(or, The First Four Years are the Hardest)
“And on the day you pass over the Jordan to the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall set up large stones….”–Deuteronomy 27:2
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet the father Polonius gives this advice to his son Laertes as he departs for college in Germany. The advice is over 400 years old now!
“My blessing be with thee, and these few precepts in thy memory be. See thou to thy character. Give thy thoughts no tongue. Be thou familiar, by no means vulgar. The tried friends thou hast, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel. Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy; neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend. This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the day the night thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell.”
There comes the day when we go off to high school or venture to college ourselves. And from the Bible I have some heavenly Fatherly advice for you.
Deuteronomy 27:2 is about the children of Israel who have come from slavery in Egypt through 40 years of wilderness. Now they are poised to cross the Jordan River and settle the Promised Land. But first, the Lord sits them down to give them some advice: things to do on the first day they pass over the Jordan. And here are some “musts” for you to accomplish starting on the first day you put your feet on a campus.
First, declare yourself. Find a way to say to those around you, “I am a Christian. Let there be no mistake. Christ is how I think and act. He is what I want.”
In Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and hide it under a bushel, but they put it on a stand. And it gives light to all in the house.” Immediately upon entering the collegiate world, put your light on a stand. If you keep silent the first day, you’ll keep quiet the next four years. Don’t hide your faith under a bushel. Find a way to declare yourself.
I went off to Furman University in 1968. A newly committed Christian, I was timid and most certainly afraid of failure. I took with me my Bible which I put on my study desk. And I hung a picture of the “rugged” Christ by Thomas Hook on my wall. I was serving notice, “My life belongs to Jesus!”
My roommate walked in. He was a Greek from Atlanta. His name was Demetrius Poniote Parisis, which he’d Americanized to Jimmy Paris. He took one look at my picture of Jesus and my Bible, asked me if I was religious. I said, “No, but I’m a Christian.” He mumbled something under his breath and pulled out his Playboy magazine and hung Miss September on his wall.
Jesus and Miss September stared at one another for the better part of six months. And Jimmy and I would lie awake nights talking about life, God, Christ, faith and sin. Then one day Jimmy trusted Christ. And soon afterwards Miss September came down.
Declare yourself! Fly your colors from day one! It does not have to be as I did it. Perhaps you can use a poster or wear a cross. Certainly it is in your lifestyle, your language, the books lining your shelves or in the music you listen to. However you do it, do it! And do it on day one!
One of the first things we learn about Jesus is that He rose a good deal earlier than everyone else and went out to a lonely spot where He prayed (Mark 1:35). And the Bible promises us that in such “quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).
Believing this, I determined to have a daily devotion early each morning. So, I rose at 6 AM, jogged three miles, enjoyed a quiet time with Christ in the bell tower, took a shower, ate a big breakfast and went to my 8 o’clock class where I immediately fell asleep.
After two weeks of being overly zealous I started sleeping later and arranging my daily devotional between 10 and 11 o’clock. I’d get a cup of tea between classes and return to my room, lock the door, sit in my rocker and read the Bible and pray for 45 minutes.
Now, I realize that most people struggle with regular devotions. Boredom, frustration, aimlessness, distraction, falling asleep… all these and more are very real hindrances. Brother Lawrence wrote a book on devotional life called Practicing the Presence of God. And people traveled from all over the world to meet him, to express their gratitude for his writings and ask how their quiet ways with God could be improved. And Brother Lawrence advised, “Just do it. God is not as particular about our devotions as we are. He just wants to spend time with us.”
Two things need to happen in any healthy devotion. One: let God speak to you as you read the Bible. Two: you speak to God in prayer. It can happen as you jog or walk, in a rocking chair, in the early morning hours, or as you take a break during the day. Just do it!
My quiet time was then, and still is, a constant source of comfort, correction, inspiration, and energy. Through it, God developed my inner life and readied me for the challenge of each day.
A third stone for you to set up the day you pass over into school is fellowship. Hebrews 10:25 warns us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Ecclesiastes 4:9 points out how a three-fold cord is not quickly broken and a person with friends is likewise hard to overpower.
A question I frequently ask students is, “What fellowship do you maintain?” Often as not, I get vague answers that tell me the student is hanging loose with very little commitment to other Christians.
Dr. Karl Jung, the famous psychiatrist, once told a patient, “I’ve done all I can for you. What you need is God.” “How can I find Him?” the patient inquired. To which the good doctor replied, “Go to a group of loving Christians. Spend time with them. You’ll most certainly find Him there.”
Jesus promised, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
On most college campuses you’ll find solid, edifying fellowship with Intervarsity, Campus Crusade, the Navigators, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and in some area churches. Seek it out and give yourself to it regularly.
My freshman year in a small group Bible study I met Kitty Kirk, a sophomore. Her maturity level appealed to me, so I went to her. “Kitty, I need some help surviving my freshman year. Could we meet once a week to talk and pray? Could we make a commitment to be there for each other, to share, to hold each other accountable?” She agreed. And we met for supper Thursdays for about an hour. And, oh! The heavy load that was eased when two walked together! I couldn’t have made it without her!
Another stone to set up the day you pass over into the collegiate Promised Land is learning to resist peer pressure and temptation.
Years ago I was at a Georgia Tech football game. It was halftime and the band had just left the field. Suddenly a little dog ran out on the fifty-yard line, wagged his tail, and barked happily. From somewhere in the crowd a voice called, “Here, Tippy! Here, boy!” and beckoned with a whistle. The dog brightened at the sound of his master’s voice and took a few steps in that direction, when suddenly a thousand voices began to whistle and call, “Here, Tippy! Here, boy!” The dog whirled around in utter confusion until a referee finally scooped him up and carried him off the field. And isn’t Tippy’s story so like our own?
What we need to have settled long before we put our feet on a college campus is the question of destination. I tell students, “Find out where you want to go before you start the journey.” This means goals! The sort of grades you want to earn. The physical shape you want to stay in. The virginity you maintain for marriage. The character you will bring to adulthood. Too many of us have no fixed goals. Therefore we are wandering generalities instead of focused specifics.
Deuteronomy 27 explains that the Ten Commandments are the limits of acceptable behavior for God’s people. They were to carry them with them on the day they crossed the Jordan. And such laws are not inhibitive in the least! They are rather a fence around God’s people inside of which the good things of life can run wild.
If you decide whose you are and what your limits are ahead of time, then when temptation calls your name, it will be easy enough to ask, “Will this help get me where I want to go in life?”
When I was a freshman several fraternities rushed me. And I decided to join one. As a shy person I figured the socializing would help balance my personality. And it would be as good a place as any to witness for Jesus Christ.
During one particular rush party the brothers had asked a certain girl to stick with me, show me a good time, and make certain I pledged their club. So during the night she let me know in subtle ways that I could have anything I wanted.
About 10 o’clock she suggested we go out for a ride. And I knew what that meant. Parking. Making out. Sex. And let me tell you I was tempted. It had been a hard semester. I was lonely. No one would have to know. God would forgive me, surely.
The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to men. God is faithful and will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength, but will with the temptation offer a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
So here I am walking out the door with this girl. I know this sort of behavior we have in mind is prohibited in the Ten Commandments. I know it’s not going to help me get where I want to go in life. So where’s my “way of escape” 1 Corinthians 10:13 talks about?
There on the wall was a poster of Mexico. I’d just been there the summer before on a missions project. So I said, “Look! Mexico City!” She said, “Have you been there?” “Yes,” I said, “this past summer.” “I’m a Spanish major,” she went on. “What took you to Mexico?” “I was there doing Christian mission work,” I confessed. And we ended up sitting in a Pizza Hut talking about life and Christ. And before the year was out, Brenda had become a Christian.
The Academic Challenge
Passing on from declaring yourself, developing a regular devotional life, maintaining Christian fellowship, and overcoming temptation, let’s look briefly at meeting the academic challenge.
Fact: There are no bad teachers in college. Some are excellent. Others are merely fine examples of how not to be. And as you are in school to learn, you can learn something from anyone.
I challenge you to treat college as a nine-hour workday. If you weren’t in school, you’d have to get a job doing something! And your job would certainly require 8 or 9 hours of your time! So go to class, sit on the front row, look interested, ask questions. Take good notes. The professor will read the signals that you’re there for the same reason he is–to teach and to learn. And it will help his attitude when he grades your papers.
Do your studying hidden upstairs in the stacks of the library. You won’t be distracted as you would be downstairs or back in your dorm room. And expect to study 4 hours a day minimum. Keeping up with your homework is always better than catching up. A little along is forever better than cramming.
Paul told young Timothy to “Study to show thyself approved unto God.” Jesus urged us in the Great Commandment to “love God with all your mind….” So never be afraid to confront a new thought, to examine a subject, to read a book. Every time you do such a thing there will be just that much more of you to love God.
Learn to be open-minded but discerning. The Bible says, “Test everything.” Avoid the extremes of being close-minded on the one hand, and so open-minded on the other hand that your brain falls out.
Here in the city there is one place that is completely open with 100% tolerance. It will receive anything. We call it the garbage dump! See to it that your mind does not become too open. Be discerning what you accept as fact. Ask for evidence, proof, authority. What does the Bible say? Your mind is like an oven. Accept the fresh dough of learning and bake it there into the bread of practical living.
And a further point. If you disagree with a professor, do so in an agreeable manner. Never try to take over a class or to embarrass your teacher in public. Make an appointment with him or her. Go in prepared, humble and willing to debate things in a civil manner. You’ll get further in the long run.
One final point: When you cross over into college life, don’t be afraid to suffer. College for me was a lonely time filled with many an anguish and many an unfulfilled longing. The experience of youth turning into adult, ignorance giving way to education, and weakness becoming strength is a process fraught with all manner of hurt. Don’t quit. Don’t run away. Don’t try to avoid it. Go through it, with Christ, to maturity. Sure you’ll make mistakes. Sure you’ll get confused. You’ll go through intense times of self-examination. You’ll face persecution, break up with your lovers, fail a test, and much more.
But like Job who went through the fire and came forth as refined gold, you’ll be able to say to God, “Once I heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now I behold Thee face to face.”
So you’re going off to school, crossing over Jordan into that promised land of adolescence–the college campus. This time in your life is strategic. It’ll either make you or break you. You’ll progress or digress.
Just off Emory’s campus is a bar. And the story is that all freshmen who go there to drink are Republicans. But by the time a student is a sophomore he does his drinking there as a Democrat. By his junior year, however, he has become a Marxist socialist. And sadly, by the time he is a senior, he’s so confused when he goes there to drink that he no longer knows what he believes. It takes him until he is thirty-something to get his bearings in life again.
Life for an unprepared college student is like Tippy the dog. A thousand voices call your name! And one can whirl about in a haze of drugs, alcohol, sex, and laziness that leads nowhere fast.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. Not, “Goodbye, God, I’m going to Carolina!” or Georgia or wherever. But, “Hello, Lord. Together let’s go to college and let me grow in you to become all you want me to be.”
Shakespeare’s Polonius said, “To thine own self be true.…” I say, “To Jesus Christ be true, and it must follow as the day the night that thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my son. God’s blessings go with thee.”
Lord, let me cross over this day with you and hand in hand conquer this challenge.
For Christ’s sake. Amen.