What God is Teaching Me During Grad School

This is not an easy post for me to write. One, because what I’ve been reflecting on and growing in feels super complex to distill down, and two, because it is hard for me to be vulnerable these days. A lot of my growth over the past two years in graduate school relates back to recovering from my gap year—an experience I’ve reflected on in the past.

Back when I started my graduate program, I knew I’d have some things to relearn coming out of my gap year, but I thought I had fully healed spiritually and emotionally from the pain of my unexpected gap year. I had learned humility, I had felt loved by people in the process of healing, and I had come to recognize that God is good, in control, and that life is about Him. At the time, I thought I was living in such a way that reflected that, and perhaps in some respects I did. When I came back to Baylor, I no longer idolized the school or the people in it. I no longer idolized my own leadership role and position at the university. Both of those idols—Baylor itself and my roles within it—had puffed up my pride and distracted me from Christ in the first place as an undergraduate student. Baylor was different coming in as a graduate student, both because I had learned a very hard lesson and because the people who had made it home were largely gone. Even my church in Waco had changed when I returned. It was a fresh start, and by God’s grace, I was wise enough not to fall into my past mistakes.

BUT what I didn’t realize at first was that I still had a lot to learn about living a life fully for Christ. As a nearly lifelong Christian, I think it’s easy for me to say Christian Truths and believe I’m living according to them without actually living according to what I profess to believe. It’s hard to connect that head knowledge, so engrained into who I am and my convictions, to heart action. It’s easy to deceive myself into thinking I’m living and working for Christ, when in actuality, I’m living and working for myself and slapping the label of Christian life on top of whatever I’m doing.

While it was true, I no longer placed my sense of identity or fulfillment on Baylor or my leadership role, I was chasing other things to bring me hope, identity, and fulfillment apart from Christ. And, until recently, I was oblivious that I was doing this. My self-deception—of working for self but labeling it as Christ and therefore think I’m doing okay spiritually—blinded me to this reality and pattern of living. By God’s grace, He has slowly picked away at each of the identities I kept prioritizing over Christ to reveal to me how dissatisfying the things of this world really are over the course of these past two years:

School and scholarship? Fun for a time, but quickly overwhelming and intense.

A predictable schedule and plan for the next two years? Let’s disrupt that with the uncertainty of pandemic to show you how in control you really are!

Friendships and community? I have many great people in my life, but people change and by extension relationships change. Plus, many of the people I most value in my life are so far away, and that distance exerts a tax on relationships.

Okay, so how about writing and stories, then? You’ve always been a writer and a lover of stories. Well, engaging with a story is fun and can be fulfilling, but it’s temporary, and once it’s over, it can leave a void if you’re too invested. And writing—well, writing has been rocky for me for quite some time. And yes, I did publish a book, but it hasn’t changed much in my life. In fact, it spiked some anxiety when it was initially published.

Well, then how about living for rest and for the weekend? Like engaging with story, this is fulfilling for a time, but it always leaves a void too. It’s not a sustainable source of fulfillment.

Then surely, surely your vocation in student affairs is what keeps me going? Sadly, not even that is true. I felt more despair this semester over the prospect of not getting the perfect job and wishing I hadn’t pursued this degree in the first place because I feel out of place in this field. So, again, this left me empty.

The list goes on. Hopes for marriage and a family. Visions of a perfect church life. Being able to return to pre-COVID normalcy. And yet, nothing stuck. I was hopping from one vision to the next for a source of hope, joy, fulfillment, searching for something to fill the aches and emptiness. And none of them gave me something lasting. Some hid under the guise of “I’m doing this for Christ!” even while I strived on my own strength. Others were masked by a quick prayer. More were just expressions of self-indulgence and responses to my moments of deep loneliness and sadness.

In all of my wandering, my searching, my false hoping, I kept collapsing into spirals of frustration, anger, a desire to quit, and despair. I hated school. I wanted to give up and drop out even at the beginning of my final semester. I regretted life decisions of my past. In essence, I forgot my memories of God’s goodness and faithfulness to me, thinking that my problem was tied to my life choices. I wanted to control my own life and have life (re)written my way. Classic story for me. Ironically, one that mirrors my last semester of undergrad at Baylor, too.

My senior year at Baylor, I had a vision for my life. Life was good, and I had a plan for the rest of my days. That plan was shattered when my perfectly planned pieces started falling out of place.

Now, three years later, during my last semester of my master’s at Baylor, I had hopes and expectations of my future, but none of the pieces seem to be aligning that would allow me to reach that hazy vision of my ideal life. In fact, I wished I could rewrite the prior story to fix everything that felt wrong in my life. In wishing so, I didn’t realize I was repeating the mistakes of my last big transition out of college. Interesting how we fall into these repetitive cycles.

This feels like a climax in this particular character arc of mine, one that started during my undergrad Baylor experience when I first started to envision a perfect life, only for that life to not happen, at least not in the ways I expected. Slowly but surely, God is teaching me what it truly means to live out the Christian life and let Him write my story—and trust Him to do it right, without regret for how things went. And that my life is not truly my own, as one who has placed faith in Christ.

Upon this revelation, I’ve started to shift my thinking, all aided by the Holy Spirit at work in me. It’s a daily struggle, and it affects where I put my hope every minute of every hour. It means I’m not putting my hope in getting the perfect job. I’m not putting my hope in writing the perfect novel that will make me famous and rich. I’m not putting my hope in the certainty and longevity of a particular community. I’m not putting my hope in the certainty of schedule. I’m not putting hope in getting married and having a family. I’m not putting my hope in the weekend and time to rest or time to write.

I’m putting my hope in Christ. For when all else is uncertain, He is certain and unchanging. (As a side note, I find it extremely interesting that I wrote a similar post last year for Easter. This seems to be the underlying theme of my graduate school years.)

When I realized that all the things I was hoping in were uncertain and doomed to fail, it changed my prayer life. I sought after the Lord. I laid those broken hopes before Him. I sought to cling to Christ, to proclaim the truth that even if life doesn’t unfold the way I want, He is good. And that’s the other thing I realized, too—what I think of as good for my life is usually what the world would say as good. Job. Marriage and family. Success. And yet God has a greater, deeper vision: good in His eyes means shaping me to be more like Him. That process is often backwards from worldly visions of good.

It’s still a struggle for me to live in a way that reflects this, but making those connections has fueled me with a hope and peace that is sustaining and true. Yes, I do still slip up and panic over the uncertainty ahead. I still long for things. That isn’t always bad. As long as I pursue Christ in those longings and trust Him. Cling to His vision of good for my life and my wandering walk heavenward. 

This realization has also affected how I view my writing. Before, I was always in a rush to finish projects, panicking over my lack of time to write. As I’ve considered this newfound, deeper union with Christ in my own daily life, I’ve come to understand that much of my conception of writing and my identity as a writer was grounded in a pursuit of self-glory. My desire to publish and produce tons of books by my early twenties was often fueled by a desire to be seen as successful and gain worldly acclaim for myself. I’m embarrassed to admit it. How often in my life have I painted Christ over my own selfishness in this area? Probably a lot, because that’s the “Christian” response. This duplicity in me is painful, but good to recognize.

Now, in light of what the Lord has taught me over this period of my life, I am no longer in a rush to write. That is significant. I’ve placed so much guilt and pressure on myself to produce and publish because of my own secret desire to earn fame and glory through it. No more. Because I realize that self-glory isn’t what being a faithful steward of my writing gift is about. It’s about serving the Lord and waiting on Him. And truthfully, I have to unravel my conception of being a writer in light of what it means to truly and actually use this gift He’s given me before I can really step up to the writing project plate again. As I contemplate my future writing, I still hope to write, but I’m not in a rush anymore. I can’t be, because rushing in my past has been synonymous with pursuing self-gain. Now, I must be patient and prayerful as I relearn what it is to be a Christian writer. Already, I have seen the fruits of that. New ideas are flowing, and I often feel delight instead of dread when I work on The Queen of Whitman Court.

To clarify, though, I don’t see all my past writing and past reflections on being a Christian writer to be false or inauthentic. This newfound revelation of mine is a reflection of growing in deeper maturity in Christ. My past reflections on being a Christian writer are still honest and reflective of how I still see the world and who I hope to become.

I recognize this was longer than my typical posts and I appreciate it if you’ve read all the way to the end. I’m not used to baring my soul these days, but I did feel a call to share this more publicly. In the Christianese of our culture, I think it’s all too often that many of us fall into this trap of superficial faith in Christ and fail to connect the truths to our daily living and view of the world and our vocations. My prayer is that this honest reflection will help shape and trigger thoughts in others as well. This will continue to be a lifelong struggle and cycle for me, I know. So let’s continue to run the race faithfully, for Christ is our aim and our prize, and He is sustaining us until the end. May God bless you in faith and may you, too, see the good He is working within your heart and soul.