Letter to a Christian College Freshman (1)

This is part 1 of what I imagine will be a 6 part series.

It’s September now and colleges around the country are back in full swing. For many students like yourself this means that the bewildering task of figuring out the rest of your life has been thrust upon you. It’s a sad fact however that many people go through college without ever thinking about or planning for the things that will really matter in 10 years. Immediate needs and desires crowd the foreground of their view and proximity preoccupations end up determining priorities. Making friends, fitting in, having fun, studying for exams, passing prerequisites, trying to graduate on time—all these can add up to a severe case of tunnel vision if you’re not careful. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture and get swept along by the urgent rather than the important.

As a Christian, the four years at college are incredibly important, and it pays to think deliberately about how to make these few years count for the rest of your life.

One of my favorite quotes during my twenties was:

Your twenties are always an apprenticeship, but you don’t always know what for.[1]

–Jan Houtema

I think this captures the tension and tentativeness most college students feel. With that in mind, here are a few things that I think every Christian in college should think about. Hopefully these points will help you realize more of the “what for” part.

1. The church will need your mind

The church will need your mind, so, study. Get good grades.

When I was in college I once heard someone remark, only half joking, as if he was quoting the New England Primer, “A is for Adam, C is for Christ.” The point he was poorly trying to make was that he was too busy with his Christian life to worry about all that school stuff. That’s a false dichotomy. Being a Christian in college does not eschew academics; it subsumes the whole domain under a new jurisdiction. Faith does origami on the whole—reshaping it, giving it new meaning, and putting it to new uses—but it does not neglect academics.

Trained to think

One theologian, with an impossible last name, said that Christian faith “causes us to think.”[2] College will train you to think better. Jesus is Lord of your entire tripartite existence in all its involvements and extensions, and He commands you to love Him with your whole mind (Mark 12:30). Certainly this includes your mental acuity and capacity. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “It is not fitting that the Bride of the Word should be ignorant.”[3] Keep in mind that loving the Lord and learning are related. The training you receive in college to think better is not separate from loving God.

Seek to excel

Christians who slack off in school and don’t study hard, don’t glorify Christ well in the classroom.

Jesus set up the pattern of educational discipline as a youth. When He went missing at the end of the family trip to Jerusalem, His parents “found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and questioning them. And all those who heard Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (Luke 2:46-47). Translating this into the language of the modern college experience, Jesus went to office hours. Jesus participated in class discussions. He was an impressive student who could interact intelligently with the most advanced of His teachers. Jesus was no slacker when it came to education. Neither did He merely rely on the omniscience of His divinity to replace the responsibilities of human diligence in learning (Luke 2:52).

Paul’s advice to the Corinthians, although given in another context, is appropriate here, “Seek to excel” (1 Cor. 14:12).

See your future usefulness to God

A person with a trained mind has a greater capacity in God’s hand. Moses, Hiram, Daniel, and Paul all illustrate this. View your education in light of your future usefulness to God. It will increase your ability to apprehend the depths of the divine revelation, something Peter admitted is hard to understand sometimes (2 Pet. 3:15-16). It will also increase your ability to cut straight the word of the truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Both in receiving God’s revelation personally and in conveying God’s revelation to others, a trained mind is essential and will bolster your usefulness.

Everything Moses learned in Egypt was ultimately employed in his service to God in the wilderness.

Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was powerful in his words and works.

–Acts 7:22

Plunder the Egyptians

Plunder the Egyptians then. Take as much out of Egypt as you can and make better use of it. Take classes outside your major that you are interested in. I took three extra architectural history courses that didn’t count for my degree plan at all, and those ended up being some of my favorite classes.[4] I could easily have a conversation about the meaning of life or the nature of God with someone while talking about architecture. I also took a geology class and was amazed at how many things I learned were perfect illustrations of spiritual truths.

Augustine said,

All the branches of pagan learning contain not only false and superstitious fantasies and burdensome studies that involve unnecessary effort, which each one of us must loathe and avoid as under Christ’s guidance we abandon the company of pagans, but also studies for liberated minds which are more appropriate to the service of the truth… These treasures… must be removed by Christians… and applied to their true function, that of preaching the gospel.[5]

A broad education will better equip you to understand the world and relate the gospel to those in it.

Tyndale mastered Greek and Hebrew when hardly anyone in Europe could speak those languages. He was the first person to translate the New Testament into English from the original Greek. He published his first edition when he was only 31. He was also the first person to translate ANYTHING from Hebrew into English (he was killed by the Catholic authorities before he finished the Old Testament).

Augustine’s mind was deeply steeped in the Latin classics and Neo-platonist philosophy. After his conversion, he applied his mental prowess to the Scriptures, quoting it 42,816 in his writings, often from memory.[6] His former education combined with his theological training empowered him to demolish, in City of God, the remaining vestiges of attachment to the Roman false gods.

Learn from this. Don’t let your academic adviser control your life. Take something you truly want to learn. Find creative ways to link what you’re learning to the gospel. You will benefit from it for the rest of your life, and so will the church.

Paul’s life as a pattern demonstrates that to be fully useful to God you need to pass through three strategic stages: being trained, gained, and sent (Acts 22:3, 7-10, 21). This is what college is all about.


Related articles:
  1. Six Things Every Freshman Needs to Know
  2. Go with God: An open letter to young Christians on their way to college


1. I found this quote a long time ago on Paul Graham’s website. After doing some research to find out who Jan Houtema is, it seems almost certain that she isn’t a real person. Paul invented her for attribution sake, knowing that if you can say “Jan Houtema once said…” the quote will have more authority. One of the main reasons I started including endnotes in my blog posts was to reference my quotes so people had the source. I was getting frustrated continually trying to hunt down WHERE someone actually said something attributed to them. Often times it is impossible to find out the source. For instance, please tell me where Augustine said, “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek Him, the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement.” Everyone quotes this, and it’s an awesome quote, but I have never seen anyone reference where he said it.
2. Edward Schillebeeckx, Interim Report on the Books Jesus and Christ, preface
3. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, 69.2
4. I’ve written about architecture multiple times here.
5. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 2.40.60
6. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, p. 37

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