11 left, 27 right… I fumbled with my locker combination, oblivious to anything strange afoot.
Adrenaline surged through me at the sound, fight instincts slamming me against the locker’s cold metal. Something had moved in there. Something alive!
Fiercely, a force behind the door resisted my struggle to replace the lock.
“Let me out,” called a familiar, muffled voice. It couldn’t be…
I leapt backwards, white knuckles gripping the lock like a weapon. A hand emerged from the locker, followed by…me!
“Who are you?!” I demanded.
“You of course,” my doppelganger replied, “from four years ago. Sorry about miscalculating those time travel coordinates, but you know how I am with directions. …Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I said, fainting.
“Hello-o…” a hand patted my face, “Now that you’re a seasoned senior, what are the best tips you can offer your first-year self about being a Christian in secular classrooms—how to take notes, study and write tests about stuff that doesn’t match a biblical worldview?”
Good grief. I’d heard about talking to yourself, but this was ridiculous. I sat up, glancing around the hallway. If anyone should see us together…
“Okay. I’ll give you five pointers, but then you have to promise to go back to my past!”
- Walk in ready.
“First,” I began, “go in knowing where you stand. You’ve been building spiritual, intellectual and interpersonal foundations for this by growing and maintaining your walk with Christ, memorizing scripture, learning apologetics basics and critical thinking skills, and surrounding yourself with godly people to support, mentor and pray for you. Now it’s time to put all that into action.
Even so, prepare to be challenged. You’re human and you don’t know everything, so you’re absolutely going to encounter arguments and faith-challenging interpretations of information that you’ve never heard before. But remember, ‘Truth fears no questions.’ You have an a priori commitment to Christ backed by several lines of evidence ranging from intellectual to experiential. You know what you believe and why you believe it, and you have the Holy Spirit right there with you. If His word is true, then you can trust that it will ultimately stand to any scrutiny.
Also, remember how clearly Scripture states that humanity often simply doesn’t want to accept what God has spoken, and that Christ-followers should expect to face hostility. So, facing a challenging environment can be further evidence that God’s word is true. As Paul told Timothy two thousand years ago,
“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14 NIV.)”
- Taking notes? Use the quotes!
“When you’re sitting in class, furiously taking notes,” I continued, “and the prof says something that might conflict with your worldview, put it in quotation marks. That way, you don’t psychologically experience writing down an absolute fact; you’re just writing down what someone said.
Eventually, you’ll get sick of using quotes. But don’t stop. Those little marks make a huge difference, and the pharisees of Jesus’ time knew it. As Pilate wrote The King of the Jews in the sign to go above Jesus’s cross, the pharisees said “Write not The King of the Jews, but rather, He Said, “I Am the King of the Jews.” They understood the power of quotation marks.
- Write down your questions
When you do have questions about anything that comes up in class which could possibly challenge your faith, turn to the back of your notebook and write those questions down. Then, you can follow up on them later when you get the chance. Otherwise, you may begin to feel like there’s a huge weight of uncertainty against your faith, but you may not even remember what those questions were.
Meanwhile, remember that most stories have at least two sides. So, check for alternative explanations. Separate actual data from interpretations of the data and ask yourself what interpretations might be at least as valid. Try to spot the assumptions behind the interpretations, and see which explanations best align with both Scripture and the relevant data.
Remember that humans are fallible. And so are you! You’ll never know all the answers. But that doesn’t mean the answers don’t exist. So, ask God for wisdom to sort out as much as you can and give your remaining concerns to Him. He understands the truth of how it all works, even if you don’t. He’ll give you His peace.
- Pass the test without failing your conscience
“Okay,” said Former Me, “but what about when you’re writing tests? Do you go along with something you know isn’t right to get marks, or do you forfeit grades to save conscience?”
“Actually,” I said, “you may not have to do either. First, remember that the test probably isn’t asking whether you agreed with the material—just whether you learned it. So, keep the kind of question in mind. Multiple choice questions don’t let you explain whether or why you agree with something, and professors probably aren’t going to look at exactly which questions you circled “wrong” anyway. So, I’ve circled the expected answer knowing it’s false, although there have been certain cases when I wasn’t sure whether that was the best decision.
Essay questions are a bit different. You know that whoever marks the exam is going to see your response, but you have flexibility to answer however you want. You can write the expected information and, if you feel it’s important to do so, also cite issues with that answer or indicate why you disagree. Another way to show that you’ve learned the course material without treating it as objective truth is to prelude it with statements like ‘It is thought that…’ or ‘Some researchers interpret this as meaning…’
In another case, an exam once asked me to argue for one of two options, neither of which I agreed with. So, I wrote, ‘If I had to pick one, I would say…’ and followed with the relevant information from class. That way, I removed myself from writing about the course material as though I fully accepted it.”
- Use More Salt.
“Okay,” said Former Me, “and did you ever stand up and argue with professors right in class?”
“I didn’t usually feel compelled to openly challenge a lecturer,” I answered, “though in some cases that might be necessary. Most of the time, I felt that standing up and announcing my dissention wouldn’t have been helpful. But of course, if you feel that God is convicting you to say something specific—say it! We are called to speak the truth, and to do so in love (Ephesians 4:15). Listen to what the Apostles Peter and Paul said:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV).
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:6, NIV.)
The ‘salt,’ most commentators think, refers to speech that is wholesome, pleasant—savoury even. It’s the kind Jesus used when responding to His many opponents. He often posed questions to get people thinking, and in school, I found it useful to do the same thing. One time, for instance, a lecturer was talking about Neanderthals and humans. ‘So, if you killed a Neanderthal,’ I asked, ‘would that be murder?’ He agreed that it would be, showing that he accepted Neanderthals as being ethically persons. That fits a biblical view that Neanderthals were just ancient people.
Another time, a lecturer asked our class whether there is any difference between parents teaching their kids about Santa Clause and Jesus. I did answer to that. Knowingly telling kids a fairy tale is a far cry from communicating a worldview which the parents hold (rightly) to be true. And he conceded the point.”
One Last Thing:
Doppelganger whistled. “This sounds like it’ll be intense!”
“And worth it!” I affirmed. “Like a workout. University is hard, and it’s a burn, but you come out stronger—if you stay close to God. And that’s the final, most important thing I can tell you: Don’t stop spending consistent, daily time with God! No matter how busy you think you are, you need Him now more than ever. Whether wording answers on tests, deciding how to respond to a professor, or sorting through questions that you have, you need the Holy Spirit. He’s with you!
Your education is in his hands, so you can give Him everything you face throughout it. Exams, assignments, friends, questions—everything. Now is the time for you to rely on Him for yourself and witness His faithfulness firsthand.”
Doppelganger stood, smiling. “Thanks for that. Sorry to scare you. I thought you’d remember your first-year time travels, but I must have forgotten to disable the machine’s Memory Fade plugin. You know how I am with electronics.”
“No worries,” I replied. “Now take care out there. He’ll be with you.”
Grinning a farewell, she stepped into the locker and disappeared.
I paused—and then tightly locked the door.