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?
Writer at Thorns and Gold
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She likes answering the tricky questions of faith that most avoid, and writing honestly about suffering and searching for God. Tanya has written a short book on Ruth and Naomi’s story in the Bible, interweaving it with her own journey. You can buy it here: Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty