January entry: “Keeping the Faith (as a Graduate Student) in a New Year”
Column Description: Writing as a Christian who is a doctoral student at a public institution of higher learning, Lakelyn reflects on how graduate students can maintain their faith in graduate school when it seems hard to do. This column is not about how to “beat” the “other” side in debates about religion or secular ideas. It is not a column about winning arguments or converting people. Rather, it is about cultivating Christian mindsets to various struggles in graduate school and navigating what it means to be a Christian and a scholar.
Lakelyn Taylor, University of Central Florida
Keeping the Faith in a New Year
The new year is always such an exciting time. I feel like people are reinvigorated with the turn of the year. There’s something about new beginnings that makes us strive for something more. Something better. But, as a graduate student, the shift to a new year isn’t always that exciting. Sometimes it can bring with it renewed dread, anxiety, and restlessness as we look ahead into what our spring semesters may hold.
The Bible talks about worry and anxiety often. One popular passage in Matthew reminds us:
Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?…But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore, don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt. 6:25; 33-34)
This passage is meant to encourage us. The whole point is to not look anxiously into the future but to trust that God has worked everything out ahead of time. He knows what you need and He knows the future He has set out for you.
It’s a hard passage to follow, though, especially in graduate school. Everything about graduate school asks you to plan and prepare for the future. Everything you are doing now is supposed to be in preparation for whatever comes next. It’s hard to simply focus on the present when everything and everyone around you is pushing you to think about the next milestone. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and to dwell on what you are doing to prepare for your future.
That’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way (and am still learning). For a long time, I kept saying yes to things and overextending myself because I felt this immense pressure to ensure I was setting myself up for the best possible future. I felt as if saying no was closing off a potential positive future and I would grow to regret any opportunity I didn’t take. It’s taken me a long time to realize that such an emphasis on how I was preparing for my future didn’t leave much room for trusting the plans God had already set in motion (did you notice how many times I used the words “I” and “my” in the sentences above?). The future belongs to the Lord and, although the road ahead isn’t always smooth or pleasant, worrying about it isn’t going to do us much good.
I get that it’s not easy to stop worrying about the future. And I’m certainly not saying to pay no mind to what the future may hold. In fact, I think God wants us to think about the future but not with a sense of worry. I think He wants us to think of the future with a hope and anticipation of what is to come. That’s why the passage in Matthew says to focus on the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is here and yet still to come. All creation is groaning in anticipation for the fulfillment of His kingdom. And that’s a future worth looking ahead for. If we focus on the joys of His future kingdom, that may help relieve the stress and worry of whatever other future we might imagine.
Still though, I know it can be difficult to do that. Which is why I’m a big advocate for giving yourself joyous things to accomplish during the year. If you know anything about me, you know that I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe they work and they’ve never made much sense to me. Instead, I make up yearly bucket lists. These lists are things I would like to do in the upcoming year and usually consist of things I wouldn’t be doing otherwise. For example, on previous lists I have put down things like watching a horse race in person, finishing the Lord of the Rings movies, and reading through the book of Isaiah. I make a new list at the beginning of each year and make an album for them on Facebook. They give me fun items to try and do throughout my year and remind me of the joys God has in store for me. Plus, it’s a great way to meet new people or spend time with people I already know.
You don’t have to make a bucket list like I do, but find a way to be intentional about incorporating joy into your year. Ward off the anxiety of the future by giving yourself something to look forward to. And remember, whatever happens in your future belongs to God. He knows what you need and is already making preparations for those things. But, more importantly, He knows how He will use you for His future plans and purposes. So, don’t forget to live in the present even as you cast your gaze to a hoped for future.
“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs it down, but a good word cheers it up (Proverbs 12:25).”
“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps (Proverbs 16:9).”
And so we go….