It was a big, crowded auditorium at Duke University. The line was long and restless as we waited to march single-file through the metal detectors, past the watchful security team. We were warned we couldn’t bring even a purse inside with us.
Now that presented a problem.
But I am ever resourceful. I tucked my tissues in the sleeve of my dress, smiling to myself as I did it. I was becoming my grandmother! She always seemed to have something stuffed somewhere on her person. And she was a pro at that Kleenex thing.
“Are you planning on crying?” my sweet, ten-year-old granddaughter, Kate, asked as she curiously watched me slipping the tissues in. I explained to her that I needed them for my allergies, but, honestly, we both know me better than that. Before the first familiar strains of Pomp and Circumstance had floated up to the vaulted ceiling, I was blubbering all over the place.
The same thing had happened a couple of weeks earlier here in NJ.
I have had two lovely granddaughters, Isabella and Ana, grandchildren #5 and #6 respectively, graduate from High School this spring. One is a homeschooler, one a public school student. One is from the north, one is from the south. One is a ballerina, one a pole vaulter. Both are the first-born daughters of my two sons. Both are leaving home for the very first time, scholarships in hand, to attend colleges at the end of the summer.
So I blubber.
For some reason, the idea of these two being on their own, away from their nurturing and protective families, has deeply affected me. In my heart, I know it is time. They are not foolish girls. I know they are wise…and I know they know and trust their heavenly Father Who will be with them wherever they are. I know that too. I think I just don’t like change, and this is the first step in their growing away from us.
But I think it’s even more than that.
I keep thinking about the world they are so innocently and expectantly entering. There are so very many things they don’t know that they don’t know. I keep wishing I could somehow prepare them, warn them, or protect them. I wish I had the right words...
Then yesterday, quite by accident, I stumbled on this article on John Piper’s Desiring God website. It was authored by Matt Reagan, a campus outreach director. He is a youth guy and he is a bit over the top…that comes with the territory. And I suppose his ideas could be considered radical or even harsh, but I think his viewpoint is worth the read. It resonated deeply with me.
I pulled a few more hankies out of my sleeve.
It’s what I want my girls to think about. It’s what I want ALL of us to think about— whether we are wide-eyed graduates or sappy old grandmothers. There’s much to consider. Read on.
Class of 2019, to graduate from high school is an achievement requiring a significant mixture of effort and circumstances, and millions have not experienced that. You have both worked and been given a gift. Let one of the themes of your upcoming summer be gratitude to God.
In the same breath, I would advise you to make another focus of this summer to prepare yourself for the transformative season of life to come.
As a veteran college minister, I watch students like you roll onto campus each fall, and I am reminded that the educational system you are leaving has shaped your view of the world.
You have given yourself to the establishment of a reputation in academics, athletics, and extra-curriculars, all while building a sparkling résumé. Your parents, teachers, and friends likely have played their part in upholding that pattern of life. Your identity in that world inevitably runs deep.
It’s time to die to that reputation. All of it.
The apostle Paul was an unbelievable student. He was born into a tradition of high-achieving scholars, and he took the opportunity to dominate the classroom, leaving his classmates in his wake (Galatians 1:14). But when God intervened, Paul died a beautiful death. He died to every boast he had previously carried — every line of his résumé. He was presented in Christ with a superior righteousness, one offered outside of himself, and he took it gladly (Philippians 3:4–9). I beg you to do the same.
And I beg you to mean it. I can only assume most people are like me in this, but I am a sly smuggler of alternative identities. I give lip service to “all I have is Christ,” but my anxious thoughts after interacting with people betray the smuggle struggle. I want them to know my résumé. I’m not convinced in those moments that I am perfect in the eyes of my heavenly Father and adopted into his family. The real death to reputation hurts like crazy (all deaths do), but the result is freedom like you’ve never known.
As you die to what has defined you and find your life in Christ, here are six other pieces of counsel I regularly give to any freshman heading to college.
1. Arrogance is not a sign of maturity.
Ministering at the college campus, I am regularly struck by two contradictory truths about rising freshmen. On the one hand, they are starting arguably the most formative season of their lives, at least as far as spiritual development is concerned. On the other hand, they are regularly convinced that their convictions are fully formed.
So, I have some advice for you, high-school graduate: learn to learn. To be led. Remind yourself that you’re eighteen. Try not to believe every voice that has seen you attend youth group or read your Bible through high school, the voice that says you’re ready to pastor your home church. I would contend that, almost without exception, every college freshman believer is a toddler in the faith, whether they prayed a prayer at four years old or accepted Christ on a Young Life retreat after their senior summer.
Arrival is not a reality for the Christian anyway. If you can learn the depth of your sin and need, Jesus will become a greater treasure than your own maturity, and you will become humble, teachable, and relatable.
2. Beware the allure of the 4.0.
(I know, moms and dads everywhere are cringing.) “Be excellent in your studies” may have been your comprehensive framework for a Christian student’s life in high school, but there is a raging perfectionist in some of you that needs to die. That 4.0 will whisper to some of you constantly, but often at the cost of your peace, your sleep, and your relationships with God and others.
Unless you have some massive kingdom vision that requires perfect grades (cue rampant rationalizing), they really aren’t that big a deal. The point of college is to teach you what you need to know so that you might contribute to society (and in the case of every believer, to bring the gospel to whatever area of society that is). So, go to class, learn the material, wonder at God as he reveals himself in every subject, and calm your hyper-focus on grades.
3. Make future wealth less of a priority.
As God led me through my own experience in college, I realized that I needed two big deaths. The first was to the aforementioned reputation, but the second was to financial security as a primary factor in my vocational decision-making.
God showed me that if I was going to step toward him in my major, and eventually, my career, I wasn’t going to do so because I loved money. No one can serve two masters. He tells us clearly, “Keep yourself free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for [I] have said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
4. Make your future decisions as a missionary.
I meet so many freshmen who have already established a ten-year plan. They’re quick to mention their pre-med or pre-law major during orientation week. They typically don’t understand their own gifting or desires yet, though, much less their overarching kingdom purpose.
Prestige and money are powerful motivators, but the joy of showing the living Christ to those who desperately need him whips them cold. Ask God and your fellow believers to show you how you might best be used to help people taste and see the goodness of the gospel. I’m thinking here of a swath of vocations, sacred and secular alike, but all in the spirit of Philippians 1:21–22:
To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.
Figure out how to get equipped for that vocation, and get cracking.
5. Make your present decisions as a missionary.
The people who need Jesus aren’t only waiting for you in the far reaches of the world or out in the secular workforce. They are your roommates, classmates, and teammates. They lie in bed worrying about their reputations. They question the goodness of God because of their experiences with “Christians” or loss of loved ones. They grasp and claw for life. Don’t be so consumed by your personal pursuits toward the future, academic and otherwise, that you forget to look up and notice the gospel opportunities on campus.
6. Enjoy freedom from the pattern of the world.
From time to time, I briefly entertain the thought of walking away from Christ into a full embrace of sin and self. I let myself run down that road for a moment, considering all its ramifications. I perform this counterintuitive exercise to cement what my time on the college campus has clearly demonstrated: following Christ is sanity. A “normal college life,” beholden to the approval of others, laden with anxious perfectionism, and insatiably pursuing worldly satisfaction, is insanity. There is no clarity like biblical clarity, no security like gospel security, no friendship like Christian friendship, no freedom like that of the saved sinner.
So, you have much to look forward to in the days ahead. May it be more Christ-filled than anything you’ve experienced yet, and may many know his glory through you.
So, here’s to your college years, my sweet girls. May you grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. May you find in Him everything you need as you secure your unique place in the Kingdom. May He bless you with His peace and His Presence all the days of your lives. I love you so very much.
I hope you, dear reader, find the joy and satisfaction of a life lived for Him too. May God bless your personal pursuit.
Now it’s time for more tissues…