How do we discern our callings?

I’m excited to be guest-speaking next week at a friend’s church on the topic of how we discern our giftedness and callings. So I’ve been digging through my research and it’s turning up so many gems that it’s hard to even know how to start! Today I wanted to link you up to some of my past posts on these topics in case you’re interested in a little refresher course:

The process of recovering a sense of calling in our lives involves raising self-awareness (Who did God design me to be?) and listening (Hello God, where are you leading me?).

We can’t just start with finding something to do – we have to start with who we are because God designed us uniquely and has unique purposes for each of us. In Listening to God in Times of Choice, Gordon Smith quotes Ernest Larkin on discernment, “Basically the difficulty in all discernment is personal inauthencity. If you are not in touch with yourself, if you don’t know what is going on, you cannot hear the ‘other’ even when the other is God.”

Smith writes, “If we do not accept who we are, and more, actually like who we are, we will probably not be able to meet God freely and respond to that encounter. We will always be attempting to be someone other than who we are; we will be living a lie.”

Often, understanding who God created us to be means first accepting who he did not create us to be. It means letting go of our own expectations and parental or family expectations and maybe even community expectations. It means evaluating all our previous assumptions about our lives and work. It means double-checking how we define calling, spiritual gifts, success and failure.

The outcome of this kind of work should be a new sense of freedom, responsibility, humility and gratitude.

Tell me about times in your life where you’ve struggled with discernment. What was the process like for you?


Some thoughts on the Parable of the Talents

On New Years, we heard a sermon at church on the Parable of the Talents. It’s a fairly familiar one to most of church-going people. A quick recap: The Master gives money to three servants before he leaves on a long journey. To the first one, he gives five talents (this is worth 100 years wages at that time), to the second servant he gives two talents (40 years of wages), and to the third he gives one (20 years of wages).

The first servant makes five more talents through trading, the second also doubles his talents, but the third one just buries the one talent in the ground and then hands it back to the Master when he returns. The Master lavishes praise on the first two and strongly condemns the last. For the full read, click here.

I’ve heard plenty of sermons on this parable before, usually about how we need to see the gifts God has given us and not waste them, so I wasn’t expecting anything too new. It was definitely an appropriate pick for a new year. I was pleasantly surprised though by a few things that stuck out to me this time.

First, I had never considered how much the talents were worth. The Master hands over pretty hefty sums of money to his staff. Even just one talent was equal to 2o years of earnings. Imagine being given something so valuable – wouldn’t you want to do something worthwhile with it too?

Second, the Master gave to each according to his ability and when he returns each servant recounts what he gave them initially. It sounds obvious that you know how much was given and received when you’re talking about money, but it bears considering. The Master knew what would suit each one and what they could handle, and the servants had a good grasp on exactly what they had been given. If we take the leap over to talking about the “gifts” God has given us to use in our lives, do we have a good grasp on what he has given us to use?

Third, when John and I were discussing the sermon later, he brought up how people rarely talk about the management principles in this parable. The Master doles out everything the servants need and then leaves. He doesn’t micro-manage every move and direct every step of what they’re supposed to do with the money. He lets them figure it out. This is dangerous.

The first two come back and earn praise but the third one doesn’t. The pastor preaching on this noted that the condemnation was more about the servant’s attitude in refusing to try to do anything with the money than about a lack of return on investment. In essence, the servant blames the master for giving him the money in the first place. The servant perceives the master as harsh and is afraid to use the money. Is that our view of God? Are we afraid to use our gifts because we’re not sure exactly what he wants us to do? Are we so scared of taking a wrong step that we bury our treasure in the ground instead?

Something to chew on this weekend. Have a good one!

Spiritual Gifts & Calling Part 3

When we start thinking about spiritual gifts in terms of addressing brokenness of the world, it’s easy to suddenly wonder why on earth other people can’t see the needs that we see. Gordon Smith ends the section on Romans 12:6-8 (which we discussed in the last post) with this very important statement:

“My point is that your vocation [calling] will in some fundamental way be aligned with how you see the brokenness of the world. It is imperative therefore that you respond according to your own perception of the world’s brokenness. It is equally imperative that you not judge others if they do not see or feel the brokenness of the world as you do.”

I had an experience in college when I was a Resident Assistant where two different understandings of the world’s brokenness clashed. One of my dorm students was writing letters to Amnesty International and wanted everyone in the dorm to participate. She asked that I also write a letter. I generally feel kind of cynical about the efficacy of those measures and didn’t want to do it. I was annoyed about being pressured into an action I didn’t see a need for and my heart at the time was focused on discipling the girls in my dorm. We had a long discussion about why or why not it was crucial, and both of us definitely could have handled the situation with more grace, but I hurt her feeling by not supporting her cause.

Afterwards, I wondered for a few days if I should have written the letter. I worried about not having the same compassionate heart that she did. I wondered if my resistance was just human stubbornness or if some piece of it was legitimate. When I later read this book, this passage helped me to understand that we can see the brokenness of the world differently and that this is allowed! It is key to understand that others were made differently, gifted differently and have a different role to fulfill in this world.

Letting Go of Guilt and Comparison

On the other hand, this doesn’t let us off the hook for not doing the things we just don’t like. If you’re like me, you think “Oh great! Clearly I’m not called to all those set up, clean up and ‘serving’ tasks that I don’t like since I don’t naturally think about them!” That is not the point! Giving generously where it’s needed is always a priority. Learning to see brokenness and open our hearts to being stretched is very important.

The point Smith is trying to make, however, is that we need to free ourselves from unnecessary guilt over things that aren’t our gifts. We need to figure out where we feel most alive in giving, and what that looks like so that we don’t feel guilty or frustrated with ourselves. It’s so important that we don’t focus our whole lives on trying to fit into molds that aren’t really us. So often, we end up narrowing our perception of what serving others looks like, because we’re watching how other people do it and assuming we should be doing things in a similar way.

Maybe you’ve been raised that the most important thing to do is encourage other people but you have the hardest time thinking of encouraging statements. It’s time to understand that there isn’t something wrong with you and find out where you do feel like you meet needs – maybe you’re the one contributing to others needs financially or cleaning the garage and serving tangible needs. Again, though just because you’re not a natural at encouraging others, doesn’t mean you should never try it. The point is that we shouldn’t let others define what one thing you “should” be doing as a Christian when there is such a broad variety of needs and spiritual gifts. Remembering our uniqueness is crucial.

Growing into Spiritual Gifts

While we mostly hope our callings will be things that come naturally to us, there’s also a paradox between calling to things that we’re naturally gifted in and calling to things that we never imagined doing, so it’s important not to dig ourselves in too deeply into niches where we feel comfortable (again resist wanting to just find a label!). Sometimes we can be called to things we really think we’re not good at (like public speaking) because we’re so passionate about a cause. There’s a fine balance to watch for. Gregg Levoy captures this need for balance when he writes, “Knowing our calls requires us to tread the path between two essential questions ‘What is right for me?’ and ‘Where am I willing to be led?'”  In order to know what is right for us, we have to take the time to know who God created us to be – and then take the time to listen and follow where he wants to stretch and grow us in new directions.

I hope this short series on spiritual gifts has been useful! If you have more questions or feel like you still want to cover another aspect of this topic – please feel free to start the discussion in the comments!

Spiritual Gifts & Calling Part 2

Gordon Smith has written a wonderfully thoughtful book called Courage and Calling where he walks through Romans 12:6-8 and describes the spiritual gifts as different ways of responding to the world’s brokenness. Rather than asking, “What is my spiritual gift?” Smith suggests we ask ourselves where we see the brokenness of the world most clearly.

Romans 12:6-8:

“We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”

So how does brokenness come into this?

  • Smith writes that Prophets “see the profound need for people to live in the truth they already know. Prophets call us to behavior that is congruent with our words.” The brokenness of the world here relates to a lack of integrity and truth in our lives.
  • Servants, on the other hand see brokenness in the physical and tangible needs around us. “It runs in their blood to be attentive to the practical needs around them. They tend to think that there is too much talk and not enough action.”
  • Teachers have the “conviction that the main problem in the world is that people lack understanding; if they could just understand, they would know and live the truth. Teachers believe that transformation can come through learning.”
  • Encouragers “think that the greatest problem in the world is the lack of hope; they have a deep-felt conviction that encouragement is precisely what is required if our world is going to experience peace, justice and transformation. Some encouragers use words. Others recognize the significance of place, and know that the spaces in which we live and work can either undercut or enhance our courage and sense of well-being; they know how to design spaces of nurture, light and life.”
  • Contributors are “usually those among us who recognize that without funding much that is important does not happen. Often they are people who know how to make money, but they are also people who know how to give generously. Without the generosity of those who have the means to give, our lives would be significantly impoverished.” They see the brokenness of the world in poverty and lack of financial aid.
  • Leaders see brokenness in disorganization and lack of direction, in poor management and administration. Smith writes that, “There is so much talk of leadership in our day that sometimes we think that everyone is called to leadership. But some people have a unique passion for enabling others through administration and management, so that organizations flourish, and so that everyone else can fulfill their giftedness.”
  • Empathizers see the brokenness of the world in our lack of compassion “While all of us are called to show mercy, some people deeply understand that those around them have a central need for someone to stand with them. They mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. While others may wonder how this solves problems or brings resolution to the issues before us, people who are called to show mercy recognize the transforming power of empathetic identification. They know that the demonstration of mercy is itself life and strength to another person.”

When you read these descriptions do you immediately relate to one or two? Are there ones you don’t get at all? Maybe you’re thinking about where you see brokenness in the world most clearly and it’s not on this list. Great! Can you see how thinking in this way lets you get past seeing spiritual gifts as labels you need to find and apply to yourself?

In Part 3 on Spiritual Gifts, we’ll tackle how to deal with everyone’s gifts being different!


*All the quotes are from Chapter 2 “Seeking Congruence” in Gordon Smith’s book – I highly recommend reading the whole book if you have a chance!

Spiritual Gifts & Calling Part 1

Since I actually got a request for a topic to blog about (!), I am excited to spend a couple blog posts on “Spiritual Gifts.” It’s a topic that comes up frequently in Christian circles and yet we all still seem to have ongoing questions about it.

What are spiritual gifts?

Usually people point to Romans 12:3-8 or 1 Corinthians 12 which contain lists of gifts that include things like: prophecy, serving, teaching, exhortation (or encouragement), giving, leadership, mercy, healing, miracles, words of wisdom or knowledge, speaking in tongues and healing. A few other mentions are sprinkled throughout the New Testament.

What’s confusing about them?

  • First, there is no definitive list of all the spiritual gifts. The lists we have are examples of spiritual gifts, they’re not exhaustive.  People wonder if they have to have one of the ones listed. They’re not sure they can call something else a spiritual gift if it’s not specifically mentioned.
  • Second, some gifts seem like normal abilities that aren’t necessarily “spiritual” and others are miraculous. Some believe the miraculous gifts aren’t given anymore. Others seem to use these gifts on a regular basis. If you’re good at leadership, does it follow that it’s a spiritual gift or is it just an ability? What makes the difference?
  • Third, some believe you get one or two gifts for life and others think you are given various gifts on a situational basis. To add to the confusion, some “gifts” are things that all believers are called to (encouragement, serving etc).

No wonder there is anxiety over not knowing what spiritual gifts really are and how to use them.

So are spiritual gifts important?

Yes and no. We need to get beyond the idea that we just need to “discover” our spiritual gift and then find ways to use it. It’s not a personality test where you apply your spiritual gift like a neat label and receive a specific role to go with it.

I also don’t think we need to worry about whether we have them, what they are or where we will use them. I think these are the wrong questions to be asking. In a sermon on spiritual gifts, John Piper explains that when Paul writes to the Romans in Chapter 1:11, he clearly wants to provide his spiritual leadership to them as a gift for their growth and strengthening. Piper writes, “The first and most obvious thing we learn from this text is that spiritual gifts are for strengthening others.” He goes on to say that all we have to do is look around, see if there is an opportunity for us to help strengthen someone else and do that in the way that seems most fitting.

This means that spiritual gifts are important, but we get hung up thinking about them the wrong way. We don’t need to discover our spiritual gifts, we need to pay attention to the world around us, we need to see where we could provide value. In short, I think we need to find our callings. When we start exploring our callings, we’ll likely also find our spiritual gifts at work.

One of the best treatments of spiritual gifts in connection to calling that I’ve seen is in Gordon Smith’s book Courage and Calling. I’ll dig into that a bit on Monday! In the meantime, what are your thoughts on spiritual gifts? What are the questions you have about this topic?