Answering God’s call is never something He meant for us to do on our own. His call on our lives is given both individually and in the context of our broader community. The process of discerning that call involves the community around us as we look to their wisdom and experience to help us figure out how to walk out God’s plan for our lives.
Read Exodus 4.18–20.
God had just spoken to Moses at the burning bush, calling him to return to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel. In this passage, we see Moses beginning to act on that call. Notice that he doesn’t just go straight to Egypt to demand the Israelites’ freedom. Instead, his first move is to get his father-in-law’s blessing. Moses’ request wasn’t just a formality. In ancient times, the blessing of your elders was essential to pursuing your calling. For Moses, God’s calling was not just between him and God; it was also between him and his community.
Read Exodus 4.27–31.
Even after Moses had very clearly heard God’s call and received his father-in-law’s blessing, he didn’t just go rushing to see Pharaoh right away. Moses still needed to seek out his community’s input so that they could discern his calling together. From Moses’ example, we learn that callings are received individually but discerned in community.
Question: Has there been a time in your life when you asked for your community’s input on an important decision? Did their thoughts align with yours? If not, what did you end up doing? What did you learn from that process?
The concept of community-based discernment is a challenging point in our culture. The U.S. is what sociologists describe as a “hyper-individualized culture.” Essentially, our primary reference point is ourselves. Whatever we think and feel is what we do, regardless of how our family or community might see things. The strength of this approach is that we have a freedom to pursue what we want to pursue and don’t feel inhibited by community or family expectations. The danger of it is that it can cause us to miss out on the great strengths that come with discerning our call in community. There are four benefits to discerning our call with community:
1. Our community helps us see what we can’t.
Proverbs 12.15 says, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” The reason why fools think they’re on a good path is because they can’t see otherwise. Community is so important because we need people around us who can see where we have blind spots.
2. Our community protects us from ourselves.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17.9 lays out the reality that we have all kinds of broken motives. Because our hearts are full of both good and bad motives, it’s hard to discern why we actually feel called to something. Proverbs 20.5 can be a guide for us as we try to walk this out: “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” When we seek out insightful and wise counsel, we can better discern our path, and our motives.
Question: If you were to honestly examine your own heart, how would you describe the mixture of motives you see there? How do you make decisions in light of these conflicting motives? What are some consequences you’ve seen in your own life when you make decisions based on motives that may not be pure?
3. Our community strengthens our calling.
Proverbs 15.22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Regardless of how good we think our ideas are, allowing others to speak into our plans makes them better. What’s more, we shouldn’t be seeking out opinions that we know are similar to ours. Diversity is an asset: when the people speaking in bring ideas and backgrounds that are different than ours, our plans and ideas get that much better.
4. Community invites the power of God.
Read Matthew 18.19–20.
This passage is an incredible promise for people who follow Jesus. Jesus says that when we get around our community and affirm our calling together, something changes. Suddenly the power of God is present on that calling in a way it hadn’t been previously.
Question: How can we use the strengths of community-based discernment to help us practice it more often, even in our hyper-individualized culture?
Now that we know the benefits of living out our calling in community, we can look at some practical ways to help us process our calling in the context of community. Moses took four crucial steps as he engaged his community in his calling.
1. Invite the right people to the conversation.
Notice who Moses invited into the discussion about his calling. Verse 29 says Moses and Aaron brought in the elders of Israel. They had spiritual maturity and life experience. Some of us get into trouble when we ask people to speak into our lives who don’t really have much to bring to the table because they’re not mature themselves. Sometimes the reason we do that is because we don’t want to hear constructive feedback. We want to hear, “That’s awesome!” But the kind of person we want to invite into this conversation is someone with enough spiritual maturity to challenge our thinking. We have to get over our insecurity.
2. Share everything on your heart and mind.
In Exodus 4.30, after Moses and Aaron have invited the elders of Israel to come and speak with them, they proceed to tell the elders “everything the Lord had said to Moses”. It’s important that we share everything, but it’s also important that we share it with the right attitude. Sharing with an attitude of “I’ve got this all figured out and now I’m here for you to bless it” won’t cut it. We should be sharing from a posture of openness and willingness to receive feedback. We should be listening and praying for a spirit of trust and indifference—trust that God’s best is our best, and indifference so that our own bias won’t prevent us from hearing what God wants us to hear.
3. Engage your community in a discernment process, not a discernment moment.
After Moses and Aaron shared what God told them, the Israelite elders still weren’t sure. So Moses proceeded to perform the signs that God gave him. The conversation was a process, not just a moment in which everyone suddenly agreed. For us, this might look like encouraging others to ask us great questions, inviting them to share their perspective, making time for prayer, and giving space for reflection. This process might take a few minutes or a few days. What’s crucial is that we come to our community knowing the process might take longer but understanding that the result will be stronger.
4. Wait for joy.
After Moses shared his calling and engaged in a discernment process with them, eventually the elders were able to affirm his calling. Immediately after that clarity is received, we read in verse 31: “And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” When a community discerns a calling from God together, part of the evidence that what they’ve heard is from God is that they have a God-given sense of joy and encouragement about the outcome. Israel had just discerned a calling that was both incredibly bold and incredibly dangerous, and yet there was joy and peace in their hearts because they knew they had heard from God.
Question: Which of the four steps in community discernment usually trip you up? What plan can you make today to help you engage in this process better in the future?
Ruth Barton writes extensively on the process of community discernment, and she encourages us to ask these questions when seeking God’s wisdom on calling: 1) What is the thing that God is making natural and easy? 2) What brings a sense of lightness and peace even in the midst of challenge?
Waiting for joy doesn’t mean everyone in the group will see it the same way or agree. But it does mean there will be a general sense among the group that they’ve heard from God and that they’re excited to see where this calling will lead.
What if your community doesn’t affirm your calling? This happened to Paul the Apostle in Acts 21. Paul felt God was calling him to go to Jerusalem, but the church leaders felt God was saying he shouldn’t go. The leaders did their best to convince Paul not to go, but in the end he didn’t agree. “When Paul would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’ After this, we started on our way up to Jerusalem.” (Acts 21.14–16)
If we ever get to the unusual place where, after lots of debate, someone is sure of a calling that no one else affirms, the one who’s called needs to stay faithful. Then the community around that person needs to pray that God’s will would be done.