Part 4: How can we discern our own vocation or calling in life?
Hello and welcome back to our series of teachings on spiritual discernment. This is the fourth in that series. And today we’ll be talking about how do we find God’s will or God’s purpose for our own lives.
I’d like to begin by talking about a specific challenge, and that is the phrase God’s will. Christians often use this and they will say things like, I’m looking for God’s will for my life, or I don’t wanna do what I wanna do, I wanna do what God wants me to do that. And the understanding there is that God has some predetermined purpose for me. And my job then is to find out what that purpose is and fulfill it. But I’m not sure that it works that way, and it doesn’t feel authentic to me to think that God has one path that God has chosen for us. And it’s our job to follow that path. And if we misread the signals in our life, we could end up doing something other than what God has determined for us. So I’d like to propose a different kind of understanding, but I’d like to explore that through a recent movie, or not so recent now, “Dead Poets Society”. And maybe you’ve seen that movie. Robin Williams plays John Keating, an English teacher at a private boarding school for boys. And he’s a creative and dynamic teacher, very inventive. And, and he touches these boys that he’s teaching and gets them enthused about the arts, about poetry and literature and theater. And one boy in his class, Neil, Neil is particularly motivated by these classes and he gathers the other boys in the class to begin the Dead Poets Society, which is a secret meeting that they hold, a secret gathering where they read poetry to one another. And he also lands a job in this school play. He gets the lead role. So Neil has come to life in a new way. He’s discovered poetry and beauty and art. And he’s discovered himself as an actor. And he dreams of fulfilling that dream of becoming an actor. The problem in the film is that his parents don’t approve of his plans and his father in particular dismisses his desire to be in a play. The father wants him to be serious about life and is hoping that he will go to school to become a doctor. And so the father has determined that the course that he should follow is the course toward a degree in medicine. And he insist that that Neil quit the play and not do drama. And he’s very suspicious of Mr. Keating and his influence on Neil. So there is a tension between Neil who wants something and has discovered something about himself and his father who wants something different. And the father imposes his will. He’s very rigid and hard, and he won’t listen or comply with Neil’s wishes. The end result is a tragic one where Neil commits suicide in the film. He doesn’t know how to work out this tension with his father. And so he ends his life. I think of that movie, because I think in Neil’s parents, we have an example of bad parenting. Parents who make a determination about their son or daughter and decide what path that child should follow. I don’t think that’s good parenting. It puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. And if the desire isn’t shared by the son or daughter, they either end up compromising and following the parent’s path, which often leads to conflict in their own soul or breaking free from the parents and following their own desires.
So a better image of parenting I think is a parent who has deep desires for the child, but is not making a determination about which path they should follow. For example, a good parent might desire that their child grow up and be healthy and join in society in a productive way. They might hope that their child realizes his or her gifts and abilities and find some way to express those gifts and live into them in their life. They might hope that their child finds love and finds someone to love and finds someone that loves him or her, and that perhaps they enter into a relationship and become a family themselves. They might hope that they find meaning in their work life and find something to do that is productive and helpful in society. So they might have all of these desires, but none of them is as tight as saying, I want you to be a doctor, or I want you to be a lawyer. I want you to go to this university. I want you to study this.
So there’s a kind of fluidity, a more openness about their desires. And it seems to me that that is also how God parents us, that God doesn’t sit at some control panel in the sky and determine that this person will be commissioned as it were and designated to fulfill this particular job or need in the world. I don’t think God makes that predetermined judgment and that it’s our duty to find out what it is and to follow it, whether we desire that or not for ourselves. I think rather God has these deep desires for us, God has created us, God has created each of us as a unique individual with interests and likes and skills and talents, and a certain temperament and a certain tendencies to want to live and work in a certain way. So we are unique creatures. And I think that God has a desire for us to discover ourselves and to live into the person that we’ve been created to be. And I don’t think there’s just one path that will fit that. I think there are probably multiple paths that each of us could have taken in life and still realized God’s purposes for us. So God is a parent that has, I would say, deep yearnings for us as his children. And this is different than having a predetermined will, which we must discover and follow. And I think that gives us some freedom to think God has equipped me with these gifts and talents and abilities, these likes and interests, these personality traits. How can I use those and live into them and claim them and find a way to express them in the world that allows me to become the person that God created me to be. So I would set aside that term God’s will, which sounds too determined to me, too set, too specified, set that aside for the God’s desire or God’s yearning and like a good parent God yearns for good things for me, but doesn’t prescribe one particular path. So if that is true, how are we going to companion with God, work with God, to discover our own life’s path?
And I would say that one of the key places we should look is at our deepest desires. Now, many of us as Christians have been taught to be suspicious of our desires to almost assume that if we desire, then it can’t be what God desires. And God’s desires for us are much more difficult or challenging than what we desire or they’re at least different. And so we’ve been taught not to really give a lot of thought or attention to what we want in life. And there is a way where we can be selfishly preoccupied with our own desires, but I think desires are also a key indicator of how we’ve been created and of the unique individual that we’re meant to be. And these deepest, most authentic desires of our hearts are like God’s thumbprint on us. They’re what makes us unique. And they’re part of how God has created us. And so I think desires are something to be attended to and that they are important indicators of what God’s call in our life might be about. So I sometimes suggest to people that they just take out a sheet of paper and write down whatever they desire. And you might find it helpful if you were to do this exercise to ask yourself some questions, like say, I’ve always wanted to what, or if I could do anything, I would try to do this. Or if I had the chance, I would try to learn about this, or I would try to explore this.
Use some of those leading phrases to trigger your thinking and write down everything, anything that comes to mind, even if it seems silly or inappropriate, just write it down anyway, it’s part of who you are. It’s come to mind. It reflects something about you, just put it on the list anyway, and compile a list of your desires. And then once you’ve had that list, to pause with it, to consider it and to say, what do these desires that I’ve specified that are part of me, what do they show me about what’s important to me, about what type of person I am, about what I might find fulfilling in life. What do they point me to, what indications are there of what God’s yearning for me might be as an individual with particular gifts.
So I think exploring our desires is important. And yet, as we know, we have different desires and not all of them might be authentic to what we are being called to be or what we desire to be. We also have conflicting desires in us, desires for power or desires for money or desires to possess a person or whatever it is. We have things that we’re drawn to that we know are not really consonant with God’s purposes for us. And so it’s a matter of sorting through those desires that we find in our heart and looking for those desires that are most authentic, that is most true to us, true to the person we want to be and true to the person that we believe God wants us to be. And to name those desires and to bring them into the light and see what they show us about what path we might take in life. Not all desires are equal. Some will be more important to us than others. And we might desire to learn a language or something, but it’s not as crucial to us as a desire to fulfill a particular type of work in the world. So they vary in importance. They vary in authenticity and we’ll have to do some discernment to see which ones are the most important to pay attention to. So if you’d like to pause the tape and spend some time on this exercise of naming our desires and looking at what they say to us, you can do that now.
We’ll go on then to talk about some obstacles that we face in discerning what God’s yearning for us might be, what God’s desire for us might be or what our deepest desires are. I’d like to name three obstacles. And the first obstacle is what I’m calling other voices. We are all bombarded with other voices every day from every angle. And just think of the power of the media in our lives, how much we are exposed to advertising in magazines, on television, on computers, there are ads popping up constantly. And the purpose of those ads is to get us to want something or to think that we need this thing, or to think that our lives would be better if only we had this thing. That’s what advertisers are doing. They’re trying to create a hunger, create a need that you will, that will force you to go out and buy their product. So that can be an obstacle because those ads are constantly showing us glimpses of idealized lives and saying, you’d like to look like these people wouldn’t you, you’d like to have fun like these people are having fun. And so to do that, you should buy our product. And we have to recognize that those subtle voices are coming at us all day long from the media, that is just a part of our lives. And we’ll have to see them as the enticement said they are and be very discreet about how we respond to them.
We’re also subject to other voices, were subject to the voices of our peers, our friends, people of our own generation who have ideas of what’s important in life, who have beliefs and constructs that they follow in their own lives that they would like to see us follow as well. They might think it’s important to make this particular choice or to follow this particular path in life or to find this particular kind of relationship. And they pressure us to do the same and to follow those same values. So we hear from our peers and they might not be valuing the same things that God values or that we, in our deepest, most authentic self value and dream of for ourselves. So we have to be careful about those voices and how they influence us and ask ourself, is this a voice that feels authentic to me? And is what it’s asking of me the right thing and does it feel authentic and right to me. We also have the voice of our parents, no matter how old we are, we have this voice in our head from our parents and we know what they would expect of us and what they would want for us. Or we at least project that and imagine what they would want for us. And so that’s an influence, a strong influence for some people, they don’t want to disappoint or hurt their parents. And so they might comply and conform their life to their parents’ wishes. So we have all of these different voices coming at us, plus our own internal voices, maybe the voice that says you should be doing this. You should be doing that. You should be more like her. You should be more like him. Those kinds of should messages come from a particular part of ourselves.
And we’ll have to be careful not to always listen to them very often. They’re forcing us in a way that isn’t the correct choice for us, but we feel like we should do it because other people are doing it, or because our idealized self thinks that that should be what our life is like. So to be cognizant of these different voices that are going on inside of us and around us, in our heads, and to evaluate what those voices are asking us to do, what they’re telling us is most important in life is the things that should be our goals and our priorities, and to weigh those things. Other voices can get in the way, we need to clear them out and be very clear about the voice that we’re listening for. A second form obstacles to finding our path in life is what I call attachments and specifically disordered or inordinate attachments, unhealthy attachments. And an unhealthy attachment is when we claim to some idea or some person or some thing and we come to believe that our lives will not be happy or meaningful without this thing. And so we must have it. And that’s a sign of a disordered attachment.
We see it, for example, in the rich run ruler that comes to Jesus and Jesus asks him what, how he’s already living. He wants to live for God and asked Jesus for advice and Jesus says, what are you doing now? And he says, I’m following the commandments. I’m living our religious faith. And the gospel writer says, Jesus looked at him with love. And he said, there’s one more thing. He said, if you want to really be free, sell everything that you have and come and follow me. And I think it’s because Jesus recognized in this man an attachment to wealth, he couldn’t let go of the wealth that he had and of the privileges that it gave him in society. The status it gave him among his friends, the voice that it gave him in society. The fact that he was wealthy, had a great influence on his life. And so when Jesus asked him to surrender that, he wasn’t able to do it and we read in the story that he went away sad. He was attached to wealth. He had to have that wealth and all the benefits that came from it in order to be happy, in order to have his life sustained. And he just couldn’t imagine life on a simpler scale. Or take the old Testament story of David and Bathsheba. David sees this beautiful woman on the roof of her house and he decides that he must have her, even though he knows and learns that she is someone else’s wife. And so he calculates her husband is away at war and he calculates a way to invite her to his palace and then seduces her and has sex with her and impregnates her. And now he realizes he has even more of a problem. And so he creates a strategy. Has her husband come back from the war for a few days of leave and he’s hoping that her husband will have intercourse with her and then when he discovers that she’s pregnant he’ll assume that the child is his. Well, this doesn’t happen because the soldier is a man of integrity and he won’t go lie with his wife while the other soldiers are out on the battlefield. And so he insists in staying apart from his wife during this short time of leave. So then David has to go even further. And he instructs his leaders, his military leaders to drop back and leave this husband exposed and so that he will be killed in battle. And this is what happens. And so David takes advantage of this and marries this beautiful woman.
Now and there through the whole story, David is consumed with his desire for this particular woman. He has other wives, there are other women that he can associate with, but he wants this one particular woman and he won’t stop until he gets her. And so that’s a sign of an unhealthy possession, a kind of an attachment in which we’re clinging to something with the belief that we have to have this thing in our life. So if you notice that there are things in your life that are extremely important to you, you might ask yourself, what would it be like to let this go? Or what would it be like not to strive after this and not to make this the most important thing, whether it’s wealth or whether it’s success or popularity, or a good reputation, whatever it is that we covet and we are willing to make sacrifices for, and sometimes even do things that lack integrity in order to achieve that thing that we desire so much. So ask yourself how free you are in relationship to your possessions and in relationship to people in your life, or are you clinging to them trying to make them the center of your life and insisting that without them, you can’t possibly be happy or fulfilled.
So disordered attachments are one of the obstacles that get in the way of our finding God’s true path for us. If I’m addicted to wealth, if I’m attached to wealth, I won’t consider a lesser paying job, a job that involves service, but doesn’t have a big salary because my attachment to wealth gets in the way. So those attachments can influence and ruin our choices, take away our freedom to hear God and to follow in what God is inviting us to be or to do. And then a third area that’s an obstacle is the place of fear and anxiety. Fear and anxiety, all of us know something of what that is, but many of us are actually consumed by it and find that fear and anxiety dominate our lives. And especially when it comes to choosing a path or making a commitment or stepping through a doorway into a specific way of life, especially when it comes to those kinds of commitments, we shy away and we’re afraid of making that kind of commitment. We’re afraid of the future. We can’t control the future and we’re afraid of how this might turn out. So for example, a young man making a choice for monastic life, it can be a difficult choice because it’s choosing a particular community and a particular way of living for the rest of your life.
And we find it very difficult, especially in these days to make that kind of commitment, unwavering commitment to a specific path, and to believe that God is calling us to that one path. The problem is of course, that when we have various options before us, by choosing one option, we close down other options that could be available. And so some of us are afraid to step into a specific option for fear of what we might lose. So those can be obstacles in our search for what is the best way for us. A third thing I’d like to talk about is how we might look at our own history to find signs of God’s call at work in us. I suggested in a previous video that God’s call is persistent. It comes to us again and again and again. And so maybe if we can look back on our lives, we can notice some particular thing that keeps reoccurring, some particular call that keeps being sounded within us and see this pattern. And that might help us to make a choice in our future. Esther Deval is the author of a book called “Seeking God The Way of St. Benedict”. And she writes, in order to discern, we need to learn how to read our own situations, our own histories, to see the turning points, the movements of change, the unfolding of God’s plan for us at each new step of the way. In order to discern, we need to learn how to read our own histories, to see the turning points, the movements of change, the unfolding of God’s plan for us at each new step of the way.
So I’d like to suggest three ways that you could look back on your own history and possibly find some signs, some evidence, some indications of what God’s purposes for you might be. The first way that I’d like to suggest is by dividing your life into segments. So you have the segment of your childhood and then your teenage years or adolescents, and then perhaps your college years, and then your twenties, and maybe you start dividing life up according to jobs that you’ve had, or according to places that you’ve lived, but you divide your life into segments that make sense to you. And then for each segment, ask yourself who was I at that point in my life. What was I like as a child? What things interested me? What was I good at? What was excited about? What did I love to learn about? What did I want to do? How did I spend my time? So we try to learn about ourselves in that stage of our life. And then we also ask, who was God for me in that stage of my life? How did I understand God? How did I relate to God? Did I pray? And if so, who did I think I was praying to? And who was God for me? And how was I shaping my prayers? And how did I experience that relationship? And then maybe in your teenage years, or your college years, or your twenties, you notice a change or a shift in that relationship. So ask yourself again, in that period of life, who was I, what was I doing? What was I interested in? What mattered the most to me and who was God for me there? What did I know about God? What did I believe about what God might want for me? So that’s the first way, dividing your life in segments and looking at each segment to see who you were and who God was for you.
A second way is to look back on your life at major decisions you’ve made. Some of you are probably young enough not to have made too many major decisions at this point in your life. Others of us who are a few decades along, might have several decisions that we’ve made that have been important life changing decisions for us, a change of job, or a change of location, or some kind of a discovery about ourselves that changed our lives. So look back on those and see if you can pinpoint the important junctures in your life where you made an important choice, and you could have gone one of two or more ways, but you chose this way. What was that choice about? What was driving it? What was inspiring it? Why did you make that particular choice? What was it about and what does that choice reveal about you? And what does it reveal about your image of God and your understanding of what God might want for you and for your life. So to evaluate each of those major decisions along the way, and scour them looking for meaning, for indications of who am I and how is God calling me to follow Christ in the world?
And then a third way that you might look back on your own faith history is to look at encounters with God. Where have you had significant religious experiences, moments of encounter or epiphany, moments when God was very present and real to you? Can you remember those? Or maybe a word that God spoke to you that was, that really hit you as being true and authentic and changed the way that you wanted to live. Look at those past experiences throughout your history of relationship with God, where has God touched your life? Where has God spoken to you in a way that redirected you and ask God, what does this show about what God wants for your life and what you want? What does it reveal? So I think basically a big part of discernment is simply reading the inner topography of our lives, the inner landscape, and saying, who am I, what are my gifts and talents? What are my likes and dislikes? What are the things that I’m best at? What are my skills and natural abilities? What are my preferences? What do I prefer to do? I prefer to be outdoors or indoors or working before a computer or engaged in some kind of a manual effort.
So ask yourself who you are, what you know about yourself and take stock of yourself. Read that inner landscape. To ask yourself also as part of that, what are my deepest desires? What are my secret hopes or dreams? What is the thing that I wish I could be if I could be anything? And what does that show me about what path I might choose in life. And then to also look back on our history and to say, what signs are there along the way that might point to a vocation, a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God. In our next session, we’ll look at a specific method for making choices. So when we’re faced with an important choice and have a couple of options before us, how can we engage God in that process of discernment? And how can we pray through that choice and try to select the option that is most consonant with the people that we’re trying to become, and that God wants us to be. Thanks for joining us today.
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