How common it is to experience disappointment and a sense of abandonment by God when we adopt a course that we believed to be God’s will, only to experience it as a failure, a loss, a bust in some way.
But if we look at the story of the prophet Jonah, we know that God sometimes sends us down a path that seems fruitless, only to show us something important about ourselves. Jonah was sent to proclaim destruction to the sinful people of Nineveh. Jonah did so reluctantly, and then he was disappointed when the people of Nineveh repented and God decided not to destroy Nineveh. Jonah got angry at God. “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country?” He was angry that God sent him on what appeared to be a wrong errand.
When I was finishing seminary in 2012, I was encouraged to go on for a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. I love theology. But I also love church work, and I had a hard time deciding. A mentor encouraged me to pursue the Ph.D.
So, off I went for a Ph.D. at Fordham University after much prayer and deliberation, thinking this was God’s plan for me. It became clear almost immediately that I was in the wrong place, despite my regard for my colleagues and my love of theology. At the church I served as “theologian in residence” on Sundays, I experienced deep regret each Sunday that I was not going to return on Monday through Friday to work. Oh, no, I thought. I’ve made a terrible mistake.
Finally, at the beginning of my second semester there, I called my seminary and asked to be put on the email list for priest jobs. Immediately, I was sent the job description for All Saints Church in Pasadena. The application was due THAT DAY. It turned out to be the perfect first call for me.
For a long time, I considered my decision to go to Fordham a mistake in discernment, and I was somewhat mad that God didn’t prevent me from “wasting” that year. But after much prayer, I realized that God DID intend that detour. It kept me close to my college-aged daughter in Connecticut, and that proved to be crucial. It helped me realize deep down that, while I did love theology, I didn’t need the Ph.D. to read or write or publish or teach. It also confirmed deep down that I love the work of a parish priest and want it above all else. And it kept me out of the job market for a year until that position in Pasadena was available.
Some things that look like mistakes in discernment or wrong turns may not be. God may want us to look around on our detour and realize something about ourselves or others. Jonah did, and so did I.