My summer internship was quickly coming to an end, and I still didn’t feel anywhere close to an answer to the question that had brought me to Northern Ireland two months before: What was God calling me to? Was he calling me to the ministry of conflict resolution and reconciliation, or to ordained ministry in the local church? The former was what I’d started divinity school intending to pursue; but over the course of the first year I’d found myself unexpectedly pulled toward the latter. I’d returned to Belfast, where I’d first discovered a passion for peacebuilding years earlier as an undergrad, looking for the thing—the experience, the insight, the knowing—that would tell me one way or the other what God wanted me to do.
But I hadn’t found it. And I was frustrated. I’d spent the previous year reading every ministry memoir I could get my hands on, trying to figure out just how I could know what kind of ministry God was calling me to. After all, it was ministry; surely God wouldn’t risk my missing his call by issuing it in anything less than the clearest terms?
One afternoon during the very last weeks of my internship in Belfast, I sat down with the director of the non-profit I’d been working for. I knew he was a committed Christian, so I decided to ask him what he thought of the question I’d been wrestling with all summer. How would I know what God wanted me to do? Or, to put it in the terms I’d use today, how could I discern God’s leading in my life?
What the director told me that afternoon continues to prove helpful even more than a decade later. “My experience,” he said, “has been that, generally speaking, God speaks to each of us in a fairly consistent way over the course of our lives. Not that he doesn’t sometimes make exceptions. But most of the time, if I want to figure out how God is speaking to me in the present, I pay attention to how God has spoken to me in the past. And that helps me know where to look or to listen for how God is leading me now.”
I’d never thought to look for a pattern in how God had led me in the past. As I did, it became more evident why I wasn’t getting the lightning-bolt revelation about my ministry decision that I was hoping for: God never spoke to me with lightning bolts. Instead, God’s leading in my life had generally been slow and quiet, an eventual settled feeling of “this seems right” that I would arrive at after a long period of thought, prayer, and conversation with trusted friends and mentors. Maybe it would be the same as I discerned the kind of ministry God was calling me to. Sure, it felt like a momentous decision to me—but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t still trust God to lead me in the slow, quiet ways he’d led me in the past.
In the years since then, I’ve shared the insight I was given that summer in Belfast with many others, and I’ve loved watching the joy spread across their faces as they hear it. It’s the joy of understanding—the feeling of relief that there just might be a method to God’s apparent madness and that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel of discernment with every major life decision we face. And it’s the joy of being understood—the deep sense of love and comfort that comes as we experience the truth that the God who made us also knows how to speak to each of us in the ways that we can best hear him.
Of course, God never leads us in ways that are contrary to his word, and we should always be willing to subject what we think we hear from God to the teaching of the scriptures and the wisdom of the communities in which God has placed us. As we do so, we’ll grow in confidence in our ability to discern God’s voice. And we’ll find that we become more and more aware of God’s presence with us and his words to us, not just in those moments of major life decisions, but in all aspects of our lives. Because keeping daily fellowship with God is, after all, the greatest vocation to which God calls us.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
- What have been some key moments of discernment in your past? What do you notice about how God led you in those moments? Are there any patterns?
- What is an area of discernment that you are facing now? Do the patterns of God’s leading in your past help you identify any places where you might look for his leading in the present?
- Do you long for a greater awareness of God’s presence with you and his speaking to you in your daily life? If so, talk to God about that longing. Ask him to teach you how to sense his presence and hear his voice. God longs for us to hear the things he is saying to us, and he is eager to teach us how.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erin Bair is a member of the ChurchNEXT ReNew Team, a CRM ministry working to strengthen the souls of Christian leaders so they can thrive in every season of life and ministry. She lives in Arlington, VA.