Through divorce and depression, Tan Soo-Inn stuck to his calling; now he wants to help you discover yours
Silas Low // January 23, 2021, 1:34 pm
Called to be a preacher and teacher while studying dentistry, Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn's ministry was suspended when he encountered "the three Ds" of the death of his first wife, divorce, and depression. It resumed through the grace of God and friends who stood by him. In October, he released a book to help individuals discover their own calling. All photos courtesy of Tan Soo-Inn and Graceworks.
Think of Gurney Drive in Penang and most of our minds shoot to char kway teow and assam laksa.
For Penang-born Rev Dr Tan Soo-Inn, it was there, during a late-night supper after a prayer meeting, that his life was changed.
A headstrong Tan, then 22 and in his last year of dentistry, asked his mentor, missionary educator Dr Roger Capps: “How come God isn’t calling more preachers and pastors when the need is so obvious?”
Capps’ reply was one that Tan, now 65, looks back on as “life-changing”.
“God is calling but His people aren’t listening. People like you, for example.”
Tan was dumbfounded.
Although on and off he had notions of being a pastor after he came to a personal saving faith in 1969, he had settled on the fact that he was going to be a dentist and serve as a layman.
Tan’s journey of discovering his calling led him to distill some helpful steps for others who might find themselves in similar situations. The passing decades have seen him growing in biblical insights and personal anecdotes that have fleshed out his teaching on vocational discernment. All this has finally taken the form of a book.
Discover Your Calling: The ABC of Vocational Discernment aims to sensitise one to the reality and importance of one’s personal calling and identify certain clues to guide an understanding of what that might be. It is not meant to be a “magic book that grants epiphanies”, but a “tool for reflection”.
It simplifies the process of identifying one’s calling into ABCs: Identifying one’s primary Abilities (individual strengths that generate significant impact), ascertaining one’s primary Burdens (areas of passion that weigh heavily on one’s heart) and looking at Critical life incidents that have affected their life trajectory (“life’s crucibles” or defining moments that helped to shape one’s character and understanding of life direction).
Learning his ABCs
Tan’s own ABCs were not so clear back when he was studying and preparing to become a dentist.
“Few would have had dramatic or supernatural encounters like Paul on the Damascus Road”, he told Salt&Light of his progressive journey of discovering his calling.
Capps’ reply was prophetic confirmation for Tan to heed the call to teach the Word.
His strongest abilities lay in writing and speaking. These were affirmed by many in the congregations that he has been a part of over the years. As he grew in understanding of the Bible, he felt more could be done about the way the Bible was taught.
Then came that exchange with his mentor at Gurney Drive. It was prophetic confirmation for Tan to heed the call to teach the Word. Tan looks back on the incident as the main decisive moment that clarified his life purpose.
Adding the caveat that “being a preacher is not more spiritual than being a dentist,” Tan knew at that moment that his calling lay in the direction of Bible teaching.
Knowing the calling he had to pursue was only half the battle. Acting on it would prove equally – if not more – difficult.
Tan’s Peranakan parents were reluctant to allow their only son to drop his career as a dentist even before it had started.
Tan continued on to practice dentistry. It helped him to understand better the struggles of those working in the marketplace and helped give his parents a sense of closure to their investment in his university education.
It was in a moment of solitude that Tan finally found peace in surrender. One night while kneeling by his bedside, he lamented to God: “Are you sure you want me to be a pastor? Maybe you’re asking the wrong Soo-Inn.”
“If He gives formulas then we will always end up trusting in the formulas, and not in Him.”
When he heard God say: “Yes you are the one,” Tan surrendered: “Okay then, I submit to your calling.”
Tan described a “sudden sense of peace” that descended upon him.
“God typically doesn’t give formulas. If He gives formulas then we will always end up trusting in the formulas, and not in Him,” he said.
Soon after, his parents also gave him their blessing to become a pastor. He went into full-time church-related ministry in 1981. Little did he know, his struggle to live out his calling was only the tip of the iceberg.
Lessons from Job
While he was pastoring a major church in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, Tan’s wife complained of severe backache shortly after the birth of their second child. When the backache did not go away after a few months, she was sent for further checks.
One night, his quiet-time devotion happened to be on Job. Through Job’s story, Tan learned:
1. Following God doesn’t immunise one from the pain of life.
2. God always has His reasons for doing things.
3. God is not obliged to explain His reasons.
4. God restores.
“God, I even followed you through widowhood. How do You want me to carry out my calling now?”
Looking back, Tan felt that God was “divinely preparing” him for a series of trials that were to come. The next day, doctors told him that his wife had stage 4 lung cancer, and had less than a year to live.
The news shook Tan to his core.
“Nothing in my life had prepared me to lose her, because one always expects to grow old with the wife of your youth.”
When she passed on, Tan was suddenly left with two young children to raise and a major church to lead. It was a time of severe testing for him.
The second and third Ds
Two years after losing his wife, Tan remarried. His second marriage became mired in difficulties as Tan continued to grapple with bringing up his two children whilst leading his church.
The marriage soured to the point where divorce became “the lesser of two evils”, as his counsellor put it. Tan knew that taking this step would spell the end of his ministry.
The blow of losing two marriages, coupled with the loss of his ministry, sent Tan into clinical depression.
He recalled lamenting, “God I gave up dentistry to follow you. I even followed you through widowhood. How do You want me to carry out my calling now?”
“I thought that was it. I had fumbled and couldn’t pursue my calling anymore,” he recounted.
The blow of losing two marriages, coupled with the loss of his ministry, sent him into clinical depression. It sapped him of energy to do anything – much less any ministry. He spent days lying on his sofa, only getting up occasionally to take his medication and do the most necessary chores.
With “the three Ds of death, divorce and depression”, would he be able to continue his calling?
The grace of friends
Tan credits the community around him for giving him the strength to move forward. His psychiatrist helped him through “talk therapy”, giving him the time and space to process everything that happened.
“Your ministry will look different, but you’re not meant to give it up.”
“He was an anchor of hope in a very dark time and was a key way in which God reached out to me”.
Tan saw God’s faithfulness though his psychiatrist’s patience and willingness to journey with him.
A small group of Christian friends helped him with the practical struggles of single parenthood. They covered him in prayer and were also very careful not to give him too much advice. They encouraged him to stick to his calling.
They told him: “We feel that your ministry will look different, but you’re not meant to give up your Bible-teaching ministry.”
“These were words I couldn’t have spoken to myself; comfort and encouragement I couldn’t have given myself “
Partners in everything
The Lord then blessed him “big time” by bringing Bernice Lee, a widow, into his life. Tan was looking for a publisher for his second book when a friend directed him to Lee. They married in 2006, and he moved to Singapore.
“God continued His recovery programme” with several Singaporean pastors and church leaders encouraging him to move on with his life. They also “opened doors” for him to preach and teach.
Tan and Lee also knew that their marriage was also a partnership for God’s Kingdom. They were to be a blessing to others with their combined giftings – her background in publishing and his in writing, teaching and preaching. Together they founded Christian publishing and training consultancy, Graceworks, in 2007.
Graceworks focuses on promoting and developing spiritual friendship – the fruit of Tan (and Lee) having experienced the grace of God at work in his life, and the grace of friends who stood by him, which allowed him to continue his calling.
Tan believes that “the three Ds” – his “years in the wilderness” – were very much a big part of his calling. The experiences were key ingredients in how he preaches now.
“To be a Bible teacher, one needs to know not only the Word but also life itself, along with its complexities, pain and brokenness.”
His calling has always been to teach the Word. But now he does it with “a greater sensitisation to the brokenness of life”, respecting the difficulties of the people he speaks to.
A key verse for Tan is Romans 8:28. He understands that if we surrender our lives to God, He works all things for good – as Tan has discovered in his own life.
Take the steps to discover your calling
Discover Your Calling: The ABC of Vocational Discernment (published by Graceworks) is available for purchase at $14. The book is targeted at two broad groups of people:
1. People who care about and are interested to discover their calling
2. People who are not sure that there is a personal calling for everyone
For the former, the book will be a much-needed tool in the process of discovery. For the latter, the book will explain why individuals have different callings, and why it is important.
“A Christian’s first and foremost calling is to follow Christ by loving God and by loving their neighbour. We don’t exist for the sake of existing. We must have a purpose in life. Finding and pursuing that purpose is a key source for human thriving,” said author Tan Soo-Inn.
We must first acknowledge that existence and vocation are intertwined, that when God created us, he had unique callings for us in mind, said Tan, citing Jeremiah 1:5 and Ephesians 2:10.
Second, we must understand that our lives are not our own, and that they have been entrusted to us by God. It is therefore our responsibility to be good stewards of our lives and “not fritter it away”.
Individual callings are not restricted to biblical heroes of the Old Testament, said Tan.
With the “democratisation of ministry” through the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), every follower of Christ now has a unique contribution to His Kingdom. It is part of our adventure in life to grow in understanding what that contribution is and pursue it.