“Job transition.” “In between jobs.” “Unemployed.” Whatever you want to call it, these seasons are almost always characterized by doubt about yourself and anxiety about the future. My trial of unemployment was no different. Ten months before I finished grad school, I received a job offer from my dream employer in Washington, D.C. I was elated—I had been praying for this job for six years, doing all I could to present myself as the best possible candidate. And finally, there it was. A job offer that I could hold in my hands. I felt set for decades to come.
It was also a big relief for my then-girlfriend and me. After dating long distance as we lived on opposite sides of the globe and then the country, we were aching to be in the same city. With the job offer, I knew that not only could we settle in Washington, but that I could support her financially. Within about a month of receiving the offer, I got permission from her father and asked my now-wife to marry me. We set the wedding date for two weeks after my graduation. No more “good nights” over the phone. No more “airport goodbyes.” Everything seemed to be coming together. I felt confident that no matter what else happened in my life, I could be happy.
But I never imagined what would happen next (as I narrate below). Although the following season was a trying time, looking back I am grateful for it. It taught me a number of lessons. Here are 10.
1. Hold your plans loosely, with an open hand—not a closed fist—before the Lord. I didn’t stop praying after I got the conditional job offer. My prayer continued to be, “Not my will by yours be done.” God answered my prayer; just not the way I was hoping. The offer was conditional on passing a polygraph. In God’s providence, the polygraph recorded that I lied, even though I told the truth. So in the midst of finals, two weeks before graduation, and a month before I was to get married, I received notice that the dream job offer was officially revoked. As painful and discouraging as this was, it reminded me that God is God and I am not. “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Prov. 19:21).
2. Examine your heart and be honest about your motives. In this fallen world, even our best desires can be tainted by sin. Did I really want to glorify God through my dream job? Sure. But it also happened to have plenty of worldly pleasures to go with it: great pay, a (false) promise of long-term stability, a good amount of power, and plenty of admiration from the world. While I’d like to think I just wanted to glorify God, it’s hard to believe a few of those worldly temptations didn't seep into my desire to work at my dream job. Praise God that he rescued me from giving into them! If unemployment rids us of even one idol, is not the trial worth it?
3. But that doesn’t necessarily mean sin is at the root of your unemployment. Yes, unemployment may be a result of sin (Gal. 6:7), but like any trial sin is not always the cause (see the entire book of Job). When we go through unemployment ourselves or counsel the unemployed, we should be careful not to assume that sin is the cause for unemployment.
4. Work is a gift from God. After our wedding, I moved back to California so my new wife could finish her grad school degree. As someone trying to find a job in national security, leaving Washington was the last thing I should have done. I continued the job search from afar, targeting organizations that were in my field at first. But soon, as the lack of responses added up, I looked anywhere and everywhere. I applied to be a waiter, a hotel receptionist, and a fast-food worker—anything that would pay the bills. Even here, I fell short. I was either over qualified or not qualified enough. It was a humbling experience. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t force an employer to say yes. I was 24 years old with a master’s degree and losing out to high school kids. The Lord would provide in his own timing. My responsibility was simply to be faithful in looking for work and trust God with the rest.
5. Desiring to work is a good thing—despairing over lack of work is not. God created us to work (Gen. 1:27-28, 2:15). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thes. 3:10) and Timothy that if we can and yet refuse to provide for our family then we are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8). I was sorrowful about not having work. That’s normal and even biblical, but if we are despairing at the loss of work, then it should be a red flag that we may be finding our identity in work rather than God. It may seem like an oxymoron, but those struggling to find work can sometimes be the most prone to make an idol out of work. Work is a gift from God, but it will not solve all our problems. It is not our salvation. Telling the difference between godly sorrow and idolatrous despair is tricky, so reach out to mature believers to help you identify in which camp you may fall.
6. Your identity is a child of God, not someone who does ____ for a living. Those I know who have been through the trial of unemployment also seem to understand better than most that their job does not define them. I do not think that is a coincidence. Scripture is full of examples (Job, Abraham, Daniel, David, and so on) of God stripping all else away to expose those in whom and that in which people really trust. Most fundamentally, Christians are children of God (Gal 3:26).
7. Unbelievers are watching you—what kind of witness will you be? In my unemployment, unbelieving family and friends were observing how I handled the trial. Would I be given over to worry or have a confident trust in God?
8. The local church matters. My local church was a place where I could find comfort and hope in the midst of my trial of unemployment. I was not labeled as the “unemployed guy.” Instead, I was regularly reminded of my eternal value in the eyes of the sovereign Lord and the great hope I have in Christ, that one day all trials will end. Are the unemployed automatically viewed by members of your church, even at a subconscious level, as any less valuable or less intelligent or less hard-working? Is the gospel preached every week to remind everyone of our value before the Father and the hope we have in Christ?
9. When the Lord does provide work, even if it is work that we may not be the most passionate about, we should give thanks. Ten months after my dream job disappeared, God gave me a job as a mail guy for a government agency back in Washington. It wasn’t in my field nor was it my dream job, but it was something. All too often, we overemphasize what we do instead of how and for whom we do it. But Scripture could not be clearer: “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24). God calls us to be faithful and work hard, even if it is at a job that we don’t particularly love.
10. God knows us better than we know ourselves. I really thought that the way that God made me, with my skills and abilities, was a great fit for my dream job. I was wrong, but God, who “formed my inward parts” and “knitted me together in my mother's womb” (Ps. 139:13), knew this all along. Seven years later, I can now see how he was directing my steps from a mail job to a job today handling terrorism issues for Congress. It is a much better fit than my supposed dream job.
In our day and age, unemployment can be seen as a scarlet letter, but it shouldn’t be. How we handle unemployment ourselves and how we counsel others going through unemployment are both excellent opportunities to bring glory to God’s name.