Counting the kindnesses of God’s providence
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Alfred Tennyson in 1842 wrote that “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Sounds like a romantic comedy, but Tennyson was often depressed. He suggested that those who don’t keep their hearts socially distanced are sitting ducks for sadness.
In spring 2021, some high-school seniors after a COVID year have eagerly awaited an admissions message from the college with which they’ve fallen in love—but what if the college doesn’t reciprocate? This column is for the disappointed.
The biggest thrill I’ve ever had from a mail delivery came in April 1968. I had feared receiving a thin envelope that would contain a rejection letter. I was overjoyed to receive a fat one from Yale University containing information on enrollment, housing, and so forth. I went, but that thrill led to the worst years of my life.
We live our lives forward but understand them backward.
Those years may have been bad anywhere because I was a selfish atheist—but Yale and I were a mismatch that started a pattern. Get what I want: be miserable. Take what God offers me, often on the rebound from a disaster: gain joy. Here are three examples.
1) At Yale I headed toward Communism. After graduation in 1971 I went all the way, literally: 3,000 miles by bicycle to Oregon, and after various intrigues 5,000 miles by Soviet freighter to Tokyo, then 5,000 miles to Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railway.
I spent a week in Moscow waiting to be handed a job as a foreign correspondent/Soviet propagandist, only to be left stranded. But without that disappointment I wouldn’t have headed to Michigan for graduate school and eventually the greatest blessings of my life: meeting God and then meeting Susan. This year brings our 45th anniversary.
2) Starting in 1995 I was a critic and then an occasional, informal adviser to Gov. George W. Bush, who lived a mile from my office at the University of Texas at Austin. When he started his presidential run in 1999, I was excited about opportunities to take my advocacy of compassionate conservatism nationwide, and even thought about leaving my WORLD editorship and moving to Washington.
Early in 2000, though, some reporters on the left decided to undermine Bush by taking some of my writings out of context. Their early cancel culture efforts helped me remember that journalism, not politics, is my calling. I renewed my covenant with WORLD. The subsequent two decades have been terrific.
3) My 24-year professorship at UT provided economic security and time to edit WORLD, but in 2007 I was tired of teaching mostly atheists to write more effectively, and our four children were out of the house. We moved to New York City where I became provost of a struggling Christian college in the Empire State Building.
Susan and I enjoyed living in Manhattan, yet by 2010 the college was so financially desperate that the board of trustees hired a president with money-raising connections but insufficient Biblical understanding. Giving up the UT lifetime property right known as tenure, and then leaving The King’s College, allowed me to become dean of our World Journalism Institute, have the best teaching experiences of my life, and develop for WORLD a steady stream of new talent.
Looking back from age 70, I see how every disappointment was a blessing. Here’s a thought from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that I did not understand when younger: We live our lives forward but understand them backward. Often it’s only in retrospect that we grasp the kindness of God’s providence.
At the time, whether I was 22 or 49 or 60, I did not rejoice in God changing my plans. I don’t expect greater maturity from an 18-year-old disappointed by a college turn-down—or people of any age facing career or romantic disappointment. But my life’s experience suggests that we not just count our blessings. Sometimes, count what at the moment seems like a curse, and thank God for it.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
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