I’ve never liked school. Ever. Something about long classes, homework, studying, and tests just…*BLECH* It royally sucked for me. This only adds to the irony I feel daily being a high school teacher.
I love learning, though. I obsess about it. New information and deeper understanding is addictive. So, hours of YouTube videos learning about human psychology? Bring it on. Studying math equations in a lecture for a Calculus exam?
Hey God, it’s me Josh. It’s been a good life. Can I come home now?
Over the past few years through prayer, journaling, and therapy, I have been realizing how much of my youth was driven by the pressure of a very thin, very limiting definition of “the right choice,” specifically when it came to my future.
In school, the right choice after graduating high school was to pursue a major in something with a “guaranteed” high salary. On one hand, wise advice. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop one hundred thousand dollars on a four year ice sculpting degree at the University of Texas, right?
On the other hand, that rigid definition of “allowed” paths for my future suffocated my imagination for what God could have in store. And, worse, the short list of allowed futures blinded me to how God gifted and equipped me as an individual. The problem was, I didn’t become aware of my blindness until getting dropped from college and watching Attack on Titan.
Buckle up. This is a pretty weird testimony of God’s faithfulness.
My sophomore year of college, I got kicked out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison for bad grades. Two years in a row, as I prefaced, I tried to force myself into majors that I thought would ensure financial success in life: Material Science Engineering my freshman year and Marketing my sophomore year.
The reason I picked these two majors? Because of high starting salaries out of college, of course. Not like an English-Creative Writing major or a Communication Arts major–what kind of jobs would I get with those? Crappy low paying jobs, that’s what. Engineering and Business majors promised security. Creative Writing and Communication Arts promised uncertainty.
So, I started awakening to God’s writing gift he had given me in the Fall of my sophomore year. But, I didn’t wake up fast enough. Overwhelmed but too egotistical to seek tutoring, I failed the only Business Major class I was in: Econ 101. Not even upper level, superhuman economics–basic econ. I didn’t think anything of the bad grade given my GPA wasn’t too mangled. Then I checked my grades over Christmas break.
In big letters across my student portal, it said “DROPPED.”
Oh. Oh no. That’s not good.
I did some digging. Yep, that meant exactly what I thought it meant. After sharing about my situation on social media, it turned out some friends a few years ahead went through the same thing. I reached out and they graciously gave me every tip to potentially overturn my status. But, winning my status appeal wasn't guaranteed.
My friends and family watched me go through this depression-ridden saga of uncertainty. After an anxious Christmas break in 2013, full of emails, reflection letters to the University, and prayers like an Old Testament prophet, I was readmitted to the University and given a second chance. Praises be to God. I got back to campus, resumed classes as usual, and did my best to get my grades back on track.
But the future was still maddeningly unclear. What in the heck was I going to study? What was I allowed to study? And I had been asking God to make it clear...but no matter what, the way forward looked treacherous and undefined.
Of course, then one day walking home from class I have a flippant thought: “I don’t know…maybe I'll major in English or something.”
The only reason the thought occurred was thanks to the English 100 class I took the previous semester–a class only on my schedule because of my plan two years back to be an engineer. Of all my classes that semester, English had given me the most joy. It was the first English class in my entire life where we weren’t reading crusty books and analyzing the social problems of 1800s socialites–it was a class about capturing the thoughts and ideas in my brain in meaningful ways.
And that obsessive learning spark that rarely fired all throughout grade school was lighting up a storm.
Well, that was all I had–a spark. I guess I was going to be an English major, but that was it. What job would that get me? Didn’t care. At this point, I just needed to not fail. Straightforward goal, but as I had shown myself, not as easy as one would think.
Then, at the prompting of my brother, I watched the first five episodes of Attack on Titan in a library only hours before meeting with a TA about a paper. I should have been editing the draft of my paper, but you know how it is when younger brothers annoy you into doing things. (Thanks Z-boy, God used you to change my path!) At this critical point in the early season 1, something absolutely wild happens.
Never in my short life had I experienced a show that made me feel as anxious, sick, and hopeless as the opening episodes of Attack on Titan.
And I loved every second of it.
Like a titan’s transforming bolt striking from the sky, I had an epiphany: People made this.
Behind the feelings, questions, and racing thoughts I experienced because of Attack on Titan was a collection of artists–writers, illustrators, voice actors, etc.–who had meticulously crafted the experience I was having.
At that moment, God inspired a phrase in my heart: “I want to do this. I want to make people feel.”
As I have thought more about that line, I noticed that God did not inspire: “I want to be a writer” or “I want to be an animator.” It was a broad, sweeping statement–to make people feel.
My journey into the arts has taught me a lot about who God is, and so I hope these three takeaways encourage you to seek him in your journey.
God Equips His Workers for Their Work
My brother and I have some epic family stories of having our video game privileges being revoked. One such instance resulted in no video games for a year.
That was a very, very long year.
One good thing that did come from those agonizing times of Gameboy Advance bans was what not having something like games forced us to do: Create.
In my office at home, I still have a few of the comics I wrote and drew as a kid. They’re not great, but man am I proud of them.
To me as an adult, these are more than nostalgia, they are small stones that God placed in my life to encourage me to look back on and see that, even from those days of getting grounded, he was wiring me to be a storyteller.
I do believe God calls people to step into rolls and futures that seem to contradict or go against a person’s natural wheelhouse of gifting. He is God, he’s allowed to do whatever he wants.
However, I also believe that the majority of the time, God calls us to do good works that he has planned for us in advance [Ephesians 2:10] that are in fact related to our natural gifting. We are good at anything only because of God’s graciousness to equip us with different upbringings, passions, skills, talents, and so forth to help manifest his kingdom in our world.
Take Oholiab in the Old Testament. I wonder if his parents resented him for being creative as a kid? Why can’t you get a real job, like finance management? There’s a steady paycheck in that. And yet, Oholiab apparently wasn’t gifted in that. Instead, he was gifted with an artist’s mind. Because of that, he got to participate in building the temple to YHWH. Can you imagine getting to collaborate on a cooler project than that?
Or Peter. Pretty feisty guy. Perfect personality for a heated and passionate evangelist. Then there’s Joseph. Interpreter of dreams, thoughtful, reflective, and eventually a ruler in Egypt–and he didn’t even have a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resources.
God is an intentional God. He has instilled in you very intentional gifting and passions. The tricky part of the Christian walk is to see those gifting and passions in a way that understands they are from God alone and nothing we have inherently. Our gifts are not for our own glory, but to magnify the artistry and creativity of YHWH and how he has chosen to allow us as his creations to participate in his plan to redeem and restore the world.
God Works in Mysterious Ways
If you need to communicate something important to someone, often a call, text, or even an email will do, right? Then let us consider how God chose to get the attention of a few biblical characters.
There was Moses and the burning bush–that was a wild one. The story of the talking donkey? I bet he sounded like Eddy Murphy. Or how about getting eaten alive by a giant fish? Satirical fiction or not, I would not enjoy chilling in a giant whale for a bunch of nights.
Don’t worry, Lord. I’m listening. No big fish needed to make your point.
God speaking in gnarly ways is definitely not the norm in the Bible. But, when he does speak through something strange, it is big and weird. Why? Why not speak through stuff that’s realistic and easy for us weak-minded flesh beings to understand?
First, because God is too creative to always show up in dreams, our alphabet soup, or in a chip in the shape of a state we happen to be praying about moving to.
Second, God is too loving to engage each of his unique children in a one-size-fits-all method of calling.
Third, God is too good a story teller to make our interactions with him cookie-cutter and safe.
Bible skeptics and comedians alike have joked that perhaps the burning bush wasn’t a real event, but Moses eating a psychedelic mushroom.
That’s one option, but I believe that really happened–and if it did, perhaps it tells us some amazing things about who God is? That his knowledge of Moses was so deep and personal, that he knew appearing to him in the bush was the best way to reach him?
This doesn’t mean we should be finding hidden meanings on billboards or praying for God to send us into a giant fish to set us straight. Rather, I believe it means that we need to expand our understanding of how big, omniscient, and all the while personal and loving our God is.
Of all the things to remind me of my love for storytelling after being kicked out of college, he didn’t use a godly mentor, he didn’t use a church sermon, he didn’t even use a bible verse–he used an anime with a story that was connecting with me in a deep way.
Nothing in this world is too crazy for God to work through.
God Operates on a Different Timeline
So, if all along even as a small child there were signs that I was wired to be in the arts and tell stories, why did I pursue an engineering degree to begin with? Why did I have so many ups and downs about what my future was supposed to entail? Why did I have to sort through so many other confusing paths popping up that seemed reasonable and like good, completely valid paths to follow?
The true answer we won’t get deeper into? Idolatry of finances, future, and safety.
The short, cliché answer? That’s just how life goes.
The beauty of God’s narrative skill is that no matter what we think might have been a curve ball to his story arc–the thing we did or didn’t do that wrecked his story plans–was actually a part of it. Like a bad plot twist, he saw it coming a mile away.
This means that there is no such thing as “breaking God’s plan” when it comes to choosing your life trajectory. There are definitely decisions that are clearly in line with God’s definition of human flourishing and decisions that are destructive and innately sinful.
The reason I want to speak to this is I have observed in myself and people around me, both Christian and not, that there is an anxiety about the future and what it holds. Everyone is uncertain about the future, and on a deep level, that worry about making the “right or wrong” choice about what college to go to, what city to live in, what major you should study, what person you should marry–all that stuff–drives us to take God out of the equation or to turn God into a magic 8 ball. He is neither distant, uncaring, and apathetic, nor aggravatingly mysterious, random, and hidden.
YHWH is with you. He does “have a plan,” but no one, not even your parents, your youth pastor, your best friend, or you knows what that plan is. Only God. So, seek him and let all the pressures of what your life should be or how it should look dissipate.
To close, life is a journey that God wants to walk with you. You WILL have ups and downs, successes and failures, moments of divine clarity and crushing cloudiness–and through it all, God will be with you. Not to judge you–not to take notes on how you deviated from his original artistic vision–but to quietly and gently tell your soul:
“I have made you. You are my masterpiece. I want to walk with you, and along the way, I can’t wait to show you how I have intentionally designed you.”
So, as you navigate your days, think, move in faithfulness, and trust God. Pull back, aim high, and let it fly.
God cares not that you hit perfect bullseyes, but rather that you trusted him enough to take a shot. The perfect life has already been lived. Take the pressure off and follow the currents God brings your way!