How to Discover Your Calling

Photo by Troy Morris via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Troy Morris via Flickr Creative Commons

By the age of 21, I knew my calling in life. My fiancé and I wrote it on a piece of paper before we got married as a declaration: ‘whatever it takes for both of us to be in full-time Christian ministry.’ I loved teaching the Bible, helping people on the fringes of faith work through difficult questions, sitting with people as they processed hard things in their life. Those were the moments when I felt my soul sing. I bought What color is your parachute? and it confirmed what I already knew –  I had found my calling. 
 
For the next few years, all was smooth sailing. True to our word, we worked hard as a married couple to find jobs where we were both able to pursue paid Christian ministry, and we were fortunate enough or blessed enough to have found them. Finally I was doing my dream job—lecturing in Biblical Theology to others who felt they might be called to Christian ministry.
 
I felt like I could confidently tell anyone who asked to pursue their vocation. Then I got sick, and it all changed. 
 
***
 
We had planned that I would quit tutoring for a year after the baby’s birth, but that I would still deliver my eight key lectures in the year. Jon could hold the baby while I lectured, we figured. But after the birth I was so ill with M.E., an autoimmune neurological condition, that I could barely stand. I was too ill to hold my baby, change his nappies. Sitting up for too long exhausted me. After half an hour of talking to friends, I could no longer understand what they were saying.
 
There was no way I could do any kind of work.
 
The first lecture, Jon grabbed my notes and stood in for me while I lay at home staring blankly at the ceiling, while a nanny watched over our baby.
 
We regrouped, and hoped I would be better for the second lecture. Three months passed, the second lecture approached, and once again Jon had to cover for me.
 
Another two months, another two lectures passed. I still had to grab onto the walls in order to walk.
 
Around the time of the sixth lecture, with Jon muttering that I kept very sparse lecture notes, I was still virtually bed-bound, and I realised: I would never again return to that dream job. 
 
***
 
Vocation, Calling-with-a-Capital-C, is in part the luxury of relatively rich Westerners. Not many in this life are able to do full-time that thing that makes their soul sing. There, in the back bedroom, looking at a beige wall, I found a different kind of calling—one without a capital C.
 
There is a kind of calling that is dictated by circumstance and external factors. A friend is a talented graphic designer—but he is currently serving in the army so he can support his family because they have significant debt. Another friend feels a strong pull to serve in China, but is currently at home, looking after his elderly mother. There are all kinds of limitations in this life which clip our wings.
 
It is too easy to define Calling as something that will fulfil us, rather than what God has asked us to do for that season. 
 
For eighteen months my calling was to live as well as I could whilst being significantly disabled. I couldn’t talk much, I couldn’t read for longer than five minutes, I could hardly write. When everything else was stripped away, I found that there was a different thing that God was asking of me for that time.
 
This, too, is a kind of calling—when you can only endure, and hope that it’s somehow honouring to God. 
 
*** 
 
My condition improved, but my disability stayed. To this day I remain housebound, unable to walk more than a few metres, unable to leave the house more than twice a month.
 
Gradually, I remoulded a new life. I started writing, and found sanity there. In the small pockets of time I have, I meet with a few female Christian leaders, and helped them process some hard things. 
 
It looks different, now, my ‘Calling’, but I have found some things that have crept through the cracks. I am no longer the bouncy minister who spoke at large gatherings and filled my days with pastoral appointments. But through my words, I am still the person who loves to sit with those who are hurting and help them process their emotion. I am still the Bible teacher who likes to dig deep and find creative ways to let it soak into our souls.
 
Perhaps this, too, is what it means to discover a vocation—it’s those things that creep into your life without you planning, because it is natural to you, instinctive. Vocation is not simply doing what you would love to do full-time, but what you would always do even if no one paid you. Calling is what creeps through in the small gaps of time, because it is your passion.
 
To discover your calling, ask yourself what you end up doing in your spare moments because you just have to. Ask yourself—What brings me joy and significance? There are some kinds of calling that stay with us throughout our lives.  But circumstances also influence our calling, so it’s a good exercise to ask yourself, “What does God have for me, in this season, now?” 
 
Some questions on calling: 
  • Have you identified a ‘Calling-with-a-capital-C’? 
  • To what extent is your calling defined by your current circumstances? 
  • What things in your life are those passions that ‘creep through the cracks’, even when you’re busy with other things? 
  • What gets you excited and motivated?
  • What things do others say you’re talented at?
  • What topics would you talk about for hours if anyone would listen? Which activities give you more energy and life when you do them?
  • What would you do even if you were not paid for it? 
  • When do you feel most fully like yourself? 
  • What do you find yourself doing because you can’t NOT do it? 

 

Tanya Marlow
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Tanya Marlow

Writer at Thorns and Gold
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology. Then she got sick, and became a writer. She loves writing honestly about finding God in hard places at tanyamarlow.com. She also loves belting out songs without knowing the words. She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, using the biblical book of Ruth as a path back from disappointment, which you can download for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow
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  • Tanya, these questions would be good company with some quiet and a cup of tea. Thanks for your hard-won insight.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Michele. I’d love to know your answers to these questions!

  • JennaDeWitt

    Such beautiful reflections here.

    To answer your questions, as someone on the other side of the spectrum, I think the most important thing for me to learn about my Calling was that when I achieved it, it was a bit “that’s it”? It feels really natural to have a good job that plays to my strengths, work that I love, but in the end… it’s still just a job. I don’t bounce out of bed in the mornings, I still need evenings and weekends away, and I look forward to “me time” at the end of the day enough to know how many minutes are left on the clock. I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, but something I want everyone to know about getting your “dream job” is that it’s not all sparkly sunshine and rainbows. It’s gloriously mundane, ordinary, and, at times, rather boring. You find a routine, and it sticks. What was once this mighty goal is now that thing you have to do every day to pay rent. And it’s awesome and beautiful if and when you stop to think about it and reflect on your path, but it’s also just normal everyday-ness. Not Hollywood. Not glamorous. Just daily life.

    • Jenna – I love this comment! It makes me think of the doctrine of the Fall – how work is a calling and part of what we’re designed to do, but it is also now a source of frustration. I remember when I was working for a student ministry organisation, there was a lot of ‘I’m so privileged/blessed to call this work’ – which was true, but it also led to a lot of guilt and overwork (which then meant people got burnt out). I’m really glad that you are prioritising rest and still investing in ‘me time’ – sounds really sensible.

      • JennaDeWitt

        haha yup. Exactly.

  • Rebecka

    I know exactly what I would do all day, every day even if I didn’t get paid. I just haven’t found a way to do it with M.E. because it requires being physically active and being around other people. I have absolutely no idea what God has for me now, in this season. No idea… It makes me wonder if my dream is all wrong and displeasing to God.

    • ARGH.

      And ARGH.

      I HATE this illness. I hate you being ill and the way that M.E. cripples and crushes your dreams. What is your dream?

      Unless your dream is armed-robbery, I don’t think your dream is wrong and displeasing to God. But we live in a sucky universe where bad things happen, and the curse is not yet completely unravelled.

      I don’t know what God has for you in this season, either. But I really like reading every single comment you post and I’m grateful for your friendship. I know it’s not much, and it’s not a replacement for what you would really love to be doing, but I am grateful for it all the same.

      Most of all I want healing for you. Praying for you especially today.

      • Rebecka

        Haha, no, I don’t dream of being a robber! It’s actually quite frightening writing about it but I would love to be an actress. I was in a few plays before I got ill and I just love being on stage and telling stories. That’s when I feel alive!

        Thank you so much for your lovely comment, for your friendship and for your prayers! Praying for you as well.

        • Thank you for replying, I’ve been idly trying to guess for days what your dream career would be! That’s so exciting! I’m always in admiration of those who can act. And those who can look good on screen and not mal-coordinated.

          (Would doing a YouTube channel act as a halfway-acceptable substitute??)

          Sending you a big hug xx

          • Rebecka

            Ha, now I’m trying to guess what you were guessing!

            Hm, the thought of a YouTube channel never crossed my mind. I’ll have to think about it.

            Sending you a big hug back. xx

  • pastordt

    Oh, so well said, Tanya. Thank you. Thank for for living this out so beautifully. And thank you for writing it out so clearly.

    • Thank you so much, Diana. It means a lot that you liked it

  • Tanya this is wonderful. So much about calling can be misunderstood and misinterpreted. I don’t think it looks like what it seemed to at one time. Life does change things, usually, unexpectedly. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

    • Thanks so much, Debby! Life really does shift in unexpected ways. Thanks so much for commenting

  • “But through my words, I am still the person who loves to sit with those who are hurting and help them process their emotion. I am still the Bible teacher who likes to dig deep and find creative ways to let it soak into our souls.” Tanya, it made me so happy to read that! You are a blessing to so many. Your calling may not look like you once thought it would but I think you are using your words in so many ways to help others and bring glory to God. You are definitely an inspiration to me! Blessings! xo

    • Thank you, lovely Gayl! It’s an honour to be an inspiration to you xx

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