Last Saturday, the 12th, brought me to the one-year mark in my current job search. For those of you familiar with my subtle, yet often long-winded, laments about this experience, don’t click away just yet. This post is not another whine or cynical complaint. It’s more of a retrospective. The few readers who have journeyed with me by way of this blog for a considerable amount of time will know that one of my favorite miniature quotations – the one I most take to heart, perhaps – is written by Frederick Buechner. It’s four little words: “Listen to your life.”
Specifically, I’ve done my best to keep an open mind in the midst of this war. What war, you ask? It’s the war that rages within, the job search war that is fought on multiple fronts: the emotional front, the psychological front, the physical front, the social front, and, sometimes the most bloody of all, the spiritual front. And the clash takes a toll that lingers long, more like a Hundred Year’s War than a Six-Day War.
"Hotel, Echo, Lima, Papa! Do you acknowledge?!"
Yet through all the waiting and wondering and dreaming and doubting – despite the escalation of hostilities between faith and frustrated despair – I’ve tried my best to adhere to Buechner’s aphorism. What follows are a few of the many things I have learned about remaining faithful to God during hard times…
#1 – Faith Often Conflicts with Common Sense
For a person who has been a practicing Christian for a while (as opposed to someone who merely claims the title without authentically pursuing God), it is no secret that faith seems to directly contradict reason and levelheadedness. I happen to believe that “contradiction” isn’t the right word – in my opinion, it’s not that faith contradicts reason; it simply doesn’t allow reason to be the stopping point or the final judgment. Either way, however, such a mindset often conflicts with good, old-fashioned common sense. In other words, it’s hard for a person operating on blind faith to always come across as sensible, or to make decisions that other people would consider practical.
"Seriously, man. This isn't rational."
I’ll give you an example from this past year. In mid-August, I was finally offered a position at a church. It had been a long summer following an even longer winter and spring (that whole broken foot fiasco didn’t help matters), and more than anything my wife and I wanted a job for me so we could settle down somewhere and begin feeling like our own family again. And, on paper, the job looked great. I appeared to be the perfect candidate, and I liked all of the people I had met during the visit. All that was left was to hear the salary and either accept or deny the offer. Only I couldn’t do it. Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but when I tried to picture myself in the position, doing the job and living life in that community, something was off. Despite every ounce of common sense crying out within me like that scene toward the end of Revenge of the Sith where Darth Vader screams, “Noooooo!” (only way more dramatic, because that was ridiculous), I called up the pastor and told him I wasn’t the guy for the job. There was a lump in my throat when I spoke, and I had to hold back tears of frustration and guilt.
Actually, the Emporer just told him that none of his new gear is covered by workman's comp.
Someone on the outside looking in might say I was swayed not by some lack of peace, but from the anxiety of starting a new position and creating a home for my family in a new state. They might comment that another position in which I was still a candidate was more appealing and I was holding out for that one. That person might even be partially correct. But the point is that when all was said and done, I believed I had to operate by faith and not reason. Reason alone would have found me taking the job. Faith went beyond it, to the detriment of all common sense and good judgment, and kept me searching.
I still regret turning down the offer. After all, I’m only human. But, if I’m going to truly deny myself for the sake of knowing God in all things, the decisions I make must be made through the motivation of faith, not the ratiocination of mere human circumstance.
#2 – I’m Not Job, and God Doesn’t Audibly Speak to Me
The first part is good, obviously (and don’t think I haven’t wondered at the homonym between the biblical character and the fact that I’m engaged in a “job” search). The second part is hard not to wish for. I’ve actually had absurd thoughts that guys like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Paul – yes, even Jesus – had it easy. Can you believe that? Easy! As if familial separation, dangerous kings, angelic appearances, disembodied voices, selfish nations, storms, shipwrecks – and to top it off for Jesus, the cross – could ever be considered a walk in the park. And why? Because God actually spoke to them – told them what was up.
"Hey, it's me again. Yeah, I'm gonna need you to climb another mountain."
Then I think of Job’s story, not to mention Jonah’s and Hosea’s and all the rest of those guys I just mentioned, and I realize that the most terrifying thing I can imagine is God speaking to me audibly, in a way I can’t deny or escape. It’s not only because the incontrovertible command of God would expose every inch of my selfishness – it’s because the very paradigm by which I have lived my entire life as a Christian would be instantly burned away. When God speaks audibly, faith evaporates. Sometimes we wish God would just rend the clouds and speak directly to us and justtelluswhatweshoulddopleaseohpleaseohplease. We can even become resentful that God doesn’t cut through the veil and reveal himself, or at least make known that enigmatic thing we call “his will.”
The irrefutable presence of God – the complete invasion of his will into my life – takes away every aspect of my free will, which is the penultimate gift he gives each human being. Think of every voluntary choice you ever made in your life… which is impossible, of course, because the best attempts at a quantifiable answer is upwards of 5000 per day! But let’s say only .5 percent of those actually affect your life in significant ways – that’s 25 a day, which is 175 a week, which is around 750-775 a month, which leads to roughly 9200 significant, life-altering decisions a year. We also know, though, that one seemingly trivial decision can breed thousands, increasing the number of choices we have to make exponentially. I could go on, but blood is already dribbling out of my ears.
For whatever reason, God chose to plant us in a world that is cultivated, for better or for worse, by our decisions. This is the existence we know, and even though it can be hard – even though we are faced with moments where the effect our choices can have can shudder us to our core – we beat on.
#3 – My Hope Must Be in God, Not in a Job
It seems an obvious statement to make, but it has fingers that dig extremely deep.
When I taught high school English, my classes read The Great Gatsby, and we always discussed both the theme of materialism as well as the question of how basic, perhaps even primal, were the characters’ connections with security and stability, and how they were motivated by these connections to do what they did. I cannot help but remember these discussions when I consider how much I and my wife want me to find a job so we can move out of my parents house and establish ourselves in a community – so we can determine what our grocery store will be, how we will arrange our kitchen, decorate the baby’s room, organize our daughter’s toys, etc. These are the things that make a person feel like he is his own person. Call it self-centeredness, call it control, call it concern for stability – we are all guilty of this at one time or another. (Some of us are guilty of it almost every waking moment of every day.)
Regarding my second point, common sense, there seems to be nothing wrong with this. Why should I not be concerned with the welfare and security of my family? What is wrong with hoping for a specific job? With wishing for a home of one’s own? Must every desire for something this side of heaven fall under the category of materialism?
"Really, Jimmy, Two cookies! You're such a hedonist!"
No. And here’s why. If desiring such things makes you feel guilty, this is not the Spirit prompting you to fall back in line. I don’t believe God works that way. Of course, there is a danger in putting one’s hope and trust in a sense of stability or security. If happiness can only be found in gaining or attaining stuff, then you have fallen headlong into materialism. You’ve made possessions and physical comfort your god. I’ve had to guard against this at times during this search – no thirtysomething guy with a wife and kids would rather live as boarders in his parents’ house than have his own place in his own town in his own pace of life. But while I remain extremely thankful for all my parents have done for us during this time, I also have to watch out that my desire for a place does not supersede my desire to know God, to place my hope in him, and to trust his provision above all things. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty,” claims the writer of Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Our faith is being molded every day, whether we recognize it or not. It is being challenged and refreshed and strengthened. When we listen to our lives, as Frederick Buechner encourages, we find there are almost as many lessons as there are choices. Sometimes, it can feel like a war. The strain can be difficult to endure, to keep your head down and your strength up as you face battle after battle.
But, no matter how long they may last, wars eventually end. And for the person who endures, there is peace after.