Community, Excellence, and Joy, Part 2 (Closing Interview, Faithful Is Successful series)

As we wrap up the Faithful is Successful series, ESN caught up with the book’s three editors for an interview. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and Josh Swamidass reflect on community, faithfulness, and other themes of the series below. Enjoy Part 2 of this interview! Part 1 can be found here.

4. ESN: One of the largest themes of the series has to do with issues of faith and ambition. It seems that God has called us to do our best work for Him, and yet He’s also called us to seek humility and associate with the humble. Any further thoughts on navigating that tension?

Nathan Grills: I think that there is great value in having these conversations. I think we will all continue to struggle with these issues.  We will all struggle with success and ambition and how that fits with being faithful and God focused.  Having deep introspective conversations about these issues is a protective mechanism I believe. This also helps to keep each of accountable.  So keep having these discussions on line and face to face with your friends. I think it is really dangerous to claim we understand this tension or that we are immune to pride and falling prey to the counterfeit God of success.

Josh Swamidass: There is a tension, a paradox, between humility and ambition that is amplified by careers in academics.  I would just add that as much as this a challenge in academics, we are not alone in this struggle. Other (maybe all?) Christians have similar challenges and God has grace on us all. We can expect to fall short of His standards for humble service, but God still redeems us and our work.

David E. Lewis: We need to do our best work for Him but remember that our calling is not just to our work. Our vocation is one area of many where we participate in his good work in the world. It is important and difficult to remember this. I try to remind myself of this day to day. Specifically, when I make my list of tasks that need to get done each day (I am a list person) and try to prioritize them, I try to square them up with how I can advance God’s kingdom (not mine). Sometimes, this means doing my research first. Sometimes it means prioritizing other non-work tasks first.

I also pray that God would help me accomplish the things on His list, rather than mine. Sometimes these lists are different, not just because I am out of touch with what he is doing. He has plans that I cannot know or see. But, he knows my list and cares about it too. I try to trust that the unexpected interruptions and happenings during the day are to be embraced and that God will provide grace to get done the things on my list later and in their time. I worry about being too busy to be responsive to God’s movement in the day.

More generally, I try to think consciously, if not entirely successfully, about holding my job and career loosely in my hands. God has made me no promises of success or a continued career in this discipline. He has promised to love me well whatever path he has chosen for me.

I do pray that God will continue to let me do what I do because I love it. I do pray for success in my work. He has blessed me in this profession beyond my wildest aspirations. That said, I have a long enough history with God and experience with him to hopefully trust him with something else if he moves me out of this career into another. If our work is an idol and something we will not give up, he may need to take it from us for our own good and for the good of those around us.

5. ESN: Another important theme that came up often in the ESN/Faithful is Successful interviews was what a gift it is to work in the academic world. Sometimes the deadlines and the pressures of academic life work against seeing the vocation as a gift and a delight. What helps you to remember the joy of your academic vocation?

Nathan Grills: I work in applied research.  I take a lot of joy in seeing people changed through my work.  That could be people in rural India . . . or students who I mentor.  I think a healthy focus, or even priority, for the student or person who is below you is of key importance.  Not only is it a breath of fresh air to hear enthusiasm but it keeps us humble and by helping them practically and spiritually we are also blessed.  I think it reflect the approach of Christ to seemingly focus in those who were not  (or not yet). And so I think an approach of spending itme helping those below us can effectively show the heart of Christ.  It is too easy to focus on meeting important people and meeting with people that can help us.

Josh Swamidass: There is a lot of pressure here in academics, especially as you advance farther in your career. That being said, every time I can sit down to do actual scientific work, I always find it refreshing, beautiful, profound and fun. Of course, I still have to do administrative work, apply for grants, and write papers. Still, making time consistently to do the parts of my job that I love (mentoring, teaching, and conducting scientific work)  always renews my joy. It really is a privilege to work as an academic, it is gift.

David E. Lewis: Honestly, this is not easy. Walking faithfully does help to put things in perspective. Part of what is hard about this job is the persistent sense of failure, both in the sense of having projects not work out but also in the sense that we do not live up to our own high standards for our teaching, research, or collegiality. One thing that has helped me is to remember that God owes me nothing. He is not in my debt. I rely on his goodness and lovingkindness, not my own merit. He invites failures and ragamuffins to follow him. In this context every grace is easier to acknowledge. When we realize we deserve so little, this can help us appreciate more what we have.

Getting outside the academic bubble into the world in places like Guatemala has also helped me put things in perspective. In Guatemala many kids start working at 10, get married at 15 or 16, and live in homes with dirt floors and no running water. Yet, you meet there some of the most faithful, beautiful, and joyful people. This has really challenged me.

6. ESN: Anything else you’d like to say at the end of this series?

Nathan Grills: THANK YOU.

David E. Lewis: Thank you for doing this. Our hope in putting the book together was to encourage conversation on this important subject. You have helped make conversation possible.

Many of us that have written chapters feel sheepish about being visible in this way, as if we have some merit to recommend us. Not at all. My hope is that our experiences, notably our failures, provide other followers of Christ a lesson to draw wisdom from, react against, or embrace. We are all sinners and my hope is that the experience of this sinner in need of grace, encourages other sinners along the way.

ESN thanks the whole Faithful Is Successful team, and all the ESN writers who engaged with the book. God has blessed these conversations, and we are deeply grateful.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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