Dear College Students: On Big Life Decisions and Discerning God’s Call

A few days ago, I was able to spend some time with a team of college students from my church back in the States. They’re here in Africa for the summer, and as I heard their passion and fervor spill into their speech and prayers that night, I walked away with a deep sense of excitement for the future as well as a nagging sense of nostalgia.

Nostalgia because it was the summer after my junior year in college that I flew off to Kenya, all starry-eyed and ready to save the world. Thankfully, the college students our church sends out today are far better equipped and more realistic than I probably was, but some things don’t change in the decade-and-a-half (ohmygosh) since I was in their shoes. Things like those all-consuming questions that start reverberating throughout the course of a summer like this. Questions to the tune of “But what should I study? Where should I live after graduation? What does God even want me to do with my life?”

Sadly (or, probably, thankfully) I am but a mere mortal and (shocker) do not have all the answers to their deepest questions in life, but it’s also my mere mortal-ness that has allowed me to struggle big and wrestle hard over a lot of these very questions throughout the years. I am intimately acquainted with seasons of grasping, searching, and crying out for purpose and direction. I know what it’s like to feel aimless and out of control. We know- oh man do we know– what it’s like to be in an extended season of waiting. And we have learned a thing or two over time.

So, from one fellow struggler, sojourner, and Jesus-follower to another, I have just a few words of advice for all of you students out there loving and serving the nations this summer and who are trying to discern what’s next:

To those who might feel like God wants you to go into ministry or move overseas, mark it down and tell somebody. So many of you are doing the short-term mission trip thing this summer, and I love that. I, for one, am a product of short-term trips and an example of how God can use these to call people to long-term overseas ministry, and I know some of you are sensing that same call. I ALSO happen to know quite well how tempting it is to stuff that call, pack it away, and think you’ll deal with it another time.

Don’t. Write it down. Tell someone. Because here’s what’s gonna happen: you’re going to go back to your school, and you’re going to get back to your studies and ordinary life, and you’re going to be tempted to forget about all you saw and learned this summer. And when memories resurface and that call you so clearly feel right now creeps into your thoughts, it’s going to be tempting to think, “Naw, that’s crazy, man.” Because here’s what I’ve learned: we humans are forgetful people. We need accountability. We need reminders- both of who we are called to be and who God has already said He is. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to need your people to point your darting eyes back to Truth. Over and over again. Pick those people now.

Going and waiting are not mutually exclusive.  A solid fifteen years elapsed between the point Matt and I first felt called to move overseas and us actually going. If you’re wondering, that feels like a REAL LONG TIME PEOPLE. But you want to know what went down in that period of time? A heck of a lot of life. A lot of learning. A lot of preparation. I think it’s awesome when fresh college grads head out on the mission field, and I hope so many more do so. But us? Our hardheads apparently needed some time. And that’s okay.

If you and all of your passion find your best-laid plans of moving overseas coming to a screeching halt, don’t despair. I know that sometimes a “wait” feels a whole lot like a “no,” but hear me on this: when God tells you to wait, it can be one of the greatest acts of mercy you’ll ever experience. Had Matt and I moved to Africa as 22 year old newlyweds, we would’ve sunk. No doubt. We needed to live and learn and prepare. We needed seminary and job experience and life. That long fifteen year season of waiting for us was undeniably God’s kindness to us. So, to those in seasons of preparation, waiting, or maybe even feeling as if you’re “wasting time,” I get it. Persevere. Be faithful to the work He has for you right now. And trust that no one is more invested in His gospel moving forward than God Himself.

Some of you will be called to stay. As you go about your summer in who-knows-where across the globe, some of you- a lot of you even- will feel further affirmed in your calling to stay. Maybe to church plant stateside. Maybe to teach or heal or to kill it in the business sector. Listen: that’s good work too. We Christians have a long history of erecting a false divide between the secular and the sacred, and it’s just straight-up bogus. Don’t buy into the myth that “church work” is somehow elevated above “secular work.” Because anyone who’s going to peddle that lie to you clearly doesn’t understand that we are all called to make much of Jesus wherever we go.

Our pastor often reminds us, “Whatever you are good at, do it well for the glory of God, and do it somewhere strategic for the mission of God.” The nations need more Jesus-followers to bring the message of life and hope, absolutely. But you know where else you might feel called to go that’s also strategic? That public middle school down the street. Or that law firm in the big metropolis. Or maybe that apartment complex on the other side of town. Those of us who go need some of you to stay. But even if you stay, you’re still living a “sent” life. We’re all in this thing together, my friends.

Maybe don’t take yourself so seriously. I used to think that I could completely screw up (or miss altogether) God’s will for my life. Like if I made one wrong decision, all humanity was heading to Hades. In case you’re wondering, that’s kind of a lot of pressure to put on oneself, but I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this.

You guys, I know we’re raised to believe we’re snowflakes and all, but here’s the thing: we’re not all that important after all. I’ve come to the realization that we don’t actually have the power to ruin God’s will with a single decision. His will is that every nation, tribe, and tongue will gather around the throne, and we already have the sure promise that this indeed will happen. And so, we pray and we seek wise counsel and we go to God’s Word as we make big decisions. And then we decide, resting in the knowledge that God is wiser than our best decisions and powerful enough to redeem our worst decisions. So, exhale and let some of that pressure roll off your back. The salvation of the world does not rest on your shoulders. God is the one who saves; we just get to be part of the story.

Dear college students, sometimes I envy you with all of your zeal and wide open opportunities, but then I reflect and recall that, actually, my college years were also REALLY DANG HARD sometimes. Some of the hardest in my life actually. There are so many expectations. So many decisions that legit decide the course of your future. It can feel crushing at times, I know. I remember. But the Church is rooting for you. We’ve got your backs. And I, for one, am praying for you. But even better? You have the very presence of God going with you. So, whether it’s to Chapel Hill, North Carolina or Lilongwe, Malawi (I MEAN NO PRESSURE), you go and get after it. You are sent.

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