The particular question I’m asking–what was the purpose?–comes to me quite regularly. Now that I’m in mid-life, I find myself thinking about how my goals and dreams from my early to mid-20s stack up to my reality. I spent many years of my adult life in school. I worked for a year after college and then started graduate school, first pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies and then a PhD in New Testament.
Life began to happen very quickly about the time I finished the course work for my PhD degree. I found a job to pay the bills, fell in love, got married, and continued to work to support us. I was a bi-vocational doctoral student–one foot in the business world and one foot in the academy. This made my dissertation progress slow, and a pregnancy slowed my work even more. When I was about a third of the way through my dissertation, the realities of burnout and the demands of motherhood took the last gasp of wind from my academic lungs, and I withdrew before I finished my dissertation.
Losing My Purpose
The decision to withdraw from my program was agonizing. All I could do was ask myself, what was the purpose of getting so far but not finishing? How could I justify investing all these years of my life and the financial resources? And while I did earn a ThM degree, I could have finished this a decade earlier with much less student debt and stress. As someone prone to introspection, this still haunts me even 5 years later. What did I gain from all this study but no degree?
There is someone in the Bible who can probably relate. While the Sunday School answer would seem to be Jesus–that’s not who I have in mind. No, this time I’m referring to Joseph. He had remarkable dreams from God; however, he wasn’t always savvy about sharing his dreams. Because of this, his brothers resented him and took advantage of the opportunity to be rid of him (Genesis 37).
Sold as a slave in Egypt and falsely accused and imprisoned, I’m sure Joseph had doubts about what all this suffering was accomplishing. How disappointing it must have been for the young man who dreamed of others bowing to him to sit in a dark, dank prison. But you all probably know the story. God rescued Joseph from prison and used him to help save Egypt and ultimately the nation of Israel from a severe famine (Genesis 39-41).
For more than a decade, I was a passionate student and scholar. I had dreams of how I could use my skills and education for God’s kingdom. But that didn’t happen. As I’ve struggled with disappointment, Scripture has been a source of comfort and hope. It reveals that my older brother Jesus knew the pain of disappointment. It reminds me that God’s ways are higher than my ways. It reminds me that Christ’s love is deeper than I can imagine and isn’t dependent on my accomplishments. It reminds me that one day God will wipe away all our tears.
Furthermore, disappointment has forced me to walk in faith in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The paths where the Lord leads us are not always what we expect. My disappointment was related to not finishing my degree and feeling like I failed at life. For some it could be singleness when all we desired was a husband, for some it could be infertility when all we desired was a child, for others it could be an unexpected health issue or family crisis when all we wanted was health and peace. Sisters, these things can throw us off balance, but they are not the whole story. During the days when our disappointment is strongest, God’s word can uphold and encourage us.
Disappointment Has Purpose
The other reality is that our pain and disappointment has a purpose. The years I invested in preparing to teach in the academy can be redeemed for other purposes. Right now I’m using them to serve the women at my church by coordinating the women’s ministry. My feelings of pain help me empathize when others experience disappointment.
Joseph’s pain wasn’t in vain either. His brothers and parents did bow down to him (Genesis 42). Even more, there was healing in his relationship with his brothers. The gifts the Lord gave Joseph helped preserve His people. Joseph probably would never have agreed to the plan if he had known what he would suffer, but the Lord never abandoned him in his suffering (Genesis 50:15-21).
Friends, when you experience days of wondering about the purpose of something hard you’re facing, I encourage you to read the story of Joseph. The mystery of God’s faithfulness and providence in the midst of difficult circumstances may just be the balm your heart needs. It won’t remove the loss, but Scripture points us to the faithful Father who works all things together for the good of his people (Rom 8:28).