“But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Romans 8:25 (NIV)
I just got back from a campus interview at a little college in Nashville, and have settled in for The Wait. I must confess that I don’t find waiting the easiest thing in the world. I am thinking about waiting a lot these days. This year—my second on the academic job market—has had a lot of waiting to it. There was the round of waiting to hear back from schools after my initial applications, and the waiting to hear back again after interviews. I am waiting to see what kind of career I will pursue in the long term, where I will live, who I will become. I am waiting to buy a dog, buy a house, and to begin saving for retirement. Sometimes, it feels as though I am waiting to start my life altogether.
My first year on the market was particularly rough; I often found myself bowled over by the uncertainty that surrounds the academic job search. It seemed that wherever I turned, I was met with a general spirit of defeatism. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I read articles predicting the imminent demise of the tenure-track job—one article showcased a recent PhD in my field who was living on welfare and buying groceries with food stamps. As I walked the hallways of my department, I saw strain and despair stretched tight across the faces of my fellow job-hunters. At a party one evening, I was appalled when someone I’d just met, upon hearing that I was looking for jobs in academia, shot back with a glib, “Isn’t there something like a one-in-thirty chance of getting a tenure-track professorship these days?” I shoveled a guacamole-laden chip in my mouth to avoid a hostile response, and silently fumed.
Amid all of the despondency, I found myself struggling to find peace. It bothered me that I seemed to be giving in to the negative attitude I saw around me, because as a Christian, I thought I should be better at waiting. After all, the phrase “patient as a saint” didn’t come from thin air; the Bible is full of anticipation, and not just from people—every atom of creation is waiting to be redeemed (Rom 8:22). One evening, when the general despair had me feeling particularly blue, I expressed my frustration to a friend: “I knew that the job market would be hard, but I thought that, as someone with faith, I would have a built-in method for dealing with the difficulties. And yet I find myself struggling daily just as much as my colleagues. Shouldn’t my faith be a powerful stress-buster? What about Christianity is particularly equipped to handle stress?”
I thought my friend might say something trite about relying on God, or even simply admit to struggling with the same issue. Instead, she surprised me by responding with a simple, beautiful answer: “Hope.” I sat a little straighter in my chair as she continued. “I grew up poor, and I have seen families I know lose their homes. I’ve watched parents go without food for days so their children could eat. I’ve seen people struggle to make it to the end of the week—much less the end of the year. And what gets these families through is hope.” As she paused, I thought about my own worries, which seemed so minor compared to the real struggle of impoverished families, and I wondered how hope could be so powerful for people in truly dire straits. My friend continued: “But it’s not wishful thinking—it’s deeper than that. They know that God has a plan, and sometimes even accept that their hunger might be part of that plan. But they also know, really know, that God will ultimately provide, because he, and his plan, are good.”
My friend explained that this kind of hope wasn’t exactly like the word “hope” we use commonly in the English language, in the sense of longing or desire. Instead, she said it was more like the Spanish word for hope, esperar, which means not just to want something to happen, but to wait for it, with the assurance that it will happen. I think the closest English equivalent might be something like “expectation,” like the expectation of pregnancy.
The more I thought about hope and waiting, the more I realized that I had dedicated so much time to the job market that I had taken my focus off of God’s plan in order to forward my own. My acceptance of the attitude of impoverishment I saw surrounding the academic job market had led to real spiritual impoverishment in my own soul. I was beginning to substitute my core spiritual values for something as fleeting as a career goal. I had come to rely on my own credentials, not God’s provision, for my daily needs. I had come to look to interviews, not God’s grace, to gauge my value. And God was asking me, gently but firmly, to reorganize my priorities—to hope in him.
The Catholic catechism defines hope as the “theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” The more I thought about this, the more challenged I felt, because this kind of hope is more radical than the one I usually feel. This hope doesn’t hold gratification or job security or retirement benefits as its primary aim, but instead focuses on something real and life changing and eternal.
As that first year drew to a close, I began to think about how this kind of hope might change the way I approached the job market, and I slowly came to a realization: I had to trust in God, and not a job, to provide my basic needs. This was radically different from anything I’d thought before. Oh sure, I knew the verses about God feeding the birds of the air and clothing the flowers of the field, but I’d never really taken those exhortations seriously before. I figured it just meant that I should be generally concerned about spiritual things most of the time and not be too vain about those new heels I bought last week. But, as I contemplated the very real possibility of not having a job at the end of the year, I realized that I would have to take my cue from the flowers and the birds, and trust that God would provide my real, everyday, physical needs.
God reminded me of this fact when, a few weeks later, some members of my Bible study decided to gather to pray for those of us who were unemployed. Because the economy had stubbornly refused to emerge from its slump, there were quite a few of us looking for jobs at the time. To be honest, I was still feeling bummed about the job market, even though I’d been trying to trust in God’s provision, and I was looking forward to an evening in the spiritual spotlight. I think I secretly hoped that my friends’ prayers for employment would move things along a little faster. My friend Brinn was one of the first to pray, however, and her words shook me from my self-indulgent mood: “God, you are a provider. I know you will provide, so I’m not going to ask you to give jobs to my friends—I don’t need to. Instead, I pray that you teach us how to follow you in faith as we wait for your provision. Help us to understand that it is in the journey that we learn to follow you.”
I was struck at first by what seemed to be an unsympathetic prayer. It seemed easy enough for her to trust in God’s provision; she already had a job. And then suddenly I remembered that two years before, Brinn and her husband had been unemployed for nearly a year. I scoured my memory to recall the prayer requests she had brought to our group during that time, and realized that they had almost always been for direction and guidance as they discerned God’s will. At the time, it hadn’t seemed odd, but now that I understood the stress of not having a job, I was surprised that they hadn’t prayed more for provision. In retrospect, I realized that they had trusted God implicitly. He is, after all, Jehovah-jireh—the God who provides.
It was that evening that I suddenly had a second realization: since I can trust that God will provide my basic needs, the real purpose of finding—and getting—a job is no different from the real purpose of any other activity in the Christian life. The central point is not to put food on my table or to start a career, but to live in God’s love, and extend that love to others in my own stuttering and imperfect way. I reflected on my own unique talents and gifts: my love of teaching and of the written word, my genuine belief in scholarship, my compassion for my students (most of the time). And, although I still wanted that tenure-track position, I began to understand that a job in academia is only one of many paths I could take that would use these gifts to advance God’s love.
Naturally I rebelled immediately against this thought. After all, I didn’t want to give up my dream of working at a university, and it scared me to think that an academic job may not be a part of God’s plan. But the more I considered it, the more that fear became overpowered by hope. Because God has a way of knowing what will fulfill me better than I know myself. And after all, he wouldn’t give me the gifts I have if he didn’t want to use them—not for my glory, but for his. He doesn’t want to crush us, or take away our joy, or keep us from contentment. It was hard for me to accept, but slowly, I began accepting that it didn’t really matter whether I got a tenure-track position or not; God would be sure that wherever I landed, it would be in a place that would use my gifts, challenge me, and give me plenty of opportunities to see him. I didn’t quite give up my dream of working at the university, but I began to shift my priorities, and accept that my dream would only satisfy me on a deep level if it was also part of his dream to love the world more fully.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was perhaps the kind of hope that the Catholic catechism was talking about. Not the hope that God would provide a job, but that whatever God provided would fulfill me and his purpose for the world. After all, isn’t that what Heaven is all about? In Romans, Paul talks about hoping in the middle of great suffering: “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God . . . And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (5:3-5). Because we carry Heaven within us, we know that God’s long-term plan, his forever plan, for our lives and for the world, is redemption. We only need to recognize that regardless of what career path we’re on, this is our real journey, and the plan we are all ultimately traveling toward. It is a good plan, a reliable plan—a plan to pin our hopes on.
I still worry about a job. Every day, I wait impatiently. I wring my hands and fretfully wonder whether I’ll find myself on the job market next year or ever hear back from that little college in Nashville. But then, I take a breath and remember that, despite the impoverished attitude that the job market fosters in me, I live in an abundant world, presided over by an abundant God. In God’s world, hungry sojourners trapped in a desert wasteland feast on bread that rains from Heaven, and a lost people choking on their own self-destructive appetites find salvation through an unlooked-for sacrifice. Despite my worries, I know that God will provide—that’s what he does. And I can hope that in my future, his provision will be perfect.
Until then, I can wait.