A Los Angeles Times reporter recently asked me what changes Biola University students might see on account of the COVID-19 pandemic when they return to campus in the fall. I recited our expectations, which include cloth face coverings, less density in classrooms, one-way sidewalks, and disinfecting rigor. She took notes and then asked if anything else would change, as if teeing me up to discuss a deeper difference.
I pivoted from cautionary protocols to visionary principles. I said that as a Christian university, Biola will nurture students to see this as a moment of hope and not despair. My yearning is for students to imagine new ways to love their neighbors more. I haven’t seen the article yet, so we’ll see what she writes.
I’ll expound here what I did not say to the Los Angeles Times reporter.
Constraints as Virtue (Not Curse)
I get that this season is hard and uncertain for college students. It’s foggy, and no one knows when or how it will end. Some students I know are dealing with anxiety or can’t find work this summer. They have family members who are recovering from the virus, mourning the coronavirus deaths of loved ones, or have filed for unemployment. Students feel constrained by guidelines of where they can go, what they must wear, who they can be around, and when they’ll be “free.”
I don’t want college students to ‘FastPass’ their way from the constraints of suffering to the promise of hope without abiding in the places of perseverance and character formation.
Yet my hope is that they will see these constraints as a virtue and not a curse. I want the rising generation of Christians to focus not on what they have lost, but on how much they have gained.
I know I come across as buoyant, but I mean to sound more like Paul than Pollyanna. It was he who wrote that suffering brings about perseverance, and perseverance brings about character, and character brings about hope (Rom. 5:3–5). What I hear in his words is that the road from suffering to hope has several waystations. One is perseverance. Another is character. I don’t want college students to “FastPass” their way from the constraints of suffering to the promise of hope without abiding in the places of perseverance and character formation.
Constraints can even be liberating as they force us to think outside the box to come up with creative solutions. This temporary calamity can help students imagine new ways to live into the gospel. After all, suffering is nothing new for the church.
Caring for Others (Not Worrying About Self)
Throughout history, Christians—many of them young adults—persevered in the midst of torment by worrying less about self and caring more about others. During pestilences, Christians showed mercy, not just to the church but also to the pagans. In pandemics, they restored the sick. In financial turmoil, they fed the poor and housed the homeless. In hierarchical oppression, they educated the illiterate. In profound discrimination, they subverted bigotry—a high calling for all of us today.
In a time of suffering, our worldview enables us to talk about, not avoid, the virtues of perseverance and inner strength.
In a time of suffering, our worldview enables us to talk about, not avoid, the virtues of perseverance and inner strength. Our understanding of God’s providence and unmerited grace reminds college students today—who may feel invincible from COVID—that they are to love their neighbor who may not feel invincible but instead vulnerable or forgotten, unheard or alone. College students in this moment can better understand what it means to be repairers of the breach, redeemers of what has been broken by sin.
There could be no better time than during this COVID-19 pandemic to be part of a Christian college or university where students are encouraged to live into their gifts, to bolster their faith, to mature their worldview, and to sharpen their mind. All of this takes place in a community of scholars and learners united in their commitment to love the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves—especially now. This happens on our campuses over meals and in residential halls and on retreats, even while wearing a mask. It happens through faculty mentoring in the classroom or on Zoom. Students learn to move from suffering to hope as they foster lifelong relationships even at a distance of six feet. And as we have for generations, we will take on this moment as a community, virtual or present.
Charge to Students
Students must see COVID-19 as a gift to strengthen and reimagine their futures. What needs to change and what needs to remain? How can students innovate and inspire, never losing their commitment to truth and grace? How will they come through this with remarkable ideas about transforming crisis into opportunity? This is a unique time at college that students should not squander. This is a moment to pivot in areas where they have dragged their feet or been too busy.
Students, teach us what it looks like to be bold in your ideas and to thrive through this major global disruption. Show us ways forward we may have never entertained. Within the framework of God’s Word, model for us how to consider this as a time to move beyond tradition and status quo to be courageous, to think creatively, and to maximize the opportunity for the cause of the gospel.