It’s something I’ve heard many Christians— especially college students and young adults—say in recent years. “I feel called to be a leader.” “I feel God is calling me to marriage.” “I don’t feel called to go on this retreat.” “I don’t feel called to be a part of this Bible study group.”

While discerning God’s will is certainly important, I sometimes I wonder how much this “I don’t feel called” talk really has to do with a divine call and how much it is about one’s own feelings and fears, likes and dislikes. In other words, how much does “I don’t feel called” simply translate to “I don’t want to”?

If someone from my parish invites me to participate in a certain ministry that does not attract me, instead of honestly saying, “No thank you, I’m not interested in that” I spiritualize my “no” by saying, “I don’t feel called.” Or if I am afraid of living in a new city for a job, for graduate school, or for an opportunity to serve the Church, instead of saying “I don’t want to move to a place where I don’t know anyone,” I say, “I don’t feel called.”

Some young people even over-spiritualize the way they end dating relationships. Instead of honestly saying, “I don’t want to date you anymore” or “I don’t think this relationship is working,” young men will say to their girlfriends, “I don’t feel called to date you anymore. I think God is calling me to discern the priesthood now.” Some people seem so afraid of owning their decisions or admitting their preferences, interests, and desires, that they bring God into the process and blame Him for the choices they make.

Why do we do this? Sometimes, “I don’t feel called” can serve as a handy spiritual trump card to protect myself from truly being open to God’s will. Fearing a certain possibility, I rule it out from the beginning by saying, “I don’t feel called.” Or if I don’t want to give a rational explanation to others for my decisions, I can just tell people, “I don’t feel called.” Or if I want to back out of a commitment I’ve made but feel a little guilty about not fulfilling my responsibilities and letting others down, I bring God into the mix and say, “I don’t feel called to do this anymore. I feel God is calling me to do something else now.”

Trust Your Feelings?

Discernment can focus too much on one’s feelings. A person’s rationale for her decisions might go something like this: “This is my passion, so this must be what God wants for me” “This makes me so excited . . . it makes me come alive, so that means it is God’s will for me.” But notice how much focus there is on self in this kind of talk (my passion, what makes me excited). While a consideration of feelings and desires may be part of the discernment process, we must remember that God often calls us to do things we may not feel like doing—things we may, in fact, initially dread. Indeed, there are many things in life we are called to do that have nothing to do with how we feel.

For example, just the other night, my wife was ill and needing rest, but our toddler got out of her bed and came wandering in our room at 2:00 am, saying, “I need a diaper change.” My wife was the first to notice while I remained in a deep slumber. She gently tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Could you take care of Josephine?” Imagine if I had just rolled over and said, “No, honey. . . I don’t feel called.”

Getting out of bed at 2:00 am to change a dirty diaper does not make me passionate or excited. But my feelings really should not be an important part of this particular decision. In this situation, getting up to change the diaper is simply a responsibility I have, a matter of serving my family.

“But I Don’t Feel Peace about This . . .”

It is true that we should have a certain peace about our decisions. But this does not mean God will never call us to do something that is initially very troubling. Just consider the great heroes of the Bible. Moses felt overwhelmed when God called him to confront Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. The prophet Jeremiah worried that he was too young for the daunting task of calling Israel and the nations to repentance. Even the Blessed Virgin Mary “was greatly troubled” when God called her to become the mother of the Messiah. Imagine if these heroes had said no to God’s call simply because it caused them great trepidation.

Similarly, God often called the great saints out of their comfort zones to do things that were very difficult, scary, and painful. Mother Teresa, for example, was asked by Jesus to leave her religious community, the Sisters of Loreto, and to start a new religious order dedicated to the poorest of the poor. Her private writings reveal that this call caused her great fear. She was afraid of leaving her beloved Loreto Sisters, of starting a new order, of the difficult life of radical poverty, and of the possibility of failure. But underneath those initial, superficial fears, one detects in Mother Teresa a deeper fear: a fear of not doing what God wants for her; a fear of letting self-interest enslave her and keep her from pursuing God’s will.

In the end, Mother Teresa viewed her life not as a pursuit of her own feelings, interests, and desires, but as a gift to be given to God to serve His purposes. Instead of following her initial emotions of fear and dread, she rose above her feelings and pursued God’s demanding call for her. She left everything dear to her and, stepping completely out into the unknown, founded the Missionaries of Charity. The world would be a different place if Mother Teresa’s initial fears had driven her to say, “I don’t feel called.”

In Dialogue with God

St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that we should not base decisions on our initial feelings. Often, those first emotions of fear or anxiety arise from disordered attachments. God’s peace is a deep, abiding peace in our souls, and is not usually found in our superficial, initial responses to God’s will.

When discerning God’s will in our lives, we should have the disposition of Mary at the Annunciation. Though she was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s initial message, she remained open to God’s will. As Luke’s Gospel tells us, Mary “considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Benedict XVI once noted that the word Luke uses for “considered,” dielogizeto, is derived from the Greek root word meaning “dialogue.” The term denotes an intense, extended reflection, one that triggers a strong faith. This indicates that even though Mary was troubled by what the angel’s greeting might mean for her life, she does not turn away from the Lord’s call. She remained an attentive listener to God’s Word. As Benedict explains, “Mary enters into an interior dialogue with the Word. She carries on an inner dialogue with the Word that has been given her; she speaks to it and lets it speak to her in order to fathom its meaning.”1 Mary thus responds like Samuel, who at the first promptings of God stirring in his heart did not close the door to God’s call, but humbly put his life at the Lord’s disposal, saying, “Speak, for your servant hears” (cf. 1 Sam. 3:10).

1 Joseph Ratzinger, “Hail, Full of Grace: Elements of Marian Piety according to the Bible” in Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 70.

This article appeared in the September/October 2013 edition of Lay Witness Magazine.