If you need a pickup—not a truck, but a lift—try Enterprise. The 1,855,000 members of the class of 20151 need a pickup, and Enterprise hires more entry-level college graduates than any other company in the United States. But Marie Artim, the company’s vice president of talent acquisition, has been wondering why so many aren’t prepared for the world of work. Part of the answer, she thinks, is that they have been too “syllabused.”
Too often, in college, “decisions were made for them.”2 Whatever the full reason, Jeffrey J. Selingo notes in his piece on new graduates’ lack of job skills, bosses know that “newly minted college grads are not ready for the world of work.”3
That fact need not intimidate this year’s class, for hiring prospects are better this year than in many recent years. Less reassuring is the truth that getting hired doesn’t go as far as it once did to resolve the long-term questions: today’s students need to be ready to switch jobs every three or four years on average.4 Life after college is much more unsettling than it used to be, it seems.
The euphoria was done for me. Graduation weekend was history; that weird, revered and outlandish paraphernalia you rent for a weekend was back in the registrar’s office; my classmates were now mostly back home in Georgetown, St. Lucia, San Nicolas, and Fort-de-France, or at least they were back in their Caribbean homelands of Guyana, Barbados, Aruba, Martinique, etc. Cedar Hall, my five-year home—where I had shared the company of some of earth’s best sons through days and nights of spiritual revolution, glorious togetherness, heavenly music, and deep, true joy—had lost its army of “Spartans.” I would never live the likes of it again. I knew, for Mom had told me so before I ever got there. It was her unforgettable answer to my 17-year-old question one day in her kitchen, “Mom, what’s the most momentous day of your life?” I may have said “important,” but I meant “momentous,” and she understood.
“Graduation,” she had replied, to the dismay of thousands of giddy brides now hearing my darling mother’s voice in print half a century after she spoke.
“Graduation? Not your wedding day?”
“When you look around and see all your friends you’ve shared all these years with, you know you’ll never be together like that again. Graduation is the most memorable day of your life.”
Right as she was, I still didn’t know what to do next. I hadn’t asked. Now I was in a quandary. I would ask my college professors. They were still around. Perhaps they could get me out.
It turns out that I’m not the only person who has ever wondered what to do with one's life after graduation. Or what kind of life there is after graduation. If graduation day is the most momentous day of your life, is it all downhill thereafter? This year’s class may each have their own way of wording the question, but they all want to know. The ones who believe that divine purposes guide their existence put the question in relation to God’s will.
And now, as their former teacher, it is my turn to quote their texts and Facebook queries. Being more insightful youth than I used to be, they know their mental torment is not unique. Middle-aged divorcées and recent retirees suffer it too.
The coed who wrote me claiming that she was praying for patience knew she was only asking me “a question that most people ask: How do you know what is the will of God?” The words vary from person to person or from moment to moment and from situation to situation. But the sentiment is the same: “ . . . praying for wisdom. . . . I know it will all be made clear in time, but I keep thinking that it would be nice to know for sure.” And again: “Why does it seem so difficult to be sure of God’s will?”
Of course it would be nice to know for sure. But how do you know for sure about tomorrow, and next year, and the years after that? What even makes anybody think it is possible to know the future? Apparently it matters, or it would not obsess us so.
Twenty-six hundred years ago the world’s tyrant regnant was agonizing about the future. God tasked an exiled, young palace page with explaining to him about knowing tomorrow: “Of course the future is mystery, Your Majesty; but God knows you want to know, and He told you because He wants you to know what is going to happen tomorrow, and next year, and the years after that” (see Dan. 2:27, 28).
God wants us to know about next year, etc. He reveals His will through His Word, His providences, and the impressions of His Spirit on our heart.5 But there are prior issues for those claiming to want to know: like, why do you want to know? Are you sure you can handle God’s will for you? Are you just restless? Is your request for His counsel mixed up with some consuming personal ambition you hope He will corroborate?
Maybe you’re just a coward who’s scared of uncertainty and the dark. Or perhaps you’re some kind of control freak who’s determined to be boss, even of the not yet. Is it one or two or all of those, or are you conscientiously committed to hearing His voice so you and He can work together? If this conversation with Him will work at all, it will be because you “have an earnest desire to be pliable in His hands and to follow whithersoever He may lead you.”6
Is that where you are, ready for the hard work that will bring His will to pass for you?
Your earnest prayers, you know, do not replace your sweat. Daniel and his all-night praying friends did not see God’s blessing “as a substitute for the taxing effort required of them. They were diligent in study; for they discerned that through the grace of God their destiny depended upon their own will and action. They were to bring all their ability to the work; and by close, severe taxation of their powers, they were to make the most of their opportunities for study and labor.”7 So are you ready to hear God’s advice?
Traditional societies venerate the antiquity of wisdom: “Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding” (Job 12:12).8 Significantly for me, the professor whose words most impacted my thinking four decades ago, and through the decades since, didn’t actually rely on his own ideas. Instead, he mostly shared old advice. He quoted a youth magazine published 70 years before he spoke to me, whose wisdom was later incorporated into a book entitled Messages to Young People. Its wisdom was naked, stripped -down, practical advice, unadorned by any theologizing sophistication about varieties of will—sovereign, individual, moral, etc.
These do all have their place—in our heads and textbooks. But in the wrong place they can obstruct, distract, frustrate, and humbug realistic thinkers who actually want to know what to do with their lives. So if you are ready for straight testimony on what God wants you to do with your life, here are three words of wisdom.
The first of them was to “do the work that lies nearest at hand.”9 Doing what God wants us to do does involve studying His Word and listening to His Spirit. But it also involves action. Sitting around idle, waiting for God to speak, is proof that you’re out of sync with God. Beginning to work in the right place—the task at hand—is a simple and particular matter. It can also be painful, as I sometimes found while sitting in my office on a university campus.
I would be visited by some smart woman whose husband was pursuing a seminary degree. Having accompanied him across the ocean, she saw her presence in America as a divinely afforded opportunity she had to seize with both hands. She would come to my office so I could help her register for 16 credits. In dialogue I would discover that she was also registered for 12 credits at Lake Michigan College and had three or four children her husband expected her to care for. He would still return home at noon and/or in the evening, expecting hot food to eat.
It frustrated my daughter when I told these stories, because she expected, just like my office visitor, that I would help her sign up. I would have to tell visitor and daughter that I would not be contributing to child neglect, domestic abuse, or nervous breakdowns (or all three or any combination thereof) simply because I admired someone’s intelligence and vision. Seizing the day has produced its share of superhumans. It has also produced too many nervous wrecks. Defining the task nearest at hand involves more than proximity. It involves discretion and the balance of temperance; and it takes responsibly realistic self-discipline.
Every real success in life takes discipline: “Put mind and heart into the doing of this work”10 was my teacher’s second word of wisdom. Author Ellen White says, in a section her editors entitled “The Value of Concentration,” that God-fearing youth “should recognize their present duties, and fulfill them without allowing the mind to wander.”11 She rebukes the attitude that menial tasks deserve superficial attention, a truth that reminds of Jesus’ maxim “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10).
Living well means listening to God and implementing what He says with all there is of you. Knowing what He means for you to do means being both responsible and realistic: taking up the task that is closest to the gifts and opportunities you have been given and working hard. As you work on the plan of addition in spiritual and technical competence, God works on the plan of multiplication in increasing your ability to serve and bless.12
This opening for greater blessing points to the third bit of counsel of my long-ago teacher. For even as I work I must keep my eyes open. As he put it, I must “watch for the directions of God’s providences.” The New Testament and historical church of Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13) receives this commendation from the One who opens and none can shut: “I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (verse 8).
Seeking divine guidance for the next move cannot be separated from glorifying God. Philadelphia gets the open door for good reason: she keeps the Lord’s Word; she confesses His name. Asking God what to do does not compute with selfish personal intent. He warns that our own asking can bring us tragic results: “They quickly forgot His works; they did not wait for His counsel, but craved intensely in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. So He gave them their request, but sent a wasting disease among them” (Ps. 106:13-15).
In my yearning to know what His word for me is I may become aware of the selfishness of my own passions, or the distractedness of my current performance, the pride of my own soul, or the impetuous impatience of my own spirit. It means that He is answering me. His ultimate purpose for me is so much more than getting me a pickup. The lift would be fine, the truck would be wonderful, but the character would be preparation for glory and the world of forever. Which do you want most?