(This article was originally published in The Banner, October 2002, pp. 36-38.)
“Your career begins here!” so goes the slogan of a Canadian university in St. Catherines, Ontario. Most North American universities are pushing the same message. Our culture sees university or college education as primarily a stepping-stone towards a rewarding career. That is the reason why most people go to college: to prepare and train for a career. But, as Christians, should we go to university for the same reasons as the world does?
When I was an English Literature major in university, I was always bombarded with the same question, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” That question implies that my English degree was less ‘marketable’ and, thus, I needed to justify investing four or more years of my life gaining knowledge and skills that, in the eyes of the world, do not ‘begin a career’. The same question was rarely, if ever, asked of my friends majoring in Science, Business, Engineering or even Theology. Alas, this question came as often from Christians as from non-Christians.
Most Christians accept the world’s perception of higher education and go to college for the same reasons as everybody else does – to train for a career. Most Christians, however, would probably ‘baptize’ this secular view by naming it ‘calling’ instead of ‘career’. But this is still an inadequate view of higher education.
Being a Christian student is also a calling from God and not simply a means to an end. Sure, it does prepare you for a future vocation or ‘calling’ but it is more than that.
Learning as Calling
When we hear the word ‘calling’, we often think in terms of long-term, permanent careers or service. We say that we are called to be a pastor or missionary. Many of us might expand that to include vocations like teaching, engineering, scientist, writing, etc. This is appropriate since a calling is not limited to only ‘sacred’ vocations. Any work that allows us to use our God-given gifts to further truth, justice, mercy and love can be a calling for a Christian. God can call us to work for his kingdom in any field, not just in typical church related work.
But can learning be seen as a calling in the same sense? Can we say that we are called to be students? Some people will say no because full-time university learning is a temporary phase in one’s life. Others will say no because calling is defined as God’s plan or will for our careers, and learning is not a career.
These responses stem from wrong ideas about what God’s calling is about. Our understanding of calling is too narrow. We look to Bible passages like Romans 1:1 where Paul says he is “called to be an apostle” and define calling as God’s specific will for our careers, jobs, or vocations. This narrow view is further reinforced by the fact that the word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin vocatio, which means ‘calling’.
But biblical passages that use calling in this narrow sense are in the minority. Overwhelmingly, the Bible uses ‘calling’ to refer to God calling us to salvation. Salvation is not merely saving us from hell but refers to being in a right relationship with God in all areas of our lives. We are not only called to eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12) but also called into fellowship with Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9), and called to be holy (1 Corinthians 1:2), and called into his kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12). We are all already called by God to live under the lordship of Christ. And this calling to submit to Christ’s lordship resonates through all areas of our lives, including our careers, families, relationships, finances, spiritualities, and our learning.
Our career calling, therefore, is one part of an overall calling to live for God, to live in service to Christ. God’s calling is not his will for our vocations, but God’s will for our whole lives, which includes our careers and many more. If we understand ‘calling’ in this sense, then we can see even the temporary phase of student as a calling. If you are a Christian student, know that you have been so called by God for this phase in your life, that you are to serve Christ your Lord in and through your studies, not apart from or alongside your studies. Being a faithful Christian student means as much to God as being a faithful Christian pastor, teacher, parent, businessperson, politician, etc.
But how do we become faithful Christian students? How do we fulfill our calling as Christian students?
Before we look at how to be faithful students, let me explain the wrong ways of being Christian students. I believe there are three popular (wrong) views of how a Christian should act or behave while studying at a secular university.
First, there is the missionary or evangelist approach. Many will argue that Christian students are called by God to do personal evangelism on campus, that they are missionaries to non-Christians in the university. Thus, it is more important to attend Bible studies or outreach meetings than to attend lectures or volunteer as a peer counselor. In this view, God will be more displeased with your failure to preach the gospel to your classmate than your failure to obtain a good grade. But all Christians, students or not, are called to bear witness to the gospel in word and deed in their lives. Would we assume that God will be more pleased if a Christian doctor focuses more on evangelizing the patients than on healing them physically? Likewise, why should we think that God will be more pleased if Christian students focus more on evangelism than on their learning?
Second is the necessary evil view. It is necessary in this life and world to find a job and work for a living. And graduating from university is a necessary step towards a good job. Thus, we all need to do what we have to do in this imperfect world to survive until Christ comes again. This approach, therefore, splits the world into secular and sacred realms, with careers and college in the secular (necessary evils) and Christ and Church in the sacred. Christian students in secular universities, therefore, see themselves as walking in hostile territory, doing mostly the same things for mostly the same reasons as everyone else. Perhaps they walk in the company of other Christians, keeping to themselves in a ‘holy huddle’, protecting each other as much as possible from the assaults of hostile ideas and teachings.
The third view is the training ground approach. In this view, college is seen as a temporary training ground for one’s ultimate calling or vocation after graduation. Christian students must learn to excel in the knowledge and skills necessary to serve God well in their vocation after graduation. But Christian students must also learn to witness and evangelize on campus since they need to do that in the ‘real world’ as well. This approach is really a Christianized version of the secular view of college as merely preparation for one’s career.
Why Go to College?
What, then, is the Christian student’s calling? What are the proper reasons for pursuing higher education? A Christian student’s calling is two-fold. Firstly, Christian students are called by God to explore, understand and celebrate knowledge about God’s creation, his norms for living, and, indirectly through these, to know more about God himself. Understanding God’s norms for creation and life is probably what was meant by the Old Testament concept of wisdom. “By wisdom,” according to Proverbs, “the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). To understand the normative ways of creation and human life is to gain insights into how God deals with creation and us. Believing and trusting in the Creator is, thus, a prerequisite to understanding creational norms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10).
Such faithful learning is inherently worthwhile, irrespective of what happens after graduation. Learning is not simply a means to an end. It is a worthwhile end in itself. Studying History, Literature, Arts, Social Sciences, and the Natural Sciences are all meaningful and worthwhile, regardless of their career prospects, as each field explores different areas of God’s creation and human life.
Secondly, Christian students are called to honor God by developing their God-given gifts, with an eye towards future service to God and neighbor. Human learning, like any human activity, can be directed toward either God or an idol. If your learning is not directed to God, is not in service to Christ’s lordship, then an idol inadvertently controls your learning. What are your motives for going to college? Are you, like the world, looking out for yourself? Are you trying to develop your gifts from God or are you trying to learn the most marketable skills available? Or do you have more noble goals for furthering your gifts, knowledge and skills? Are you choosing your major motivated by where jobs are highest paid or by a sense of where your gifts will best serve God and neighbor?
When I was a registration advisor for a Christian college, a student once asked me, “Should I be a Science teacher because I will have a better chance of getting a job, even though I love History more than Science?” I asked her to think carefully if she would rather teach Science than History for the rest of her life and if she would be a better Science or History teacher! Our motivations for learning and choosing majors / careers should not be solely material and financial success. Christian students need to look at their own strengths, desires, and the needs of the world. For example, Christian doctors might consider serving in inner-city or rural communities where the needs are plenty, even though the financial rewards may be less.
Christian parents, I think, need to learn this lesson more than their children. Parents, naturally, want to see their children end up financially stable. But both parents and students need to learn to have a kingdom perspective – where does God’s kingdom work of redeeming all areas of creation and human life will we, with our gifts, abilities and desires, best serve him? Christ asked us to seek first God’s kingdom, ahead of our material needs (Matthew 6:33).
Honoring God in your studies, however, does not mean that you study only ‘safe’ subjects. It is not what you learn but how you learn that determines if you are honoring God or not. Studying any field, be it Sociology, Drama, or Biology, can be either God-honoring or idol worshipping. If you remain faithful to your two-fold calling as a student, then any field of study can be God-honoring.
A helpful guide for Christian students trying to be faithful learners is Philippians 4:8. To paraphrase, Christian students should seek out and think about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy in their textbooks, classroom lectures, and seminar discussions. Because all truth is God’s truth, Christian students should not fear finding truth in secular teaching.
Furthermore, students should also learn from other Christians in academia, especially Christian professors. There is a lot to be said about being mentored by more mature Christians. By learning from their mentors’ experience, Christian students can better avoid the two extremes of either compromising their faith or making their faith irrelevant to their studies.
Of course, being rooted in Scripture and cultivating one’s relationship with God is foundational to being faithful in anything, including learning. Christian students need to have a Christian worldview that can be gleaned from Scripture, developed by reading good books, and sharpened by good Christian fellowship.
Finally, trust that God will honor your desire to serve him in your studies. In university, I never had a good answer to that nagging question I referred to at the beginning of this article. But I trusted that God has given me gifts and abilities for a purpose in his kingdom work. So, despite the uncertainties of my career prospects, I faithfully studied and developed the gifts, knowledge and skills I believed God intended me to have and use for his service. It was not easy, especially after graduation and through unemployment. But “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Now, I am serving God with my literary skills and knowledge in rewarding ways that I had not envisioned back in university. I believe God will similarly care for all Christian students who remain faithful to their calling.
Recommended Books for Christian Students
Discovering Your Vocation: Discerning What God Has Designed You to Do by John Krueger (Redeemer University College, 2000 third printing)
At Work and Play: Biblical Insight for Daily Obedience by Bradshaw L. Frey, et al (Paideia Press, 1986)
How to Stay Christian in College: An Interactive Guide to Keeping the Faith by J. Budziszweski (Navpress, 1999)
The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View by Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton (InterVarsity Press, 1984)
The Opening of the Christian Mind: Taking Every Thought Captive to Christ by David W. Gill (InterVarsity Press, 1999)
Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Eerdmans, 2002)
The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief & Behavior During the University Years by Steven Garber (InterVarsity Press, 1996)
Related Article: Growing Your Faith On a Secular Campus