How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

Q. How do I know what Jesus is calling me to do?

I’m not sure whether you mean this question in the sense of daily matters of obedience or in the sense of a life “calling” (that is, a vocation). But I will answer it in the first sense and then say how the answer applies to the second sense as well.

Ideally, we learn to recognize the voice of Jesus by developing a close relationship with him through prayer, worship, devotion, and obedience. There is an analogy that Jesus himself gave that I find very helpful. When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, he said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” He said that after explaining in general terms about a shepherd: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” So the ideal is to learn to recognize the voice of Jesus so that we know enough to follow him when we hear him speaking, and we also know enough to run away from what opposing voices are telling us.

But this is a process that takes time, and there are things that can help us along the way. I think it is accurate and helpful to expect that a number of factors will converge to show us how God is leading us. In addition to the way we may have a sense of God speaking to us, these factors include what God says in the Scriptures; the advice we receive from wise, trusted advisors; what the circumstances permit (“open doors” vs. “closed doors”); the godly desires of our own hearts; the fact that we find we are yielded and willing to obey God about something—to have it, not to have it, or to wait; a sense of peace about it; and a recognition that it will require faith and that God is giving us the faith to believe for it. When many such factors converge to point in a direction that we sense the voice of Jesus is also indicating, then we can reasonably proceed in that direction, believing that he is guiding us that way.

But we should always be open to continual refinement of our understanding. We need to learn from experience. If it turns out that somehow we got the wrong sense of what God wanted us to do, then we need to think about how that happened and learn from it for the next time. There is a learning curve here. But it is also an adventure of walking by faith with a loving God who will reward us for our desire to hear and obey his voice, not punish us for hearing imperfectly while we are learning.

All of these principles apply to God’s guidance about a life “calling” or vocation. Vocation includes our paid work or profession, but it also includes our relationships, the ministry we have in our church, volunteer and leisure-time activities, and so forth. It is the “whole package” of life, but it does center around certain key decision such as what work to do and where, and what our primary relationships will be. The main difference between guidance about this and about daily obedience is that vocational guidance unfolds over time, as the result of much exploration. So you should still study the Scriptures, pray, seek godly counsel, understand the desires of your heart, and so forth. But you should just expect that you will need to find your way over time into your vocation; it’s unlikely that one day God will suddenly announce the whole picture to you.

Here are a couple of questions that are usually helpful for people exploring what their vocations should be.

  • What would you do if you could do anything in the world, if money were no obstacle and assuming that you could get any education or training you might need for it? Those limitations might actually be there, but answering this question helps you know what direction to head in.
  • What can you “not not” do? Most people can do a number of things well. But there is one thing, or a related cluster of things, that they just can’t help doing, no matter where they are. That points very clearly in the direction of God’s vocation for their lives. So don’t ask, “What can I do?” Ask, “What can I not not do?”

I hope these reflections are helpful, and may you find yourself able to hear more and more clearly all the time what Jesus is calling you to do.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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