I am in the middle of a 6-part series helping Christian students think through how to prepare for life at a big university. This topic is particularly relevant, I hope, given the number of high school seniors who are in the middle of deciding where they will go to college in the fall.
This little series is based on a recent lecture I gave to the Regents School in Austin, Texas, where I laid out 6 principles designed to help rising college students think more clearly about what’s ahead. It’s also based on my book, Surviving Religion 101. You can read the prior installments here and here.
We now come to a third consideration for rising Christian college students: “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”
No, this is not a quote from Kelly Clarkson. It was actually first said (as far as I know) by Friedrich Nietzsche. But it does capture a Christian principle, namely that opposition can actually be a blessing.
Indeed, this is true in other areas of life. For a weightlifter, or professional athlete, the pain of resistance can actually create more strength and endurance. Back in my soccer playing days, I can still remember the dreaded end of practice when we would run “lappers” around the field (a grueling endurance routine that still today makes me feel nauseated). As the players wilted in the heat, straining to take the next step, an outside observer might think the coach was out to destroy us. One might even think we were being punished for some misdeed.
But, as a player, you knew better. You knew your coach was just preparing you for the state tournament at the end of the season when every last drop of endurance would be needed.
In a similar way, the opposition at the university environment, as strange as it sounds, can be a tremendous benefit. It can shape a student into a better, more fit believer who can serve God in unique and exceptional ways—ways that would be impossible in an opposition-free life.
For one, opposition will force students to figure out what they really believe. It’s one thing to believe something because you grew up with it, or because your parents believed it. It’s entirely another to be able to express why you believe something when someone else thinks its ridiculous (or even morally offensive).
A secular university can lead a student to find the answers to the tough questions. It can push them to be a better theologian. Truth be told, most Christians are never really required to do this. We live most of our lives in a Christian “bubble,” surrounded by Christian friends in our Christian sub-culture.
It’s very peaceful and comfortable. But that doesn’t always produce the best thinkers.
So my advice to future college students is simple. Let all these questions drive you to pursue the answers. Be a reader. Be a studier. Be someone who dives deeply into the deep issues of your faith. And here’s the payoff: not only will that bless your own soul, but it will bless many, many other people as you help them work through challenging intellectual issues. You can become a resource for others.
The Christians in the earliest generations of the church also learned this lesson. In the second century in particular, Christians faced an unprecedented barrage of attacks. Some of those attacks came from the intellectual elites of the Greco-Roman world, heaping scorn and ridicule on the burgeoning Christian movement. In their eyes, Christianity was intellectually lacking and philosophically deficient, attracting only the uneducated and gullible (especially, they argued, women and children).
But attacks also came from within. Numerous heretical groups arose, questioning foundational doctrines of Christianity and amassing an impressive number of followers. In particular, Gnosticism was a serious threat. The Gnostics argued that the physical world was the creation of a false god and that Jesus, therefore, could not have really come in the flesh. Moreover, they argued that “salvation” came not through the work of Christ on the cross but through a special knowledge given to only certain enlightened ones.
Such challenges—from both inside and outside—created a bit of a crisis in the early Christian movement. How would they respond? Would the infant church even survive? And here we see again that God uses challenges and opposition for good ends. Not only did the early church survive, it thrived. How? It dug deep and pursued these tough theological and intellectual questions. The earliest Christian leaders learned how to express their faith in better ways, clearer ways—ways that would distinguish it from (and would refute) the various heretical groups around them.
In short, opposition made early Christians better theologians, better defenders of the faith, and better evangelists. Such theological reflection and nuance culminated in the beautiful and unmatchable Nicene Creed of AD 325, where the church expressed its commitment to Christ as both God and man united in one person, over against opposing views.
These same principles are evident in other parts of life. In 2017, Jack Gilbert—who teaches microbial science at the University of Chicago—published a fascinating book: Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System. As the title suggests, Gilbert challenges a core assumption of every nervous parent, namely that we must take every step humanly possible to protect our child from any and all forms of contamination. It seems that our kids can never use enough hand sanitizer or take enough baths or use enough Clorox wipes.
As paradoxical as it seems, argues Gilbert, some level of exposure to germs can actually be a good thing. It can help children develop their immune systems which, in turn, will protect them when they are older. Indeed, he argues, many health problems (including the rising rate of severe allergies) can be linked to a lack of exposure to certain bacteria.
Here’s the point: the germ-conscious parent may think they are raising healthy children when they may actually be raising vulnerable children—a vulnerability which will not become apparent until many years later.
As nervous Christian parents, sometimes we think our number one job is to make sure our kids are never exposed to any non-Christian thinking. We may be tempted to place our children inside a sanitized theological bubble, safe from all forms of intellectual contamination. But, just like germ-conscious parents, this may not be accomplishing what we think.
So here’s the big point: don’t view opposition at a secular university only in negative terms. View it as an opportunity to build up your theological immune system. It may be uncomfortable in the short term. But in the long term it can produce tremendous spiritual health and vitality.