January 2010 - Vol. 36

Discerning Vocation: 
Answering God’s Call to Love

by Gordy DeMarais

How should a young man or woman go about discerning their state of life? Christian disciples usually discern and decide their state of life when they are young adults, that is between the late teens and late twenties. A major focus of this time in life ought to be seeking the Lord and deciding the state of life to which he is calling us. These are some of the most important decisions that a young adult will make.  There is a time in life when radical discipleship invites young people to offer their whole futures to the Lord in self-gift and there is a time in life where radical discipleship is expressed in fidelity to those basic life decisions.

This article is a brief reflection on the Christian meaning of vocation. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare  which means ‘to call.’  A vocation is a summons, a bidding, an invitation to us from God. We tend to think of a vocation as something we choose, but in fact, a vocation is first initiated by God. God calls each of us.  He has a particular purpose and plan for of our lives. The question before each of us is:  “What is my vocation, what is God calling me to be and do” and “how can I respond to that call generously, courageously, and faithfully.”  

At the heart of vocation is the answer to the question of life’s purpose. Everyone confronts at some point life’s ultimate questions.  Who am I?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going? Is there a purpose or point to my life?  These questions are not the object of optional inquiry, reserved for the philosophic few.  They are present in the deep recesses of every human soul.  Many today flee from the very question, fearful that there is no answer or perhaps fearful of the demands implicit in the answer.  Our modern world is full of many amusements, experiences and excitements, pleasures to be had and things to possess, the constant stimuli of media in all its various and evermore sophisticated forms.  We can become so distracted and pre-occupied that we never take time to consider what is most important.  It is so much easier to simply immerse ourselves in the passing things of today, but tomorrow comes, and so does eternity, and there is no reliving yesterday.  Whether we choose to or not, there is no permanent escape from life’s eventual and ultimate realities.  Disappointment, suffering, tragedy, and death at some point visit us all.   

This article is an invitation to thoughtfully and courageously engage the question concerning the purpose of our life. These reflections are founded on the Christian conviction that the answer to the meaning of life is found in God and that the key to our happiness is in embracing his purpose.  The fact that you have picked up this booklet and have begun to read it suggests that you are already engaged in the process of considering your life in a reflective and thoughtful way.  You have already started on the road to vocational discernment. 

Universal and human vocation
We discover ‘being called’ first in our experience of being. We are quickly aware that we are not our own source. We did not decide to be. Our existence has an origin outside of ourselves. We were given life.  Christian Revelation tells us more about our origin. We are created by God. The call of God begins from the moment we are ‘created.’  Those beautiful verses from Psalm 139 express this truth.  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb… your eyes saw my unformed body.  All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  Life is a gift with a purpose.  
Why did God create us?  For what purpose are we made?  Scripture tells us that the world was made for the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). Our calling is to give glory to God, to manifest his greatness and his goodness (Ephesians 1:5-6). We give glory to God when we fulfill the purpose for which we were created.  

Human beings are unique amongst all of God’s creatures. We are made in the likeness and image of God himself. How is it that we are made in God’s image? Certainly we are not all powerful, all knowing, without beginning or end, as God is. We are not ‘like God’ at all, in these ways. How then? The central mystery of our faith is the mystery of the Trinity, for it is the mystery of the nature of God. We are created in the likeness of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – existing in complete and eternal self-giving love.  “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Thus, we are created in the image of love. We give glory to God when self-giving love is the defining characteristic of our lives.  

God also created us with freedom. Love is not love if it is coerced. We have the freedom to choose to give ourselves away in love to God and one another. Of course freedom with its a corresponding capacity for choosing, means we can also choose not to love. We can choose to not live in self-giving love but rather to be selfish, asserting ourselves over God and relating to our neighbor on the basis of what they can do for me.  This is the meaning of sin. Sin is fundamentally a relational word. The original sin is rooted in this use of our freedom for proud and selfish reasons. The consequence of this sin, is that we find our lives to be characterized by a daily struggle to live in love or to live selfishly.  

Because of sin, we understand God’s call for our lives not only in terms of his original created purpose but also in the light of the ‘salvation’ offered to us in Jesus Christ. In the new covenant, the God’s call is expressed in the invitation of Jesus to us to become ‘disciples.’ As Jesus ‘calls’ his disciples to follow him by laying down their lives and taking up the cross, so too are we called. And so we are confronted with this paradox: we find our life when we give it away; it is in giving that we receive. Our true nature and identity is discovered in the perfect gift of self to God and lived out in my relationships with others.  

This is the call to ‘holiness.’ All are called, no matter what rank or state in life to holiness which is ‘the perfection of charity.’ Holiness is not simply or even mainly pious practices, but in fact is the call to perfect love in our relationship with God and others. Each of us receives this call in baptism where we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit. In Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can know once again the relationship with God he intended from the beginning and we have again the ability to live the way God intended in love with our neighbor.

Vocation is God’s call for us. The Lord invites a response, a choice, a decision on our part. You are at a moment of significant choice in your life. What will I choose? What will I do with my life? Will I say yes to the Lord’s invitation to give my life to him in complete and unconditional surrender? Do I accept his call to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do I choose to live no longer for myself but for him and others? This is my vocation. God’s call for my life is not in the first instance a call to do something, but rather to become a certain kind of person, transformed into the image of son, taking on the character of God made manifest in Christ.  To become a person of love.

I am called by God, given life, to make his presence and purpose more fully known on the earth. Will I choose for God and others or will I choose for myself. There is no great adventure in life than to live for Christ! There is nothing that will bring us greater happiness and joy and fulfillment than giving our selves, our futures, our lives totally to Jesus Christ. This is our vocation.

Particular Vocation
Our vocation understood in this first sense does not need to be discerned. We do not have to ask whether we are called to be a disciple or to live a life of love. This call is the call given by God to every human person.  This is the universal human vocation. The call to love however is expressed in another meaning or sense of vocation. We can speak not only of our universal vocation, but our particular vocation as well. Why do we need to specify our vocation in this way? First, we are creatures who exist in a particular way – we aren’t everywhere all the time. We have certain limits. We exist in at a particular place and time.  

We are called to live our lives in self-giving love. In our mind and heart, our soul, we choose to love God and our neighbor. This love however, is not just a spiritual sentiment or choice. Love is expressed in concrete words and actions. We say we love God in our heart of hearts, but this love is expressed in a bodily way in the words and actions of worship. We say we love our neighbor, and perhaps we even say that we love all of humanity, we love everyone. But of our love of others is manifested through the words we speak and the loving actions we do in particular relationships, with particular people. We can’t say that we love everyone, if we don’t in fact love someone. We are in relationships with actual people, our families, those we work and study with, those in our Christian community, those who live in our neighborhoods, those we see in our daily living. We live out our call to love as we decide every day to love those with whom we interact.  The way in which we live our lives in daily love of God and neighbor is our particular vocation.

We also are each unique persons. Though we share a common humanity, everyone of us is created differently and uniquely in the image of God. We each have a gifts, talents, personalities, temperaments, strengths and weaknesses, commitments and obligations, and circumstances, that are different from anyone else. God has a particular purpose and plan for our lives. No one else can live our lives. We are each unique human beings who have a role to play in the furthering of God’s redemptive plan – this is our personal vocation. Our particular vocation concerns how we offer our unique personhood to the Glory of God and service of humanity. In the broadest sense, our particular vocation is the concrete yes we make to the call to be a disciple in the many choices to love we are invited to make every day.

Amongst these many and most often small decisions that we make to offer our lives to the Lord and others in love, there are major life direction decisions. The Lord’s call is expressed in these decisions in a significant and fundamental way. A main way that particular vocation is expressed in our lives is in “state in life.” State life specifies in a broad way our universal call. It casts our living and loving in a particular context, calls us to love and serve in a particular way. So when we speak of vocation in terms of state of life, we are getting a little more specific. State in life choices are broad overarching commitments that shape the character of our countless daily choices and decision. Who do I love, how do I love.

There are three main states in life, marriage, single life, and the consecrated single life. Many are called to marriage. Marriage is the vocation through which we commit ourselves to another person for the sake of participating with God in the creation of human life and the fostering and forming of that life through becoming a family. Marriage, understood as a vocation, is a call to give my life away in a fundamental and radical way. It should be obvious to whom and how, in marriage, we are called to live in self gift. Our spouse and children become the primary particular relationships in which those called to the married state are called to live selfless love. It is important for us to consider marriage primarily in this sense. Unfortunately, many Christians get married today for mainly selfish reasons, to get certain needs met, such as companionship or a sexual relationship. While marriage can meet some very basic human needs, this should not be our primary motivation.     

Some are called to consecrated single life. This vocation testifies to the ultimate end of human life in the age to come and sets people apart for special service to the Christian community. We can tend to think of the call to celibacy mainly in terms of ‘doing’ service for the kingdom of God. But really the foundation of celibacy is in the invitation from the Lord to enter into a deep relationship of love and surrender to him. The doing and serving flows out of our loving. The freedom from attachments to particular relationships and obligations associated with marriage and family life, and the cares of the world – allows the celibate man or woman to be consecrated to the Lord and service of his people in a unique way.

Some remain in a lay single state either because they cannot find a suitable marriage partner or by choice because of some other circumstance. This too is a vocation. Single life is not a time for indulging selfishness and the flesh. It’s not a time to sow my wild oats until I have to settle down later.  It is a time for generous service and commitment to investing in serious personal growth and maturity when we are younger and a time to continue to live in purity and generosity when we are older.

Discerning vocation
We noted earlier that we do not have to discern whether or not we are called to be a disciple. All are called.  We are called to discern however, our particular vocations and states of life. This of course raises the question for us, “How do I know God’s will? How to I discern his call for my life?”  We will conclude this brief reflection on vocation with some simple guidance on discernment.  

  1. Discernment is possible. 

  2. Before we can proceed with the question of how do we discern God’s will, we must first believe that God does in fact call us and speak to us, and that we can hear him and respond to him.  We can look first all of all to the testimony and teaching of Sacred Scripture. The Bible from start to finish is filled with testimonies of the Lord calling human beings to follow him and serve his purpose on earth. We see in the biblical testimony, certainly the basic moral call to love God and neighbor and obey the commandments. We see also, unique invitations to love him and serve him in a particular way. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord….  “ It will help us have confidence in the Lord’s calling us to meditate on the stories from the scriptures of others who will called.
  3. We will succeed at discernment if we sincerely and with determined effort seek God’s will.   

  4. We need to be properly motivated to discern, to persevere fruitfully and successfully through the discernment process.  Our motivation is founded in a personal relationship we have with the Lord.  The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. When discernment gets difficult we return to this basic truth and motivation. Our Lord desires to reveal his call for our lives.  He is not playing hide and seek with us, trying to keep us guessing. If we are sincere and persevering in seeking him and his will, we will hear him. There will be times when the Lord seems far away, when it is difficult to pray, when our fallen nature and the fallen world entice to put aside seeking the Lord’s way and decide mainly for ourselves.  During these times it is essential that we call to mind our convictions and renew our resolves to say yes to the Lord with the whole of our lives.
  5. Good discernment requires basic human and Christian maturity. 

  6. We need to be at a place in life where we are ready to discern. What does this ‘readiness’ look like?  Discernment of particular vocation presupposes a basic discipleship decision and requires a certain detachment. If we have not decided to surrender our lives completely and unconditionally to the Lord in faith and love, we cannot discern properly or well our state in life. Lack of detachment keeps us from discerning well and accepting as a gift the Lord’s call for our life.  The basic posture of the detached person is ‘I want only what God wants.’ Too often we say we want to do the will of the Lord, but we come to him with our own agendas and plans.  It helps to meditate and memorize the psalms the speak of delighting in the Lord alone. “Only in God is my soul at rest” (Psalm 62:1). “Your love O Lord is better than life itself” (Psalm 84).  “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).  
    Being detached doesn’t mean necessarily that we are happy or positively inclined towards all options – only ‘open’ to them. We have an established life of prayer. Prayer is one of the main ways we hear the Lord.  If we have not cultivated a daily habit of prayer, it will be difficult to discern. We enough life experience to have some decent self knowledge.  We have achieved some level of basic character and responsibility in life , self-discipline, responsibility, good judgment, perseverance and patience. We have learn to handle our sexuality well and embrace readily the Christian call to sexual purity. We are at a place in life where we can assume in a reasonable time the duties and responsibilities associated with particular states in life.
  7. Wise and holy guides are indispensable to good discernment

  8. The Lord does not leave us alone in our discerning his call but rather can guide us through other brothers and sisters in his body, the church.  It is important that we seek out people who can help us in our discernment. Who should we seek counsel from?  Those who know us well, who have our best intentions in mind, who understand the various states in life, who have some spiritual wisdom and experience in discernment.  The example of good Christian parents can be a great help for us. Few know us better than our parents. If we lack such parents, we can still find others in the Christian community with whom we can open our lives and our discernment. It is important that we find people we can trust, and with whom we can share honestly and deeply of our deepest desires and motivations.  While our peers and friends can certainly be those with whom we open our lives, good ‘guidance’ in discernment requires some life experience.   If we are seriously considering a consecrated life of celibacy, it will be helpful to speak with those who are living  that vocation. 
  9. Knowledge and understanding of our vocational choices is necessary to discerning well.

  10. We cannot choose something well, if we do not have some understanding of what we are choosing.  During the time of our life when we are considering our state of life choices, we ought to make the effort to inform ourselves of what is involved in the various states in life.  The most effective way to grow in our understanding of the various states in life is to witness the example of those around us who are living them well.  We can find opportunities to observe good Christian leaders – priests, deacons, ministers, and pastoral workers and ask them about their vocation. Normally we learn much about the vocation of marriage through our experience of family. If, however our family life was not a positive example of the Christian marriage and family life, we can find seek out other married couples and families and observe how they live.  We can inquire of them how they understand and live their marriage and family life as dedicated disciples. We can also read good books and meditate on the lives of holy men and women.
  11. Discernment is a process that involves our active participation.

  12. Vocation is not something that just happens to us, as if to say, ‘Whatever will be will be.  Jesus will take care of it.  I’ll just live one day at a time and see what comes my way.’ Discernment is a deliberate, thoughtful, and prayerful activity.  It is actively listening to the Lord and responding.  If we are not actively seeking the Lord for his will, our life decisions are made by indecision.  Most often, we simply find ourselves attracted to someone, fall in love, and get married. The idea that God is somehow calling and leading and guiding never really is a consideration. The other extreme is to look at our vocational choices as something to conquered.  ‘I am going to go on a retreat and make a decision.’  Certainly retreats and other times and seasons ‘set aside’ for more focused vocational discernment are recommended. Discernment however is not a one time event, but an unfolding process. We seek the Lord in prayer, we grow in self-knowledge, we speak with our mentors and advisors, and decide on a certain direction or ‘next step.’ We should then act on the basis of that decision.  For example, if we have some sense we are called to live a consecrated single life, perhaps we decide to visit with an individual or celibate community who are living the consecrated single life well.  As we act, the Lord gives us more light, he reveals to us more of himself and his call.  We also come to know more about ourselves.  We discover our godly and not so godly motivations. And then we choose again and take the next step.  He ‘guides’ us as we act. Nothing is lost on discernment. There are not mistakes or wrong turns if we are truly deciding for the Lord.  With each step we make the Lord draws us more deeply into relationship with himself, he reveals more of himself and his plan to us.  
Throughout all of this, it is important for us to remember that vocation is a call from God and as such is a gift he wants to give to us. He is a loving father who desires our good more than we desire it ourselves.  As a father he lovingly and gently guides us into his perfect will if we are trusting and yielding to that will.  We can pray with the Psalmist:  “Trust in the LORD with all of your heart. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this” (Psalm 37:3-6).  The Lord wants to give to us the desires of our heart.  

St. Augustine of Hippo says the same thing in a little different way:  “Love God, and do what you will.”  The more we love God and entrust our lives completely to him, the more our will and desires are in tune with his. When we choose in conformity to that will, we are choosing that (or more precisely him) for whom we are made. For most of us, our discernment won’t be a getting knocked off our horse or a burning bush kind of experience. Rather it will be a daily decision to offer our lives to the Lord and others in self-giving love, to grow in deeper love God, so that our desires are conformed to his. There is no higher calling, no greater adventure, no fulfilling purpose in life that to live completely for God and others.  The yes of our life to him will change the world.    

[Gordy DeMarais is the Executive Director for St. Paul's Outreach (SPO) and a coordinator of the Community of Christ the Redeemer in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. Gordy and his wife Teresa have six children.]

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