Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.Try Tabletalk Now
Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?
Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.
We all want our lives to have meaning. We want to know that we are pursuing a course in life that is in accordance with God’s will—and we can even be afraid that bad things will happen to us if we are out of the will of God. It is not wrong to desire to be in God’s will; after all, Jesus Himself prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). The real difficulty is when we try to discern what God’s will is for our lives. It would be so simple if the Lord wrote a message in the sky or gave each believer some supernatural sign. There would be no doubt if I woke up one morning and the clouds formed “Be an engineer!” (or even better, “Be an electrical engineer for the XYZ Company”). But the Lord has determined in His infinite wisdom not to reveal His particular will for every believer in such a way. If He were to do that, I am afraid I would still miss His will. There is an old story about the man who saw “G.P.C.” in the sky and concluded it was God telling him, “Go preach Christ!” The difficulty, however, was that the man had virtually no ability to communicate and very little Bible knowledge. When he went to a friend and told him his plans, the friend answered, “Perhaps the message was ‘Go plant corn!’”
Yet at the same time, it is not wise to think that all people are equally gifted for all vocations. The very word vocation comes from the Latin word for “calling,” implying that each of us has been called by God to use the gifts we have been given. Christians should not deny that they have abilities, talents, and interests, because the Bible tells us that the Lord gives these things to Christians. Each of us is different from the other because God has determined that this is how He will build up His church and society. The Apostle Paul tells us that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29) and that those gifts are different (12:6). We see this every day in those around us—some excel at mathematics and numbers, while others shine in languages; some are drawn to vocations that require collaborating with other people, while others would rather work in solitude; and some are always starting new projects and enterprises, while others delight in working in established areas. Differences are not bad. But it is crucial to understand that those differences are not the result of our own efforts, but they are received from the Lord (1 Cor. 4:7).
how can i discern my call?
If each of us has different gifts and interests, then the next obvious question is, How do I know what my calling is? This question is essential for those who may be called to vocational ministry, but it is also applicable to those who are in secular vocations. We desire success and fulfillment in our labor, and so it makes sense to think about what our calling is. The very first thing we must understand is that there is no substantive difference between a calling to the ministry and a calling to another vocation. What I mean is that it is not less Christian to be an auto mechanic or a doctor or an architect than it is to be a pastor or a missionary. There are different gifts and skills needed for each, but a believer should not consider it a failure to work in “secular” employment instead of in a church or ministry. This was one of the great principles of the Reformation, expressed best by Martin Luther. Luther taught that work, or one’s vocation (calling), is pleasing to the Lord regardless of its religious character. This was revolutionary in Luther’s day because people had been taught that to be a monk or a priest was the highest form of calling and that all other occupations were lesser. It was implied that God was not really pleased with farmers, bakers, and shoemakers. To be involved in anything less than vocational ministry was to miss out on opportunities to complete one’s faith through good works and to lose the assurance of salvation that comes from such a calling. Luther instead taught that all Christians have a God-given station in life, a vocation that serves others around us. Even the lowly milkmaid, Luther said, was through her vocation the instrument of “God milking the cows.”
Because of this important principle, when we examine our calling, we are not to look for a hierarchy of potential vocations and choose the “best” one; we should instead examine our gifts and interests to discern for which profession we are best suited. Again, if God is the giver of gifts and talents, and if God does not ordinarily give supernatural signs to direct His people to their vocation, then the best direction we can have for our vocation is to seek that for which God has best equipped us. In this way, vocational ministry is no different from other callings—we look at ourselves and our abilities and we seek the affirmation and advice of others around us to help us determine whether a calling is a match. These two assessments have historically been described as the “internal call” and the “external call” when applied to a calling to the gospel ministry. When looking at the internal and external calls, it is important to recognize that they apply in a secular context as well, just with different circumstances.
the internal call
The first assessment related to vocation is an individual’s assessment of his own gifts, talents, and interests. This has been termed the internal call. That does not mean, however, that it consists entirely of inner feelings and desires. Such desires are a component of the internal call, but there is more to consider. The internal call also involves self-assessment. It is right and good for individuals to reflect on the skills they have, the gifts they have been given, and the desires they have for certain vocations. Each of these areas is important for proper self-reflection. It does a person no good to ignore his gifts or skills. In our day, far too much has been made of the idea that a person should follow only a vocation about which he is passionate, that one should never “settle” for another vocation, and that one should always “follow your heart.” A yearning to embrace a vocation is important, but it is not enough. If it were, I would be playing Major League Baseball.
In the context of a calling to the gospel ministry, for example, much more is needed than a desire to help others or to try to find meaning in one’s vocation. If a calling comes from the Lord, then He will have equipped you to flourish in that calling. That begins with meeting the requirements for gospel ministry. The call of Christ does not come today to the prospective minister as it did to Matthew, in the person of Christ saying directly to him, “Follow Me.” But the call to the ministry does begin with the call of Christ to bear His name and follow Him. Far too often, men seek the ministry as a means of stilling the voice of discontent in their own hearts. It is easy to fall prey to the thought that if I dedicate my life to the service of the gospel, God will accept me and reward that commitment with eternal life. The absolute prerequisite to the gospel ministry is to be personally called by God and reconciled to Him through the finished work of Christ, to have it be your name that God calls. Horatius Bonar made the same point more than a century ago: “The true minister must be a true Christian. He must be called by God before he can call others to God.”
The prospective gospel minister should be careful not to fall prey to perfectionist tendencies, and he must also not be overly self-confident in his ability. The very nature of the ministry should make a man pause before embarking on that path and should cause a man to see the greatness of the work and cry out with Paul that he is not sufficient for these things (2 Cor. 3:5). When looking at himself, he must look to the One who gives gifts to men. It is God who makes the man sufficient by providing him with the abilities, skills, and demeanor he needs to succeed in vocational ministry. These gifts do not all have to exist in full form before a man pursues the gospel ministry, but a humble self-assessment should show the presence of required gifts (for example, an understanding of the Scriptures and the ability to teach). The prospective gospel minister must also ask himself hard questions about the character qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. He should know that the character qualifications are not just hurdles to clear but the demeanor and traits necessary to be successful in vocational ministry. Finally, a man must look at himself to determine whether he is committed to vocational ministry. Commitment is vital to the ministry, a commitment of faith to spiritual growth, humility, knowledge, discipline, wisdom, and leadership, among other things. When a man puts his hand to the plow, he cannot look back (Luke 9:62). Paul gives excellent guidance for self-assessment: he knew he was not perfect, he knew that he had not yet become what he would be, but he also knew he had to press on toward the goal (Phil. 3:12). A proper view of the internal call takes this to heart.
the external call
As important as the internal call is, it is not the only part of discerning God’s call. Even a careful self-assessment has blind spots. For this reason, one’s subjective sense of call is best confirmed by an external affirmation. In the case of the gospel ministry, this would be a confirmation of a man’s calling by the body of Christ. Because Christ does not give gifts to a man without the opportunity to exercise them, a man’s gifts can be evaluated and encouraged by the church. The best assistance in determining whether you are called to the ministry is for you to serve God in the present, and by the trial of such service, to test your gifts. In fact, it is typically while serving the church that the call to the ministry comes. The presence of gifts for the ministry in a man will mark him out to the people of God as one who is called to the ministry, because whatever gifts he has are for use in the body, and such gifts are worthy of honor by the church.
We must not think of things such as the need for personal recommendations, ordination exams, or election by a congregation as bureaucratic necessities. They are instead manifestations of the important validation of the external call. A person is not completely sovereign over his calling, especially a calling to the gospel ministry. Affirmation of one’s gifts by others is vital for determining whether to pursue a vocation. If a man has been given opportunities to exercise and test gifts for the ministry, and if those trials have been met with the encouragement and approval of others in the church, how much more confident will the man be about his calling? If a man has been further examined by those who have already been tasked with gospel ministry, and the examinations show him to be qualified in character and gifts, that is a blessing. At the same time, if a man receives warnings from his fellow Christians that he does not seem well suited to ministry, and he is unable to complete examinations satisfactorily, then he must stop and take stock of his desire for vocational ministry. It may very well be the mercy of God that protects him from potential pain, heartache, and failure.
This external calling extends beyond the ministry to other vocations as well. It is well established that to pursue many occupations, a person must receive outside approval—doctors must pass medical board exams, lawyers must complete bar exams, and architects, engineers, and technicians all have licensing and certification requirements. These exams and certifications do indeed serve to prevent those who are unskilled from such professions, but they also help to ratify people’s skills and gifting. I recall when many years ago I successfully passed a state bar exam, I had encouragement that I really could be a lawyer. That reassurance was very helpful in the months and years that followed, during long days and demanding projects. It was not just an idea in my head that I should pursue that vocation—experts in the field believed that I had the skills necessary to succeed. Therefore, even if there is no formal testing or certification required for a vocation you want to pursue, I would advise you to get a sense of your gifting for that vocation from outside yourself. The wisdom and support you get from others are invaluable.
how can i steward my call?
The final thing that we must consider is how we should best steward our callings. People can examine their own sense of calling, their gifts, skills, and interests and then submit to an external assessment of the same without reaching an infallible conclusion. Sometimes we realize we have not made the best decision and need to change course. The most foolish thing would be to press on in the face of evidence that we have chosen the wrong vocation. There is also the fact that people change over time—as we get married, have children, move to new locations, or even have new experiences, our interests can change. We can develop new gifts and skills that we never knew we had. If that is the case, God’s providence may bring new opportunities for new vocations. Again, subject to all the parameters mentioned earlier, there is nothing wrong with finding a different vocation. God often changes the circumstances and lives of His people in order to help them grow in Christ.
The important thing when thinking about calling is to seek to use the gifts God has given us and to glorify God in the exercise of those gifts. If that means choosing a new vocation, so be it. I believe God has directed me toward at least three callings: I started out convinced I would be an academic and sought to confirm that vocation through education. I then became convinced that academia was not the best calling for me and instead pursued the law, working as an attorney for nearly a decade. It was while I was in that vocation that I felt the call to enter the gospel ministry (internal calling), and I was encouraged by those in the church to pursue that course (external calling). I hope to serve the Lord in this way to the end of my days, but I must always remain open to the Lord’s leading. May the Lord lead you to a similar trust in Him, to know that He holds all your days and all your vocations in His hands.