Discerning God’s individual calling seems to be a tricky thing. Some people are unsure what God’s call on their life is and this uncertainty can be paralyzing. For others, they are very bold and outspoken about their calling, which becomes a trump card against any objections or questions. How do we know God’s call? What are we supposed to do? On this question I’ve found J.I. Packer to be particularly helpful. He points to four factors in discerning God’s calling.
The Biblical Factor
Ask the question, is it biblical? If God is calling you to serve somewhere or do something, it will not contradict what is taught in the Bible. If what you sense is God’s calling is in contradiction with what God has previously called all Christians to, then you can be confident that you were wrong about his calling. God is consistent. He has already spoken. There is no need for discussion on what God’s will is in certain situations. “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (I Thess 4:3). There is no room for debate.
As well, we know in general what God’s calling is in regards to ministry. God calls leaders to devote themselves to teaching the scriptures and sound doctrine (I Tim 4:11-16) and to preach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:1-5). He calls older women to train younger women to grow in maturity and godliness (Titus 2:4-5). He calls everyone in the church to speak the truth in love to each other in such a way that the whole church grows in maturity (Eph 4:11-16). And on it goes.
As I discern my specific life and ministry calling it must with the more general call that God gives to all Christians. If my specific call fits within the parameters and boundaries of God’s general call then I can proceed in discerning what it is indeed a call from God. If already, my supposed calling is outside these bounds, I can be sure it is not a call from God.
The Spirit Factor
Beyond the scriptures, God may direct us through nudging and leading us in a particular direction. The spiritually renewed heart will experience new God-given desires and passions, as well at times feel a particular call or burden towards a particular work. We can think of Acts 16:6-8, where Paul is “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia”, and then “they attempted to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” And then Paul received a vision of a Macedonian man asking Paul to come over to them. From all this they decide to go on to Macedonia, “concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Paul’s life calling was to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles. Going up to Asia or Bithynia would have fit with the general call on Paul’s life and was within those biblical bounds, but the Spirit led elsewhere.
As we pray and seek God’s calling we need to be open to his directing and leading. We may have a growing passion for a ministry or an inner angst within where we feel compelled to do a certain work. These God-given desires can be an important way of God calling and directing us.
The Body Factor
Do other people agree? Do others confirm this calling? A certain call or ministry may be within biblical bounds and we may have a strong desire which we believe is from the Spirit, but we need the confirmation of other believers as well. If God is calling, others will see that and confirm it. If however, these desires are misdirected, misinterpreted or sinful, others will see that and correct us.
Many are not willing to submit their calling to others. The discipline of submitting to church leaders in authority over us and to the body in general is a crucial but badly neglected practice. Instead we often see people who are convinced of God’s calling and are unwilling to consider anything else. God has called them, therefore everyone else must be wrong. But if it really is from God, those who know you, who know the Word can affirm it.
Without this important check, some people will come up with some crazy ideas of God’s calling. I know of individuals who move from church to church convinced of a specific calling or ministry or gifting, and as churches, pastors and leaders disagree with them, they angrily pick up and move to the next church. This lack of submission and inability to see what everyone can see is dangerous.
Finally, if the sovereign God has called you to something, he who moves heaven and earth will open up the opportunity for you. I’ve been in situations where I felt called to a certain ministry or work. It was biblical and good. Check. There was a sense of the Spirit’s leading and guiding. I could see God’s sovereign hand in certain events confirming this direction. Check. Godly people in my life who knew me and the situation and the scriptures well affirmed this as something I ought to pursue. Check. But then the opportunity was not there. God clearly shut the door. In the end, if God doesn’t open the way, it’s not the way.
At that point we are left asking, did I mistaken God’s calling? Was I wrong? There are really three possibilities that I see in this situation. First, we might have been wrong. Maybe those feelings were not God-given desires. Maybe we were mistaken. We need to accept that and be thankful for the clarity of the closed door. Second, maybe God was calling, but he is calling us to wait. The timing is not right. God was really in it, but we need patience for the right opportunity. And finally, maybe God was calling us through the process of discerning for your good and God’s greater glory. Maybe he was nudging and leading because the process itself was a gift for your growth, even if he closed the door in the end.
God’s Call Doesn’t Mean It Will Be Easy
If all these factors line up and we are confident in God’s calling, this doesn’t mean it will be easy. Many seem to believe that if God calls everything will go along swimmingly. But I would argue the examples in the Bible show the opposite. In Acts 9 God speaks to Ananias about Paul’s calling and says “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God is calling Paul. And it will be hard.
When Paul tells the church in Corinth of his travel plans he says “I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (I Cor 16.8-9). Think about that. Wide door. Many adversaries. Most Christians would probably assume that the many adversaries indicate a closed door. If it’s hard, God’s not calling. But that’s not the case. God calls us to hard ministry. Hard ministry is good for us as we have to throw ourselves upon the mercy and strength of God. And hard ministry glorifies God as he demonstrates his power through our weakness.
So… what is God calling you to?