I am on the verge of walking across the stage at my graduate school and receiving my master’s degree diploma. I am honored to have been a part of my program and grateful for the opportunity.

Still, I find that I have almost traveled back in time, looping back to the same place I was in my twenties, asking God, what in the world am I supposed to do with my life?

I have been in ministry for twenty years, on the mission field in Zambia for part of those years, and now serve in church planting, writing, speaking and preaching, and communications. Yet, I am still here asking the question: God, what am I supposed to do with my life and with this new degree?

When graduation comes rolling around and that long awaited diploma is finally in hand, it can feel thrilling to drop the stress of assignments, the pressure of deadlines, and experience the thrill of finishing. But it can also be paralyzing to figure out what to do next.

The options seem limitless in this generation: grad school, missions, community development, human resources, justice initiatives, a startup, and so forth – a seemingly endless list of choices. Yet the noise of every clamoring opinion and the dizzying feeling of so many options can keep us from stepping into God’s will for us.

How do we decide or better yet, discern what God wants for our future?

Most of us want a very clear sign from God, a “calling,” or an obvious open door. We envision God handing us a detailed plan and brochure, outlining the path we should follow, and what each of our choice’s might lead to. Sometimes the fear of choosing wrong can keep us from choosing at all. Or it can make us hedge our bets on the safest choice in hopes that we protect ourselves from any unexpected twists and turns that life can throw our way.

But God doesn’t necessarily call us to the safe choice or even a clear choice. Sometimes we have to take a step and see what we discover. Sometimes we have to faithfully fail forward.

So how can we discern what next step to take? While there is no actual formula in determining what exactly we should do, Romans 12:2 gives us insight into how we should go about deciding:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

In this short verse, the apostle Paul gives three steps when it comes to figuring out God’s will: 1) Choose not to conform; 2) Allow our minds to be transformed; 3) Test to determine God’s perfect will for our lives. And all of this discernment can and should be done in community, with others who can affirm your calling and next steps. We do not have to do this alone.

Choose not to conform:

When it comes to taking the next step in a career or in any life decision, it can be easy to turn to worldly ideas about success. For most graduates, there can be a pressure to simply follow the expected path post-graduation. Find the best paying job. Put in long hours and invest in your career – even if that means sacrificing meaningful relationships and physical or mental health. The world’s pattern is to earn your worth and value by climbing the ladder of success, by doggedly fighting your way to the top. This cultural moment tells us to choose our life’s path based on external factors such as pay or status, and to disregard the internal cost of conforming to the blueprint of the world.

The pattern of Christ, on the other hand, is antithetical to the pattern of the world. Rather than looking for the markers of success based on what’s in your bank account or how many plaques decorate your wall, Christ looks at the heart. Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? (Mark 8:36)”

Gaining wealth, status, or accomplishment is not the mark of victory in the eyes of Christ. Instead, Jesus looks to the heart of what we are doing and why we are doing it. Now, this certainly does not mean that our decisions should always go against the better paying job or the career with more status, but it does mean we have to dig deep into our why. Even when it comes to “good” things, patterning our lives on worldly methods of deriving meaning for our existence will ultimately erode our soul.

What does that look like then when it comes to choosing our next step in life? Take some time to determine what is underneath your desires. While going on a long-term mission trip is great, believing that doing so will earn favor in God’s eyes is not. Choosing the career path that you think will bring you adoration and affection is patterning our lives on something other than Jesus. Picking the job because it has more figures on the paycheck is not necessarily the right choice.

Spend some time praying about your why and asking others to speak into your desires will truly get to your heart – and help you keep from conformity to worldly patterns.

Allow your mind to be transformed:

If we are not to conform to the world’s ideas and patterns, the way we go about doing that begins in our minds. As Christians, our thinking and thought processes are to look markedly different from the culture. The way we arrive at our answers about our future will seem like we are completing an entirely different math problem than our neighbor. We not only need to think differently, but we need an entirely different imagination about human existence – one that’s rooted in the deeper story, deeper love, and a deeper identity found in the gospel.

How do we change our thoughts? Simply put, by being in God’s word and by praying for his guidance. Through reading God’s thoughts, the Holy Spirit can begin to change our mind about what matters most, what we should value and what decisions we should make. As our thinking transforms into a holy imagination, we will begin to see that God has less to say about what we do and more to say about how we go about choosing what we do.

With a mind that patterns its decisions on that of Christ’s, the doors we choose to open and walk through might not always make sense to those watching. It could mean saying no to the option with benefits and a 401k in exchange for a job that uses our skillset to help the least of these. It could look like going to the lesser-known graduate school in order to be surrounded by a healthy community, instead of the one that will help us get in the door at our first-choice employer. The factors going into making a choice may seem absurd to our friends or family members who are basing their lives on the world’s patterns and yet, this is God’s plan and God’s encouragement in making decisions.

Test to determine God’s will:

It is only after the rejection of the culture’s formula for a “good life” and a complete overhaul of our thinking that we will be able to determine if we are in God’s will. Until we stop following the ways of the world and stop thinking like the world, we cannot have the clarity given to us by the Holy Spirit to choose what God has for us. When we know the character of God and how he moves, we can test whether or not an opportunity is something he would approve of. As we study his word and give it the chance to truly change us from within, we can determine what aligns with what we know to be true about him and what does not.

It can feel scary at times to walk across the graduation stage into the next season God has for us, but as we maneuver through the process of seeking God’s will, there is comfort in knowing that no matter what we decide, God can use our lives, even missteps and wrong choices, for his glory. There is no perfect formula for making hard decisions when it comes to our future, but there is a perfect God who is willing to walk us through the decision-making process, every step of the way.

Aubrey Sampson co-hosts The Common Good podcast Monday through Friday from 4 to 6pm (CT) on AM1160 Hope for Your Life. Aubrey is the author of The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament and her latest release, Known: How Believing Who God Says You Are Changes Everything. She co-planted Renewal Church in West Chicago, Illinois and is passionate about civility, compassion, and unity in a divided world.