Finding Your Place in God's Story
Why are you going to college? For many students, going to college is simply the assumed next step after high school. That was certainly true for me. Since about the time I could say the word “college,” I knew I was going. I never gave it a second thought. As I look back on my life, however, I wish someone would have asked me why I was going. Being forced to think about reasons for going to college, would have kept me more focused and helped me to make the most of the opportunities that I was given. Early on in my college experience I didn’t realize how much I was allowing our cultural story to answer this question for me. Let me explain.
A famous philosopher once asked a question that helped me to better understand how stories work in our world. He wrote, “I can only answer the question: what am I to do? if I answer the prior question: of what story do I find myself a part?” For our purposes, we can restate the question like this: “I can only answer the question: why am I going to college? if I answer the prior question: of what story do I find myself a part?” On what story is your life based?
All people live their lives based on a grand, overarching story that gives meaning and shape to life. If you’ve grown up in a church or in a Christian family, more than likely, you have been shaped by the story of the Bible. Hopefully you have come to realize that the Bible is not just a rule book, telling us what to do or not to do, but is a coherent story that offers a certain perspective on life. As you know, not everyone lives life based on the biblical story. This probably isn't a surprise to you, but you need to know the difference it makes when it comes to education. We can't let other stories tell us what education is for.
The “World’s story” for college goes something like this: Life is about you. A successful life involves making a lot of money and having a lot of stuff. You are going go to high school, and then to college, where you will get a degree, so that you can get a high paying job, so that you can make a lot of money so that you can retire and move to Florida. This story is often referred to as "The American Dream." People can live by this story without even knowing it or being able to articulate it. It is the approved “meaning-of-life-story” for the majority of society. Education—a smaller part of the story within that bigger story—is seen as a ticket to moving up the social ladder.
Please don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that college isn't an important stop on the road to a successful adulthood. College can and should be an important step to getting a job and making a living. I am suggesting, however, that for Christians, finding their place in the American dream story shouldn’t be the primary reason for going college. If it is, you are allowing another story to shape your life, not the Bible.
The Biblical story is about God. It’s not about you. It’s not about how much money you can make and buying a lot of stuff. The biblical story, the true story of the world, is about a loving God who has created you in his image. God has given you a mind to think and gifted you to serve him, all so you can glorify his name and enjoy him forever. You are to live and move and have your being in Him. As you do this, you begin to discover your part in his story. What role will God have you play? What character are you? God’s story—his purposes and plans—is the story you have been called into.
So, where does education and college fit within God’s story? Here is a 3-D vision for students who desire to live-out the biblical story during their college years:
First, your time in college should be about developing your mind. Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Mark 12:30). Loving God with your mind means taking academics seriously, thinking critically, and turning knowledge into wisdom. It’s about being more concerned with learning, and less concerned with grades. Don’t tell your parents I said that.
Second, your time in college should be about discovering your gifts. College presents a remarkable opportunity to think more deeply about how God has gifted you, and how you could use those gifts in service to God and neighbor. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). The beauty of the Biblical story is that when God calls us to participate in his story, he gives us the gifts to play our roles well. Of course, this has huge implications for your choice of classes, your major and your career goals.
Third, your time in college should be about discerning God’s call on your life. Too often we think that the only people who are “called” are pastors or missionaries. The fact is that we are all called to serve God wherever he places us. Where might God be calling you now and after college? Your time in college provides a unique context for reflecting on God’s call on your life. Take advantage of it. You will never have this kind of time again.
One theologian provides a nice summary of the place of education in the biblical story: “One way to love God is to know and love God’s work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with.” Learning is a calling, if we do it well, we are attached to God, and we have more to serve him with. Here’s the vision you need to take with you: college is about increasing our serviceability for God.
But here’s the kicker: while the Biblical story is much more adventurous and satisfying, it’s not easy to live out. The “me story”—accumulating money and stuff—can be very attractive. A life based on the True Story of the world, following in the footsteps of its hero, Jesus, will require sacrifice and courage. It won’t be easy to go to college to develop your mind, discover your gifts, and discern God’s call, but it will be worth it. Are you up for the challenge?
A few years ago I had the amazing opportunity to spend an afternoon with a famous NFL football coach. The coach was an outspoken Christian and his team had recently won the Super Bowl. At one point in our conversation, he said something that I have never forgotten. “I only have one regret in my life,” he remarked. “I wish I could go back and do college over again. I would have taken advantage of the opportunities to grow spiritually during my college years.” Here was a man who had achieved great athletic and academic success in college but neglected what should have mattered most: growing in his faith.
There can be tremendous pressure around making a decision for college. We all ask the practical questions about life after high school: Should I go to college? What kind of school should I attend? What academic programs are available? How much will it cost? But here are other important questions you might miss and ones that can help to alleviate the stress surrounding the decision: Will I have the opportunity to grow spiritually during my college years? Will the college I attend take seriously my commitment to follow Jesus? Will I be surrounded by friends, teachers and mentors who share my biblical convictions about what a successful life looks like?
If you are able to confidently answer “yes” to the above questions concerning the spiritual health and vitality of the academic institution you are considering, I think you will discover that much of your anxiety will subside. The great thing about choosing a Christian college or university is that the people leading and teaching in those schools are committed to providing opportunities for you to grow spiritually during this next chapter of your life story. They are committed to living out the biblical 3-D vision as well and your spiritual growth is their number one concern.
Derek Melleby is the executive director of OneLife Institute and the site director for OneLife @ Three Springs. He is also the coauthor of Learning for the Love of God: A Student’s Guide to Academic Faithfulness and author of Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life and Learning.