Finding yourself out of work is scary and painful. It’s like a double punch in the gut. First, you question everything you thought you knew about your plans, your purpose, and your future, and then you wonder how you’re going to pay the bills. I’ve found myself on the wrong side of the unemployment statistics twice in my 15-year professional career journey. I used to think there was shame in admitting that, but it led me to a breakthrough that I hope can happen for you too.
The truth is, shift happens. Typo intended. Things change. Life moves. Circumstances outside of our control can move our life in a direction that we did not intend nor desire. The question in the midst of one of these shifts is—what will I do with what I can control (without losing myself in the process)?
One of the many grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many people will lose their jobs. Whether due to temporary furloughs, or long-term changes in the job market, many people have found or will find themselves out of work as a result of this crisis. In fact, more than 22 million have lost their job in four weeks. These are devastating numbers.
The full impact will never fully be realized because unemployment is about more than a loss of income. For many, it feels like a loss of identity.
This was my story during my first spell of joblessness. I was a pastor at a local church, where I had been on staff since graduating from college. Our little church went through a tough financial spell, and I raised my hand in a leadership team meeting one day, asking if I should start looking for a job. My friends around the table glanced at the ground, wrung their hands, and reluctantly declared that would be wise. The writing was on the wall… “cash flow” and “runway” were terms I began to understand in a real way for the first time.
So within a few weeks, I found myself without a job. Without work. Without a place to show up to daily. Without a reason to get out of bed. Without a title. Without a community of people to shepherd. Without significance. Without a “ 2005 - Present” line on my resume. Without an identity.
At least that’s what the enemy had convinced me. What a bunch of BS.
The truth is, of course, all those things still existed. In fact, they were about to be clarified. As is so often the case, I had to hit the bottom before I could begin to dig my way out. The next season of my life is a blur of unemployment paperwork and jobs that I universally hated. Each with a chaotic ending, many of the “that can’t be true” variety.
I was fired from a job on a day my wife dropped me off at work because my car was broken down. The HR manager who delivered the bad news had to drive me back to my house in her Buick Lesabre. Talk about a ride of shame.
A glimmer of stability ended harshly when a promotion to manager quickly turned to “laid off,” as 35 nationwide branches were abruptly closed. That was the last job in a long-line of what seemed to be dead-end vocational mishaps.
I experienced an immense amount of personal pain in this season. Almost all of it self-inflicted.
I was aimless, taking whatever was thrown my way, and stumbling toward what felt like a sure cliff, but unsure of how to, or perhaps unwilling to, change directions. Self-pity and blame was the medicinal cocktail, and I took my pills daily. A slow poisoning from the inside out. Disconnection from community and breakdown in healthy relationships served as an accelerant to the dumpster fire.
Have you ever seen an ice-skater perform one of those whirlybird twirls? I’m pretty sure that’s the technical name. You know, when they start out spinning slowly on their skate and before you know it, they are flying around in a tight circle. I’m always amazed they can do this and proceed to finish the routine as if they are immune to dizziness. They say the trick is to find a fixed point and lock your gaze onto that point. Everything is spinning violently, but your eyes remain anchored to a single point of reference, which gives you your bearings and allows you to focus as the spinning stops. Failure to find the focal point will result in side effects that outlast the spin itself.
If you’re reading this and you’re experiencing unemployment for the first time, or the third time or you’re afraid you’re about to be hit with bad news about your job. Please hear me—realize you have an anchor. Whether or not you believe in God, He is with you right now. Maybe more than ever.
And whether you believe it or not, you also have an enemy who will do his best to convince you otherwise. The enemy’s tools are vast: shame, distraction, blame, self-loathing, anger, lust, and doubt, to name a few. This might be your desert moment. Luckily the one who is your anchor also had His desert moment.
Jesus was tempted too. He was led out to the countryside by the Holy Spirit to fast for 40 days. Throughout the experience, the enemy appears to Jesus in order to tempt and distract him from his ultimate purpose. For Jesus, that was the next three years of His life in the active ministry that would precede his death.
The devil tempts Jesus three different times. Each encounter attempts to prey on a particular weakness of the human flesh. Each is just the means to a larger end Satan has in mind—to prevent Jesus from stepping into the chapter of His life that was His ultimate calling. To thwart the Son of God being prepared by the Holy Spirit to serve and save the world. To cheat humanity of her redemptive gift.
The devil’s mission was death. His motive was fear. Nothing is more terrifying to a creature who seeks death, loss, and destruction than one who offers life, hope, and restoration.
Here’s the takeaway. You have an anchor to fix your eyes upon. One who lived through a desert experience and defeated death, sin, Satan, hell, and the grave. Your focal point is the Son of a God, whose image you bear. Fix your eyes, anchor your heart, and refuse the enemy any ground he seeks to steal. Because he’s trying to prevent you from stepping into what you were made for, too.
The quicker you realize your identity is rooted someplace far more significant than a job, a title, an office building, a daily schedule, a particular community, the quicker you’ll come out of the spin, and have your bearings.
None of those things are bad. It’s just that you and I are not the sum of them. Our identity is as beloved sons and daughters of the Creator God. Our primary job in life is to follow this Jesus we’ve heard about or come to know. Our second one is to bring the full weight of our gifts, skills, and abilities to bear in the world.
How do you do that in the midst of unemployment? Here are some tips I received from amazing friends throughout my journey that I hope you find helpful. They came from friends who shaped my ability to pull up out of the nosedive and find a path that has led to a more flourishing vocational story than I could have ever imagined:
- Name your struggle and fight back. It’s likely that one of those tools of the enemy weighs more heavily on you. Maybe it’s shame, or guilt, or fear, or lust. Whatever it is, recognize it. Name it. Ask God to remind you of the truth. Ask Him to help you beat it. Tip: This is not a one and done. Do this daily. Be with God. Hear His voice of truth, so you can recognize the lies when they show up and not fall for them.
- Get dressed every day and go to work. My friend Larry wore a suit and tie to Starbucks every day as he navigated his season of unemployment in between senior leadership positions at local financial institutions. For me, this looked like getting out of bed, taking a shower, putting down the book/phone/computer/remote I was holding, and charting a course toward better opportunities.
- Find out what’s already happening in the world around you and get out in front of it. My friend Ben encouraged me to find an area of momentum in my life and pour my energy into that. The result was a rekindling of passion and giftedness that I was convinced were dry bones.
- Stop waiting for the career fairy to show up. Start architecting a plan that will bring you “career happiness.” My friend Julie, an amazing career coach, has the most loving and kind way of knocking you in the head and saying: “Wake up dummy (PG version). You’re talented. You have a great story. People like you. Make a plan, work the plan, and create the opportunities you’re longing for.” (If you don’t have people in your life who say that to you, find some.) For me, this looked like making a network map of relationships, evaluating my skill set, clarifying what I actually wanted to do, and making a whole bunch of bold asks. It’s far more likely that your next great career opportunity is on the other side of an authentic conversation with a friend than on the other side of a Monster.com application.
- Keep showing up. Newsflash: If you’re out of work, you’ve got approximately 40 extra hours a week to fill out. Volunteer. Help a friend with a project. Call your dream job, and offer your services. Find a craftsman friend who will let you apprentice for a season. I had two volunteer positions during my jobless season that absolutely gave me a sense of purpose and kept me connected to life-giving work that I loved. One of those opportunities led to my “big break.”
- Don’t isolate. If there’s one thing I beg of you, it’s don’t put yourself on an island. Pulling away from key relationships, whether out of shame, frustration, laziness, or any other reason, is a recipe for disaster. Sin breeds in isolation. Darkness multiplies darkness. The enemy does his best work when we’re convinced we’re all alone. Lean into your loving relationships: spouse, children, friends, church community. If you don’t have any, find some here. Lean in, get real, be vulnerable, ask for help, offer help, and don’t shy away from the elephant in the room. It’s likely you’re the only one who thinks it’s an elephant in the first place.
The unemployment journey is deeply personal and can be extremely difficult. None of what I’ve shared is intended to minimize that. I do not mean this as a pithy “trust God, and you’ll be OK” article. It’s hard to talk about this stuff, but it shouldn’t be. I’ve done my best to share with you my heart and a piece of my journey with the hopes of normalizing the reality of unemployment and offering some critical beliefs that helped me survive and get to the other side.
Shift happens, but who you are doesn’t have to change or even feel threatened. Your job does not have that power. A few years after my wilderness experience of unemployment and crappy jobs, I was able to look back and see just how intricate each step was. Every job created an opportunity, a skill, or a relationship that led to the next thing. My sister-in-law, Kristan, is prone to say that “God uses our broken mess to build something bigger.” I’ve experienced grace like that. I hope you’ll give yourself the chance to experience the same.