Six years ago, I left my beloved state of Texas to move across the country for grad school near Chicago. I had always assumed I would attend school after completing my bachelor’s, the only question was where. For years I sought wisdom, counsel, and prayer about where that would be, before I unexpectedly landed a slot in a program through a series of small miracles. Years of hard work paid off and conversations with family, friends, and pastors affirmed my choice. So, six years ago, I left.
God shows up to intervene in our lives all the time, and like so many others, my belief about this fell into one of the two categories, that these stoppages were either good or bad. A car breaks down? A chance to rely on the Lord. Only oatmeal raisin cookies because the chocolate chip ones have all been eaten? The day is ruined. But Jesus’ life was constantly interrupted, and if we are striving to be like him then we have to learn how to respond to them as Jesus responded. My responses became so automated that I developed an interpretive framework for it, and I tried to force every experience into one of these two boxes.
Yet I left for graduate school knowing that I could only stay if certain things worked out, including getting a job that covered all my costs. But I invested so much time in prayer and had constant affirmation that I should go, so I was confident that everything would indeed work out.
Everything happens for a reason?
Soon after starting classes, things got difficult. A close friend passed away—I was devastated. Money grew tight—I picked up work while waiting to apply for a job in the spring. For months, it was one step forward, three steps back. But I believed God led me here for a reason, and I was certain he would carry me through.
The semester wore on and the days grew colder. The first time I could see my breath outside, I was certain I would not survive the Chicago winter. I was literate in four languages, but “subzero” was not in my vocabulary. Darkness crept into each day earlier and earlier, but, as challenging as things were, they could have been worse. Everything had fallen into place for me to stay in grad school, except for one final piece: a job. I submitted my application hours after it became available, and was told I would hear back within one month, two tops.
Over the spring, slowly, the days grew longer and the sun began to appear, but I had yet to hear back about the job. Would God lead me here only to pull the rug out from under me? I moved across the country, acting on faith, believing that was some sort of guarantee. Finally, I received the long-awaited call, four months later, when the semester ended. I was not selected.
I immediately knew my dreams were shot. My time there was limited. I had trusted that God placed me on this path and I felt that I was doing what I should, and that was now gone. Giving up on my dream was hard, but it was nothing in comparison to feeling like God had set me up—that my life was interrupted in a way I had not thought possible nor had the maturity to process. God didn’t do that kind of thing. The paradigm I had for understanding how God interrupts our lives was gone. As a friend of mine would later put to words, what I was feeling was the weight of the question, “I know that God loves his people, but does he really love me?”
Trying to Understand God
The problem with having a systematized worldview is that the world becomes ordered and it makes sense—there is nothing which cannot be categorized. Yet, what happened to me was something so tremendous that the formulation I had was now gone. The more ordered your system, the harder it is when that system fails. I was taught how to handle many different things, never how to handle not knowing.
I had the opportunity to stay at that school, but my faith was struggling too much. A few weeks later, I chose to withdraw and spend my time helping a family member who had chronic problems.
When God interrupts your life, whether in one big moment or many smaller ones, you can’t always tell what’s happened or why. A deeply pious answer may be to assume the interruption was due to some assumed idol or to dismiss the pain because God has something better for you. But that’s often the easy way out. It’s much harder to walk through the pain and confusion. And it didn’t really make sense as I drove back to Texas, unsure of what had happened or why. I didn’t just feel like a failure. I was one. There was no other explanation.
Over the next year, I sought out stories with which I could find solace. Hosea, the prophet of God, was led into unimaginable pain, and he only later learned why. Job received his blessings, but never the answers he sought. Even Paul, the great apostle, after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was left blind with no promise of sight ever left for him. Countless stories in fiction, history, and religion echoed back to me the same experience of uncertainty.
I’ve since had time to reflect on what happened. I wish there was some esoteric formula I could say I’ve discovered—some way to navigate a suicide, a job loss, a discouraging phone call—but there’s not one. Instead, we remember that we have a God who loves us and has promised never to leave us, who understands our hurting, who has sent us his Comforter. And hopefully we will have a community of people who will be there to enter into the confusion, pain, and fog of it all. There’s no guarantee we’ll understand, but we can trust.
Cover image by Dan Price.
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