The words that Professor Ken Elzinga spoke were not complex, but their impact was profound. As our speaker for the Midwest InterVarsity Faculty Conference at Cedar Campus, Professor Elzinga was giving his final presentation of the event and his main point was simply this, “God is not calling you to success, but rather to obedience.”
The audience listened with rapt attention as he reminded these faculty that everything in the university culture around them will constantly tell them that success is always to be their goal as professors; the lens by which to make decisions and secure one’s future. However, Professor Elzinga reminded them that, though apart from Christ that might make sense, their lives as followers of Christ ought not to be characterized by being driven by the unrelenting master of success. Rather, they are to be obedient to the One who has called them to be faculty in the first place.
Though his tenure as a faculty member at the University of Virginia might be viewed as one filled with success, Professor Elzinga shared that it was early on in his career that God convicted him not to make that his goal or it would become an idol. As he was going around campus starting to tear down posters for an upcoming InterVarsity large group meeting with his name as the speaker (as a fellow colleague told him such recognition would equate to career suicide in his department), he sensed God stop him in his tracks and convict him about whether or not he could trust the Lord with his future as a faculty member. Rather than try to secure success and avoid activities that might jeopardize it in the world’s eyes, would he instead be willing to live a life of obedience as a professor? It was the most profound turning point in his career.
Though I was listening to that talk, not as a faculty member but as an InterVarsity staff member, I have found myself coming back to these words from Professor Elzinga time and time again. I need to hear these words, especially at the beginning of a new calendar year as I reflect back and then make new and resolved commitments for the upcoming year. Being driven towards success is not only a stumbling block for professors. I have also learned that many other distractions and desires vie for the place of obedience to the Lord in my life. Even living a more “balanced” life (i.e. balancing work, ministry, relationships, etc.) is not my ultimate goal as a follower of Christ.
So as I start this new year, I am reminded of Jesus in Mark chapter 1:35-38. Here, we find Jesus waking early after a full day of “successful work” to be alone with the Father. In this solitary place, he prays and no doubt gains discernment and guidance. We know this because once the disciples find him, they tell him, “Everyone is looking for you!” In other words, there is more work to be done here! Yet, rather than heeding that call, Jesus says “no”, for he has renewed clarity that his call was to keep heading to Galilee and eventually Jerusalem. His emphasis is on faithful obedience rather than success. If Jesus needed that kind of time alone in prayer with the Father to stay focused and gain clarity, how much more do we?
Ken Elzinga will tell you he has no regrets looking back on his long career as a professor and can recount to you the multitude of opportunities God has opened up in his life over the years for the Gospel to make an impact in his work and in the lives of others. Regularly listening to God through his Word and in prayer has been the path to trusting God. May we lay down striving for success, or anything else that might lure us in order to embrace the call to the life of faithful obedience that God has for us.