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Doubt

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A vocation is something extremely personal – and therefore extremely difficult to discuss. Of all the criteria for selection, it is perhaps the most daunting one, because it leads to the question: where do I start? How do I start even contemplating, let alone explaining, a task of the utmost importance? How could Isaiah volunteer himself so eagerly to be a prophet of the Lord? Such certainty, such fire, such passion!

Not all who feel called are so eager to get to the front of the line. Thankfully(?), we also have, at the other end of the spectrum, the example of Gideon, who carefully checked he was not mistaken. He showed due diligence in examining his own calling.

The issue, however, with putting out a fleece, is that it is difficult to do so honestly. All signs are interpreted. Confirmation bias is a thing. And so there is a fine line between seeking to verify/infirm a sense of calling and searching for excuses not to follow it.

I have tried, over a few older blog entries, to explain the discernment process. Broadly speaking, to me (and it may be different to others), the assurance in my sense of calling stemmed from a deep feeling of peace whenever I considered the ministry. It felt “right”, in a way other potential plans just felt “OK, I guess”.

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Obviously, a life choice cannot be based on a fuzzy feeling alone. There is a fair amount of testing and discussing involved, and, as these progress, there is bound to be good times and worse times. I’ve been blessed enough to have had a rather smooth ride of it; the setbacks being merely circumstantial or of little consequence. The flip side of that, of course, is impostor syndrome.

And boy, does it kick hard when left to grow unchecked! Here are a few things about doubt. While they were written with calling in mind, I believe they also apply to other decisions.

1. Doubt is self-feeding. Doubt, like a festering wound, will only grow larger when not confronted. Now obviously, there is usually an initial trigger (an event, a change in circumstances, …) but that trigger does not rationally account for the extent of felt doubt. And so it is pointless to try to get rid of the doubt by simply looking at what is not its root but merely its trigger.

2. Doubt is hard to discuss. Part of the reason for that is that the friends I would discuss it with have (probably) been supporting me in following the calling I now doubt. And now considering moving away from it feels like a betrayal of that support. But the main reason is that I won’t control the narrative of that discussion. If doubt is genuine, then the conversation could go in any direction. And that is a scary thing to get into. But – here’s the thing: (a) it would be foolish to let one conversation seal the decision; and (b) if that’s still too scary, there are strategies to avoid relinquishing that control altogether.

3. Unbridled support may actually feed doubt. If I don’t feel my work is praiseworthy, then supporting me for it will just make me doubt your previous support. Sure, it will feel nice and reassuring on the spot, but definitely not in the longer run.

4. Doubt is not shameful, although that’s how it may feel. Gideon doubted, both of his calling and of his own ability to meet the daunting challenge ahead. And he did feel some inadequacy in his double-checking (see the start of verse 39), but it was not counted against him

5. Doubt is not beaten by reason alone. There is no amount of justification that will make doubt go away. Taking a rational approach such as listing pros and cons may give temporary solace, but it will leave some hesitation: am I simply rationalising this decision? Or is it truly the right decision? Of course, rational thought and careful consideration is necessary to tackle doubt. But it should not be expected to be sufficient: a decision that only sits in the mind yet not in the heart and soul is not a solid decision.

6. Doubt is blindsided. Doubt is generally about weighing up two options and getting bogged down in the consequences of both of them. Over time, these two options become so prominent that any other possibility will be discarded out of hand. Because, having invested so much pondering over these two choices, there must have been a pretty good reason why other options weren’t considered… And yet, that’s just pride talking. Other options may be available, and that’s one of the reasons why discussion with many trusted friends is important.

Ultimately, though, doubt is difficult to deal with. And it’s good to remember that, if you are doubting your life plans, or even smaller decisions, second-guessing yourself, you are not alone. And that talking about it with trusted friends will help.

Continuous discernment

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A while ago, I described my calling to ordained ministry. I explained how, through prayer and conversation with close friends and a variety of Elis, I gained assurance in that calling – to the point that I have stopped questioning it.

I also explained that I did not have a clear picture of the particulars of my future ministry, and that, at one time, I did struggle with this lack of clarity. Whilst the shape my ministry is to take is not much clearer, though, I have found that I was okay with that.

And so, trusting in my calling to the ministry, I ploughed on. I set my sights on this end goal, and worked towards it. I preached a few sermons. I got involved in a variety of ministries. I picked the liturgy for a service. In short, I’ve been busy. And since I started down this path, I have thought that doing this work was obeying God, because it was pursuing the calling I felt.

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Photo: Vladimir Kramer, public domain(Unsplash)

I still think this is true: I still think that it is extremely important to follow my calling, and to do everything that I can to fulfill it. But I fear that, in focusing on this, I have separated my calling from God. It has become “something to achieve”, for the glory of Christ, yes, but first and foremost an end in itself. So I was concentrating on my personal future, at the expense of both my present actions and the greater picture.

It is especially easy to fall into this trap when the vocation we follow is somehow religious. If the calling we pursue is secular (and let me stress here that secular callings are just as worthy as religious callings), then we don’t risk much to mistake it for its source. For better or for worse, the working out of a secular vocation will always be slightly distinct from religious activity, no matter how pervasive our faith is. But if the calling is a calling to a religious role, then it is easy to set the fulfillment of that call as the primary purpose of all our doings  – religious and secular. Therefore, focusing on what we are called to rather than on the one who is calling us has particularly far-reaching consequences in the case of religious vocations.

This is why we need discernment, continuously. Even when we think we got it all figured out – what ministry we are called to, and a five-year plan to get there. Not because we necessarily need to further fine-tune this five-year plan, but because of what discernment means: constantly looking to God, and constantly being reminded that He is greater than the vocation we feel called to. Not because we doubt our vocation, but because God is present throughout our calling, not just at its end; and because we cannot reach this end on our own.

Let us not believe that we can sort out our vocation entirely; but let us, instead, turn to and trust in God for everything, including our calling and its fulfillment.

A commitment to discipleship

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Discipleship – being a follower – is central to Christian life. Though the shape that discipleship takes varies, there are some key elements we are all called to: becoming ever more Christ-like. When big decisions come our way, it is right to tackle them as a follower – through prayer and with discernment. This is especially true of discerning our life calling – whether within the ministry or not.

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Photo: Miguel Vaca, re-used under CC License

The way I described my response to calling, based on 1 Samuel 3, was this: firstly, hear the call; secondly, discern what the calling is (as Samuel went to Eli), and thirdly, take on the new identity brought on by this call (as Samuel took on the identity of God’s servant). These steps are sometimes muddled up, and the first two occasionally implicit. But a response to a call virtually always includes a commitment.

And here’s where a mistake can be made: to think that it is on that commitment that hinges our call. Or – possibly worse! – that this commitment takes precedence over the calling that it is a response to. This is true both of particular callings to specific action, and to the more universal calling to follow Christ; and it is true both of how we see our own calling and of how we see the calling of others.

When I make the mistake of considering my commitment to my calling first, here’s what happens too:

  • I consider my resolve as more important than the one from whom my calling came.
  • When my commitment wavers – as it is bound to, from time to time – I have to question my entire sense of calling, and go through the whole discernment process again.
  • I don’t know where to draw strength from: my commitment is my own, my responsibility and, in short, my business.
  • My actions become goal-oriented, rather than identity-oriented. In short, I am doing this and that in order to reach whatever goal I have committed myself to (e.g., ordination, or getting a specific job, or helping a specific group of people). I have stopped doing this and that because that’s what I should be doing. And that’s a dangerous thing to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong – commitment is necessary. But not at the expense of knowing that it is just a response: a response to the God who equips those whom he calls.

So consider your own calling as a Christian – or your story of how you became a Christian. Does it revolve around the moment you decided to follow, or does it revolve around the ways God called you, and your redeemed identity?

And if you agree that God’s call is far more important than a commitment, then why do we continue to describe evangelistic success primarily as “people giving their lives to Jesus”?

The guilt of the secular worker

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I’ve heard this many times: being a Christian is an all-encompassing calling which takes precedence over everything. I’ve preached this message, too. The message sometimes becomes a slogan:

  • Church is not just for Sunday.
  • You should join a small group.
  • Too busy to pray? Too busy NOT to pray, more likely.
  • Preach the gospel in your workplace.
  • Jesus wants your everything – not just when you have time for it.

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The list could go on. And all of these things are true: if your Christian identity is restricted to attending a church service on a Sunday, then maybe you’re missing the point. But let’s take that very notion further: being Christian is not simply about attending church. It’s not simply about attending church activities throughout the week either. Of course, small groups are helpful. Prayer meetings are helpful. Evangelism in the workplace is helpful. Yes, a thousand times yes. But church and church activities are not the only way in which this can happen. Explicit, intentional action is not the only way in which evangelism can happen.

And I know that the people who express the all-encompassing nature of the calling to be a Christian in the ways I described above mean well, but we often fail to consider how it can be perceived:

  • You’re not a proper Christian if you only go to church stuff on a Sunday
  • You’re not in a small group? Clearly you have no desire to grow your faith.
  • Too busy to come to our weekly prayer meeting? Sort out your priorities!
  • Actively evangelise at every single opportunity. If what you’re saying is not linked to the Gospel, it must be that you are ashamed of your faith.
  • So you don’t have time to take on admin for church/prepare intercession/lead the worship this week? Come on, surely church is more important than whatever else you’ve got to do!

Of course we don’t mean this – or at least I hope we don’t! But the problem is: we generally say these things in a church context, and so all the expressions of our Christian identity get linked with church activities. Thereby, the secular worker may feel their job is worth less than anything they may contribute to the church.

But callings are not just callings to the ministry. People get called to secular jobs! Or to build a family! And there is a reason for that; if your job or your family needs your attention, neglecting either of those in favour of church activities would be denying your own calling! If you are choosing church activities – even outside of Sunday – over your calling, you are paying lip service to the lie that Christianity only happens in church or intentionally!

So feel free to say no to extra church stuff without guilt. Because in saying no to church stuff, you might well be saying yes to what God has called you to; and that is submission to His will. That is an expression of Christian identity. And that identity will pervade in many, many different ways – your own form of prayer. Your own evangelism – perhaps through simple acts of service. Your own leadership. All of them held together by love.

Now what?

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Last week, a lot of my friends graduated. For some of them, this paves the way for more study – postgraduate or a completely new degree. For others, it is the final step before they settle in a new job. For others still, the future is unknown. For all, though, it is the culmination of three or four years (or in some rare cases, even more!) spent working towards the degree. Now that’s over, there is just cause for celebration and for congratulations: they (you!) have made it. Through hard work, sweat and allnighters, and in some cases, luck, they have obtained what they set out to do.

graduation

To some younger people, this moment will come in a few weeks, when they find out what university they got admitted to; or what grades they got for GCSE and A-Levels.

Whether you’ve just got through an interview, landed your dreamjob, put your first down payment on a house, or managed to finally finish reading this book you’ve been putting off for the past few years, there is a question you need to hear. That question is:

Now what?

When our focus has been on one single goal, we can be lost when we reach it. We end up doing one of two things:

1. We can think the hardest part is behind us and just start doing nothing. We lose purpose and allow ourselves to be lulled by the routine of the job/houseownership/studentship we worked so hard to obtain. After all, if we managed to get that, it means we’re clever enough for the rest to fall into our pocket without working. More importantly, there seems to be nothing more to strive for – at least for a while. That’s what I did in my third year of university, after I managed to get into the course I wanted to get into.
That’s what the disciples get doing between the Cross and Pentecost – yea, even after they witnessed the risen Christ, and the Ascension: they wait. This period of celebration (joyful worship!) and this break makes sense because they are waiting for the next step: it is expectant waiting, not simply dossing around.

2. We can be so glad that it’s over that we want to leave it all behind. The degree we spent three years on, after all, will not be useful, so we might as well forget about it: the job’s done and delivered and is no longer our problem. That’s sometimes the way I feel about my PhD: I want nothing to do with academia as soon as I have graduated. And while that’s fine, it’d be stupid to reject the experience and the knowledge I have acquired during the programme on the single basis that it was part of a PhD.

Both, in their own way, negate the work that was put into getting there. Both put an end to the momentum that was gained getting there. And both make the question “Now what?” particularly important and scary.

Success is no protection against this. Neither is acceptance of failure. Only the sustained willingness to keep on serving in whatever environment is.

So if you graduated last week, congratulations! Celebrate, enjoy a break and rest for a while – you most certainly have deserved it. But don’t leave your degree and what you’ve achieved just stay in the past: take them as an opportunity to serve.