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Back-to-School Basics: Five Reminders for College Students

The Christian life is a long obedience in the same direction—more like a marathon than a sprint.1 It’s not a series of hundred-yard bursts after which you can catch your breath on the grass and rest up until the next one.

Your years as a student can be an exciting time of exploration and discovery. The world can open to you in unexpected ways through good books and gifted teachers. And these years also prove an excellent training ground for the marathon ahead. They are a golden opportunity to form habits of mind and heart that will, by God’s grace, strengthen you for whatever lies before you on your course.

To help you make the most of this time, let’s consider five principles that, when taken to heart and lived out, will prepare you for a lifetime of journeying with Jesus.

1. Serve God Wherever You Are

There is no more ideal place to serve God than the place where He presently has you. We always seem to fool ourselves into thinking we would be better off somewhere else, but the key to long-term effectiveness for the Lord is to aim for faithfulness in every circumstance.

Maybe you’ve told yourself that you’ll have time for church and devotions when you have fewer papers and pages of reading staring you down. Or if you are studying away from your home community, perhaps you’ve convinced yourself it doesn’t make sense to you to plant any roots in a local Christian fellowship. Certainly, you must work hard on your courses, but your present vocation as a student doesn’t excuse you from your eternal calling as a Christian.

You must work hard on your courses, but your present vocation as a student doesn’t excuse you from your eternal calling as a Christian.

God often uses people who are in less-than-ideal circumstances. Esther was God’s woman in God’s place. Naomi, despite her triple bereavement, was God’s woman in God’s place. John the Baptist, in the hot and inhospitable Judean wilderness, was the right man at the proper time. You don’t need to wait for an ideal time or place. There is no ideal place to serve God except the place He sets you down.

2. Be Yourself and Forget Yourself

In Isaiah 66:2, God tells us exactly what He is looking for in a person who would serve Him: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” John the Baptist exemplified this when he said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

In a sense, what God desires is quite simple: be humble. Straightforward though it may sound, it sure doesn’t come easy. The essence of humility is to be yourself and to forget yourself, which can prove a real challenge for a student—or anyone! But remember: You don’t have to be just like the other guy in the group. You don’t have to be just like the other girl on the team. God made you with purpose, exactly as He wanted you (Ps. 139:13–14). He fashioned you with care so that you would walk in the good works only you can do for Him (Eph. 2:10). In the end, you have no good reason to boast in yourself, nor do you have sufficient cause to be jealous of others, for what do any of us have that we did not receive from God’s providential hand (1 Cor. 4:7)?

God made you with purpose, exactly as He wanted you

3. Learn a New Perspective on Hardship

If God is providentially involved in every detail of our lives (and surely Scripture says as much), then nothing happens except through Him and by His will. This includes those parts of life we’d rather fast-forward through: failing an exam, a broken relationship, serious illness, the death of loved ones. In our Father’s redemptive plan, however, suffering, difficulty, and trial serve to sharpen and refine us (1 Peter 1:6–7), to make us more steadfast (James 1:2–4).

Often, we don’t know the reason something has happened to us. Perhaps looking back over time—or in some cases, only from the ramparts of eternity—will shine a light on all the dark threads amid the tapestry of God’s purposes: our failures, our losses, our anxieties. In the moment, we may be inclined to say, “Lord, what is going on here?” But we must learn, in time, to say with Job, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). We want to have the sobriety to declare with the psalmist, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71).

Over time, we may actually come to discover that we make more progress through tears and disappointment than through laughter and success. That doesn’t mean that we ought to embrace some kind of morose, half-empty perspective on life. On the contrary, when we understand that God is very much at work in our hardest moments, we can, with His help, learn to rejoice in the toughest times (James 1:2)

4. Walk Daily on the Narrow Path

As a student, you will inevitably devote hours upon hours of time and attention to your studies. Perhaps this is also a time in your life when you are concerned with physical fitness too. When Paul writes to Timothy to instruct him in ministry, he reminds him that “while bodily training is of some value”—and, we might add, while academic training is of some value—“godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).

Note carefully that this is not a prohibition against rigorous exercise or study. After all, God wants us to love Him with our whole selves (Mark 12:30). But in all our academic, vocational, relational, or fitness pursuits, we cannot forget that the pursuit of godliness comes first. We need to set aside time for spiritual study and exercise just like we would for our minds and bodies.

In Psalm 119:9, the psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” How can a student stay faithful at school? How can she stay on track with God?

 By guarding [his or her way] according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
 let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
 that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:9–11)

Make the most of your classes and extracurricular activities. Enjoy all the hangouts with your roommates and friends. Work hard. Stay focused. Have fun. But don’t forget to come to God and His Word daily on your own and regularly with a community of believers.

5. Give Your All to God

The apostle Paul opens Romans 12 with a stirring exhortation: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (v. 1).

In the Old Testament, there were propitiatory sacrifices, which were offered up for sin, and dedicatory sacrifices, which were offered in thanksgiving for the acceptance of the propitiatory ones. In the great mercies of God at the cross of Christ, propitiation has been made; God’s wrath has been absorbed, deflected, and caught up in Christ, and all of His forgiveness has been granted to us. Now we offer our lives as a dedicatory response—one that is living, one that is lasting.

There is no greater calling than the cause of Christ and no greater reward than the riches of knowing Him.

Imagine what God could do with a generation of young Christians fully devoted to His purposes. Imagine what He could do with you. Perhaps instead of just reading church history, we might actually make some church history!

Your education really matters. So long as you are humble and willing, God can use these years of schooling to fashion and sharpen you into an effective tool for Him. You won’t have all clear skies and smooth sailing, and you’ll need to fix your eyes on what matters most. But there is no greater calling than the cause of Christ and no greater reward than the riches of knowing Him. Devote yourself to God’s purposes now in these formative years, and with God’s help, you will never regret it.


This article was adapted from the sermon “Take Five” by Alistair Begg.


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1 See Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980).


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