I failed out of Duke University.
I found out on December 17, 2008. While my parents and congregants from our church were gathered at my house joyously celebrating my parents' 31st wedding anniversary, I was huddled over our computer, fighting hot tears and forbidding them from falling down my face as I reeled in shock from reading an email that shattered my identity.
I'd just ended the first semester of my sophomore year in college, and it was a semester riddled with highs (such as my sister's wedding) and lows, but I mostly remember the lows. The anxiety, thoughts of self-harm, frustration, and fear: fear of failure and fear of others knowing how stupid and helpless I felt. But this day was the all-time low.
I returned to the anniversary celebration and did what I always did: put a smile on my face and acted like everything was fine. The next morning, I sobbed on the phone with Kenesha, who had discipled me fort he past year and a half. After she patiently listened to me, she kindly but firmly said, "Lis. I know this seems like a big deal right now, but it's not really a big deal. God has something He's been trying to tell you, and if you stay at Duke you won't be able to hear Him."
Yes she actually said that.
I was shocked too.
Because it WAS a big deal.
I was Elisabeth Michel. Which obviously meant that academic achievement was a given. Failing out of a prestigious university meant that I no longer was the fiercely independent and intelligent person I knew myself to be. I was no longer somebody that people would want around, or who could make her parents proud.
But over the next 8 months I spent at home and out of school, I learned that Kenesha was right. God was actively speaking to me.
Little by little I began to see God revealing to me that I'd placed all my hope and identity in my ability to achieve - something He'd been trying to show me since I started school my freshman year.
I'd believed that since God specializes in doing the impossible, I had to focus on the possible. And focusing on the possible meant excelling academically, because that was in my power to do.
But my academic dismissal shook this belief, and I had no choice but to learn that life was comprised of more than my academic and professional success. My life didn't end because I was no longer in school. In fact, in the midst of my broken pride and bruised heart, I experienced a newness of life as God brought me freedom.
Freedom from the heavy chains of feeling that perfection is a requirement for others to love me.
Freedom from the burden of thinking that I had to earn a 4.0 GPA in order to have a successful career.
Freedom from the fear of people knowing that I need help and I can't do it all.
And freedom to receive God's love - a love that enveloped me even though I felt undeserving. Love that I couldn't work for.
I can’t tell you what steps I took for my heart to start receiving healing. My first two weeks at home, all I did was sleep, eat, and watch Grey’s Anatomy online. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon Colossians 1:17 –
“He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
And that verse became the mantra for that season (and continues as such – #SorryNotSorry for all the times I’ve repeated it to any of you over the past two years). God pursued me through His Word and through others, and I began to receive comfort in my time of suffering. Family, friends, and mentors extended their love and their support to me, helping me when I didn’t have the words to ask. They spoke words of truth, prayed with me, and prodded me to continue dreaming. They continued to value me when I felt I had no value. Despite the pain, I began to grow and mature in unexpected ways – admitting my weaknesses while honoring my strengths, learning how to ask for help, learning the definition of humility, and learning the feeling of a peaceful heart.
After two semesters of being at home, I reapplied to Duke and was readmitted, but since my pride had been beaten out of me, I returned to school with a renewed perspective - with my hope placed in Jesus instead of myself. My journey taught me that God won’t leave me, even if I try to run away from Him, so it’s safe for me to share my hurts with Him. My journey allows me to encourage others who struggle with academic performance or the pressures of trying to be effortlessly perfect.
Ultimately, my journey of suffering changed (as Artie Sudan shared on Sunday) how I relate to myself, others, and God.
I didn’t want to write this blog on the topic of suffering. I felt like it probably pales in comparison to the suffering you may have encountered in your life. But I remembered Christy Ogden’s words during the response time after the message at Antioch on August 6. She said that suffering is suffering – no matter what it is, no matter how “big” or how “little” you think your suffering is, it all matters to God. He doesn’t compare my suffering to yours, so nor should I.
Nor should you. No matter our suffering, God extends His love and His Word to us, to bring direction, healing, and hope.
Over the next week, I encourage you to think about the following:
- What has been your journey of suffering?
- What thoughts run through your mind when you think of your journey?
- Which of those thoughts are in alignment with God’s Word? Which are not?
Share your thoughts with a friend, and bring them before the Lord. God is waiting to receive your wariness; to exchange your heavy burdens with His yoke that is easy and His burden that is light, and to clothe you in His love.
About the Author: Elisabeth (Lis) is a recent graduate of UofM’s Master of Public Health program. When she’s not wading through the uncertainties of entrepreneurship as she launches a start-up focused on end-of-life healthcare decision making, making drinks at Starbucks (or doing the non-glamorous aspects of barista life), Lis loves to sit at a piano, blast various international music, or curl up with a good book.