New beginnings, new opportunities
The late American poet and author, Sylvia Plath, wrote in her controversial novel, The Bell Jar, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in life. And I am horribly limited.”
As a eighteen-year-old about to enter into NTU, I could relate. I was eager to milk my university education for all it was worth. Like Plath’s character in The Bell Jar, I wanted to participate in the whole spectrum of human life experiences out there. I didn’t do very well for my “A” level examinations and my co-curricular activity (CCA) record in junior college wasn’t particularly outstanding either. When I entered university, I was very determined to see all that change. Beginning my university education was pretty much like being given a fresh clean slate to start over. That ex-co position, that internship, that volunteering opportunity – I was setting my sights on all these things. I didn’t want to graduate feeling like I had shortchanged myself by not trying out all the options available to me.
The array of options offered was dizzying but I didn’t want to miss out on having a “fulfilling” university life.
If there was one thing that presented at least some of those opportunities to try my hand at something new, it was definitely the annual CCA fair. Being at the CCA fair during my first week of school was like standing in line for a never-ending buffet of possibilities. I took every single flyer handed out to me and pored over each one. I lost count of the number of booths where I’d given my name and number. The array of options offered was dizzying but I didn’t want to miss out on having a “fulfilling” university life – or lose out and have a sad, paltry resume. When I had looked through all my options, I had shortlisted and eventually joined the following:
- my residential hall’s publications committee as a reporter (I needed those elusive participation points so that I could secure a place in hall next year)
- the Red Cross (I had a first aid certificate that was in need of a renewal, so why not?)
- the Lindy Hop club (a new skill always comes in handy), and
- my school’s talent time sub-committee (I got roped in by a friend I just met – how could I say “no”?).
Oh, and I topped off my already-packed schedule with ad-hoc volunteering at plays and charity sales. The thought of my CV taking shape made me feel slightly delirious, as a freshman. Thankfully, by God’s grace, I managed to survive my freshman year, get a decent GPA and still not burn out from maintaining such a crazy schedule. It felt so gratifying to know that I could do well academically but still manage all those commitments. But at the end of my first year, He brought me to the realization that I couldn’t continue living like this. Not only was this way of living unsustainable in the long run, I came to see that my schedule revolved around me – and not God. I hadn’t cared to seek Him in planning my schedule and in deciding whether to take up or decline responsibilities. God wasn’t just not at the centre of my planning and decision-making; He wasn’t even factored in at all. As a long-time yet spiritually immature Christian, I had absolutely no concept of what it meant to seek God and His agenda above my own.
I sugar-coated my actions, trying to assure myself that there was nothing wrong with wanting to make the most of my time at university. Not only that, I learnt that my packed-to-the-brim schedule was symptomatic of my own insecurities. Being able to pack my schedule and still handle all my commitments gave me a sense of self-worth and validation. I sugar-coated my actions, trying to assure myself that there was nothing wrong with wanting to make the most of my time at university.
The greatest potential to glorify God
Before my second year of university rolled around, I prayed and asked God to help me in choosing my modules for the new semester. Though it sounded silly and insignificant to bring up something like module selection in my prayers, I knew that no matter was too trivial to commit to my Heavenly Father.
With each new semester in university, I would keep praying and seeking God on how I should organize my schedule.
Which module should I pick, Lord? Should I take up this responsibility to serve? Would agreeing to this research assistantship allow me to have the time to do the things You want me to do?
I kept pressing on to take up only the things that God was leading me to, and saying difficult “no’s” to others. For example, I had worked as a research assistant for a professor during the holidays and the offer to continue working for her when school started sounded enticing. As much as I knew this would pave the way for a future research career and that I’d have extra cash from being an RA, I knew that I didn’t have the capacity to manage this. I wouldn’t be able to handle my heavy school workload, serve in ministry and do a decent job for my professor.
God was so faithful. As He expanded my capacity and I got entrusted with greater responsibilities in my third and final years, He allowed every one of my commitments to fall into place. Yes, I still struggled with these responsibilities from time to time, but I could say that I never hit serious burnout. I still had time to rest, spend time being involved in evangelism and discipleship, and still had time to focus on my core priorities as a student.
A lesson that I learnt – and advice that I’ve been dispensing to juniors ever since – is that a well thought-out schedule has the greatest potential to glorify God. And by “a well thought-out schedule”, I don’t mean being an over-planner and mapping out every single area of your life goals and plans. I came to see that desiring to have this schedule meant that I would be willing to recalibrate my life priorities to His will and do only the things God was leading me to do.
It meant that I had sufficient time for physical and spiritual rest.
A well thought-out schedule has the greatest potential to glorify God And it also meant that my choices weren’t squeezing out my time with God as well as my priority to hang out with my family and friends. I knew that though I had taken on multiple responsibilities, these were things that God had led me to, and that I didn’t have to worry about the possibility of conflicting priorities in my schedule.
Lastly, it meant that I was able to undertake each commitment with joy and an attitude of love. Because I was well-rested enough and convicted by God that this should be on my plate, I was in a good position to give of my best and serve God in every activity with the right heart motivations. I recently gave counsel to a younger girl who was burning out from managing too many commitments. I drew a really helpful principle from best-seling author Lysa Terkeurst’s The Best Yes: “… doing [an] activity without an attitude of love would not reflect God’s love… My attitude of love must trump my activity every time.” One could be engaging in a potentially God-glorifying task such as volunteering at a shelter or serving in church even, but not with the love that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13.
A general rule of thumb
I eventually dropped all my commitments that I had as a freshman, joined Cru and stuck with that for my next three years of university life. I knew high-achiever friends who could do just about anything, but I realized I wasn’t designed to accomplish many things all at once. I’ve found these helpful in guiding me (as well as others) in making decisions about their commitments:
- Am I praying and seeking first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness?
- Am I submitting to the Lordship of Christ and letting my desires and ambitions be subordinated by His plans? Is what I’m planning to do going to count in God’s eternal scheme of things?
- Do I have the time, energy and capacity to handle whatever commitment that is being offered to me?
- If so, am I undertaking this commitment with an attitude of love for God and the people I’m serving?
- Am I being a good steward of my time or am I frittering time away?
Taking hold of the life that is truly life
Yes, I’m horribly limited and I might not have laid hold of all the experiences I’d want to have. And true, the world will continue to measure me by how substantial my CV is. I’ve often been lured into the trap of thinking that the most fulfilling life is defined by how much I’ve accomplished.
Jesus, however, calls me to a way of living that’s different from what the world extols. He declared that He came and died for me that I might have abundant life (John 10:10). This life isn’t about setting our minds on earthly things (Colossians 3:2) and striving to store up treasures here as though God isn’t clued in on our needs (Matthew 6:20, 32). It’s a life of peace, restedness and joy that comes from knowing and walking obediently with Him. I can, therefore, rest in the knowledge that I just need to faithfully pursue what God has led me to do – not more, not less.
And that’ll be enough for me.