Friday, February 26, 2016

The disappointments of faith

(I find sometimes I need to process my thoughts and feelings by writing them down. So the following largely autobiographical post is more for my own sake than for yours.)

I applied to do my PhD studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, specifically to work with Oliver Crisp, Jordan Wessling, and others on the analytic theology project. I applied here and only here for a number of reasons which might be concisely summarized like this: after a long time (around two years) of praying and thinking and battling with myself about what to do after I should graduate with my MDiv, or more specifically about what God wanted me to do, and after receiving what I took to be a series of responses to these prayers in a very short amount of time throughout the course of the last year (these would be reasonably impressive to anyone, I think, if I were to list them out in detail), I was confident and full of faith that Fuller would be the place for me. That's where God wanted me to go. Of course, my upbringing was Pentecostal, and in the Romanian Pentecostal church, this kind of action-through-faith is encouraged and practiced; so I figured I would try this experiment.

The other day I received an email that told me I was wait-listed. Because the offer of the studentship for which I applied is so impressive -- three years fully funded, working with top professors on project that is receiving worldwide attention -- you would have to be stupid or else extremely lucky (to have received superior offers from other schools) to refuse it. Consequently I have no expectation whatsoever of getting into the program anymore. Confident as I was when I first applied, yet I felt decreasingly confident as the date approached in which I would receive an answer from the school. More and more as time passed I was confronted in my mind with my alternatives if I should not get in, and I can see now that these premonitions of mine were probably veridical.

The problem is not that I didn't get into a PhD program. That's not that big a deal. The problem is that I had prayed and prayed for direction on this matter for the longest time; I was putting myself utterly in the hands of God for guidance and orientation, because initially when I applied for my MDiv, I didn't want to do a PhD -- in spite of what my family, friends, professors, and colleagues told me. A series of experiences I had, which I attribute to God's providence and direction, convinced me otherwise. The problem then concerns the matter of interpreting what has happened to me: am I utterly incapable of discerning what God actually wants me to do, so that I applied for a PhD at Fuller for no reason? Or alternatively, was it indeed God's direction that led me to apply to Fuller? And if it was, is the wait-listing merely a bump in the road? Or does God wish me to apply and yet not to get in?

There is no ruling out this third variant. It is within the realm of possibilities that I did follow God's direction and that God knew I would not get in all along. But the question must be raised: why should God lead me in the direction of something I won't accomplish? I rule out as impossible the interpretation that God did this to tease me or to see me suffer; that is not compatible with his goodness. If this is the way things stand, if I was led by God to apply for a position I would not get, it must be for some other reason. And I agree with the dictum of St. Anthony that everything happens to us as it should and for our own good; therefore I do not get accepted into the PhD program at Fuller for my own good, even if this is not immediately obvious to me.

The other day when I received the news that I was wait-listed, the following verses stuck in my mind:

"But my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back" (Heb 10.38, citing Hab 2.3-4). 

God finds no pleasure in a person of "faith" who shrinks back at the sight of difficulty or pain. In other words, a life of faith in God is a life of courage and fortitude, not a life for the weak and those unable to deal with the sufferings and disappointments that it involves. Rev 21.8 includes the cowardly among the number of those who will burn in the lake of fire and sulfur, the second death. God has no use and no need for the wimpish and weak. Christ was not weak and wimpish but full of courage for facing death squarely in the face and continuing with his mission, even if it meant excruciating pain and suffering an unjust death.

So I worked hard to convince myself of this and I continue to imprint these words on my mind: My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back. Some years ago I decided that it would be better to follow after God and live my life through faith in God than to leave things to my own judgment and try to run the show myself. A universe run by God, however it may appear to me that things stand, is preferable to one in which no one runs the show and I am left free to do whatever I want in this free-for-all jungle. So what do I do when I am faced with the apparent contradiction of being led by God clearly into a dead-end? Do I give up on God? Do I give up on my self, despairing of an utter inability to make any judgments whatsoever about God's providence in my life? My soul takes no pleasure in the soul who shrinks back.

If this is the way things have to be -- keeping in mind, of course, that I was wait-listed, not rejected, and so it is still open for me to get in, even if I don't expect to do so -- then this is the way things have to be. God's judgment is superior to my own. Submission to God means the submission of my judgment, too, and not shrinking back when things don't make any sense to me.


Unknown said...

Before we met, I faced a few disappointments of just this sort. Each time I had placed my faith in God (at least I sincerely felt like I did), thinking He had given me the green light as it were, and yet I repeatedly found myself frustrated. Each road seemed to lead to a cul de sac and in the end, I felt like I had simply wasted my youth. My return to academia (you and I met during my third semester back, I think) was in large part, an attempt to start from scratch again after scrapping yet another one of my failed attempts. And as you know, even when I decided on a career in academia, the process was met with some real disappointments. Here I thought I was "settling" for an entirely different vocation because my previous bright ideas had failed, and even then my efforts were being frustrated. I still don't know what all of that was about. The why-questions have for the most part remained unanswered at least in any amount of detail.

I can tell you that despite the fact that I'm currently at a program that I once only dreamed about attending, it too has been fraught with real disappointments. True, I'm kind of a pessimistic guy, but even in my more sober moments, I can say that I've experienced some of my darkest nights since being here. And again, I find myself wondering about what happened. When I'm feeling particularly dramatic I sometimes think about the Israelites asking God if He had brought them out into the desert just to die. And I suppose that too is pointing to something that I'm just not bright enough to realize at the moment.

If there has been any noticeable redemption in my collection of middle-class-American-disappointments, it's been the fact that with each instance, I've been forced to face myself and to confront just why it is that I'm so heartbroken when things don't work out as I had hoped and in particular, when I feel like God has lead me down a rabbit trail. In those moments, as brief as they might be, I sometimes get a tiny glimpse of what life might be like if I could truly let go...(as you say, "if this is the way things have to be..") And I suppose I've changed in this way: I no longer find myself holding so tightly to my plans for the future and I've grown far more modest concerning God's specific plans for my life. "If it is the Lord's will..." Whether that's good or not, I can't say for sure. It seems to be working for me as far as I can tell, at least better than white-knuckling it like I used to... Maybe this disposition is wishy washy or lacking in faith in some ways or maybe it indicates a hint of a particular kind of humility concerning the future--I don't know. I suspect it's a mixture of both. Anyway, I hear you dog.


Steven Nemeș said...

I think that "letting go" is actually a demonstration of greater faith than a persistent grasping after a self-constructed preferred future. I remember reading recently for one of my courses from the works of a medieval saint, a woman, and she says this: a true spiritual life in fellowship with God means, among other things, being open to receive absolutely everything -- except sin. God doesn't think the way I do, doesn't see things the way I do, doesn't plan things out the way I do, and if I trust in him truly, then I ought to be willing to defer to his better judgment in manners. Like you said, "if it is the Lord's will." This doesn't mean I utterly stop planning my life, because I have been endowed with practical reason for precisely this purpose; but all my planning has to be conditional on the will of God which may be demonstrated to be otherwise than my own will.