University was the beginning of the end for me. The end of innocence.
You might think that statement hyperbolic, but I promise you it’s not. It is the end of innocence for most people. However, I think it can be a particularly jarring experience for believers. Everyone else goes to university expecting and hoping to lose their innocence; Christians go to university hoping against hope to keep it.
What does innocence look like exactly? In the sense that I use the word, it means having a black and white view of things, that lends itself to having clear-cut answers to life’s questions. In that way, it is distinct from purity, which is to do with the motivations of your actions. Innocence has got to do with our perception of the world. As young Christians, we are often given an oversimplified version of reality. Then we are taught behaviours that work well enough within that reality. All of this is fairly useful in the controlled environment that is childhood, but you are either about to, or have recently entered a new reality. At university, everything takes on a distinct tinge of grey. The tools you have been given in your church communities will certainly help, but they will not make sense of everything. In fact, they may make sense of less and less.
The Grey Area
I have found that Christians mostly react to the grey in two ways, and the way in which they react, often becomes the norm throughout the rest of their lives. The first group, the lion’s share, seem to close ranks. They spend more and more time in bible studies, and Christian campus groups, and almost no time with non-believers, unless it involves evangelizing to them. They commit their hearts, souls and minds to preserving the clear black and white lines they were presented with in their younger years, and usually the only way to do this is to cut themselves off from anyone and anything that will bring those boundaries into question. The second group either give up on their faith completely, or embrace a much more watered down version, picking and choosing what is convenient for the lifestyles they want to lead.
Both these paths suggest that somehow our faith, our God is not big enough to deal with the realities and complexities of life. Therefore, we either must give it and Him up, or we must cordon Him and ourselves off in safety. Perhaps the truth is that our view, our vision of God is not big enough. Most of us enter our adulthood with a two-dimensional map, handed down to us by a narrower, more prescriptive version of our faith, which has answers only for the limited experiences of our youth. What we find on entering adulthood is that life is very much three-dimensional, not only are there mountains and valleys, but each mountain and valley has a thousand crevices and cracks, creeks and canyons and the 2d map we would have bet our lives on, quickly becomes obsolete.
I spent one evening in university, debating the finer points of our respective faiths with a friend who was a staunch Muslim. Later that night, as he walked me out of his house, we found another student (who we didn’t know) lying completely prone on the sidewalk. It turned out he had drunk himself almost to unconsciousness, and the friends he had been drinking with had long since left. My friend and I had an identical reaction. We put him in my friend’s car, and drove him home. Because this whole episode happened after such a heated religious debate, it begged the question, “should our lives both have ended that night for some reason, would I go to heaven, and he to the other place?” After all, we were both searching for the same thing, more and more of God. If you’re looking for a simple answer to that question, I’ll tell you now that there isn’t one, and I had to content myself with the reality that it wasn’t my question to ask, or answer. My only job was to love him, and allow him to love me. I will add that before that event, I had sorted out fairly neatly in my mind who went to heaven and who didn’t. That was a long time ago.
A Faith That Changes
I believe part of the problem is in how we are taught to view the relationship between life and faith. We view life as a journey with twists and turns, and faith as a constant that helps us through the journey if we keep these rules, rituals and routines we have been taught. The rules and rituals have their place don’t get me wrong, but the reality I have found is that for faith to really fulfill its potential in our lives and in our relationship with God, IT must change. Here are a couple of verses that, I believe, support this view.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” – Matt 9:14-16
The specifics of this verse are one thing, but generally, I believe Christ is saying, “This is a new time, and I am here to do a new thing, if you keep holding on to the old way, you will miss it”. Christ presents to us a new thing, but that thing didn’t just happen 2,017 years ago, it’s happening now, every day, in the world and in us. It is typical of God’s work to be paradoxical or seemingly contradictory in this way. Something has happened, but that something is also continually happening. That’s the story of the Gospel, and Christ’s saving act, it’s also the story of our lives. We are continually being remade, and God uses the journey of life to do this. So if our response is to remain the same, to cling to who we were, and what we knew, are we not putting new wine in old skins? The skin you have today is perfectly good…for today…but if you are to keep growing, then you must accept that it won’t be good enough for tomorrow.
A Coca-Cola Christianity
I don’t mean to suggest that the laws and good practices we learn in our younger years are misguided. They are useful and profitable, and will go some way in helping you make good decisions and preserve your integrity as you embark on university life…but they have their limits. The tougher challenges that await, will require increasing measures of grace, faith, hope, love, wisdom, patience etc. These are not behaviours easily taught, and yet the more prescriptive elements of our faith-based upbringings, must give way to these deeper elements, the substance of which is the “law fulfilled”. The law is fulfilled in the person of Christ, in the perfection of Christ and in his love. It is also fulfilled as we slowly transition from the old man – one capable of good works, towards the new man, one who IS good, because he’s fully reflecting Christ. At the fullest extent of this transformation, we no longer need the law, for it is written on our hearts. That’s the promise of the Christian journey. Without a doubt, transformation should produce the sorts of behaviors we are taught growing up. What is desperately needed however is something powerful enough, full enough and dynamic enough to handle those aspects of life for which there are no “easy Christian answers”. The very Spirit and nature of God.
Here is an analogy that may help. It also has to do with wine…we go into our adulthood often with “Coca-Cola Christianity”. It’s sweet, it’s uncomplicated, but ultimately not that good for us. The alternative to this is “Wine Christianity”. You may have heard the expression as a kid that alcohol is an acquired taste, and wine certainly is that. Yet, in time, if you are open, you go from thinking wine is just a bitter drink, to noticing increasingly, its subtle flavors. Wine is a drink for the mature, not for those looking for superficial sweetness. Similarly, as ever-maturing Christians, we learn to appreciate that there can be beauty in the complex, or even in the grey, and that is often exactly where we find it. That whatever trials and questions await us, God is more than capable of bending our experiences to His will, to His desire to change us…deeply…to make us His Saints, capable of carrying His light down the street, or to the ends of the earth.
The Holy Spirit’s Work
What does this actually look like? What are the practicalities involved in pursuing this rich journey with God? How does one continually choose paths of transformation over paths of preservation and stagnation? I have never been one for how-to lists, or ten step programs. We are all so different, and our journeys so unique, that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to have a catchall piece of instruction. But here is what I think. Christ is clear in saying that it’s God’s Holy Spirit that brings any meaningful change within us. A lot of the work, He’s going to do, and you just need to trust that. There is so much freedom in that, believe me. Your job is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself. If you don’t think that is enough of an assignment, I beg you to try it. Without love, all else is clanging symbols. With it, all the other activity that may accompany your life as a Christian, will either fall in place or if superfluous, fall by the wayside. You will surely get it wrong sometimes, but trust the Spirit of God to work with you and within you, and live in the freedom of his Grace.
University is a life-changing time for everyone. If you ask God for it, it can be a time of deep spiritual change for you. Embrace the change, in the leading of His Spirit.