The student sat across the table from me with an incredulous, unbelieving look on his face. “What do you mean I should ‘reconsider my priorities?’ God brought me here to be a student, first and foremost.”
While his parents surely would have loved hearing how serious he was about his studies, I wanted him to think beyond his “nothing at the expense of my schoolwork” mentality. And this made him uncomfortable.
Reframing Academic Work
I wanted him to reframe his vocation as a student and to put his academic work in its rightful place. After all, academic work—like all work—has its “thorns and thistles,” but it’s a gift of God that can help us know Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
In order for academic work to glorify God we have to see it as a high calling, but not the be-all, end-all. Good, but not ultimate. It’s during the college years that we learn faithfulness is lifelong and “life-wide.” Lifelong, in that our calling covers not only the college years but every year that follows; and life-wide, covering not only academic work but every other area of life as well. In other words, “life-wide” means taking both the long-range and the wide-angle views.
This big-picture perspective changes how students approach their academic work. It also avoids the common mistakes of caring about our work too little, and caring about it too much.
Dean’s List Idolatry
The “God brought me here first and foremost to be a student” line sounds pious at first, but too often it becomes a way to justify academic idolatry. Although students should avoid being lazy or lackadaisical about their studies, they should also be careful not to turn their academic success into an idol.
No one is a student forever, after all. The most important thing about us—even in college—is not what we do, but who we are. In college, we may work as students, but being comes before doing. First and foremost, in every stage of life, we are Christians.
One implication of life-wide faithfulness is that you may not—should not?—get straight A’s. Yes, I said it. Doing what God wants in every area of your life may mean not reaching your highest academic potential—and that’s okay.
Let’s say you get straight A’s. Let’s say you gain recognition, a great job, financial success, or a knowledge-filled head. So what? To paraphrase Jesus, what good is it to gain the whole academic world, yet forfeit your soul?
Knowledge is from God and is meant to draw us back to him. The danger is that we turn from our love of the Creator to worship created things (Rom. 1:25). We become so enamored with what we’re studying, or what we hope to get from our studies, that we begin to squeeze out God himself. We may go to church or read our Bible occasionally, but we’ve begun to nudge our Maker out of our hearts.
God’s version of academic success is different from ours. He gives us capabilities and opportunities in academics not to further our own little kingdoms, but to play our part in advancing his. He gave us a brain so that we would know him and his creation better. Eternally speaking, the tragic irony of academic idolatry is that no matter how much we know or how much success we have, if we leave Jesus out, we’ve missed the point. We may be among the world’s experts on our particular subject, but if we don’t know Christ, we’re fools.
This is not the only foolish path by which we’re tempted, however.
Christians also ought to be the last ones coasting by or slacking off. By not working hard or doing things well, we reflect poorly on Jesus and his people. We treat our work as something to be avoided, instead of honoring Jesus with it. We ought to work hard and with excellence for Jesus—no matter the subject (Col. 3:23).
Perhaps we’re afraid to identify as a Christian in the classroom. It may be lack of courage, but it may also be because we’re uninformed. We’ve never taken it on ourselves to understand why we believe what we do. We’ve never thought about how to communicate Christ to people who don’t believe or who may be hostile to belief. The phrase “ignorant Christians” should be considered an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp” or “cafeteria food.” But it’s not.
In this, too, we need life-wide faith. Unfortunately, a powerful strain of anti-intellectualism runs through much of the church, creating a false dichotomy between head and heart, brains and spirituality. This dualistic way of thinking ignores the fact that Jesus is extremely concerned with the life of your mind. God’s plan of redemption means he is taking back what belongs to him—including your brain. So what you think and how you think all belongs to God. It’s all designed to be a sacrifice to him. As the apostle Paul writes:
I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:1–2)
Why does this matter now, during your college years? As the student with whom I was talking discovered, life-wide faithfulness is a lifelong endeavor. Learning to put Christ first in your academic work prepares you to put him first in everything that follows. And it allows you accomplish more of what really matters, academically and otherwise.