I originally titled this post “My $100,000 Mistake.” But that would have been a mistake.
I came to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) a year ago on the Waybright scholarship — $35,000 per year for 4 years — that’s a $140,000 scholarship. Tuition comes out of that, so you’re looking at about $15,000 per year on which to live. The contingency of the scholarship is that you can’t work another job while you’re on the scholarship. (This is all public information). As his prospective student, my (now) advisor Kevin Vanhoozer vouched for me to get the scholarship. The systematic theology department at TEDS unanimously voted for me. Yet, due to personal reasons, throughout the next year, I grew to strongly dislike the discipline of theology.
I Became a Fire Chief
In a book called Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury elaborates on the psychology of the characters in his historic novel Fahrenheit 451, which I have never read.
One man asks another, “How did it start? Why did you make the decision to become Fire Chief, a burner of books?” The Fire Chief answers — he used to love books. And then, something dreadful happened. Not a public tragedy, but internal. He opened the books one day, and, “Montag guessed. ‘The pages were empty?” The Fire Chief’s reply gave my heart words:
“Oh, the words were there, allright, but they ran over my eyes like hot oil, signifying nothing. Offering no help, no solace, no peace, no harbor, no true love, no bed, no light.”
Why? What happened? Fire Chief: “Life. The usual. The same. The love that wasn’t quite right, the dream that went sour … the deaths that cam swiftly to friends not deserving, the murder of someone or another, the insanity of someone close, the slow death of a mother, the abrupt suicide of a father …”
I’ve never read words that overlap so perfectly with my story. Bradbury, paired with Yoda — “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” So, God led me by the nose to Babylon. I took a job offer that doubled my paycheck. I had every rationalization for that decision.
- “I’m still serving the church.”
- “I’m doing better work than theologians climbing a futile ladder of academic self-interest.”
- “Theology is impractical anyway.”
- “It’s responsible. I need to start a 401k.”
- “I’m probably not going to get a professor job anywhere.”
- “There’s no such thing as a full time writer.”
- “I can start a new, different, satisfying career.”
- “After nine years straight of academic theology (since I was 18), I need a break.”
That last one was true. The others were rationalizations. So, I forfeited a guaranteed $105,000 over the next three years (140–35), and my calling, for a projected $200,000 over the next three years.
Where God Gives Us Meaningful Work, He Makes it Beautiful
As soon as I started my job, I looked back on academic theology — and writing — and realized I was trapped. There was a bulletproof glass wall separating me from my calling. I scrambled to write as much as I could every week, outside of the 40 hours that I was at a desk. But my writing started to worsen. My work was good, but not as good as it could have been. I started gaining weight. I was away for work — and for writing — so much that I have rarely been in Chicago these past six months.
Like Esau, I regretted forfeiting my birthright. Yet now, I embrace my lost birthright, my forfeited scholarship — that took my birthright happily, and granted me a sense of calling.
My boss told me during me time as acquisitions editor, “Wherever God gives us meaningful work, he makes that place beautiful.” That’s the truest statement my soul has heard in the past six months. That job was a very meaningful and beautiful place in its own right. But God had not given me meaningful work there. He had already tasked me with that work elsewhere.
So, I decided to resign.
I’m Rich With Opportunity
I turn back to TEDS, with no savings to get me through the next semester, and no scholarship. All I have in-hand is a vigor, a calling from God, and 10 half-completed writing projects that I will finally be able to finish.
This semester, I’m going to complete my coursework at TEDS. I have a sense of focus and clarity that I haven’t had since before my dad died in 2013. I write like the devil. Barring unexpected delays, I will finish my coursework, research languages, comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, and full dissertation, by January 2017. I am currently unable to sufficiently express my sense of perspective and calling to the writing projects that God has placed on my plate this forthcoming year.
- A book, partnering with a ministry that is dear to my heart.
- Final Ph.D. coursework.
- Five 80% complete academic articles, ranging from divine impassibility, to theological exegesis, to a theology of trauma.
- Desiring God standalone articles
- My dissertation — Dr. Vanhoozer and I have set and are psyched about the topic, which we have now honed. He is excited to have me back, and I couldn’t be more excited to get back in the workshop with him.
- Teaching philosophy at Moody Bible Institute (it is so invigorating to teach Christian worldview to 18–20 year-olds).
So there I was, a year after I came to TEDS, embittered and struggling in my sense of God’s calling on my life. And here I am — $105,000 poorer — with the richest sense of calling and focus I have ever had. God taught me this lesson at the small cost of $105,000:
“You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16).
I wring my hands constantly — over money, over love, over peoples’ opinions. But it is with unclenched hands that I make this decision. It is perhaps the most risky and obedient move I have ever made in my life. And my Father owns a thousand sheep on a thousand hills. He would give them all to me if his calling required it. That’s why I don’t grieve my lost scholarship. That’s why that lost $105,000 left on my scholarship, which I forfeited to take my job, is the highest return on investment I will get for any penny I ever spend for the rest of my life. This new perspective was necessary for me to do good work at TEDS. There was no other way for me to be where I am now — with an expanded sense of productivity, a razor-sharp focus in my calling, and a sense of rest and joy that obedience gives you.
This post feels far too sanitized. Yet, better to post a sanitized and timely post, than a distanced and seasoned reflection. At least for now. None of this is easy. None of it feels holy. I have no idea what I’m doing. But it is right, and I think it is what God has for me right now.
Pray for me as I transition to a semester with a full plate, with empty pockets, and with a hope for a pure heart, for the first time in a long time.
 Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1990), 80.