Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question about how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected]

Got any tips on how to help a high-school student engage in schoolwork? My son puts forth the least amount of effort necessary to get the grades we expect from him. He loves Jesus, but doesn’t always see how reading things like Bartleby, the Scrivener is relevant outside the classroom. He’s in a Christian school, and I know his teachers are making those connections for him, but that’s not always enough motivation for him to dig in. How can we help him strive for godly excellence while at the same time giving him space to be a kid?

High schoolers are not so different from adults. We both want to make sense of what we do every day. At school and at work, we both engage in laborious and lackluster work. At the same time, we want it to count.

No matter your age, the temptation will always be—in the words of Greg Gilbert and Sebastian Traeger—to either idolize your work or be idle in your work. Both temptations are, at root, a distrust of God. We believe either that we need our work for the sake of our identity, or that we don’t need to perform well because work doesn’t matter. The apostle Paul addresses this dichotomy by exhorting us to work as if we’re working for the Lord himself, not for men, because this is what it means to be an adopted child of God (Col. 3:23–24).

We work for Jesus Christ because he is the ultimate Worker. He has worked the world into existence (John 1:1–3). He works even now as your Savior (2 Pet. 3:9), intercessor (Heb. 7:25), and sustainer (Col. 1:17). And one day, he will work all of creation into full and final redemption, world—holy and holistic work included—without end (Rev. 21:1–5). Jesus overcame the temptation to idolize or to be idle in his work so that we would be able to do the same (Heb. 4:14–16).

Not all work is immediately rewarding, and it’s a misstep to categorize such work as irrelevant.

Regarding the issue at hand, let’s start by saying your son is not alone in lamenting his pilgrimage through Bartleby, the Scrivener. However, the twofold error in his approach is this: Not all work is immediately rewarding, and it’s a misstep to categorize such work as irrelevant. Because of the fall, some work is going to feel futile or monotonous or painful. But because our reward for our work is not bound in the temporary, we are able to struggle and suffer with joy (Rom. 5:23–25; James 1:2–4).

I too am a product of a Christian high-school education. I remember the “Christ connections” with Nathaniel Hawthorne in English class and the apologetics appendices to our biology lessons. Hear me say that any educational system that seeks to show how Christ is both creative and preeminent throughout the academic disciplines is worthy of commendation. But this will not always take a student from apathetic to ablaze in his studies. He needs to understand not just how Christ is present in what he is studying, but that Christ is present in his labor of learning.

He needs to understand not just how Christ is present in what he’s studying, but that Christ is present in his labor of learning.

Here are four questions to consider in the quest to impart a spirit of godly excellence to your child:

  1. Is establishing a GPA standard as the primary metric for your children’s success setting them up for a bare-minimum endeavor? Godly excellence is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, but you don’t get there by striving for a manmade measuring stick. It is the fruit of abiding in vocation, the work God is doing in the world through you. Take care to select how you train your child to set goals and standards, and ensure that they are both ambitious and attainable.
  2. Are you willing to let your teenager go against the grain of society if the Lord calls him to? Your child may not love the idea of a traditional post-college career. Only 6 percent of American high-school students receive vocational job exposure in high school, while that number in Europe is often close to 50 percent. If the lack of love for learning at school continues, high-skilled labor training may be something to explore.
  3. Are you as a parent modeling godly excellence in your own approach to work? I too often witness parents imploring their children to “work as unto the Lord” while they themselves are ruled by the prospect of a promotion. Just as you cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13), you cannot serve both worldly success and also your child’s sanctification. Work hard and work well, but do not set an example of idolatry or idleness that your child will later need to overcome.
  4. Do you prioritize your child’s involvement and investment in your local church? It is not good for us to dwell, or to work, alone (Gen. 2:18). By taking your child to church, you affirm that his work cannot adequately bear the weight his soul. A day of true rest, recreation, and reflection in the context of a covenant community is a powerful antidote to both sloth and also workaholism. Lord willing, he will gradually begin to see Jesus as beautiful and gracious—worth serving in every aspect of life.

Your teenager’s struggle with work is not going away anytime soon, and neither is yours. Lean into the struggle and learn alongside him. The pressures of the world will only increase as your child ages and advances in a career. Train him up now in the way he should view his work, and pray that he will cling to the finished work of Christ all the while.

You can read other questions and answers in the Thorns & Thistles series.