'Where do you see yourself in five years' time?' It's a classic interview question – and one which I'm very glad I've not (yet) been asked. Have you ever been tempted to answer it with 'If it is the Lord's will, I will live and do this or that' (James 4:15)?
Starting a new occasional series within this blog on 'challenges facing Christian academics', I'd like to tackle a subject that I find personally often causes me bother. This is the tricky arena of career planning, long-term vision and the will of God. I would say that there is often a general expectation within the academic world that we will have clear long-term plans of different kinds: plans about what we are trying to achieve in our research; plans about the ways we intend to develop our teaching, or improve aspects of the administration of our department; and, indeed, plans about how we envisage our career progressing – grants to seek out, jobs to apply for, publications big and small to work towards (and journals to target with these publications).
For early-career academics in particular, this expectation can easily turn into a heavy burden, potentially feeding the 'imposter syndrome' I've written about elsewhere ('if I don't have it all mapped out, maybe I don't really belong here?'). Christians in academia can sometimes feel this pressure even more acutely, as they try and juggle their own attempts at long-term planning with the desire to discern and obey God's will – particularly in those periods (for me quite frequent!) where God doesn't seem to be saying very much one way or the other about what He'd like us to be doing. How do we respond to these often conflicting pressures in a meaningful way, without being torn apart?
I don't have a simple answer to this question, but I do think that if we're burdened by these expectations then God has words of liberation to speak to us. Although we might feel under pressure from our academic environment to have everything mapped out for the next five years, in reality it's God who takes charge of our futures, not us; there's no shame in acknowledging that all our plans are inevitably provisional and partial, subject to change as our circumstances shift. And when it comes to God's will, we don't need to live in fear that we'll somehow wander off the track and end up stuck in a rut, far from his purposes. There's a little verse in Isaiah that promises the future Israel (and I think it's one we can take hold of, as part of the new Israel in Jesus):
Whether you turn to the right or the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it' (Isaiah 30:21)
In other words, God's guidance is more like a GPS than a tightrope; if we're seeking Him, He'll point out when we need to make a U-turn. What God cares about most of all is our character and our priorities – he wants us to be looking to him and depending on him day by day. If we're obeying him in those things, we don't need to be worried that we could somehow drift off course in our big decisions.
In honesty, I would not consider myself good at long-range planning: most of the work I have done as an academic, most of the major decisions I have made in my life, have emerged naturally as a result of circumstances somehow coming together, or out of a moment of inspiration that ended up leading somewhere fruitful. Likewise, it's only very rarely that I've had a really clear and unmistakeable call from God to go and do something in particular.
And yet when I look back, I can see very clearly in retrospect how God has used changing circumstances around me to guide me, mostly in ways that I could never have predicted within the confines of my own long-term planning. So, whilst there's certainly great value in looking ahead to the future and making plans as we feel we are called, it's also important to remember that 'many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails' (Proverbs 19:21).