“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you and I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.” (Thomas Merton)
Many factors can get in the way of our vocation: they can make it difficult to discern or difficult to make a commitment once we have discerned. There is not enough space here to look carefully at all these difficulties. Sometimes it is enough just to flag them up, so that if they are present in your life you can notice them more easily and face them more honestly. Below are ten of the most common difficulties that arise when people are discerning their vocation, together with a single thought or two about each one to encourage or help you. If you meet a real difficulty, pray about it, and talk to someone about it, so that it does not become an insurmountable obstacle.
1) Worry, anxiety and lack of trust in God – Try not to worry! Be at peace. Trust that God is more powerful than all your worries. With complete honesty and trust tell him your anxieties, and put them in his loving hands. Your anxiety may come from a distorted image of God. You may think that he is like an absent parent who doesn’t love you, or a vengeful tyrant who is constantly punishing you for something, or a self-interested boss who wants to force you into a vocation that will not be right for you. Instead, trust him. He is a tender Father who is both loving and demanding. He cares for you more than you care for yourself. Sometimes he might challenge you and call you to something unexpected – but it will always be for your ultimate good and happiness.
2) Noise, busyness, overwork – It seems that we live in a society where the pace of life is constantly accelerating and so many of us struggle to hear God’s call because we never really make any time or space in our life to listen to him. Every hour is filled up, and your mind is constantly cluttered with work, noise, music, and many other distractions. It may well be that your life is full of good and worthy activities and that you have problems saying “No” so that there are more and more demands on your time. You need to prioritise, just as Jesus did, to swim against the tide of over-activity so that you make sure that amidst all this busyness you have time for yourself and for God. Make real space for God in your life and for at least some moments of silence each day.
3) Sin, worldliness – Sometimes we can fool ourselves that as long as the externals of our faith life are in order – Sunday Mass, some involvement in Church life – then all is well. However, for many people the rest of their week can be almost totally divorced from their “Sunday best”, and their prayer life almost non-existent. The deeper reality of our lives may be that we are trapped in some habitual sin or caught up in a completely worldly lifestyle, which will make it impossible to listen to our own heart or to God. Be honest with yourself; go to confession; try to make a new start, even if you are struggling, so that your whole life is consistent and not a fragmented mess. Don’t fool yourself that you can do this alone – you need the help of good friends and a community of faith such as a parish or a prayer group to support you through this time of change.
4) Addictive behaviours – Alcohol, drugs, pornography, promiscuous sex, gambling – these can become poisonous, toxic forms of slavery which can totally blind us to God’s presence in our lives. Even activities that are harmless in themselves like work, going to the gym, texting, the internet, gaming, Facebook – if we allow them to take over our lives then they can become like addictions which cover up our deepest needs and cut us off from our true selves. Look honestly at what activities take up most of your time – as Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” Seek God’s help in prayer and through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Try and break any addictive patterns of behaviour you are trapped in. And if you can’t – then get help.
5) Fear of commitment – We rightly value freedom, but in the Western world we often understand freedom as simply being the ability to choose from an endless variety of options. In this light, commitment to anything, let alone for life, seems like a limitation, even a loss of self. But to have a series of endless options is actually to have no options – because you never embrace any one of them with your whole heart. Life can become like the endless flicking from one TV channel to the next in which we never actually decide to watch one particular programme from beginning to end! God may be inviting you to take responsibility for your own life and make a lifelong commitment, to put down roots so that you can truly flourish, to build one concrete life rather than endlessly fantasise about innumerable possible lives. It is often better to do one thing with unreserved commitment than to drift through life without any firm sense of purpose.
6) Fear of your own unworthiness – Perhaps you fear that you are not the right person for this vocation, even though you feel attracted to it. You worry that you are not holy enough, not intelligent enough, not qualified enough, not loving enough, to shy, too sociable… Perhaps you are right. But perhaps you are underestimating yourself or underestimating God. He chooses the weak and makes them strong. Sometimes he invites us to do what seems impossible, and only later on gives us the strength to do it. Why not take the step anyway – and let God decide further down the line if it is really for you or not.
7) Fear of failure – In our very success-driven society, many can be paralysed when making a particular commitment by a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in the eyes of others. The truth is that any lifelong commitment will involve some sacrifice and cost – a time of giving up and letting go. But if we are honest it is often through the apparent ‘failures’ in our lives that in the long term we develop and grow the most. If this is the right step for you then God will sustain you. If he wants you to flourish and find happiness here, then you will. If he is really leading you somewhere else, and it seems like you have failed in your provisional decision to try a vocation – then trust that this will be part of his loving plan. He writes straight with crooked lines. What matters is not success or failure, but whether you have tried to be faithful to his call at each moment.
8) Opposition from people you love – Your family or friends are against you taking this step. It may be true that they have some insight that you don’t have, and you should certainly listen to them respectfully. But it may be that they are unable to support you in your vocation because of their own lack of faith or personal fears. Sometimes you need to be strong and do what you feel is right, even in the face of opposition or misunderstanding. At the end of the day it is your life. If you have carefully discerned that this is the right step, then explain it as best you can to those you love, and take the next step courageously – trusting that God will help them to understand or at least accept it at some time in the future. Indeed, it may well be that God wants you to be an instrument for change and conversion in their lives so your short-term pain may well be a means to long-term grace.
9) Opposition from the culture and society – Same vocational choices, even Christian marriage, will sometimes be misunderstood or even mocked by contemporary society, and perhaps by friends and colleagues. Recognise that to be a Christian will involve some misunderstanding and even persecution, especially if you are making a radical lifelong vocational commitment. Be as loving and as kind as you can, and explain your choices gently to people if they ask. Don’t stir up opposition and seek controversy. But if it comes, don’t be deterred.
10) Desire for certainty and perfection – It is unlikely that you will ever be 100% certain about any significant choice – of course there are doubts and questions. But you can be sure that this is a reasonable step to take if things come together and the time seems to be right. Yes, it’s a risk. But it’s also a risk not to make a choice. Life is full of risks. God is always with us, supporting and guiding us – even if we make a decision in good faith and things seem to go wrong.
Perhaps your problem is that you won’t make a commitment until everything is perfect and all your questions have been answered. Perhaps you want to be a religious brother or sister but you can’t find an order that is good enough for you; you want to be a diocesan priest but don’t like the bishop in your diocese; or you want to be married but no-one matches up to your standards. It may be that you haven’t found the right person or diocese or order yet; but it may be that you need to settle for what is ‘good enough’. No person or congregation is perfect, and if you are looking for perfection you will never find it. The search for perfection might strangely be a way of avoiding a vocation. Try the 80% rule: if 80% of what you are looking at is good – then that’s pretty good! Perhaps you can live with the other 20%, or see it in a new light, or change it (or maybe it is you who needs to change!).
This article was adapted from the CTS booklet “How to Discover your Vocation” by Fr Stephen Wang.