In a recent post, I argued that the enjoyment of the glory of God is the proper motivation for education, but that the pervading motivation of collegiate culture is that of obtaining good grades. I argued that the obtaining of grades as a primary motivation is mercenary, a concession to the waning wonder of the human mind. The grading system itself is an acknowledgment of that weakness, and a simultaneous acknowledgment of the fierce fire of competitiveness(or reputation-seeking) in that same human mind.
But in a culture where the pursuit of grades as primary is so widespread(and readily accepted), how does a Christian student walk against the current? Where does the fuel come from? The answer, many would say, is the gospel. And they would be right. But that answer has been given so often and so dismissively that the actual power can be missed. Let’s investigate the mechanism here. What does the gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, do to release us from the tyranny of grades? Here are a few angles:
1. The acceptance of our heavenly Father through Christ (and all that comes with that acceptance) frees us from the need to live for reputation.
The Corinthians were clearing living in a culture of academic prestige, where people were valued for their intelligence and eloquence. They were even boasting in being connected to the most intelligent and eloquent leaders. But Paul’s response was both pointed and deeply comforting:
“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-- all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” - I Corinthians 3:21-23
Paul is simply saying that it’s silly to seek identity in a reputation greater than the one you have. It’s silly to try and gain more than everything. It’s like putting a penny on a heaping pile of gold. Or perhaps trying to borrow a piece of gold from that pile and put it on top.
2. The heinousness and forgiven-ness of our sin frees us to fail.
A 4.0 is often the ultimate dream of the raging perfectionist(and I am one). But failure is the backstory of our redeemed lives, as well as a normal current experience. God has so deeply humiliated us, both through our failure to keep his law and through the extreme measures needed to save us, that we have been left with nothing in our hands. Yet his ludicrous mercy has brought us into his family with robes of righteousness on our shoulders.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” - II Corinthians 12:9-10
So a less-than-perfect academic performance is not a surprise, nor is it a death-blow. It is a (backwardly) welcome demonstration of the strength of Christ.
3. The sufficiency of God’s grace through his Spirit enables us to work hard without the anxiety of self-exaltation.
Make no mistake, the apostle Paul was a hard worker. But he was not one who worked for the sake of earning his salvation. When we seek identity in grades, they become our “salvation.” When we have true salvation through someone else’s work, and grace purchased by that work, then we have no place to boast.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” - I Corinthians 15:10
So we can work hard as image-bearers of God, but not as credit-seekers. He gets the credit, and we get the joy of knowing him through the exercise of our brains.
4. The love of Christ for us empowers our love for others.
Love for a hurting world, rather than personal prestige(others’ love for us), certainly ought to be one of our deepest motivations for studying. In I John 4:19, John shoots from point blank range:
“We love because he first loved us.”
We are reservoirs of love, only overflowing when we have been filled. When we have a love deficiency, we will seek to draw love from the world. But when we have a love surplus, we will pour into the lives of others. So day in and day out, a personal filling with the love of Christ for us will see us listen to professors and take notes with the happy aim of sending Christ’s love into this world which is so needy for it.
In a culture that uses personal merit as a Machiavellian means to the end of knowledge and productivity, we are engaged in battle. We must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind...” because there is deeper joy to be had in our educational process.