Money, Money, Where for art Thou?

God teaches us in interesting ways. I was going to talk about Romans 2:5-8 and the importance of taking scripture in context. It was going to be a really strong academic post explaining a difficult passage of scripture and warning about the dangers of cherry-picking verses. Honestly I was really proud of the post that I was planning to write. Maybe I actually will write it someday. However, this morning, as I prepared to write my wonderful post, I ran into a guy… we’ll call him Julian… I’ve never actually liked that name, but it will work. Anyway, Julian was a middle aged guy studying for some IT exams. Julian and I got to talking about life, and what I do, and about money. Wonderful, wonderful money.

Julian was recently laid off from his job as an electrical engineer, and as we talked about what I do for a living, and the kind of living I make, he was shocked at how little I have to live on. Julian pointed out that the unemployment he was getting (a percentage of whatever you made at your job) was a little over my average monthly income. He was really very nice about the whole thing, he kept telling me that he didn’t mean to insult me, and that he was glad that I enjoy what I’m doing, but he was shocked at the state of education professionals in the US.

For those of you who don’t know, the average college instructor (right around 70%) is an adjunct who makes between $15000 and $25000 per year with no benefits. Most instructors have a good amount of student loans that they generally can’t even begin to pay, and many of them do their jobs for love, not for the money. It’s not unusual for adjuncts to have two, three, four, or even five jobs and to work 60-100 hours per week or more. Most people don’t know that, and I’m not surprised that Julian was shocked.

I was a little surprised at my reaction. At first I felt humiliated, I often do when I’m talking to someone about how little I make, and when he pointed out that I probably don’t make enough to even think about getting married or having children I agreed, even though I don’t actually agree. However, as we were talking I realized something. Even though Julian wasn’t happy for me, and couldn’t understand what I was saying, I actually was pretty happy. I’m not going to lie, I’d like to make more money, but I’m content with what I have. I can generally pay my bills, God always provides in hard times, and there isn’t much that I really need. Honestly, I’ve been realizing over the past year that there isn’t really much that I really want. I mean, there are things that I wouldn’t mind having, but the difference between ‘wouldn’t mind having’ and ‘want’ is pretty astronomical.

Ultimately, the thing that I don’t think Julian understood at all is that my happiness doesn’t come from having things. It doesn’t come from the standard of living that I enjoy, which is certainly below what he is used to, it comes from something else completely. I’m still learning joy, and I’m not going to say that I’ve mastered the lesson yet. However, I am learning it, and this is something that I am very, very happy about. It is a lesson that I’ve been needing to learn for a long time, and actually learning it is a very good thing.

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I’m trying! I swear I’m trying!

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Yoda told us to “Do or do not. There is no try.” It’s a statement that resonates with me, as I think it probably does with a lot of us, but it’s also a statement that isn’t entirely true. Luke’s claim to be trying in the movie generally falls on deaf ears because he doesn’t really seem to be trying all that hard, and thus he is continually failing.

I see this a lot in my students. There are some students who are obviously trying hard, who listen to what I say and then put it into practice, and they see their grades improve substantially. Then there are those few students who are obviously and admittedly not trying. I always just love when I get an email or a phone call from a student to tell me that I need to grade easier because the class/assignment is stupid and pointless but they still need an A. However, in between these two extremes are those students who keep saying, ‘I’m trying, I’m trying!’ but show no actual improvement. When I’ve told a student a dozen times to keep their papers objective, and they still use the first person, it doesn’t seem like the student is really trying all that hard.

However, that doesn’t mean that the student isn’t trying. It just means that they are failing. I know this feeling very well. There are some things that come very easily to me, and I have a hard time understanding why other people struggle with them. Then there are some things, seemingly simple things, that are incredibly difficult for me, and no matter how much I try, I keep failing. Money is one of those things. No matter how hard I try to save money, or keep a budget, or pay off debt, life always seems to throw extra expenses at me just when I seem to be doing well, and the whole thing comes crashing down. Money isn’t the only area, but it’s one of them.

Sometimes I look at myself, at my flaws (which tend to be very evident to me), and I’m tempted to blame God, to tell him that he made me wrong and needs to fix me. This is of course ridiculous. God did not make me wrong, he made me exactly the way he wants me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way… well, most of the time. However, there are still these seemingly massive areas of failure in my life at which I try and try and fail.

Sometimes I want to say that accepting myself means ignoring those areas. Obviously since I’m not good at them they don’t matter, right? I can just ignore these areas of life and call myself a complete person. Not so much. Just because I’m not good at something doesn’t mean that it’s not important, or that I don’t need to do it. It just means that I’m probably not going to do it well, and that’s alright.

Here’s the thing we miss. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. The fact that I’m not good at something doesn’t mean that thing is worthless, or that it’s pointless, or that I can ignore it. It means that I can learn to be satisfied with doing it badly. I don’t need to be the best at everything I do, hell I don’t even need to be good at everything I do, and I never will be. I do need to do my best at everything I do, and realize that my best might not live up to someone else’s expectations.

The drive to succeed is not inherently a bad thing. However, it can lead us to a lot of bad places, and it’s something that we need to handle with care, both for our own well-being and for the well-being of others.

Trust Part 2

I am very angry at the moment. Recently my roommates and I discovered that the roommate who was responsible for paying the bills, who we all give money to for bills, hasn’t been paying those bills… at least not regularly. Furthermore he and one of the other roommates are moving out, and it’s fairly unlikely that we’re ever going to see any money from either one of them for the $500+ in back bills that need to be paid this month. Obviously this adds to the financial burdens I recently wrote about, but I’m also just mad about being lied to and stolen from.

I considered simply killing him. I’m not proud of that, and I’m not going to defend it, but I’m also not going to lie about it. Still, that wouldn’t be a right thing to do, and it wouldn’t actually solve any of the problems that he’s created. I doubt I would have, honestly, but I thought about it for a while.

Here’s the thing, and why I’ve titled this post the way I have. Trusting God means trusting people, even when they maybe don’t deserve it. I’m not trying to say that trusting God means we simply turn a blind eye to everything and assume that people won’t hurt us. People will hurt us, they will take advantage, they will lie, cheat, steal, and abuse us, and chances are that at some point we’ll do the same to someone else. This is human nature in all of it’s sinful wonder, aren’t we simply lovely. Trusting God doesn’t mean blinding ourselves to this fact any more than God could blind himself to it. God’s love covers a multitude of sins, but it does so not through blindness, but through Christ.

Instead, trusting God means that we love people. It means that we are always willing to give them the chance to prove themselves trustworthy. For example, trusting God doesn’t mean that I give my former roommate the $100+ dollars to ‘pay’ the electric bill. This would be unwise in every sense of the word. However, it does mean that if he comes back, repents, and says that he’s changed his ways, I give him the chance to show that change, rather than rejecting him outright. Perhaps this means lending him a small sum ($15-$20) to see whether he will return it. Perhaps it means letting him back into my life in some small way to see if this change is actually manifest in his life. Whatever the result, the goal is that I give him the benefit of the doubt and the chance to prove that he actually is better.

The other thing this means is that we always give people the chance to prove rumors wrong. How often do we meet someone with so many preconceptions that we don’t take the time to look at the real person. Trusting God means giving  new people the benefit of the doubt, even when we’ve heard all manner of things. It means believing that perhaps that person is not the person someone else believes him/her to be.

I know that I’ve had plenty of people write me off because of some preconception created by a person who didn’t like me much, or a bad first impression created by awkward circumstances. Trusting God means that we are willing to see people for who they are, not for who we think they are, or for who we’ve been told they are, or even for who we might want them to be. Instead, focus on getting to know the actual person, that’s who God cares about, and that’s who we should care about.

So, I’m trying to deal with my roommate in love, and I’m honestly not expecting much out of him. I’ll be surprised if I see any money towards this bill in all honesty. Still, God provides, and he cares, and this too is for the good. Something I should be thankful for actually… I’m there every now and then. Not consistently yet.

Trust

God has spent a long time (very long time) teaching me how to trust him, and I do, completely and without hesitation. However, it’s not easy sometimes. God provides, always, and I don’t doubt this. However, my last paycheck was $400, and I have $755 worth of expenses in the next two weeks, plus I need something to live on (those expenses don’t include gas, food, coffee, etc). So, I’m still up at 2 in the morning, not worrying exactly, but praying that God will provide, and hoping that I can get a little sleep tonight so that I can do my job well tomorrow.

This is the thing about trust. It’s easy to trust God when everything is going the way I want it to, and it’s easy to trust God when nothing is going the way I want it to. The former is obviously easier than the latter, but with a little practice both are easy. It’s easy to have faith that God will do when he is doing, and when he isn’t doing, it’s fairly easy to give up on hope and convince yourself that he won’t do.

Soren Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, makes the point that neither of these is satisfactory. To believe that God will or to believe that God won’t simply isn’t enough, because either way we are attempting to set limits on God. Kierkegaard’s model (Kierkegaard calls him the knight of faith) is a man who believes simultaneously both that God will do what he desires, and that God won’t do what he desires. On top of this, he understands that whether God does or does not, the result is good because it is God’s will, and God is good.

So, applying this to my situation, I need about $600 extra dollars ($355 plus money to live on, plus a little extra for emergencies). So, I am doing my best to trust that God will provide this money. However, if he doesn’t provide this money, I trust that he will take care of me regardless, and that this lack of money will somehow work out to be good, because it is his will. Thus I am doing my best to believe that God will provide, and that he won’t provide, and that whichever happens it is good because it is God’s will. I haven’t mastered this yet.