God and Your PhD (More Unasked for Advice about Your Future Plans)

God and Your PhD (More Unasked for Advice about Your Future Plans) June 23, 2012

Some of my recent posts have been a bit of a downer for those of you who want to get a PhD in Biblical Studies (or Theology, Church History, etc.). I’ve given you some tough love, born out of my own experience and hard economic realities (here and here).

The market is dismal, the odds are against you, and, frankly, you have to be crazy to invest so much time and energy getting a degree that, statistics say, you likely won’t get.

Judging by your comment and emails, some of you are feeling quite stressed about this. Your great plans don’t look so great anymore and you don’t know what to do.

If you really feel, deep down, that further education is the path you need to walk, here’s what you do.

Trust God.

I don’t mean trust God to get you into the right school, or trust God to provide you with a tenure track job so it all “works out,” or trust God to let you know right now, before you commit yourself to this madness, whether it is God’s will. I don’t mean mean trust God “to” anything. I just mean trust God, here and now, not for what you want him to do eventually.

That means learning the excruciating lesson of letting go—of fear, of control, of manipulation, of posturing, of jealously–of ourselves. It means trusting God with your life, which, I think we can all agree, is a very hard business (a lot harder than getting a tenure track teaching job, that’s for sure).

Trust God that he will honor your decision and walk this path with you–even though you have no idea where this path will lead. Your academic work may lead to a “conventional” teaching position that you envision now. Or, it may lead you somewhere that will be twice as fulfilling that you can’t even picture are the moment. Either way, you actually have no idea whatsoever what you will be doing 5-10 years from now. You do not have the future in your hands. God does. What you do have is now, and with each passing moment you have a decision to make:

Today, will I trust or will I fear?

That, simply put, is the choice we all make daily, whether we perceive it or not. You are just blessed enough to be made conscious of that choice. And it makes all the difference in how we perceive our lives, whether we feel we are, in some mysterious, inexplicable way, “in God’s hands,” or whether we are left to our own fretting about what will become of us.

For those of you who always need to anchor things in a Bible verse, try this one:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding;

in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

In the Bible, “heart” is not just the seat of your emotions but the seat of your will and your thinking. So, this bit of ancient wisdom says to trust God with your whole you, and not to trust what we are inclined to trust: ourselves.

If you are in fear over your future (and who hasn’t been), you can bet you are trusting yourself–or as this proverb puts it, “leaning” on yourself (what a great image, by the way–physically speaking, it is impossible).

If you trust God with your decisions (if “in all your ways you submit to him”), he will make your paths straight. That doesn’t mean there will be no bumps or unexpected things popping up. And note there is nothing here about telling you which path to take.

Simply put, this means trusting God with your decisions, which you are making with as much wisdom as you can muster, and then plowing forward each moment in a spirit of trust rather than fear or control.

So, you’re thinking of getting a PhD, and yes, you are in a tight bind. You are no longer sure of something you were staking your life on just a few days ago.

This is a good opportunity for you to stake your life on something else. If you feel this life is for you, push forward and trust God–not because you know what he will do, but despite the fact that you do not.

Think about it: if you are truly planning for a life of leading God’s people in the things of God, learning to trust God is a good lesson to learn. Think of this as your first graduate course.



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  • RJS

    Fantastic post Pete.
    This applies to all disciplines – even those with a little rosier outlook, and beyond “academic” careers.

  • I’m right there with RJS. Trusting in God is the only true navigation device we have. Yet I read your other posts and simply laughed because it reminded me so much of things I was told twenty plus years ago. Maybe we all learn the hard way…

    Slightly tangential to your posts, I don’t think anyone can make it in today’s world (regardless of one’s field) without developing an entrepreneurial mindset, being adaptable and constantly willing to evolve on multiple fronts. However, it saddens me that we live in a society where education for education’s sake is being compromised. Many young people today do not know how to write, think critically or make their way in the world.

    But back to your main point… I try to discern how God most wants me to use my unique traits and then perceive him as my boss. It has been a free fall every time I have listened to what appears to be His will, but every time he catches me. Like the fish and the loaves, somehow he has provided. I try never to take that for granted but I think in America it is easy to do…

  • Mark Erickson

    I still fear – that you’ll be accused of Buddhism for your “letting go” advice.

    • peteenns

      Mark, how about “lose your life so you van find it…..”?

  • gingoro

    Pete excellent post.
    For 20 years or so of my career I was the technically director of about 500 people producing complex highly technical software for a large computer company. While many of us had taken a year or two of grad studies after completing a Bachelor’s degree and had obtained a Masters degree we hired very few Phds. The few Phds that we did hire turned out not to work out well in our environment as they were interested in pure research and not in producing commercial software. They always wanted to revisit all decisions and consider one more what if.
    Eventually I came to a position where I considered a Phd a handicap and not a benefit and this was reflected in my evaluation of resumes submitted to us. One exception was a guy who got his Phd in the area he was actually working on for us.

    So I would repeat your advice but with a slight change. Unless you can honestly say to yourself that you can’t imagine not getting a PhD in Computer Science, don’t do it.

  • Norman

    This post may reflect your Magnus Opus charge. Only someone who has experienced the walk could share advice from a spirit of dependency upon God as you have. I believe God has raised you up for these times.

  • Helena Constantine

    Trust the person who killed all life in the flood? that’s your advice. Would you like to hold up a sign reading “Peace in our Time!”

    • peteenns

      Helena, I definitely get the point. So have Christians for 2000 years. The flood story is the perspective of a tribal people in an ancient culture. As with many other things in the Old Testament, Jesus moves beyond that tribal thinking.

      • pete head

        I really don’t get this comment. Most Christians for 2000 years have not said: ‘The flood story is the perspective of a tribal people in an ancient culture.’ They have said ‘this is the word of the Lord’ and have affirmed that the God of Jesus is the God of Scripture.
        Is it then the case that the whole incarnational analogy lends itself to a one-sided emphasis on the humanity of Scripture? (Your critics were right after all.) Where is the truthful divine Word in the flood narrative? (I’m thinking I may have ‘misunderestimated’ your book).

        • peteenns

          Pete, check with the early church fathers. The struggled mightily with the violence of God in the OT, hence the move to allegory. Think, also, of this in another way. God allowing a tribal people people to tell the story and the Bible being Gods word are not mutually exclusive. That is the point where your thinking seems to be stuck, in my opinion.

          One last point, because this keeps coming up: The church also thought the world was flat and that the earth stood still for most of its 2000 years.

          The incarnation has uncomfortable implications, especially for some aspects of evangelical and fundamentalist theology.

          • pete head

            Thanks for this. I think the incarnation is fantastic and a most comfortable doctrine: ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. No quarrels here with that. So which early church fathers should I read on the flood narrative as ‘the perspective of a tribal people’?

          • peteenns

            Peter, I sense you are simply being contentious, on both points.

        • Mark Chenoweth

          You have to approach modern issues in the SPIRIT of the fathers. They certainly didn’t know anything about Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, etc. What we have to ask ourselves is, how might Gregory of Nyssa or John Chrysostom or Basil the Great have dealt with what we know now? Known as Neo-Patristic Synthesis by some. Met. Kallistos Ware does a great job of explaining how we are to use the ECFs today in his lecture.


          • Mark Chenoweth

            That was a response to Pete Head, not Peter Enns BTW

  • Pete,

    Excellent post. This is the real heart of the matter. I appreciate how you noted that we don’t know what life holds and there may be something unforeseen that is utterly fulfilling. Your wisdom in those words is greatly appreciated.

  • Elijah

    Great post. As an about-to-enter-MA-work-hoping-to-be-a-sholar-one-day-guy, your recent posts on the realities of the difficult path have been very helpful. Thanks.

  • Pete Head

    So if asking questions in the comment section of a blog is being contentious, then yes I was being contentious. I had in mind you wanted to initiate conversations among evangelicals about such matters. Hmmmm. Maybe you only wanted a certain sort of conversation. I see I should have just said: ‘Great, brilliant post, you’ve really explained everything now.’

    • peteenns

      Pete, are you seriously asking what church fathers thought in terms of tribal people? I think Mark’s response is good enough for me.

      • Pete Head

        No, I was only responding to your lack of response to my first question (unless you think typing people as flat earth, stuck, fundamentalists is really contributing to promoting discussion). But, leaving that aside, I was seriously asking whether you have anything positive to say about God’s word to us through the flood narrative. You’ve only said they are obsolete tribal perspectives. But this seems to presume a thoroughly adoptionist incarnational analogy. If the incarnational analogy for Scripture just means you can say – “that bit is basically rubbish, but wow, isn’t God interesting in allowing all this tribal rubbish into Scripture” – then I don’t see it as offering much of a way forward.

        • peteenns

          Pete, I think the way you are formulating the question (and portraying my view) betrays the problem, and digging through it would take some time. I don’t approach the issue of, say, the destruction of all life in a flood, or the killing of all Canaanites, or the promise that whole nations will be destroyed and never to rise again, from the point of view of a pre-determined view of what Scripture is, or how it is supposed to function–which is what I see behind your question. I would rather try to view how Scripture behaves and allow that to inform what conclusions I can draw, even if tentatively.

          The horizons I try to deal with are the ANE context, which has helped us TREMENDOUSLY in understand these episodes I mention, as well as the broader canonical/Christological dimension. So, given how these episodes can be understood as ancient stories and the fact Jesus would not countenance the such activities (I trust I do not need to defend to you that Jesus would not order the killing of Canaanites, for example), I need to ask not simply what the positive take away for us is (which sounds a bit moralistic to me), but even what we mean when we read, say, the flood narrative and call it “word of God.”

          I do not feel I need to defend such episodes as I mentioned above because they are in the Bible.

  • J. Michael Matkin

    I remember something Gordon Smith said to a bunch of us when I was a student at Regent College: “Don’t try to over-discern. God shows you the next step, not the next fifty steps.”