Commencement and Surface Calvinism

How many of us are really just theoretically Reformed? This is something I’ve been asking myself as I near the completion of my undergraduate degree. I wish I could say my affirmations of God’s sovereignty were easy to actually apply to all the realities in my life, but the truth is that I struggle just as much as anyone else with trusting that the Lord’s will is better than my own.

As I was nearing my high school graduation four years ago, there were several big things happening to me at once. I was right in the midst of a bad breakup with a guy who had promised to marry me; I was beginning to understand my need for (and lack of) genuine, heart-level salvation; and everyone and their mama was demanding to know what I planned to do with my early adult life. It would have been rude to say, “Most of the frameworks for my future have recently been crumbled to powder and blown into my face, so give me a minute to figure that out.” Instead – by the grace of God – I thought hard about what I was capable of as well as what I most enjoyed pursuing.

I arrived at the decision to attend whatever Christian university I could find that offered an online bachelors degree in English, sans any requirement for a college algebra course. Those were my only terms. My acceptance letter from Regent arrived, and I finally had some concrete answer to give everyone. All they cared about at that point is whether I was going to college at all. That’s probably all I cared about in the moment, too. I was a people pleaser through-and-through then, even more than I am now.

What interests me as I look back, upon nearing my graduation from college one week from the morning I write this, is how powerful and faithful God is to bring so much good out of my poorly made decisions. This does not excuse them, of course. But it’s an essential thing to recognize and then remember . . . because for several months now as the work has gotten even more grueling and I looked forward even more impatiently to the day when this chapter of my life would be over, I’ve been depressed.

I don’t mean “depressed” in the way it applied to me years ago when I was in therapy and relied on medication to stabilize my emotions. I just mean that it all felt so horribly empty. I find little of value in the theology my school promotes, yet I must spend most of my time studying it (which is very emotionally, mentally, and spiritually taxing). I wanted an English degree because I wanted to be a better ministry writer, but only one or two of my English courses were directly relevant to that goal. And after all, I could have learned what I needed to learn without enrolling in a university and putting myself thousands of dollars in debt. So, why? Did I just waste four years of my life? Even if I never make back the money I invested, did it benefit me in any other ways?

In my worst moments, the answer would appear to be “No.”‘ But as I’ve discussed this with my husband and other trusted Christians, essentially the same answer to my Why question keeps coming back around. You did not mess up God’s plan over the past four years. Stop looking at your past so faithlessly. Of course, it’s tempting to legitimize my despair and self-consciousness by pulling out timetables and pointing to the most heretical statements in my textbooks and lamenting the disorganization of my university. But just look at that phrase in the midst of everything. You may have missed it:

my despair and self-consciousness

What place do these things have in the Christian life, especially one that claims to value the sovereignty of God? My life, my decisions, my skills, and my investments (of time, energy, and money) have never truly been about me. When I pull my eyes off of myself and choose not to overthink every Why or What-If – because I don’t actually have the power or control to manipulate my life to the extent I desire – I’m reminded of the good that came from the choices I made. I met people who have changed me deeply and irrevocably. I have learned theories and worked to answer questions that I would not have had the courage to address on my own. I was forced to acknowledge that I can demonstrate more willpower and strength under pressure than I ever thought possible.

In His mysterious sovereignty, God used the very means that I have lamented in order to accomplish my present sanctification. How much more will He exemplify His power and wisdom through even sounder, wiser choices in the future? With that in mind, I have the freedom to rejoice in this accomplishment without carrying a spirit of shame, regret, and confusion. It can be my Gospel witness in the dreaded moments when people ask me about my education and my plans. I don’t need to cringe when my answer is, “I don’t know. I just want to see the entire experience used for good somehow, and I have a feeling it won’t happen according to my temporal plans, anyway. Maybe I’ll teach, maybe I’ll write, or maybe the only practical use of it will be to pass on my love for language and literature to my family and friends.” Now I can see my anxiety for what it really is: a lack of faith in God’s control.

And just as I was writing this with my Spotify playlist humming along in the background, I paused to refocus my attention on the music for one moment, when these lines of Wendell Kimbrough’s Eternal Weight of Glory rang out so clearly into the stillness of the morning:

Every year we thought was wasted,

Every night we cry ‘How long?’

All will be a passing moment

In our Savior’s victory song.

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