I wanted to write a post on the subject of “Loving Jesus versus Academic Excellence” for some time. As we enter the “Back to School” season, I have been thinking through a lot of related issues. I have also been reading books and articles and listening to numerous podcasts that touch on the issue. I previously posted a few of these resources as recommendations for graduating seniors.
Recently, a pair of podcasts on FamilyLife Today featuring author Michael Kruger addressed this subject. The host, Dave Wilson pointed out, “According to Barna, 70 percent of high school students who enter college as professing Christians will leave with little to no faith.” Christian families are not adequately preparing their children to face the questions and challenges this world will put before them.
In contrast, I have heard countless Christian parents say something to the effect of: “I don’t care if my children are smart, as long as they love Jesus.” This statement sets up the battle of “loving Jesus versus academic excellence.” I understand the intention of these parents. Following Jesus is far more important than being smart, being the best athlete, making a bunch of money, or any of the other measures of “success” this world has to offer (1 Timothy 6:9-11). However, if the statistic above is true, this world is going to shipwreck that “simple” faith. Christians are often accused of “checking our brain at the door.” Our faith needs to grow up (1 Cor 14:20).
First, I think the simplistic approach of these parents is not biblical. The Proverbs are chocked full of admonisions to seek out knowledge and wisdom. The focus is knowledge of the Lord, but it is definitively about learning. The intention is to know enough about your faith and how it relates to everything else to be able to stand against the waves of this world (1 Cor 16:13; Ephesians 6:12).
Ephesians 6:10-20 is the well-known passage we often title, “The Armor of God.” Those of us that grew up in the church have well-worn images in our mind of “the belt of truth,” “the breastplate of righteousness,” “Shoes of readiness given by the gospel of peace,” “the shield of faith,” “the helmet of salvation,” “the sword of the Spirit,” and “prayer” (which has no metaphor given). But how quickly we forget the context of the passage! The passage begins with the reminder that following Jesus means engaging in warfare against all sorts of evil! The intention of the metaphorical armor is to be prepared to stand firm. The passage closes with an admonition to keep alert and to pray that the words given would proclaim the mystery of the gospel … boldly.
Likewise, Paul exhorts Timothy to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and good conscience.” In contrast, “By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith…” (1 Timothy 1:18-20) Paul warns of coming deceipt and writes to be dovoted to teaching, doctrine … and to “immerse yourself in them.” (1 Timothy 4). Placing 1 Timothy 6:9-11 from above into the larger context wraps up the point pretty well. Verse 2 ends with an exhortation to “teach and urge these things.” There is a discussion about a “different doctrine,” desiring to be rich, “false knowledge” and more as it is contrasted with pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness … and fighting for the faith (1 Timothy 6:2-20). In his second letter to Timothy, Paul revisits the same issues repeatedly. The general theme of the entire letter is being adequately prepared to defend the faith and rebuke those who would try to undermine the Gospel.
In conclusion, we should not expect our kids to be the greatest at everything. However, we should teach them to apply themselves fully in everything they do. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) Paul exhorted the Colossians to “work heartily” and “in the name of the Lord Jesus” at whatever they do (Col 3:16ff). Likewise, he told the Corinthians, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) Sometimes, we should teach our kids to say “No” if they don’t believe they can fully apply themselves to a task. Many of us need to learn this truth ourselves.
My kids are currently still early teens and younger. All three profess to follow Jesus. They spend time reading and studying their Bibles and supplement with rich knowledge of the faith. My older two are actively studying how to defend their faith in this world and the third is heading in that direction.
At the same time, my kids rigorously apply themselves academically. They are ahead of their peers in schoolwork. My oldest is likely heading into a biological-sciences related field, with full knowledge of the evolutionary perspective she will face. Both of the other two are considering careers that will bump up against similar secularized perspectives. As parents, we are helping them prepare to navigate whatever waters they encounter with their faith.
We know there is no guarantee our children will remain in the faith. We know they could become part of the 70% statistic. However, armed with this knowledge, we are doing everything we can to minimize the risk and stengthen the foundation. We encourage all parents to do the same.
There is no battle of “loving Jesus versus academic excellence.” Loving Jesus means applying yourself fully, even to academics. My prayer is that my children will be smart – at least smart enough to stand firm in the faith of Jesus Christ and to bring others with them along the way.