College represents a minefield of temptation for the Christian student. It is often the first time a young person raised in a godly home is under the direct, ongoing influence of both professors with secular agendas and classmates with immoral ambitions. Character-polluting influences can be readily discovered even at many Christian colleges, where freedom from Mom and Dad results in some experimenting with sin, perhaps manifesting an unconverted state.
But college also represents an incredible opportunity for unparalleled spiritual and intellectual growth. How can a Christian thrive at college instead of flirting with sin or rejecting his faith? First, by not negotiating Christian morality (Eph. 5:3–11). Befriending non-Christian or marginally Christian students need not include practicing activities that clearly displease God or defile your conscience. Second, by loving God with your mind — seeking to be the best student you can possibly be, given the measure of gifting with which you’ve been entrusted, fruitfully cultivating your God-given talents into skills that prepare you for the vocation with which you will serve the Lord after graduating. In the meantime, being a student is a vocation, and the work of a student is intrinsically good and a gift from God. Apply yourself in this season of preparation. Third, by seeking to grow in godliness within a community that provokes you to vigorously kill sin (Rom. 6:12–14; Heb. 12:1–2), to put away childishness, and to “expect great things from God and attempt great things for God” (William Carey). In short, college should be a launching pad into all that accompanies responsible Christian adulthood.
Christians in secular universities sometimes wonder to what extent they can learn from non-Christian professors. Not wanting to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2a), they may minimize the value of academics, giving larger priority to Christian relationships and campus fellowship organizations. But if Daniel and Joseph are any indication, it is possible (and commendable) to excel in even hostile environments (Dan. 1:20; Gen. 39:2). Because God’s common grace is distributed to all, non-Christian professors have a wealth of expertise in their respective disciplines. Pay attention to their lectures and assiduously complete their assignments. Learn from them even while you scrutinize their philosophical underpinnings. In fact, to the extent that you excel in their classes, you will win not only their respect but the respect of others in your chosen field.
As a college freshman, I took philosophy from an atheist. After getting a B- on my first exam, I went to see the professor. I asked him how I could do better. He taught me to synthesize philosophical perspectives and to succinctly and fairly express an opponent’s view before giving a refutation. His advice has made me a better thinker, debater, and writer to this day.
Non-Christian peers also afford you the opportunity to practice true Christian tolerance. The sentimental tolerance of our day suggests that relational harmony requires that truth be relative: what’s true for me need not be true for you. Only then can we get along. But biblical tolerance involves treating others charitably and respectfully even when we believe they are in error. Truth remains objective, absolute, and outside us. We can share meals, play sports, and study with non-Christians, honoring and being blessed by the imago Dei in them, while (as opportunity allows) vigorously refuting non-Christian beliefs (from materialism to amorphous spirituality) and winsomely presenting arguments for the Christian faith.
The academic competition of college puts on display the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30), which can be a source of undue anxiety for many. Some apparently have five talents, others two, others one. Joe gets As in calculus and physics with little effort, while Jason works his heart out to get Bs. Unfair? No, since nobody has anything that they have not received (1 Cor. 4:7), and every talent we receive is to be fruitfully cultivated for the service of God and neighbor. Furthermore, our divergent levels of gifting help us discern our calling. Failing in engineering may be God’s means to lead you into a fruitful career in accounting and business. We work coram Deo, not unto man (Col. 3:23; 1 Cor. 10:31), so we’re free to rejoice that God gifts others in different and sometimes greater ways than He gifts us. To love is to stop enviously looking up or haughtily looking down. Moreover, learning from better students and helping weaker students is both a way of honoring them and a means of enhancing your own competence.
Lastly, fight workaholism with a godly view of recreation. Some recreation is essential. But to avoid its abuse it should be intentional, limited, and restorative. The attitude we bring to it should be one of God-dependent thanksgiving — a recognition that we can rest from our labors because only God is infinite (Ps. 121:4–8). In rest we humbly embrace our finitude. But just as importantly, the attitude we take from leisure should include thankfulness for God’s gift of work — even the preparatory work of college.
Friend, may your college experience truly launch you into a full-orbed, God-mastered adulthood.