When Campus Life Competes with Your Studies

I became a Christian during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year. School had been much harder than I was prepared for, and my poor lifestyle choices hadn’t helped matters. I was well on my way to failing. Becoming a Christian began the process of cleaning up my life, but school was still very difficult. I was in a very hard major (chemical engineering), and I played more volleyball than I studied.

My InterVarsity chapter was very active, with good worship at large-group meetings, active concern for non-Christians on campus, and a heart to serve the poor in the city in which we lived. When it came to schoolwork, we called it “wood, hay and stubble,” alluding to 1 Corinthians 3:12–15. That is, we figured our studies didn’t have lasting value. In the end, it would all be burned like so much trash. For my part, it was largely sour grapes—I didn’t do very well in school, so I really hoped it wouldn’t finally matter. Other friends who said and thought the same did well in their academics.

The only way I got through school was to grit my teeth and struggle hard. Thankfully, God walked with me to get that diploma. But now I’ve changed my mind about academic work. By the time I went back to graduate school, I had decided that I wanted to do well. I no longer considered academic work “wood, hay and stubble.” I now know it to be “gold, silver and precious gems” (1 Corinthians 3:12).

Part of the change came through the material I worked on in graduate school. Have you ever noticed the bubbles in an expensive aquarium? You probably know that the fish need oxygen to live. The aerator (the thing making the bubbles) puts oxygen back into the aquarium water so you don’t come home and find the fish floating belly up. The process of putting oxygen back into the water is called “mass transfer.” As an undergraduate in chemical engineering, I had to take courses in mass transfer. The first time I took such a course I failed it (not the first class I failed, sorry to say). The second time, an exam held outside of class time—a common occurrence in chemical engineering—conflicted with the main love of my life: volleyball (a whole other story about idolatry). The third time taking the class, I had a different teacher, and I received a B. I remember saying, “Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about mass transfer anymore!”

Fast forward to grad school. I was looking for an adviser (a very important part of a graduate student’s life), and the professor of my grad level mass transfer class suggested a project for me. I ended up working on large systems to put oxygen back into waste water during treatment—systems that look like giant aquarium bubblers. (Just to make sure I was getting the point, I was also the teaching assistant for those mass transfer classes.) One part of my life had come full circle. My main nemesis as a student had become my career!

Be good stewards
Jesus once told a story about a master who went away and left three servants in charge of rather large sums of money; one was given five talents (a measure of the weight of silver or gold, not the ability to sing), another was given two talents, and the last was given one. The ones given five and two talents invested the money and got a hundred percent return! The servant given one talent buried it. The master commended the first two, but condemned the last servant.

God has given us a variety of gifts, and calls us to use them. Some of those gifts are related to the kind of work done in college. Being good stewards for us as students means that we can’t bury those gifts, but rather we must put them to use. That means diligent study and other hard work as we make our way through school. We will be surprised when we discover that those gifts also give a hundred percent return and more.

It’s no small matter that school costs a great deal of money, and being good stewards of that investment is also important. Either you or someone else is paying for this, perhaps your parents. It’s not popular to say this, but if your parents are paying for your college, you owe them some disciplined effort in your studies (and maybe even a call to say thank you).

Loving God with your whole mind
When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he answered, “Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30). When Jesus quoted the Old Testament, he changed it subtly. The passage in Deuteronomy 6:5 reads “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus added “mind.” This certainly means that as we study the Bible, we devote our minds to the work, that we struggle to understand what scripture is saying, and to apply it to our lives. To love God with our whole mind means we cannot settle for a Sunday school understanding, “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

But loving God with our mind goes further. I have a friend who is a mathematician. It’s hard to believe, but she likes math! When she is working hard on a proof, she is thoroughly enjoying herself, as much as when she is making puns or practicing the flute. In the movie Chariots of Fire, the Eric Liddell character says, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” I believe that God made my math friend smart, and when she thinks hard about her math, she feels God’s pleasure. In those moments, she is loving God with her whole mind.

On The Simpsons, Montgomery Burns places his fingers together and says, “Excellent.” As Christians, we are called to excellence. The apostle Paul wrote, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). Paul asks slaves to do good work not only when the masters are watching, but also to work “wholeheartedly” when they’re not watching (3:22). We can easily apply that exhortation to our schoolwork. God has providentially brought us to this point in life, and he calls us to do our best.

One issue that bears pointing out is that the excellence we are called to is not necessarily the excellence of the world (think about what passes for excellence for the above-mentioned Mr. Burns). The world, especially at school, would have us pursue excellence at all costs. This has driven many to use unethical and immoral methods in their work. We cannot justify taking material from the Internet and passing it off as our own and justifying it with “spiritual” talk. In addition, we cannot devote so much of our time to our work that other important areas of our lives suffer. Late night cramming is neither good for your body nor does it produce good work. We have been called to steward both our minds and our bodies.

“Always be prepared to give a defense”
In the famous passage often used in evangelism talks, the apostle Peter says, “Always be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15). The context of 1 Peter is interesting. The book is all about how to deal with suffering. And it is how the Christian deals with suffering that will lead onlookers to ask from where that hope comes. There is no question that the life of a student has suffering in it (albeit often self-inflicted). Failed tests, blown up chemistry labs, papers written at the last minute (with a grade to prove it), these and many more are points of suffering in the life of the student. Even my really smart friends had moments like these, although far fewer than I. The non-Christians around us are watching. As you have these failures, they will be amazed at how you handle them, not shrugging them off as “wood, hay and stubble,” but rather admitting failure and calling on God the Father to carry you through.

As you show that Christians care about all areas of life, including academics, others will want to know more about the God you worship. Your godly quest for excellence will show them you are trustworthy. Who will trust you if you cut corners and lie about schoolwork? As you show integrity in the small things, people will trust you with more, including the message that God is redeeming the whole of Creation.

I am a rarity among former engineering graduate students. God called me to full-time ministry with InterVarsity. I had thought that a graduate degree in engineering would lead me into an engineering firm that protects our water resources (something I still think is of vital importance). That I am not working in the area I went to school for does not lessen my view of my time at school. I believe that it was all a part of preparing me for my current vocation as InterVarsity staff.

What waits in the future for you is not that much different. God calls graduates into a wide variety of things. Some will end up in fields directly related to what they studied. Others may have jobs that seem at first to have nothing to do with their majors. Some will even find their paths leading to work in a college or university as a professor (and if you think you are one of those people, please check out InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network). But wherever you end up, you will find that your time in college used by God to prepare you for that place in life. How you treat your academic life will be a part of how you live beyond college.

When my friends and I called our schoolwork “wood, hay and stubble,” we were to some extent taking 1 Corinthians 3:12 out of context. Paul was speaking of his work as an apostle and the mistake of pointing to the person doing the work rather than to the Lord of that work. The truth remains that our work will one day be tested, and the work that rests on Jesus will survive the test. While we can worship academics and turn our studies into an idol that will burn like “wood, hay and stubble,” God calls us to do our work in such a way as to turn it into “gold, silver and precious gems.” As we lay our schoolwork at the foot of Jesus’ cross along with the rest of our lives, we will find that God takes even our work as students and uses it for his kingdom.

--Charlie Clauss

(from Student Leadership Journal, vol. 18:1)