Both before and after graduating from college this past May, I found myself continually hearing murmurs of “transition” and “change.” Students all around me were being asked how they were feeling about the approach of summer, a new school year, or, for seniors, what was elusively referred to as “the real world.”
There was never a confident, direct response to such a question. But there was one unfailing trend—as soon as the topic of transition arose, it was as if the air suddenly got heavier. With furrowed brows and heavy sighs, people’s dispositions painted a picture of an unwanted phase they would just have to endure. Whether or not it was explicitly said, they clearly could not wait to get “it” over with before “it” had even begun.
Many of my Christian friends comforted each other with reminders of the good plans God has already authored for each of us. I also knew that the future was full of hope, because God and his goodness have already been there. Nevertheless, a sense of discomfort loomed and lingered, and we were all struggling to pinpoint and eradicate its source.
Perhaps what makes transition so daunting is the fact that practically everything about it is uncertain: how long it will last, what will happen during it, even what will be on the other side of it.
In fact, the word itself causes debate. What does “transition” even mean? Without knowing for certain, we don’t know what to expect. I sure didn’t as I packed my things, preparing to move out of my college apartment, leave my college life, and enter the unknown.
And herein lies a mistake that most of us, including myself, end up making. We attempt to define, perhaps make sense of, and somehow get through the abstract concept of transition by fitting it into a tangible context. Or, we just sweep it under the rug in order to avoid the mess.
Either way, we focus on tending to our external changes without remembering to also make an inner transition.
When our external circumstances change—such as finishing school, moving into a new apartment, graduating into a new job or promotion, or ending a long-time relationship—they often just . . . happen. And certain shifts in our lives seem to create an unstoppable chain reaction in other areas. Before we know it, we find ourselves being forced into a completely different scenario than what we’ve been used to.
But once the change appears to have happened, we think we have done all that needed to be done to transition.
Recently, I’ve been learning this assumption couldn’t be more wrong.
Behold, in comes another seeming opponent: displacement. Though we are aware of our new surroundings, we will likely feel like strangers in a foreign land. Often it’s a feeling of being lost, thrown into an unfamiliar place without knowing why we’re there or which direction to follow, when for so long we had gotten used to the systems and landmarks that indicated where we were in the moment, as well as where we were to go next based on our contextualized roles.
Displacement signals to us another layer in transition that needs to be recognized and addressed. But even if we aren't conscious of experiencing uncertainty, displacement, or any other sense of tension, the consequences of going through external change without making an internal transition too often follow us into the future, hindering our ability to thrive in the new situations we find ourselves in.
When things around us change, we can’t neglect looking inward and changing how we operate too. This doesn’t mean changing who we are at the core; through Christ, we can freely be our true selves—the person whom God has intentionally designed each of us to be.
But since we are living human beings meant to inevitably grow, it does mean growing into even fuller versions of ourselves during specific seasons in our lives. Otherwise, we end up unsuccessfully trying to live as caterpillars within a garden meant for butterflies.
Changed, from the Inside Out
So once we’re removed from our old ways, routines, communities, and environment, we may begin noticing holes in what we had subconsciously taken on as our identities. Internal transition thus means taking time to be away from the cues that usually signal our life scripts and asking God to graciously guide us in a process of inner reorientation.
It means carefully discerning which routines, relationships, expectations, issues, and responsibilities to let go of, and which new ones to take up, all in order to discover and embody the version of ourselves God intends for us to be at this particular time in our lives.
How can we do this well?
The only way we can change fully and in good timing is by asking God to change us from the inside out. When we come before him, weaknesses vulnerably laid out and requests humbly presented, he transforms our hearts and whole selves in a way that nothing else can. As he says in Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone.”
The specific change we undergo will be different for all of us, but it is possible through God, who instills in us new hearts and spirits to allow us to thrive in our changing settings.
An Unchanging Love
Thankfully, in the midst of life’s turbulence, one thing is always constant: God declares that though the things of this world come to an end, his love does not, and never will. As the writer of Lamentations declares:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (3:22-23 ESV)
Not only are God’s great plans awaiting us in the future, but they are also unfolding right now (as you’re reading this!). Because of his steadfast love and new mercies for us every day, we can rest in his unchanging love and goodness in the midst of all that’s uncertain, while pressing into his power to faithfully stretch, mold, and grow us in his perfect timing.
The (Actually) Great Unknown
For me, graduating college in May felt weird and surreal because up until now, my own life chapters had been based on the school system. I knew that things would be different—that my college friends would head to different places, that my working rhythms would no longer be sporadic, and that my favorite pizza places would no longer be just a few blocks away.
But along with God's love, the other constant is, ironically, change itself. And change is not a bad thing, despite how it’s often spoken of.
In many ways, change is actually a blessing, especially when we consider how God designed our lives to have a rhythm of constant renewal, not stale standstill. Change presents a rich opportunity to not only see the world with fresh eyes and experience a new way of living, but also discover more of the gifts God has placed both within us and around us from the start, that we have yet to uncover and use for his glory.
So although “transition” may seem like a synonym for “an empty period of nothingness,” it is really anything but. Rather, this neutral state is full of chances to try new things, unrestricted by the conditions that used to dictate our lives. And ultimately it’s an opportunity to experience inner reorientation, realignment, and renewal as God actively moves in and grows us every day.
Recently I read a book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, in which William Bridges observes that the Hebrew word for “wilderness”—which both Jesus and Moses spent time in during critical periods of their own formative transitions—simultaneously means “sanctuary.” He states: “This unmappable ‘nowhere’ was also, as several of these heroes were explicitly told, holy ground.”
As I've continued to learn more about transition—and as I’m still right in the midst of one, having moved from California to Wisconsin for the summer to intern for InterVarsity—I've also been realizing that God has given me countless opportunities to reflect, journal, discern, and pray in my own restful neutral zone, away from life’s typical distractions, obligations, and influences. By leading me here, to a new place, God’s already taught me much about my own weaknesses, strengths, dreams, ideas, and passions in just my first few weeks.
But we don’t need to go to a new state to retreat with God. Hiking trails, peaceful lakes, or quiet coffee shops—wherever God invites you to converse with him away from your normal interferences—await you.
Although transition inevitably brings about hard goodbyes, as time passes and God shows up, I’m more and more convinced that these bittersweet endings are what make way for exciting new beginnings as we assume the roles God’s written for us in his perfect story.