by the Rev. Dr. John Lewis
For many of us, prayerfully discerning our vocations from God often turns into a restless struggle. We grow weary and impatient as we wait in silent solitude expecting to hear the voice of the Lord speaking inside of us. At some point we might even plead, “Lord, what are you calling me to do? Please, answer me!” Even when we enlist the help of others, we frequently see them throw up their hands in frustration. They recognize and acknowledge the near impossibility of determining whether the voice of God is really speaking inside of us.
In Romans 12:1-8, Paul suggests a different approach for discerning our vocations from God. Rather than focusing on the interior life of an individual, Paul turns everyone’s attention to community experiences of God’s grace. He directly links these life-giving encounters with grace to concrete actions by some member of the church. God thereby illuminates and confirms our vocations by enriching the lives of others through the actions we take. Thus, for any member of the church, vocational discernment becomes a matter for determination by the entire Christian community.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing to churches that he did not start and that have not previously met him or heard his teaching directly. So, in Romans 12:1-8, Paul outlines the moral reasoning and vocational discernment he teaches in all his churches.
First, believers are to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God (12:1).
Earlier in Romans, Paul encourages believers (1) to walk in newness of life by presenting themselves and their “members” (i.e. hands, feet, mouths, minds) as “instruments” or “slaves” of God’s righteousness (6:13, 18). In 12:1 Paul explains the importance of a person’s self-offering to God. He encourages believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well-pleasing to God,” employing a metaphor grounded in the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem Temple. As disciples, we make our sacrificial offerings to God in and through the many ordinary actions we take in the course of our daily lives.
Paul characterizes this sacrificial offering of our bodies to God as “reasoned worship” (Greek: logikēn latreian). Most Bibles translate this Greek phrase as “spiritual worship,” but there can be little doubt Paul is referring to a process of moral reasoning in which believers use their minds to discern faithful actions. The Greek word logikēn, from which we derive the English word “logical,” points to the “reasoned” nature of our behavioral discernment. The Greek word latreian signifies a religious rite carried out as part of liturgical worship. In other words, Paul characterizes concrete human actions as “analogous to. . . the sacrifices of grain or animals in the temple cult as an expression of worship.”(2) God is really paying attention to what we do in our day-to-day lives.
Second, believers “prove through testing” the will of God in their lives (12:2).
Paul introduces another dimension of his process of moral discernment in the negative: “Do not be conformed to this world.” Here he echoes Romans 8, where he warns against setting one’s mind on things of the flesh, a way of perceiving and responding to the world that leads to death for believers as well as the community. When we seek to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, we reject many of the behavioral norms and expectations that shape conduct in the wider culture. We try to avoid acting in ways that would reflect our “worship” of worldly idols and gods such as material comfort and well being, and the use of coercive or violent power.
Instead, says Paul in 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may prove through testing [Greek: dokimazein] what is the will of God – what is good, well-pleasing, and perfect.”(2) Paul recognizes the uncertainty of behavioral discernment. To embody Christ in daily life is an imaginative exercise which requires us to reason from the stories about Christ in scripture to the many ways we might act like Christ in our own daily lives. Each time Paul’s communities gather, they reflect together on the specific actions they’ve taken and the consequences of those actions. Collectively, they identify the particular actions through which God is working to enrich the lives of others in the community. These are the actions which are “good, well-pleasing and perfect” in the eyes of God. When a community follows this process of reasoned action and reflection, they “prove through testing” what is God’s will in their daily lives and their minds are renewed and transformed into the mind of Christ himself.
God thereby illuminates and confirms our vocations by enriching the lives of others through the actions we take. Thus, for any member of the church, vocational discernment becomes a matter for determination by the entire Christian community.
Third, the concrete actions of believers become conduits for grace, the means by which the community is enriched through God’s life-giving power.
Paul reminds us in 12:4 that each member of Christ’s body has a different kind of practice (Greek: praxis). According to 12:6-8, these different kinds of practice become the means by which other community members experience God’s life-giving grace [Greek: charisma].
The Greek word charisma and its plural form charismata are both rooted in charis, or “grace.” The words are usually translated as “gift/gifts” or “spiritual gift/gifts.” We hear this in the NRSV translation of 12:6: “We have gifts [charismata] that differ according to the grace [charis] given to us.” This translation/interpretation suggests that individuals possess the “gift” of God’s “grace” in various forms. This understanding leads many of us in the church to compile our own “spiritual gifts” inventory.
But this translation and interpretation of charisma is not what Paul intends. Rather, he explains that the charisma does not manifest itself unless and until a person offers his or her body as a living sacrifice through which God’s grace then enriches the lives of other people. This understanding is clear from the passage. For instance, the charisma associated with a “minister” takes place “in the ministering” (12:7). So, too, the charisma associated with a teacher takes place “in the teaching” (12:7). The grace associated with a person who is an encourager (or “exhorter” in the NRSV) takes place “in the encouragement” offered (12:8). The charisma associated with a community leader is experienced “in the diligence” of that leader. In every example Paul lists in 12:7-8, the charisma (an experience of grace) occurs “in” the doing of the particular action by the disciple. To use the language of 12:1-2, other people experience grace when a believer offers their body as a living sacrifice, as part of their “reasoned worship” of God. It is God who then confirms that person’s vocation – the teacher, the encourager, the leader – by gracing the lives of others through their Christ-like acts of service.
Conclusion. For Paul, vocational discernment is not about the individual trying to hear the voice of God deep within himself or herself. Rather, vocational discernment is directed toward the experiences of grace by other members of the community that establish God’s call in a person’s particular acts of Christ-like service to others.
1 Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 189.
2 Paul utilizes the Greek verb dokimazein at other important points in his letters, all of them in one way or another connected with the discernment of faithful actions. See Romans 1:28; 2:18; 14:22; 1 Corinthians 3:13; 11:28; 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:8, 22; 13:5; Galatians 6:4; Philippians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 5:21.
The Rev. Dr. John Lewis is Co-Director of St. Benedict’s Workshop, missioner for adult Christian formation in the Diocese of West Texas, and Adjunct Instructor at the Seminary of the Southwest. Reach him at