I have two degrees. The first is a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Allison University. There I majored in Religious Studies and had a minor in Political Science. I also have a Master of Arts in Theology from Acadia Divinity College. The experience of going to those universities and earning those degrees were largely positive and profoundly formative. I look back upon those years with fondness and gratitude. I can clearly see ways God used that time to shape and direct my life.
But I nearly had a third degree. After earning my MA (Theology) I went to McMaster University to earn my Ph.D. in Western Religious Thought (Christian theology). I lived in Hamilton for four years, never earned my Ph.D., and left feeling burned out and tired of being a university student. Passion for my dissertation had been waning for a little while. No longer was I that interested in pursuing the academic life. I needed a break. Unsurprising, since by the time I left Mac I had been in university for 11 years. That’s a long time.
Four years. I didn’t finish my degree. I accumulated plenty of student loan debt. And I also experienced some personal low points spiritually during that time. Even to this day, nearly 20 years since moving back to the Maritimes from Ontario, I do not know what the point of all of it was. While I can’t quite bring myself to think of it as a complete waste of time (and money!), I also can’t quite fathom what purpose it served in the bigger picture of my life. It feels like an incomplete part of my story, a chapter that ends in the middle of a sentence.
It makes me think of a line from a Brooks Williams song, “One Fine Day,” where he sings: “Life is full of loose ends, of rivers never crossed, on tiny scraps of paper, notes jotted down and lost.” Life sometimes feels exactly this way.
Of course, the truth is on this side of eternity I can’t possibly know all the ways God has been using and will use all that has gone on in my life, including that particular season, within his larger economy. God is under no obligation to fill me in on all the details.
I think of Joseph’s story from Genesis 37-50. Joseph, who bragged about having dreams where he ruled over his brothers, and was favoured by his father, ended up sold into egyptian slavery, accused of rape, and thrown into prison for more than a decade, only saw in hindsight how God was at work through his circumstances. Indeed, his personal darkness was far darker than anything I have been through. But the point is that while he went through all that awful stuff, God saw fit to redeem it. God had his reasons and his ways.
And as in Joseph’s case, how God uses the various circumstances of our lives — both good and bad — may not be about us but about what someone else needs. We can never know all the ways God may be using us, even during uncertain and confusing seasons, in order to bless others and draw them closer to him.
As far as I’m concerned, I have to remember what Paul says in Romans 8:28-29: “We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
God’s larger purpose for my life and for anyone’s life is to conform us into the image of his Son, to make us more and more Christlike. That is the good of which he speaks in the passage. And he will make use of all the stuff in our lives to this end.
It could be that my being in Hamilton for four years at McMaster University had little to nothing to do with Ph.D. studies. Maybe God had me there and used my time there for purposes I can’t begin to imagine. Maybe it’s not for me to know. Me knowing isn’t the point. Rather, it’s trusting that whatever has transpired in my life, God can use it for his glory and purposes. He can redeem it.
That’s true for you too. If you ever find yourself wondering, why did God allow this or that to happen to me? What was the point of that? Know that God is at work. If you trust him, he can make beauty of your brokenness. He can make sense of confusing seasons in your life. But we do have to leave it in his hands. Because we might not always be able to see the reasons or his hand at work. Like Charles Spurgeon once said, “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”