A couple weeks ago I began sharing some thoughts around calling and vocation,(links to the previous blogs… Calling and Vocation (1) Risk Takers; Calling and Vocation (2): Hope-Builders). Here’s a third, which focuses on discernment.
If you were asked to describe what discernment means, how would you attempt to answer that question? And a further questions, where do you see discernment practiced, evident or talk about within church life?
If I was asked 3 years what discernment is, I think I would have struggled to answer it very well at all. Now, while still not finding it easy, words like testing, considering, weighing-up, consultation and conversation with others – all under the banner of a Christian belief that discernment is seeking to understand and enflesh the will of God in our lives, and/or the lives of others.
In my experience, and in conversation with other people’s experience of candidating for ordained ministry in the Methodist church, I’ve noticed two things;
- That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else
- That while people feel a sense of certainty of call, this certainty has been one of calling to candidate, not calling to ordained ministry.
Both have their significance – and to briefly explore them, I want to start with the second observation.
Speaking from my own experience, I strongly felt a call to candidate, to offer myself to the Church. While I wouldn’t have described it in this way at the time, in hindsight I can see that this was a time of discernment, as the church and I sought to discern the will of God together. While I felt confident I was doing the right thing in candidating, I never felt any sort of certainty about the result that would one day come.
Looking back, this time of discernment was extremely significant for me, because it allowed me to time to explore what this call might mean for me, for my family and for my future. It meant I could deal with some of my doubts, name some of my fears, wrestle with some of the questions that were constantly developing in my mind. But this was done with others, supporting, nurturing and encouraging me. In many ways, my last two years at college have felt like a continuation of that, no so much about discerning vocation, as discerning about self, about identity, about the place and shape of future ministry, again done alongside others, tutors, family, colleagues, friends.
Which leads me to consider the first observation I have made – That the majority of people feel a sense of certainty of some sort of call before they share it with anyone else.
In some ways, and speaking from personal experience, that had some great strengths for me in considering ordained ministry. A sense of certainty that to candidate was the right thing for me to do meant that some of the challenges I faced through that process were supported with an inner sense of certainty and conviction which enabled me to overcome them.
However, is certainty a prerequisite of what then becomes a more public discernment process? What I think I’m asking is whether we believe we are providing people in our churches with the tools and resources for personal discernment before they make that ongoing process of discernment more public. I am pretty sure there are some things we’re good at, but I am also sure there’s going to be more we could do.
Taking this beyond thinking about the processes of discernment for ordained ministry, what of discernment for other vocations, whether it be in or outside of the church, how is the church equipping people to discern the will of God for their lives? In one way or another, I think most people would agree that we live in a culture which increasingly assumes immediacy, is built up on finding clear answers with haste and instancy, and expects a level of perfectionism and faultlessness. I’m not convinced society does the concept of discernment much service, and I’m not convinced it’s supported by the Biblical narrative either.
I’ve been reading Exodus this week, and the character of Moses has echoed with me in ways it hasn’t before. One thing that has struck me is that Moses was full or doubts about himself, his worth, his ability, how he would be received by the Israelites.
‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’
‘But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me?’
‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent […] I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’
‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’
Exodus 3:11; 4:1; 4:11; 4:13.
His questions and his wrestling with this call come alongside the fact he had run away from Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian (2:12). Moses wasn’t perfect, he lacked self-confidence, I think he lacked certainty, but God called and used him all the same.
So as Christians, as God’s people, I think we need to be more intentional about how we talk about and practice discernment in the public sphere, which will impact upon the private sphere. We need to show that it is ok to not know, that it is right to take time in discernment, that discernment does not necessarily require certainty, that it is proper to take that journey with others, in discerning the will of God. Discernment should be part of our making sense of calling and vocation, wherever direction we sense that taking us, whether for a season or for a lifetime. To affirm that calling comes with doubts and fears, and that these feelings are natural, human, and part of what discernment is.