Six months before our wedding, we sat on a hill overlooking Boston’s north shore and tried to figure out where our relationship was heading. We talked, we fought and we cried—because we were no longer sure if our callings converged.
At that point, Jake was thriving in his role as a youth pastor while working part-time as a valet to make ends meets. I, on the other hand, was just about to graduate college and nervous about becoming a pastor’s wife. I wanted to use my degree to become a professional artist and eventually stay at home to raise children—something that would be impossible on Jake’s current salary.
The tension between us gradually mounted until Jake let these famous words fly:
“I’m called to work for this church, and if you marry me, you’re marrying my calling.”
I agreed to these conditions, just as foolishly as Jake constructed them, and so began our marriage.
There were definite consequences. After only one year of marriage, which included horrible arguments, getting kicked out of our first apartment because of the arguments and seriously contemplating divorce, we were burnt out. We were beyond frustrated with both life and each other. So we plopped our butts down in a counselor’s office and begged for help.
It wasn’t until then that we realized how skewed our understanding of calling really was. And rediscovering its meaning not only saved our marriage but also helped us move forward into God’s plan for our lives—both as a couple and as individuals.
Whether you’re single, dating, engaged or married, your calling will affect your relationships. But first, we have to understand what “calling” really means—and where we’ve gotten it wrong.
The term “calling” tends to be thrown around quite often within Christian circles and usually in one of two ways.
First, we use calling to talk about divine life direction from God. We think of it as the heavenly decree that this person should become a business mogul, then give all her money to orphans in Africa or that person should marry “The One” and no one else. We think of God as a divine GPS, telling us to turn this way or that way. And often, in the process, we fail to utilize common sense and the wisdom of others when deciding what exactly to do with our lives.
The second way Christians tend to think about calling is by equating it with vocational ministry. Many believe the only people who are “called” are pastors, missionaries and social justice or nonprofit workers. In this view, everyone else just gets a normal, non-calling job and does what he or she wants.
Both ideas have a biblical foundation—though we often misunderstand what that foundation means. Two of the most frequent Greek words translated “calling” in the Bible are klētós and klésis. Both, in the original Greek, translate as the general call to salvation—the one God issues to all people.
In other words, the Bible’s use of the word “call” is very rarely about life direction or vocational ministry.
Certainly, God calls us at times to act or move in specific ways. But first and foremost, God’s call is a beckon to all people to enter into a saving relationship with Him. To answer this call of God means that every breath, every thought and every action now flows out of the truth that you have reoriented your life tow the one true God. We see this in Paul’s challenge to “live a life worthy of the calling [klésis] you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).
Of course, there will be times that God leads you on the specifics of your career, ministry or relationships. But by understanding the difference between divine calling (klésis) and the occasional specific direction God gives us concerning life decisions, we free ourselves to live in a manner that is not in constant state of anxiety over what to do. As St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Love God, and do what you want.”
But what does this look like in the context of a relationship—especially when you seem to want different things? What if you want to be a missionary and your fiancé wants to work for a bank?
Here are a few ways to think through this issue when your callings seem to clash.
When Callings Conflict
The danger many young Christian couples face today is overemphasizing the idea of calling as vocation—to the detriment of their romantic relationships. The aspiring missionary and fledgling banker walk away from their relationship without considering that marriage is also a calling.
What we learned in the counselor’s office was that by choosing to get married—something we did without a booming vocal direction from heaven—we were now called to live out our salvation within the context of our relationship. Marriage, too, was now our calling.
If two people are not willing to compromise at all, then, sure, they probably shouldn’t get married. But for most couples, vocational callings can and should be merged until both parties feel they are living faithfully according to their gifts, desires and goals. After all, if calling is about living each breath for Christ, then two people who commit their lives to each other have a divine calling to honor each other fully. They have a divine calling to respect and love each other, work through conflict together, forgive and make sacrifices for each other.
Perhaps we’ve made too much of calling as vocation and life direction. Maybe we’ve positioned it as the determining factor in a relationship when it should only be part of the conversation.
C.J., a twenty-six-year-old engineer, believes this to be true. As a single who has used his singleness to pursue his dreams—enrolling in a graduate fellowship and backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail—he knows such life decisions won’t be up to only him after marriage.
“Two people are now one flesh and must strive to operate with the unity that Christ exhorts us toward,” he says. “Thus, perhaps the first action of any married couple struggling with two seemingly disparate vocations is a prayer that God would mesh them together in an obvious way.”
And even if such prayers are not immediately answered, C.J. says, “the dynamics of working through differences are still guided by the example of Christ and the Church.”
This is no easy task, but it can be rewarding—as another couple, Hunter and Jen, learned.
Hunter works in finance and needs to stay at his job for the practical reason of paying off college loans. But his fiancée, Jen, has long felt called to missions. They also deeply love each other and have decided their marriage is just as important as their unique vocations. So, after much communication and compromise, they figured out how to fuse it all together. For now, Jen is happy to plan short-term missions trips while Hunter keeps his finance job. In the future, they plan to enter the mission field together.
It took hard work, but Jen and Hunter are honoring their call as a couple and as individuals—all under the umbrella calling of living each moment for Christ.
Speaking from personal experience, the two of us have vastly different vocational callings, yet we have committed to supporting each other in them.
But it isn’t always easy. When Jake interviewed for a new ministry position six years ago, this commitment was put to the test. Jake had communicated to the search committee that God has gifted him to be a youth pastor but that I was gifted as an artist and writer. When the committee learned they would not be getting the popular ministry “2-for-1” deal, they told us quite bluntly that my aspirations were unrealistic.
“If Jake takes this position, he will be overworked and underpaid,” they said. “It will be up to Melissa to get a real job so that she can support Jake and your future family.”
At the beginning of our marriage, we might have agreed. But we had already experienced the cost of elevating vocation above our marriage, so we knew to hightail it out of there. Eventually, we found a church that supports both our vocational choices, and we have seen our marriage and careers benefit as a result.
The Gender Question
As if the concept of calling wasn’t already confusing enough, there’s also the issue of how gender roles play into it.
The word “submit,” arguably one of the most divisive words in Christianity, shows up in perhaps the most famous passage on marriage in the Bible—and so it’s not a topic that can be avoided in the conversation about calling.
We have to ask the inevitable questions: Is calling a man’s world in which women submit their own goals and plans to that of their spouse? If a man compromises his career goals for his wife, does that mean he has relinquished his role as “head” of the relationship? Is the pursuit of one’s calling to be done at the expense of the other’s or according to a model of mutual submission?
This is not a new debate by any means. But no matter your view on gender roles, the Bible affirms the idea of joint calling in marriage and “his” and “her” callings as individuals.
Here’s how. For starters, the biblical portrait of marriage reveals the honoring of one another as a mysterious but beautiful dance, regardless of your interpretation of the word “submit.”
Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22-24, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Next, Paul turns to the husbands and gives them different instructions but for the same reason: to live out a marriage that is reflective of Christ’s self-giving love.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” Paul writes. “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body” (vv. 25, 28-30).
The gender roles in this passage are widely debated, but one thing is clear: Both husband and wife are called to put the needs of their spouse above their own. When done properly, the gifts, goals and opportunities of both spouses function at their best. In this way, the calling to live out each breath in relationship with Christ is fulfilled, as is the calling to reflect Him in your marriage.
Paul affirms the importance of the individual again in Romans 12: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us” (v. 6). And we must use those gifts, Paul says, because each gift plays a unique and important role in the body of Christ.
It’s a powerful image, yet, again, it’s no easy task. Figuring out how two callings can work in harmony is a process that requires ongoing humility, wisdom and a good deal of simply sticking things out.
Things will get messy, but that doesn’t mean a couple should separate or that they didn’t hear correctly from God. Neither does it mean the woman should let go of her passions, gifts and opportunities just because she is a woman. The two need to rally together and figure out—sometimes over a long period of time—how they can honor each other.
“There is not always a clear pattern of whose vocation will take primacy in any given life situation,” says C.J. “But in the dance of submission, of sacrificial love, of always looking ‘not only to your own interest but also to the interests of others,’ obedience to Christ’s leading for both spouses should be the end goal.”
Take it from two people who learned this lesson the hard way. A marriage that incorporates the salvation calling of Christ into everyday life while supporting the individual callings of both husband and wife is a much happier, healthier one.
In terms of relationships, calling is freedom. It’s permission to pursue the dreams and goals God has given you. It doesn’t have to dictate the success or failure of a couple, but can help them move more fully into commitment and Christ-like love for one another and for who God has called us, all of us, to be.
This post was originally featured in Relevant Magazine.