Love is obedience.
These words resounded through my mind as I slowly walked across campus on that cool September day in 2013, clutching a single white envelope in one hand, and wiping away tears with the other. I climbed the stairs to the administration building and walked down the hall to the vice president’s office, sucked in my breath, walked in, and handed her my resignation.
That day in 2013 will forever be seared in my memory. It was the longest and hardest walk I have ever taken. Earlier that morning, I was in prayer in the little log campus chapel, and I distinctly sensed the Lord telling me it was time — time to make it final. Time to walk away from being a tenured professor, chair of my department, and vice-chair of the faculty. Time to leave a job that I absolutely loved — people that I loved. Time to let go of “security” — to abandon everything I had worked so long to achieve.
Love is obedience.
I knew it was right. My love for Christ trumps everything else. I am his, and I made the decision a long time ago to follow him, no turning back. No turning back even though the way forward was certainly going to be fraught with trials and would be more than a little daunting. He was calling me into mission in Central Asia, and although I had announced my intended plans six months earlier, I had yet to officially resign. Turning in that letter made it real.
Love is obedience.
There were a thousand and one ways I was not prepared for this new season of my life.
Immediately upon stepping foot into Central Asia I was placed with a local family in an attempt to learn the culture and language of the people. The difficulties of cross-cultural communication challenged me intellectually and emotionally, and part of my exhaustion was due to the fact that I did not have wild places to which I could escape. There I was, living in a foreign city set in the middle of a desert. I had been a professor of botany, wildlife biology, and environmental science. There is nothing so life-giving to me as forests, fields, songbirds, and wildflowers — and unfortunately, the city in which I was living was devoid of them all. I found myself surrounded by cement, buildings, dust, and traffic. As a visitor commented to me, the city “has nothing to commend it.”
My three months with the local family, which my agency required, was probably the most difficult experience of my life (yes, even surpassing earning a doctorate, taking candidacy exams, defending my dissertation, earning tenure as a professor, and dealing with faculty politics). Simply nothing in my previous life had prepared me for this. I suddenly found myself unable to verbally communicate with those around me, and my degrees meant nothing to those with whom I was living. I went from being an independent, self-sufficient, capable professional to being completely dependent on others for the most basic necessities of life. I was now out of my comfort zone. Just going to the bazaar and buying bread and catching a taxi on my own seemed like major victories. There were so many times I wanted to just give up and quit and go back to my former life. But — love is obedience.
It was in the middle of this experience that the Lord revealed to me how much of my value and self-worth I had placed on what I do and what I can achieve. He also showed me how much I coveted recognition from people, rather than from him. I thought I had dealt with these issues and that those concerns were behind me, that my value was solidly and firmly rooted in Christ — but I was wrong, so wrong. I pondered the verse, “The heart is deceptive above all things.” It never had felt never truer to me.
I had been deceived into believing that I was getting all of my sense of worth from belonging to Jesus, but in reality I was still getting much of my worth from being seen and being known for what I can do and what I can accomplish. It was like a slap in the face. I had preached sermons about idolatry — saying, “Idols are anything we find our value and worth in other than Christ.” And here I was — still an idol worshipper! Clearly, the Holy Spirit had more work to do on my heart about these issues of identity, worth, and acceptance.
I was challenged professionally as well. I was trained to be a biologist and a professor, and now I was writing grant proposals to foreign governments and editing stories and reports. Sometimes I wondered, “Am I loving God with all of my mind? What about my PhD? Am I wasting all of that knowledge?” Without question, I am learning humility — learning to be dependent on God for all things — including the answers to these questions.
As I reflect back on my academic career, I can see so clearly how the higher education system molds us into believing these lies about our self and our identity. From the moment we entered graduate school the pressure was on. “Publish or perish.” “How many articles and books have you written?” “Have you ever been Professor of the Year?” Many of us academics, if we are honest, would confess to believing the Great Lie of the Western World: “You are what you do or accomplish.” Abandoning everything and surrendering my life to Christ to come on the mission field has caused me to face this lie head on and to stand up and say, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The truth is, my value and worth has nothing to do with what I can do or accomplish. I am valuable because he chose to create me and calls me his own. No matter where we find ourselves, we must remember that our calling is to love the Lord and obey him, wherever that calling may lead us. Love is obedience. For some, that calling is to the life of the mind and academia and for others it is to the foreign mission field. Both are challenging, both are rewarding. It does not matter where we are called or to what we are called to do. What matters is that the God who called us into existence loves us and has plans for us, and we are called to love and obey.
Whether I am standing in front of a class teaching college students, conducting an experiment in a lab, writing a research paper, serving on an academic committee, or sharing the gospel in a remote mountain village in Asia, I have value and worth because I am his. The calling to academia is a high calling — one that should not be diminished — and I pray more Christians will follow Christ into academia for the sake of his kingdom, but as academics we need to be aware of Satan’s schemes and remind ourselves that our worth comes from the Lord and not from what we can do or accomplish. We must learn to rest in the knowledge of God’s great love for us as his Beloved. It is what Henri Nouwen termed our “first love.” Before anyone else knew we existed, when we were still one-celled embryos in our mother’s wombs, God saw us and loved us. This first love is the love from which we must derive our true identity.
I am often tempted to return to academia, for it is a life that I enjoyed and found exciting. Perhaps one day the Lord will lead me to another opportunity at a university or college, and I would welcome that as a blessing. But, love is obedience. I know he called me here, and I am doing my best to follow. The road has not been easy. Often I think, “The work he called me here to do is not my work, but his work — his work in my own heart.” There is no question that the external work I am doing is valuable. The grants I am writing enable our community development work to impact the lives of those living in desperate situations and allow many to hear the gospel for the first time. It is part of building the Kingdom of God. But the greater work is his—my prideful, self-centered, idolatrous heart is being transformed to be like Jesus’s, and I am learning to rest in my identity as his Beloved Creation. There is still a long way to go. There has been a cost to loving and obeying the Lord — giving up earthly pleasures, forgoing recognition from others, and finding worth in what we can accomplish, but there is also great gain — I am his. And that is all he has ever wanted. Love is obedience.