By Kristen Padilla

The Mystery of Discernment

I was devastated when I didn’t get the job. It had been a month since I graduated from Beeson Divinity School with my Master of Divinity degree. Up until that point, discerning my next steps in life had been fairly easy. The (good) advice you always hear — pray, read Scripture, talk to mentors, and watch for open doors — had worked for me. I always heard God clearly and felt confident in the plans he had for me.

Not only that, but I took great joy in what I did. As an A+ student, I was driven, and my identity was closely linked with my academic achievements.

So it’s no surprise that I went out into the world feeling even more confident than before. After all, I had my MDiv from a respectable theological graduate school in tow. But then, nothing. I didn’t hear from God concerning my call. I didn’t get the job I first interviewed for. After three months of not finding any job in ministry, I took a job as an intern at a state Baptist newspaper — a job usually reserved for undergraduates.

For the next six years I sensed God calling me to wait, but there was nothing about my next vocational step.

Did I correctly discern my call to ministry or had I completely botched my discernment process?

Why was God silent this time? And what did it mean for my own identity that I wasn’t succeeding in my vocation? The loss of identity was the most troubling aspect. I didn’t know who I was without this kind of work and assessable achievements.

What do you do when you go through a discernment process and nothing happens or you don’t hear from God? What then?

God for us

Going to God’s Word and reading theologians like Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance were life-forming for me during this difficult period. Without a position in which to work out my vocation, my identity was stripped naked. Who was I? But in order to answer this question, another question — a better one — had to be answered: Who is God? For we cannot properly understand ourselves without first understanding who God is as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture.

As I steeped myself in Scripture and the writings of these great theologians, I was reminded of a few important truths:

  • That God chose us in Jesus Christ before the foundations of the world were laid (Ephesians 1.4)
  • That in Christ, God’s “no” has become God’s “yes” to us (2 Corinthians 1.19-20)
  • That God loves us with the very love which he is (John 15.9)
  • That God determines himself not to be without us (Matthew 1.23)
  • That my truest identity must be centered in Christ (Colossians 3.3)

Finding my identity in God gave me freedom in being secure in who I was in all work. As the Reformers taught, all work is God’s work. Martin Luther wrote,

...the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.
— The Babylon Captivity of the Church (emphasis mine)

This truth meant that as I gained confidence in who I was in Christ, I could do all work as unto the Lord — even intern work — and not have it not lessen my value. Finding freedom in who I was as one loved by God also freed me from devastation, depression, discontentment and restlessness as it related to my work (or lack thereof) and stage in life.

Misinterpreting God’s slowness

My first job after seminary as an intern lasted one and a half years. During that time, I married and three months later our son Philip was conceived. I left my job at the newspaper to become a full-time mom, whose work was wiping a bottom, feeding, cleaning spit-up and boogers, doing laundry, dishes, and cooking.

I also took part-time work outside the home. Most notably, I did marketing for an organic baby food company.

All the while, my call was never far from my heart. The prophet Jeremiah said, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jeremiah 20.9).” Like Jeremiah, I too cried to the Lord that I would gladly give up my call and my desires to communicate the gospel. But every time I tried, my desire only increased all the more. A true calling cannot be easily cast aside.

The problem was never my call. The problem was that I interpreted God’s “slowness” or delay or closed doors as signs that I had failed or misinterpreted my calling, or as a sign of God’s “no.”

Not what you’d expect

As I returned to Scripture, I was reminded of how often the text features people who waited. Abraham, Moses, David, even Jesus, all waited for significant periods of time before their callings were brought to fruition.

My idea that my calling had to materialize and mature by my thirties did not square with what I read in Scripture. Neither did my thinking that these things would be easy. Knowing that many people in Scripture were old when God called them or that they had to wait a long time for their callings to materialize reminded me that God cannot be boxed in by our cultural ideals, and that God’s ways are much better than our ways. Our callings, if they come from God, belong to God and God will see them through. For just as God told Moses, Joshua, David, Jeremiah, and many others, “I will be with you,” he promises to be with us too. God’s presence always accompanies those whom he has called.

In the New Testament, Jesus sends out his disciples after his resurrection and before his ascension in what is called the Great Commission. His last words in Matthew are a promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We presently have the Living God with us, never leaving us, always accompanying us, doing life with us.

He will see it through

In the Spring of 2015, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School offered me a job as marketing and communications coordinator for the divinity school. Seven years after graduating, I was taking a job that aligned more than ever with my call. A year later, I received a contract to write a book on calling, and just last month God has called me to explore the possibility of either being ordained or receiving a license to preach the gospel within my denomination.

I’m not where I thought I would be as it relates to my call and, to be honest, I’m unsure what God yet has in store for my ministry. In some respects, I’m still waiting, still discerning.

I cannot give you a formula or help you come up with a strategic five-year plan with goals and benchmarks for your calling. That’s not how God works. Plus, I would not wish to take away the joy of journeying with God down a path that will require your full trust in him. Sometimes callings materialize quickly, sometimes slowly. They happen according to God’s plan. But what I can tell you is this: Turn to him. Seek him. Find yourself in him as the one who is decidedly for you in Jesus Christ. He will give you the freedom to wait and to find joy in all work and every step of the journey. And when the time comes for that door to open, he will open it. He will accompany you. For he will see it through.

About the Author

Kristen Padilla is the marketing and communications coordinator at Beeson Divinity School, editor of the Beeson magazine, and executive producer of the Beeson podcast. She also is the author of a forthcoming book with Zondervan on vocation, scheduled to release in 2018. 

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