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How do I discern between God’s calling and my own—or even other people’s—sinful ambitions?

It is often difficult to know whether God or sinful ambition is the source of our callings. Because this life is a struggle between living by God’s Spirit and what Paul calls the “desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16), we cannot assume that all strongly felt urges are from God. How do we tell what is of God and what is of sin? There is no easy answer.

We need to test what we feel led to do with God’s commandments. If we feel led to do something clearly condemned by God’s revealed commandments, then the urges we feel are not of God but of our own or others’ sinful desires. But at many important points in life, the complexities of our circumstances and lack of clarity of God’s revealed will make it difficult to know for sure what God is calling us to do. And there are large areas of our lives for which there is no commandment: Should I marry or remain single? Should I marry this person or that person? Should I become an electrician or an office manager? God lays down no law for such matters; these are realms of Christian freedom. The important thing is to do whatever we do for the glory of God and the well-being of our world.

Many Christian communities recommend “discernment” in such situations. To “discern” here means to test, examine, interpret, discover, approve, or demonstrate. Discernment involves a prayerful, Scripture-guided assessment of our gifts, the needs of our communities and our world, our obligations, and our concrete opportunities. Though it is deeply personal, discernment is also a communal process in which we consult others who know us and the needs of our communities. Discernment is especially needed at important junctures of our lives, when we make pivotal decisions about marriage and family, career and paid work, and special obligations to parents, children, siblings, and friends. Discernment is also needed at transitional stages of the life cycle and of career changes and retirement.

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