Chances are, if you're a Christian youth, you're also a student. From grade school, to high school, to college, youth spend the first big chunk of their lives undergoing formal education. That period of time can get even bigger when you factor in graduate school, law school, or seminary. In short, "school" is a constant presence in young people's lives. We exist in an academic world of grades, test scores, and exams. For years, our whole lives revolve around getting a great ACT score, being accepted to the best colleges, and maintaining a stellar GPA. And yet, our performance in this academic life and "world" that we live in has virtually no bearing on our eternal home and the life of the world to come.
The trouble is, we so often don't act in light of this. Our salvation has been won and we've been declared perfect by Jesus Christ. We already have the "one thing needful," yet the world we live in tells us we still need to prove ourselves through our academic success. Don't get me wrong—being a student is a God-given vocation, and thus we are called to fulfill this vocation faithfully as a means of honoring God's gifts to us and serving our neighbor in the world. But like any of God's gifts, we tend to pervert them and turn something good into bad. Going overboard in your vocation as student can easily become idolatry.
Christian youth today hear a lot about how their true identity is not in their clothes, their body image, their popularity, alcohol, or drugs. But for many youth, is it not a much more common temptation to find identity and fulfillment in academic performance? We tend to look at scholastic achievements and ambition as purely good, but as sinful human beings, we can twist even the positive accomplishments of the worthy vocation of student.
I was always a dedicated student, but when I began my freshman year of college, this focus took a turn for the worse. At college, my sinful nature, with its tendency to idolize academics, was more evident than ever. I became obsessed with getting perfect grades and was constantly comparing myself to other students. My own academic performance became everything to me. I started slaving away at my books until the early hours of the morning, and barely slept—abusing my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and disregarding God's gift of health and rest. I made God's blessings of learning and education into merely a means to my own glory. I stopped doing things purely for the sake of truth and my fellow man and instead did activities and assignments as a means to give myself accomplishments and build up my resume. Everything—even God's Word, worship, and serving my neighbor—played second fiddle to the all-consuming focus of myself and my academic accolades. I started ignoring the other vocations God had given me as daughter, granddaughter, sister, and friend by rarely talking to my friends, calling my family, or even serving or communicating with my campus neighbors and dorm-mates.
Of course, my tendencies haven't miraculously stopped now that I am a sophomore. I will live with my sinful nature all my life, but I take comfort in the daily drowning of the Old Adam "by daily contrition and repentance...that a new man should daily emerge and arise" has helped me to continually repent of my idolatry and live in Christ's forgiveness (SC IV).
Perhaps your obsession with academics hasn't reached the extent of my idolatry. Perhaps it doesn't seem that bad compared to other addictions. But don't be fooled. Looking to anything other than God for fulfillment and identity is as damning as Baal worship. Repent of idolatry, even if it is only a slight tendency, and keep repenting. Say with St. Paul, "But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 6:14 ESV). Sin doesn't just disappear; while we are on earth, our old Adam continually battles our new man. Fortunately, however, our identity is no longer completely wrapped up in this old man. Neither is it found in our ACT score, our GPA, or any other sign of academic achievement.
Rather, our identity is found entirely outside ourselves, in Jesus Christ. We are no longer a mere number, such as a test score, but rather baptized children of God with our identity in Christ. As St. Paul writes, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). We are defined not by our own glory and the things we do ourselves, but in Christ and what He did for us. When God looks at us, He doesn't see us at all, but rather His precious Son. Your value is found not in grades or academic achievements, but in the price paid for you in pint after pint of Jesus' holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.
My freshman year in college was self-inflicted hell-on-earth: I relied on myself for success and thus had to drown again and again in failure and despair. I could never find peace and happiness and rest when I was trying to find fulfillment alone. True comfort and happiness can only come when Christ is our fulfillment.
Take comfort in the Gospel and look no longer for your identity in academics. Rather, look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross. Give thanks always for God's gift of education, but also for the greater gift of His Son's death on the cross.
Ramona Tausz is a member of Apostles Lutheran Church in Melrose Park, Illinois, and currently a sophomore studying English at Hillsdale College in Michigan. She writes for The Northern Light, a publication of the LCMS in the Northern Illinois District. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.