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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Encouragement for the Student Returning to School.

Students studying before an exam
The Night Before the Exam (1895) by Leonid Pasternak. Public Domain.

When I walked across the stage to receive my white coat from my professors, an image was displayed behind me on the large overhead projector. Everyone laughed. I had planned this in advance: a particular quotation from Ecclesiastes was to be displayed next to images from my time in Physician Assistant school: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, emphasis mine). Indeed, though I walked to receive the symbolic white coat, signifying my accomplishment of those necessary educational prerequisites to treat patients, it is an understatement to call the process a “weariness of the flesh.” Countless hours in the library, the lab, examinations and practicals, late nights in the hospital, and early mornings in surgery all had led to this moment.

I know this is the time when many students are returning to classes. I remember this well. There’s some (or a lot) of anxiety, hopeful expectation, new friends to make, and teachers' quirks to discover. A painting by the Russian post-impressionist painter Leonid Osipovich Pasternak hangs in my office as a reminder of this time. Four students study in his work titled "The Night Before the Exam." I’ve been in this place many times; I’ve leaned against the table piled with books, sat back in my chair with the course text, held a pen and paper in my hand, and yes, even held a skull to study its complex anatomy.

This painting also helps me think about what it means to study to the glory of God. For, as much as it is a weariness of the flesh, it also delights and instructs us in the complex world that God has made and reflects elements of who He is, even, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

So, given this delicate balance between weariness and wonder, I asked myself how I might exhort and encourage young students returning to classes. I have three practical pieces of advice.

Engender curiosity for God’s world, but above it, curiosity after God Himself.

Though the study of the arts and sciences brings amazing discoveries, there is a reason that Theology was once considered the crown jewel of scholasticism. The ancients understood that studying the world could bring glory to God, but this paled in comparison to knowing and loving God Himself. As universities grow increasingly hostile toward faith, it is necessary that you as a student take upon yourself the primary motivation to pursue God. Pew Research reports that most people who abandon the faith of their upbringing do so “before age 24.” I report this statistic not to scare anyone but to show that passive faith results in apostasy. As you study the world God has made, allow it to direct your eyes upward to the One “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Pursue excellence, but know your grades and performance do not define you.

We all know, cognitively, that our grades don’t define us, but we don’t live this way. We betray this belief with our emotions after receiving the first negative mark of the semester. I’m with you. I too sat on a park bench with my exam results displayed on my laptop and cried to my family, “I’m not cut out for this.” The reason the grade cut so deep was that I, deep down, believed it said something about my value. For the Christian, we can be bold in our studies because we know our worth is not in our performance. Though we pursue excellence in study as if we were studying for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), we understand that even if we fail an exam, or a class, or even an academic program, our value is in our being made Imago Dei (in the image of God) and in the sacrifice of His Son for our sins.

Pursue hard work, but do not neglect Sabbath rest.

It wasn’t uncommon in PA school to have two or three exams a week. There’s simply too much information to learn and be tested on in such a short time. It was the most tempting to study on a Sunday night for the exam on Monday. Yet God instituted the Sabbath to be a blessing to us because we need rest. For some, study can be a way to worship God, and I’m not arguing for a legalistic adherence to a Sabbath. What I am arguing is for our innate, deep need for rest, not just as leisure time but time spent with the God who has promised to sustain us. The problem for me was I viewed this time as a check-box, another to-do list item that added to my stress rather than an oasis in the arid desert of a busy work-filled week.

I do not want to give the impression that my own time in school was marked by the perfect example of the balance of these principles. In fact, they were often discovered through my own failings at balance. To students entering classes, learn from my mistakes and stand on these shoulders knowing that God who brought you to this educational endeavor will faithfully complete His good work in you (Philippians 1:6). You too will one day cross the stage and shake the hand of your academic leadership. “Congratulations,” they will say, but it will pale in comparison to hearing the words we all long to hear from our Savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). It is for Him we pursue curiosity, study, succeed, fail, pursue excellence, and rest.

May God bless you this academic semester and teach you exponentially more of Himself as He teaches you about what He has made.

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