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Vocation: Discerning Your Calling

All Forms of Work Are Based on God’s Gifting

Isaiah 28:24–29 says, “When a farmer plows for planting” and “has leveled the surface … does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way. … All this also comes from the LORD Almighty, wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom.” Isaiah is teaching that anyone who becomes a skillful farmer is being taught by God. In Isaiah 45:1, we read of Cyrus, a pagan king whom God anoints with his Spirit and chooses for world leadership. This is remarkable. It shows that God’s Spirit can equip people for work—even though they are not believers and are not directly witnessing to him. God gives wisdom, courage and insight to people to do their work well. Indeed, James 1:17 says that “every good and perfect gift is from above … from the Father of the heavenly lights.”

This means that every act of goodness, wisdom, justice and beauty—no matter who does it—is being enabled by God. It is a “gift,” and therefore some form of grace, even though it is non-saving grace. What this means is that God gives all people (not just Christians) talents and abilities that will equip them for serving the human community through particular forms of work. The Bible speaks also of spiritual gifts (Eph. 4, Rom. 12 and 1 Cor. 12–14) that are abilities to minister to others in Jesus’ name. As people created in God’s image, Christians have natural talents, and as people regenerated by the Holy Spirit, they also have spiritual gifts that equip them for ministry in and through the church. It is not always easy or necessary to make  distinctions between natural talents and spiritual gifts, since ultimately they are all from the Spirit of God.

For example, in Exodus 31:1–4, we read how Bezalel was filled “with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs.” There is nothing in the spiritual gift lists of the New Testament about artistic gifts; yet, here we see that artistic skill comes from God (James 1:17 says it would have to come from God). In the play and the movie Amadeus, the character Salieri describes Mozart’s sublime music as “the voice of God.” He was right.

Knowing Your Work

How does this work out for Christian believers? First, a Christian has to consider both of these questions: What has God called and equipped me for as my work/career? And how is God calling me to serve in and through the church? In some rare cases, a person’s church ministry becomes one’s full-time career as well. Then the answers to the two questions coincide. In most cases, however, Christians must answer each question separately. Sometimes what you do in your “secular” calling is very similar to what you do inside the church. You may be a teacher or strategic planner or artist outside the church and use those same abilities inside.

In other cases, you may find God calling you to do an almost completely different sort of work in the church than you do out in the world. The banker might be a wonderful Sunday school teacher for children. Nevertheless, I always propose a three-part method for discerning a call, whether to secular work or church work or anything else. To discern a ministry call, consult three factors: Affinity, Ability and Opportunity.

1. Affinity: What “People Needs” Do I Resonate With?

Contrary to what many books on spiritual gifts say, do not start with yourself. Don’t start with an abstract inventory of your gifts and skills to discern your aptitudes. Aptitude tests are based on past experience and self-knowledge, and your self-knowledge is limited. Even though it is one of the ways God shows you your ministry, I don’t suggest starting there. Rather, look at concrete needs in the community (context) around you. What needs do you “vibrate” to? What problems or kinds of people or ministry needs move you? Where do you discover an affinity? Paul experienced inner grief and turmoil as he saw the idols of Athens (Acts 17:16), so that led him to begin a ministry of apologetics (Acts 17:17). It is important that we get into ministry with a passion for a certain cause or unmet need.

One of the reasons not to start with a knowledge of your abilities is because gifts often “pop out” and surprise us as we participate in a great variety of ministries. For example, before I came to New York City I would never have said that I had the gift of evangelism, but I now know that this was largely because it had been years since I had been in a setting where there were a lot of non-Christians. My “teaching” gift turns out to have a strong “evangelism” component that I would never have discovered unless New York City had brought it out. I had a burden for New York, and that led me to a deeper understanding of my own heart. I did not say, “I have a gift of evangelism. Where should I use it? I know—New York City!” Of course, the longer you are a Christian, the more likely you are to know yourself well and not to have such surprises, so a very mature Christian can begin this schema of “three factors” with any one of them. For most Christians, however, it is best to start with the needs of real people.

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timkeller@churchleaders.com'
In 1989 Dr. Timothy J. Keller, his wife and three young sons moved to New York City to begin Redeemer Presbyterian Church. In 20 years it has grown to meeting for five services at three sites with a weekly attendance of over 5,000. Redeemer is notable not only for winning skeptical New Yorkers to faith, but also for partnering with other churches to do both mercy ministry and church planting. Redeemer City to City is working to help establish hundreds of new multi-ethnic congregations throughout the city and other global cities in the next decades.