This past Monday night a small group from the dorms came over to our place to spend some time together. They had asked me to share some of the dangers of life at the college. Before they came, I sat down in the living room to reflect, and wrote down nine dangers that come to mind. Some overlap, and some are more prominent than others, but all are legitimate dangers that I’ve observed and experienced. We only had time to talk about three, and I promised I would send them the rest. But since the rest were only bulletpoints, I thought that expanding on them here would be a good way to make the most of my opportunity to reflect on an important question. So these are for Austin, Garrett, Sam, Jon, and Brandon. Everybody else is just being nosy.
1. Apathy. In a residential Christian community this side of eternity, the sacred can quickly become common. Zeal fades, lethargy sets in, and apathy reigns. Truth becomes fodder for discussion more than fuel for mission, theological issues become writing assignments for grades, relationships lose spiritual meaning, and participation in chapels and classes and community events become requirements instead of privileges. We gather fuel but light no match.
2. Bad habits. This relates more to general college life than TMC specifically. College is a place of new-found independence, a garden in which priorities are planted, and an assembly line of life decisions. Yet unfortunately, the college community is fairly accepting of bad habits — procrastination, lack of discipline, misplaced priorities, noncommittal attitudes. Instead of crucifying some of my bad habits in college, I fed them. And they are much more difficult to slay now. The wise student will fight for good habits in the core disciplines of life. College is a crossroads. Settle some things now.
3. Self-deception. It isn’t too difficult to pick up the lingo, abide by the rules, fit into the culture, and learn the customs. This may all be OK if my heart is pure and my discernment is active and the overall culture is biblical, but if I am just unwittingly following the crowd or (far worse) subtly playing the game, I am deceiving myself. I am coming to see that self-deception is a much bigger and more prevalent issue than I ever thought. It’s all over Scripture and all over our hearts, and the American entertainment and advertising industries are masterful at exploiting our penchant for deceiving ourselves.
4. Hyper-criticism. Studying at an institution that stands firm for doctrinal detail and biblical methodologies can tempt a student to become a relentless critic and a professional stone-thrower. We become those who shoot first and ask questions later. On the other side are reactionary students who lambast the critics, judge the judgers, and trumpet virtual equality among all ideas and methods. It takes the wisdom of discernment and the quality of self-restraint to be one who discerns wrong from right and good from best, and to be one who is developing a working understanding of the difference between those two comparative categories.
5. Disillusionment. Plenty of students come to TMC with a set of baggage that differs in color, shape, size, and contents than the stereotypical black, Samsonite, rolling carry-on. They can feel instantly judged, marginalized, pushed to the fringes, and generally given no sincere opportunity to learn as well as to contribute. On the other side are students who come from conservative Christian homes, and either instantly or over time grow disillusioned with the idiosyncracies or outright weaknesses of the community. How the disillusioned deal with their disillusionment is a vital issue. There’s the danger that instead of dealing with frustrations by going to the Word, abiding in Christ the vine, seeking harmony with other believers, repenting first of personal sin, talking it out patiently with those older and wiser, and gently yet boldly offering correction and perspective to those perpetuating unbiblical attitudes and methods, disillusioned students may choose to distance themselves from the community, solidify kneejerk views in isolation, gather ammunition, and use every felt wrong and negative experience to construct walls. I’ll be the first to admit that we need to do a much better job ministering to the disillusioned.
6. Over-reaching. With all the opportunities at the college and all the calls to Christian obedience and all the nuances of practical living, it can be easy to over-reach. You can be tempted to start putting up crown molding before the foundation has been laid. This is not to say that we should only obey one command at a time, starting with those that seem most fundamental. Only that focusing on all the details and complex dynamics of the human heart and the Christian life can sometimes distract us from mastering the basics. Sometimes I actually want to distract myself with labyrinthal issues so that I don’t have to face my own negligence in the simplest matters of faith and discipline. Certainly there’s nothing praiseworthy about a longtime believer who still needs milk instead of solid food (Hebrews 5:11-14), but among the younger generation, first things first is a needed principle (Proverbs 24:27).
7. Works-righteousness. We don’t need rules and policies and requirements and discipline procedures to make us lean on our own perceived righteousness. But the clear presence of these standards and expectations in a community can certainly tempt us to become focused on personal righteousness (or even appearances of righteousness) to the exclusion of the grace and forgiveness found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Further, instead of heart-transformation and a purified conscience, we can become focused on externals. Healthy patterns of outward behavior can become the goal, to the neglect of a heart after God.
8. Missionlessness. College is a place to be trained. I strongly disagree with the dichotomy that’s often made between college and “real life,” but I freely acknowledge that college is a time of training and preparation. The spiritual battle still rages, yet in many ways college is a boot camp that’s preparing students for the battle outside. Forgetting the purpose for which we are being trained is destructive, not just to an individual but to the college community and especially the future local church to which a student will belong. God is on a mission in Scripture, and we are benefactors of and participants in that mission. Our college years are not simply for vocational training or career preparation or personal improvement. We are arrows being whittled and fashioned and sharpened — for a purpose. I am fully convinced that one of the greatest needs in the church today is clear, accurate, multi-dimensional teaching on the mission of God in Scripture and how that mission relates to every part of life. Without it we are aimless, misdirected, and wasteful at best.
9. Guilt. Over the years many students have testified that they had culture shock throughout their first semester at college and beyond. They come from being leaders in their youth groups, examples of Christian character in their public schools, and older siblings in their families to being rookies and seeming benchwarmers in a place that can appear very spiritually intense. All of a sudden the academic standards skyrocket, the biblical fire hose is turned on, and the expectations are ratcheted up. Even for upperclassmen at TMC, there are constant reminders of the diverse sufferings of the outside world which you can’t do much about, calls in chapel and classes to get bigger, faster, and stronger spiritually, along with the constant temptation to compare yourself with the spiritual maturity of your peers (which only leads to pride or despair). A constant sense of guilt and the burden of underachievement is almost accepted as a normal part of the Christian life. It’s just here to stay, Romans 8:1 notwithstanding. On top of all of this, there’s the simple fact that guilt gets stuff done. It’s a great motivator, plain and simple. Yet for all that it can produce (externally), it eliminates joy, erodes love, and evicts kindness, meanwhile increasing competitiveness and envy. Guilt is a slavedriver, and eventually a silent killer. But grace — grace is the wonderful, freeing, unexpendable Christian motivation. It creates joy, fuels love, and cultivates kindness, and it destroys competition and comparisons and jealousy. And the striking thing about the saving and sanctifying grace of God expressed in the work of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Spirit is that this grace is the solution and the corrective to every one of the above dangers. It drives away apathy, it urges us toward good habits, it frees us to be honest with ourselves, it destroys judgmentalism, it replaces cynicism with gratitude, it allows for progress over time, it gives us righteousness apart from works, it informs and saturates our mission, and it purges us of guilt and shame.