High Walls and Ivory Towers: Inadequacy in Academia

I met with some academic colleagues recently over a meal. It was a lovely group of people but I came away depressed...everyone has done so much. Comparing my meager achievements with what everyone else had accomplished, I felt like my resume was as watertight as a chocolate teapot.

My doctorate flashed before my eyes and I searched desperately for time misspent. How could I have been more effective? When should I have written that monograph and book proposal, along with mastering my second, third, fourth, and fifth languages? And then I asked myself: if I was so far behind everybody else already, was academia even going to be an option for me in the future? The task seemed impossible.

I came home and thought about my unexpected but staggering confidence-hit. What encouragement does God offer for those of us who feel like our best is never good enough? What truths could I preach to my anxious academic heart?

I realized that the first thing I needed to tell myself was that my identity is not based on whether I ‘stack up’ against the next generation of Oxbridge dons. God has irrevocably set my worth at ‘priceless’ through no work of my own; there is nothing I can do to either increase or decrease it through Duolingo streaks, publications, or conference presentations. 

The second thing I needed to tell myself was that God is the commander in my life—my career included! I heard an excellent sermon on Joshua 6 and 7 this past week, and I was struck by this passage:

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-14, ESV)

The question Joshua asked of God’s commander resonated with me: ‘are you for me or against me?’ That is how I’ve often approached God, I’m sad to say! ‘Are you going to give me what I want (a plum academic posting)? Are you going to fall in line with my plans (to become an academic)?’

But of course, God isn’t a genie in a bottle to enlist in our wars. He came to rule us and give us orders.

How does this passage help me when I feel inadequate and unable to meet the lofty academic bar that looms above me? It helps because it reminds me that I am not the one choosing the battle or the person in charge of winning it. And if my prayers have become a list of tasks for God to complete in order for me to achieve my career ambitions, I need to repent and bow before Him anew: that attitude will only lead to fear and despair. God hasn’t come to join my team, but He came so I could join his. His will might be for me to (somehow!) get a job in academia. And if that’s the case, the proverbial walls of Jericho will come down in any way he chooses and I will know that it was the Lord’s doing (because those walls look pretty high right now!) He will work through my work and get me where I need to go.

However, if my plan for my life—academia—isn’t ultimately his, I can safely and joyfully submit to the authority of God over me. He is as loving and wise as He is powerful, and I’d rather be on his team than on my own.  

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