to save the people of Israel. Thus, he tells his brothers, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20, NIV).
Finding Your Calling: Expect Years of Preparation Time
Nearly half of the New Testament was inspired through the pen of Paul. However, Paul was not originally a Christian. Paul, in fact, details his own resume in Galatians 1. His credentials for being a missionary included being a former pharisee (no group was criticized by Jesus more than the pharisees), a Roman citizen (wasn’t Rome the enemy?), and a persecutor of the Church (he oversaw the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr).
If the early Christians were looking for a new missionary to take the Gospel to the gentiles, Paul’s resume would have been so bad by human standards that he never would have gotten so much as an interview.
Still, Paul’s experience studying the Old Testament, his credentials as a Roman citizen, ultimately prepared him to become an effective preacher of the Gospel! When God called Paul on the Damascus road, blinding him temporarily in the process, God knew what he was doing—and no one, not Paul, not even the other apostles, could have seen it coming!
After Such a Dramatic Conversion, Shouldn’t Ministry be Immediate?
But when we read of Paul’s conversion experience, we often imagine that he would immediately start preaching, that he’d leave and begin his mission the very next day. That is not what happened. We hear in Galatians 2:1 that Paul spent fourteen years in Jerusalem to submit to other disciples the call he’d received to preach to the Gentiles. According to Paul, he did this “in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal. 2:2).
Find Your Calling from God: Making Sense of it All!
What can we learn from these Biblical examples? Here are a seven key lessons:
Finding Your Calling from God: The Specifics Can Change
Where God has called us now might not be where we will end up.
Perhaps God has called us to something that doesn’t seem to have a godly purpose. Certainly, he will not call us to do something that is sinful. But he might call us to work beneath ungodly authorities, or to engage people who we would not normally choose as our associates, much less our friends.
Sometimes it isn’t so much that God has called us into situations that “test” our obedience and virtue but it might be that he calls us to a vocation that seems completely unrelated to real ministry, something that does not seem (at least on the surface) to be remotely spiritual. We might struggle to see opportunities for God to work through our work.
But the question isn’t “what could God do through this” so much as it is “what couldn’t God do through this situation?” If we stop looking for what we think God will do through our callings we are more likely to be open to the possibility that God will work in surprising and unexpected ways. Though, if we have this attitude, we won’t be surprised at all when we find God working in ways we never could have predicted.
Who could blame Joseph if he thought that God had abandoned him when he was sold into slavery, imprisoned, or brought into the service of a foreign and idolatrous ruler?
Finding Your Calling from God is Not Always Immediately Clear
Paul spent fourteen years testing what he believed what God’s calling was by submitting himself to other Christians! Jesus only spent three years with his original disciples, but Paul spent a decade and a half discerning God’s will before he began his missionary journeys! In short, discerning God’s will takes patience.
In fact, it requires patience. Even Paul, who’d had a startling revelation on the Damascus road, took time to discern God’s intentions before diving headlong in his ministry. While it might not take all of us fourteen years before what God has called us to do is realized in our lives it very well might. And we need to take the time to make sure we are following God’s plan.
Finding Your Calling from God uses Your Gifts and Talents
Joseph had a unique gift to interpret dreams. Paul spent most of his life studying the scriptures in depth. Neither of them, however, realized how God was planning to use their gifts at the time. We all have gifts and talents. Keep an open mind about the ways that God might use your unique gifts for his purposes in the future.
Finding Your Calling from God: Even Ungodly People can be Used to Fulfill God’s Purpose in your Life.
God used the sin of Joseph’s brothers, Potiphar’s wife, and even pharaoh, to put his servant in a position to fulfill his purpose. Paul was not only taught by Pharisees, but he was a persecutor of Christians. God still used him to bring the Gospel to millions. In fact, through Paul’s letters, God is still using Paul—the former Pharisee and persecutor—to reveal his salvation to the world.
Finding Your Calling from God: Trial and Hardship.
It wasn’t an easy path for either Joseph or Paul to discern God’s call on their lives. Joseph endured betrayal, slavery, and prison. Paul was blinded and humbled, struck to the heart with guilt over all he’d done, before God called him and revealed his will. Discovering God’s purpose for us does not always come easy—it might come through pain and struggle. Even trial and tribulation, however, can be used by God in order to manifest his purpose for our lives. Trail and hardship are a part of everyone’s life, but for the believer, God uses them to reveal our purpose.
Finding Your Calling from God: God Uses Others to Reveal his Plans.
God worked through many unlikely figures to reveal his plans to Joseph. Only in hindsight—after his brothers shockingly showed up begging for grain—did Joseph see how God had been working behind the scenes all the while. Paul, too, relied on other believers to confirm God’s plans for him before beginning his missionary journeys. Our callings are not always made clear through private prayer and meditation on the word. God often reveals his plans through others.
Finding Your Calling from God: It’s Often a Journey.
Neither Joseph nor Paul realized God’s purpose for their lives in an instant. In spite of the fact that the resurrected Jesus appeared to Paul, in fact, it was not yet clear precisely where Paul should go—even if he knew he had to preach the Gospel in some way.
It took time before God revealed the exact path that Paul was to follow to fulfill his calling. Some of us might discover God’s purpose for our lives early on. Others might spend our whole lives seeking God’s purpose only to discover, in the end, how God had used our lives to fulfill a calling we never realized he’d used us to fulfill.
Finding Your Calling from God: Other Important Concerns
What can I do to make sure I am on track to realizing God’s purpose in my life?
With these lessons learned, we are still left wondering how we should go about following God’s will for our lives. Still, keeping the above principles in mind, there are certain things we can do in our effort to faithfully realize God’s purpose in our lives.
Finding Your Calling from God: Ask the Right Questions
It is important, in our prayers, that we are asking the right questions. The question is not always, “show me where you want me to go?” but sometimes it is, “show me how I can fulfill my purpose where you’ve placed me.” In other words, we might have a keen awareness that we are not currently realizing the calling that God will have for us in the end—sometimes we know that our current situation is just a “season” or a milestone on a long journey.
Our “final destination” might be clear, but perhaps more often than not we do not see God’s purpose until He’s realized it in our lives. We might know we are now on his path without yet perceiving the destination.
Sometimes when we pray, we do not hear God’s answer because we’re asking the wrong questions. While God might see through our poorly phrased questions and give us an answer we might be blinded by our questioning.
If we’re constantly looking for where God wants us to go, we might miss what God wants us to do where we’ve currently been called. We shouldn’t assume that simply because we cannot currently see what God is doing through us that God isn’t, in fact, in the process of fulfilling His purpose for us. God is not beholden to our expectations.
His vision for us is often bigger, and grander than the narrow perspective that we have at the moment.
Finding Your Call from God: There are Seasons to Your Call
Still, it may be that there is still something God intends to accomplish through our present, albeit temporary, “callings.” Joseph was surely ready to leave prison long before he had the occasion to interpret the dreams of some of his fellow inmates which, eventually, gained the attention of the pharaoh. After Paul’s call on the Damascus road, it must have taken a great deal of patience to humble himself, seek out the counsel of those whom he formerly persecuted, and wait until the time was right for him to begin his missionary journeys.
Finding Your Calling: Consult Other Believers
We should be willing to rely on the godly counsel of our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. Many times, we are “blinded” to our gifts and opportunities. Sometimes we do not see when God is opening up doors because we are so fixated on what we thought God was up to at the moment. Paul (while still called Saul) surely thought he was doing God’s work when he was persecuting Christians—he believed they were advocating a false Messiah.
Ironically, he had to be literally blinded before he could see the door that God had opened up to him. And more, he had to consult other believers—some of the very Christians he formerly persecuted—for council and advice. Yes, even after Jesus spoke to him clearly on the Damascus road, he had to seek out other believers for direction. Thus, even when we think God has clearly spoken to us about our calling, we would do well to continually seek the council of our fellow believers. God works through our brothers and sisters to reveal his will in our lives.
Finding Your Calling from God: What If I Have Made the Wrong Decisions in the Past?
Finally, we don’t need to worry if we’ve made the wrong choices in our lives. Sometimes believers become anxious when faced with decisions about their futures. If I make the wrong choice, will I be left outside of God’s will? Will I thwart God’s plan if I make the wrong decision? What we see from the testimony of Scripture is that while we do have free will and can make our own choices, God is not limited by our choices. God’s will is not thwarted by ours. We just aren’t that powerful!
We should not despair if we’ve fallen off the path. We’ve seen examples—in both the stories of Joseph and Paul—of how God redeems even the most unlikely paths to bring us where he wants us to go. We do not need to be paralyzed by the fear that we might make the wrong choice or take the wrong path when various options are set before us.
Finding Your Calling from God: Trust Him to Bring the Outcome
Instead, if we pray and seek godly counsel, we can take whatever path we believe is best all the while remaining confident that God is still in control. He knew what we would choose before we did! It isn’t a question of free will versus fate. In truth, God works through our choices and if we are seeking his will, we can be sure that he sees to it that His purposes for us are fulfilled regardless of the decisions we make today.
Ultimately, we can be sure that if we are seeking God’s will he will see to it that our callings are revealed and realized in time. In the meantime, the question should not be “where are you sending me next?” but “how can I best represent your love and grace where you’ve placed me, today?”