About five years ago, I was in a career crisis.
God had led me, I felt, down a particular professional path, one that really was only viable in academia and in the humanities. And yet due to circumstances beyond my control I found every door to the future closing in my face.
I recall, at one point, sliding down the wall to the floor in the hallway just next to the garage, listening to another rejection voicemail, and crying until I thought my heart would burst. I felt betrayed. If not this, God, where you were leading me, then what?
At the time, the choices before me seemed quite stark. Either a life and a career doing what I felt God had led me to do, or some other professional life outside the academy, outside writing, outside everything I cherished. One choice was clearly preferable; the other, not.
I did not know then what I know now, which was that God doesn’t often work that way.
What happened was that strangely, I did wind up working in my chosen field and using my skills, and I did wind up back in academia, but in a way and through a place I did not expect and at first actively sought to reject. Now, I am living exactly the professional life I had hoped to live five years ago, but I wouldn’t have had the capacity to imagine it this way.
And much of life is like this. When my mother was initially diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago, there seemed to be two paths: a very good diagnosis, or a very bad one. I prayed for the good one. We got the bad one…only it wasn’t, because God provided a third path: a bad diagnosis that He transformed into a good one.
When I pray, when I think, when I attempt to plot out the future (saying always, “If God wills…”) I tend to create a duality: on one side in Column A are the circumstances and people and happenings I do not want, and on the other side, Column B, are all the good things. I ask God for less of Column A and as much as I can have of Column B, but none of this accounts for what God likes to do, which is take some of Column B and transform it into Column A, or present a new Column C of choices, or reveal that some of Column A belonged in Column B after all.
And it cannot be predicted.
So much of my high school, college, and young adult life was spent on trying to figure out God’s will as though it was locked behind some divine safe somewhere. Just tell me what you want, I would tell God, and I’ll do it to ensure the good outcome. And all of my life God has said, no, what I want is you, and for you to trust me that the outcome will be good when you get here.
You’ve probably heard this phrase: “Man makes plans and God laughs.”
I’ve never liked it. It makes God sound capricious and a little bit wicked and chaotic, as though he observes us building tiny toothpick-bridges and then delights in blowing them over. “Ah ha! Not what you planned, is it?”
God isn’t like that. Maybe it’s more like this: “Man makes plans and God laughs at his lack of imagination.”
Because I think that’s truly what it is. When I was in career crisis, I couldn’t conceive of a world in which I might have the career I’d been led to but not in the order or according to the steps I understood. When I was in despair over my first real breakup, I couldn’t have visualized the man who would become my husband. I didn’t even know his name! Looking into the future, I am excruciatingly aware that the “next steps” that seem evident may not be.
When my mother’s cancer returned this past year, and I was rushing frantically home from work to get the news and start praying and figure out what was going to happen and when, I felt God stop me in my tracks. Don’t make assumptions. It’s not going to look how you expect, whatever you’re expecting, because I am involved.
And that’s true of so much. Worst-case scenario or best, my planning and envisioning literally can’t encompass what God can or might or will do. I lack the ability to see the “third choice” he’s offered me so many times, or to understand that getting what I think He’s been leading me to may be different than I imagined. I can’t be as creative as God. I can’t conceive the power of God. I can’t grasp the fullness of God.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that there is some truth to the adage that the only way out is through.
Being open to what God might have, being curious, refusing to cling too tightly to any one outcome, recognizing that goodness, joy, and peace are the rich fruit in store, gives me space to breathe and wait and see. This is what walking day by day looks like, without being married to a specific set of desires in a specific way.
I still have goals and desires. I still have passions and plans that I believe God placed in me for fruition at a specific time and purpose. But I am easier with them—how or when they come about, what they look like, what they might require. This is what faith looks like, I think: imagining what is possible if God grants it, and allowing that God might be imagining something that seems impossible and might grant that instead.
And whatever it is, I know, will be good. Because God will be there.
That’s all I need to know about what is ahead.