‘Tis the season when hundreds of thousands of students find out if they were accepted to the schools of their dreams. Whether you’re a senior in high school or an accomplished professional heading to business school, each of us hopes and prays that our applications will be successful.

But how do we respond when those hopes don’t materialize? And how should parents, friends, and mentors help those whose plans don’t turn out as they desired?

My Rejection Story

Ever since my undergraduate days, I dreamed of studying at Oxford. So as I finished up my master of divinity degree at Princeton Seminary, I began planning and praying that the Lord would make a way for us to move to Oxford. In an amazing blessing, I was given a full fellowship to pursue a one-year master’s degree at Oxford. All I had to do was get into a program.

I applied and was told I should have an answer by early February. The day for hearing about my application came and went. I didn’t understand. I had a sterling GPA and strong letters of support from several professors. My writing sample was among the best work I had ever done, and I was convinced that my acceptance was just a formality. After all, I had secured something much harder—a full fellowship to pay for my Oxford degree.

One morning, I decided to call the Oxford postgraduate admissions office to see if they could shed any light. The lady at the other end of the phone told me the letter was en route but might take another week or two to reach me. I begged her to tell me the gist of the letter. She paused and then took a deep breath. “I regret to inform you, Mr. Lindsay, that your application has not been successful.” It was the nicest way she could put the devastating news. I had been rejected.

I wept bitterly. I couldn’t go to school that day. I felt humiliated. How would I explain to the scholarship committee? What would I tell my friends? I’d asked everyone I knew to pray for my application. Needless to say, those prayers didn’t produce the results I wanted.

Surrendering in Prayer

Disappointment and loss have a way of pointing out idols we didn’t even realize we had in our lives. As I grappled with my rejection at Oxford, I came to realize a large part of my identity hung on my ability to perform. My self-worth was wrapped up in academic achievement.

Proverbs 16 speaks about surrendering our plans to God. “Commit your work to the LORD,” verse 3 states, “and your plans will be established.” The verb “commit” here refers literally to rolling over, to surrendering. It’s an acknowledgement in our daily living that God is over it all. We don’t fully know what today or tomorrow brings, but each day we prayerfully commit our work to the Lord, and he establishes our plans.

Disappointment and loss have a way of pointing out idols we didn’t even realize we had in our lives.

Prayer is our means of daily self-surrender. We grow in goodness and serenity, and we remove ourselves from the center of our existence, instead focusing on God. Prayer, in other words, is a “school of self-forgetfulness,” as Michael Casey puts it.

Tough times have a way of schooling us in the practice of prayer. In the hours and days following the news that I’d been rejected for the graduate program at Oxford, my prayers were more like heart cries than petitions. I was so devastated and embarrassed that I didn’t have enough clear thinking to ask things of God. But gradually, I began to understand more deeply what it meant to take our requests to the Lord.

I probably spent more time in prayer in the weeks after getting this news than I’d experienced in years. I learned many things about myself, some of which I didn’t like to learn—like how much pride and self-centeredness were alive and well in my character. And I saw how quick I was to tell the Lord what I wanted, and how rarely I paused to genuinely ask what he wanted with my life or this next venture.

Receive His Good Gifts

Over the next month, the Lord unfolded a plan that was even better than I could have imagined—and none of it would have been possible if my original plans had worked out. So in order to receive the many good gifts God had in store for my family, I had to experience the pain and disappointment of having my strategies rejected. Did God have to work that way? No, of course not. But it’s how it worked out. And I am so much better because of it.

The Christian pilgrimage is a process of recognizing that our strategies may not be the best, that we often deceive ourselves from seeing things as they really are, and that the surest way to abundant living is the process of surrender—of committing our work to the Lord so that our plans can be established. This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from the school of rejection.