Why We Need Virtue and Spiritual Discipline in Our Education

Luke 13:18-21: "Then Jesus asked, 'What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?   It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.' Again he asked, "What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."

Matthew 22:37-39: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

I Corinthians 9:27: "I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” 

In college we often find ourselves saying things like "When I go out into the real world" or "We need to escape the university bubble." Such language implies that college is a kind of sheltered existence which doesn't much apply to the rest of our future lives and which doesn't ask much of us in the way of true responsibility.  Of course, for some students this is not simply an implication but actually the case.  They work hard at making college a kind of escape from the ramifications of their actions, and they seem to live in denial that life can make serious demands on a person.  College with its increased freedoms becomes an invitation to endless distractions or edgy denial. Yet I suspect that most of us know better: we don't escape in college; instead we draw back, reflect, and equip ourselves for a complicated world.  Indeed, many of us are working our way through and readily see the connections on a daily basis.   For Christians, the attitude that college is not the "real world" is especially dangerous because it tempts us to treat our education as somehow sealed off from our spiritual lives, our character concerns, and our day-to-day worship.  It seduces us with compartmentalizing the important things as if they don't really relate. The way we study or the way we pray never meet up with the way we watch movies or the way we order online, much less the way we vote or the way we serve others.

The heart of the gospel is the good news that Jesus the Messiah is ruler of all and that all may follow him by faith, entering into a relationship with God, his eternal and triune life enlivening every aspect of ourselves. Make no mistake--the kingdom of Christ extends to every portion of our lives.   This is why Jesus compared it to yeast that works its way throughout bread.   No academic subject, be it literature, accounting, or trigonometry, can be said to be shut off from God's influence and instruction.  As Christians, we are called to love God and to glorify him with every aspect of our lives, including our minds.  Unfortunately, what believers in Jesus often fail to learn is how their mental lives are bound tightly to their emotional lives, to their choices, to their bodily existence, and to their social networks. We cannot separate out easily what we think and learn from our ethical and spiritual lives. In the same way, what we learn in the classroom has direct implications on our work, our politics, our consumer choices, our friends, and our play.


Have you ever spent the day observing why you do things?? It is often harder than you first might think. You might find that you tend to react (or overreact) to certain people who annoy you. The person down the hall sings shrilly in a certain way, and you want to punch the person. But why? When you begin to consider, there may not even be an obvious or apparent reason at hand. Or maybe, you find yourself craving certain foods at certain times--chocolate, caffeine, fresh blueberries, you become sleepy or subject to depression on a regular basis, and again, even if you can identify the trend, you're not sure why it's there or what to do about it. What can be even more challenging is when you decide you want to change the way you respond. Most of us can attest that willpower is not enough alone to change us. This is because our settled character is a pattern of habits that are spiritual, mental, emotional, bodily, and social. Habits aren't easily altered nor are they always on the surface of our self-awareness. We learn, love, and relax in certain tested patterns. Sometimes these are good and true; just as often they are disturbing, addictive, even downright wicked.

Of course, we shouldn't despair, for by the grace of God, real change can come to us. Grace is God's gift to us; not something we deserve, and the power that it brings is not finally found in ourselves. However, recognizing that we are utterly dependent upon God's power should not encourage us to be passive. Paul puts it this way:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

We are called to mind renewal, to a life of sacrifice to the will of God, to a humble service of others. We must learn that our various gifts, if accepted for their strengths and limitations, lead us to mutually upholding what is good and appropriate and mature. We are to set aside ungodly ways of using our minds and bodies for better ones--ones full of life and incredible satisfaction. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee in their book Kingdom Ethics put it this way:

Grace is Christomorphic, not amorphic; it has a specific shape, a shape revealed in Christ. [...] The shape of grace is Christ taking form in us.  We participate by answering Jesus' gracious call:  come follow me.  This is not cheap grace, nor is it works-righteousness, in which we try to earn our way into the kingdom by our righteous deeds.  This grace is a gift of deliverance, given only by God in his only Son, Jesus Christ, fully Lord and fully Savior.  It comes through faith in Jesus Christ, worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  (36-37)

All of this is to suggest that we do need to pay attention to the way our intellectual and moral habits of heart and mind impact our learning in the college years. It is important, for example, that we not be blind to the effects of sin even in our intellectual pursuits.  Sin can affect our studies, our ideas, and our classroom participation.   Pride or rage can close us off to certain weaknesses in our thinking, perhaps even tempt us to hold a view less than the complete truth.  A desire for personal power and affluence can set us on a course of life that seeks knowledge and skill in order to master and control others, rather than to love God, understand his creation, and serve others.  Laziness (sloth) entices us to avoid the rigor and hard work that excellent study requires.  On the other hand, a failure to take seriously God's command to rest (Sabbath) can lead to exhaustion, despair, and poor work as well.

How, then, might we go about seeking the virtue and spiritual discipline we need to be effective students for the glory of God?  Below are some considerations that I have garnered from a number of writers. Together, they suggest that paying particular attention to the habits of character we need should encourage us to turn to the classic spiritual disciplines of the faith as a way to daily experience Holy Spirit-directed formation. I do confess that the following two lists are meant to neither be exhaustive or self-sufficient. What I hope they do is peak your interest enough to seek out what more can be done in your life to truly change according to the will of God.


Sense of Calling: For Christians, college should be a place where we pursue truth, beauty, and holiness.  All these are God's.  We are called to the university for far more than training and accreditation leading to a job (or better job).  We are called to know God more completely, and this means panting after all the truth we can take in. Perhaps you've never thought that a "sense of calling" is actually a virtue, but it is. When you are convinced that you are chosen by God to do something, then you are more prone to stay committed to it. This commitment should be true whether you feel like sticking with it or not, but honestly, more often, you end up feeling like it because your emotions are shaped by the goal instead of vice-versa. You are also able to decide how important something is--whether it’s a central concern or one on the periphery. We all know persons who are incredibly focused on the task at hand. Imagine what happens when that focus also has the big picture in mind, when it can look ahead to God's larger purpose for something. Real conviction of life follows.

Obedience: To know truth is to be accountable for it.   We should ask ourselves on a fairly regular basis: "Having been convinced of this (theorem, physiological principle, ethical precept, poem), what does God require of me?"  To not do so is to live in a kind of schizophrenia. Because we are sinners born into a fallen world, consistent living does not come naturally. We too often confess to believe something that we do not follow through upon. Perhaps, this is in part because we don't truly believe it, or we are (to use the Apostle James' words) "double-minded" in our impulses, desires, and thoughts. The habit of obeying the truth has to be cultivated. Having been grasped by a vision of things as they are and should be, we still need the intention and the means to live differently. Of course, the question remains as to what truth, what vision, we can safely give ourselves to obey. John Henry Newman labeled the "illative sense" that ability to discern which sources to trust and then to be willing to risk obeying. Good learning requires this settled habit of investigation and action. Without the second, the first tends to dry up. A life of disobedience brings a drought to the hearing of the commands of God for each of us.

Humility: Humility means recognizing that we are not God and that we do not know everything.  It takes humility to learn from others and to put what we do learn into practice.  This has particular application to the way we treat our fellow students and instructors in class as well as the texts we are required to read.   Schwehn notes that a balanced, critical humility doesn't mean we always naively accept everything we hear or read without question, but it does imply "in practical terms, the presumption of wisdom and authority in the author" (48). And I would add, in the speaker.  We willingly give others a hearing because they may have something to impart to us. When we do this, we are also growing in the important ability to stay dependent upon the grace of God as that which exceeds us in everyway.

Faith/Trust: Effective education requires that we manifest a certain level of belief and trust in what we hold and in what we are given.  It requires a level of biblical discernment to learn what we can depend on and what we should more deeply probe and question.  It is a mistake to go to either extreme--questioning and doubting all we hear or blithely questioning none. The Brazilian educator Paulo Freire offers a sustained reflection on this:

Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world . . . Because dialogue is an encounter among men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some men name on behalf of others.  It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one man by another . . . Dialogue cannot exist however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for men . . . If I do not love the world -- if I do not love life -- if I do not love men -- I cannot enter into dialogue.

On the other hand, dialogue cannot exist without humility . . . Dialogue, as an encounter of men addressed to the common task of learning and acting, is broken if the parties (or one of them) lack humility.  How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? . . . Dialogue further requires an intense faith in man, faith in his power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in his vocation to be more fully human . . . Nor yet can dialogue exist without hope . . . If the dialoguers expect nothing to come of their efforts, their encounter will be empty and sterile, bureaucratic and tedious.

Finally, true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking -- thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and men and admits of no dichotomy between them -- thinking which perceives reality as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity . . . Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking.  Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, one might critique Freire as having a little too much faith in the human capacity to reason and reason well, but nonetheless, he makes some profound points about the necessary ethical conditions of good learning--an environment of mistrust and arrogance will not finally assist us in discovering the truth, much less in serving it.

Courage and Honesty: Equally, we need true courage to express openly what we do hold to.  Admittedly, some of us are more outspoken than others, but we can all learn to express more faithfully what we believe either in writing or in a classroom discussion.  The temptation for some of us is to doubt we have anything to contribute, while for others of us, the temptation is to "score points" rather than set forth what we hold honestly.  As Parker Palmer suggests, "[T]he practice of intellectual rigor in the classroom requires an ethos of trust and acceptance.  Intellectual rigor depends on things like honest dissent and the willingness to change our minds" (xvii). Consider what happens when you begin to treat course content as something imposed upon you, as a chore, or as a drudge with no purpose or meaning to your life. The things we are studying become obstacles rather than sources of value. As such, we end by dealing with them dishonestly--denying their power to challenge us or to remake what we already have.

Self-denial and Wisdom: Mark Schwehn defines the two in the following manner: "Self-denial is just this disposition to surrender ourselves for the sake of the better opinion; wisdom is the discernment of when it is reasonable to do so" (49).  If we truly love God and God's truth more than our own perceptions, we may discover at times that some of our most deeply cherished beliefs are not only called into question (after all, we expect that at college) but are also shown to be wrong.  This can be difficult, but we should take heart because God's truth, even when it is painful, can also lead to greater joy, fulfillment, and more effective service for his kingdom. The Christian faith has traditionally stressed the value of self-denial not as a kind of self-hatred but rather as an invitation to liberation--when our life is turned outward towards others, when we are free to be self-forgetful, to give ourselves over to loving others and learning well with them, we are often set free from our own blindness and enslaved passions.

Hospitality: Hospitality makes us welcome.  It does not mean creating an environment where no one is willing to challenge someone else, but it is about making a place where each person knows that he or she is valued and of great worth.  It means that we should grow in recognizing that all humans are created in the image of God and are therefore of immense importance to Christ. Hospitality in an intellectual context may include tension, even cognitive strife, but it should conclude with reaffirming the mutual dependence on each person in the class on the process. We do not learn onto ourselves; we are always indebted to others--the authors we read, the professors who lead, the fellow students who assist us.

Perseverance and Hope: Around finals week, these are virtues most of us pray for, but they apply to the entire semester.  A university education is often difficult and requires that we practice patient endurance.  At times, it requires that we go to God seeking for hope that looks in expectation to what God has promised us.  When it seems as if nothing of truth, beauty, or goodness is coming to us (and we will all have these times in our college career), we cling to the hope that it will again.

Joy, Peace, and Thanksgiving: Study, even when difficult, doesn't have to be drudgery.  We should rejoice when we discover some new truth, learn something more about what is good and just, or encounter something truly beautiful we have not known before.  God has spread before us a feast of riches.  And because of this, we should be grateful each time we receive something good. Cultivating these habits of emotion has enormous benefits for us--not only in our bodily health but in the inspiration we need so often to continue in the difficult task. Gratitude as habit of response renders us less likely to claim our own rights at the expense of another's; it softens us in a way that makes us more gentle, kind, and good-hearted. It teaches us that the whole world doesn't rest on our shoulders and that we are part of something beyond ourselves. These are marks of healing. Dallas Willard observes that this truth is at the heart of our social existence:

This "relating" quality reaches into every dimension of human existence. It characterizes the basic nature of all thought and feeling, which is always a thought of or feeling of something other than itself. It pervades the deepest reaches of our body, soul, and world, where our very identity--who we really are--is always intermingled (if sometimes negatively, by reaction) with others who have given us life, sustained us, or walked with us--or perhaps have deeply injured us. The call of "the other" on our lives is a constant for everyone. It is a basic reality of a moral existence, which we retreat from only into a living death of isolation (Renovation 184).

Charity/Love: Above all, then, we need true charity when we read, listen, speak, write, act, and study.  We need this to shape how we treat others and what they have to offer.  We literally interpret others differently when we do so in love.  Ask yourself for a moment: how differently will I treat my professor or fellow student if I believe that she or he really cares about me? If I am offended by his or her actions, how much more likely am I to see them as well-intended? In the same way, how differently will I treat him or her if my goal is to help that person fulfill his calling rather than see it as some kind of hindrance or imposition on my own wants?

Of course, much more could be said about virtue and learning. James Sire provides a helpful chart, based on work by W. Jay Wood, of some of the virtues of education. As you look over his list of necessary habits, notice how each of them makes learning more than just the acquiring of new information; each one increases us as people with purpose and intrinsic worth to act as God created us to do and be:

Acquisition virtues: passion for truth

  • inquisitiveness
  • teachableness
  • persistence
  • humility

Application virtues: passion for holiness

  • will to do what one knows
  • love
  • fortitude
  • humility 

Maintenance virtues: passion for consistency

  • perseverance
  • courage
  • constancy
  • tenacity
  • patience
  • humility

Communication virtues: compassion for others

  • clarity of expression
  • orderliness of presentation
  • aptness of illustration
  • humility 

Spiritual Disciplines

As I suggested above, these settled habits of action and response don't appear in a person overnight just because he or she decides that day to choose them, though a commitment to choosing them is an important aspect of the process. Once we understand that we are beings who are made up of a complex of mind, emotion, will, bodily responses, and so on, we have to come to terms with the gradual conversion of ourselves. Christians call this painful process, sanctification. As Paul says in his epistle to the Romans:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (5:1-4).

"Suffering," "endurance," and "character" all describe a process. This process includes every aspect of your life. What you think about impacts your emotions; what you spend your time focused on in terms of images, exercise, musical sound-scapes, ideas, and so on does work its way into your total response to life--both consciously and unconsciously. Not that this process is a simple "garbage in-garbage out" one; we are discerning beings who can critique what we absorb. Nonetheless, there is real truth in realizing that we are being educated by all that we are learning, whatever its sources. In the same way your loyalties, family background, and friendships have a deep impact on whether you truly stay accountable to what you know to be true. This is one reason why the way we worship is so important--our worship teaches us. It imparts the Christian truths with the language of scripture, with prayer, with tangible things like bread and water, with the bowing of our knees and the raising of our hands. And we do them together with others. We literally begin to be molded--mind and body--by the acts of submitted worship. This, however, has to continue in our individual lives. We have to decide to cooperate with what God is doing in the classroom, residence hall, church, or workplace.

Christian history has a lot to teach us on how to go about this kind of change, beginning with the Bible itself. Dallas Willard in his book The Divine Conspiracy notes that a discipline is "any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort;" and thus, a spiritual discipline is one "designed to help us be active and effective in the spiritual realm of our own heart, now spiritually alive by grace, in relation to God and his kingdom" (352).  We practice the guitar or a curve ball or an aerobic step or a formula for linear algebra because it doesn't come to us easily. The same is true of the spiritual disciplines. We engage in them because we desire a habit of virtuous response. We want to naturally act more as Jesus would.

There are a number of ways to divide up the subject of spiritual formation. Willard himself in another book, The Sprit of the Disciplines, divides the spiritual disciplines between disciplines of abstinence (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice) and disciplines of engagement (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission). The first involves things that we deny ourselves for the larger end, while the second set involves things we must do to obtain that end. Here, then, are some of the ways we can go about cooperating with God's work on our hearts.  Each of these is a particular practice that regularly allows us to be formed by God's operative grace upon us:

Disciplines of Abstinence

Solitude and Silence: These make sense cognitively because quiet places, free of distractions, often make the best learning environments.  But they also make sense spiritually.  God speaks to us in quiet times when we are apart from others.  Of course, he also speaks when we are with others, but these quiet times prepare us to be more spiritually aware of God's conviction in all times and places. They help us practice the attentiveness we need to truly learn from a person, book, or exercise. Every student needs to establish a place he or she can go to be free of distractions and noise.   And this should be a place of focused solitude, a seeking after truth.  As Sire observes, "Solitude without attention is somnolence" (130). Note, then, how this spiritual practice prepares us to answer the virtues of hospitality, self-denial, and charity. We become less prone to dominate others with our words as we learn to trust them to God in quietness. We becomes listeners. Solitude teaches us to hear and see reality better.

Fasting: Perhaps it is surprising to think of fasting having anything to do with college-level education, but I would contend that it does. If we accept that our pedagogical and spiritual growth has a bodily component, then it follows that what assists us in achieving a more disciplined approach to our body and its desires will result, in the long run, in clarity of mind and emotion. Not only because it directly impacts the way we think, but also because it plays a role in the larger reorientation of the soul from a life built upon self-gratification to one abandoned to the will of God.

Frugality: This is more than simply being careful with one's limited financial resources. It is a mindset and lifestyle of being content with enough, being at peace with one's clothing, one's body, and one's social status. It cuts at the root of envy and covetousness and frees us to consider others' needs in the moment or to love another regardless of these passing symbols of "success." In the economy of Jesus, achievement is measured on an entirely different scale. It frees us from distractions that hinder our education as God would will it. Imagine your day undistracted by what others think about you or approve. Imagine receiving people for who they really are, forgiving them for their defenses of body posture, fashion, sexual allure, and wealth.

Chastity: In the same way, chastity is more than a simple lack of sexual intercourse outside marriage; it is a life spent in purity, treating others as human beings made in the image of God and not as objects of mental and physical gratification. It means embracing modesty and eschewing the erotic defrauding of another, and in marriage, it means intimate trust and bearing with each other's imperfect bodies and souls. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted "that the essence of chastity is not the suppression of lust but the total orientation of one's life toward a goal. . .  . Chastity is the sine qua non of lucidity and concentration" (376). Imagine what this would mean to one's intellectual and moral life. Consider the focus it might bring and the slavery it might end in your life. How much rich detail about people are we missing because of a pornification of them?

Secrecy and Sacrifice: "Secrecy" (Willard's term) might better be titled "spiritual reticence," that is the quality of not trumpeting one's own accomplishments, of doing the good deed with no expectation of reward. As Jesus commanded: don't let your left hand know what your right is doing; pray and fast in secret; give in secret. Spiritual reticence has at its heart the desire to never rob God of his glory, to turn all credit back to where it is due. In this sense, it's just simple honesty--who of us can really claim to have accomplished anything without others? Who can finally hold that nothing is a gift from above? But we are by habit, self-delusory liars who are prone to never consider the fragile tissue of life on which we are posed. We need a regular practice of doing things for God's regard only in secret that we might learn to do all things for his glory even in the open. Secrecy molds us into more humble and realistic people. Sacrifice does the same thing, for when we risk giving something away that truly costs us we discover not only how dear our possessions, our time, and our props of identity are to us, but also how unnecessary they really are.

Together, this kind of radical habit of self-denial, God-focused praise, and deliberate humility can form powerful habits of learning that spread out into our education. It helps us to delight in truth wherever it arises; it undercuts false investments in grading as definitions of our self-worth instead of evaluations and advice for improvement. Compare the student, who upon receiving a graded exam, goes straight to the final grade and then never bothers to look closely at the professor's comments with the one who goes over each comment testing it for what it has to teach. This later attitude is much easier to take when you are no longer invested in how others regard your academic standing and when your end desire is to turn any glory back upon the Creator and Maker of us all.

Disciplines of Engagement

Prayer: A regular practice of prayer opens us up to the work of the Holy Spirit on our hearts.  We should pray for our classes, our teachers, fellow students, and for ourselves.  We should ask God to teach us through our assignments and to refine us in the virtues we need to pursue truth in our university education.  We should ask him to be present in class lectures, discussions, and tests.  Consider just the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed by thy Name,
thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen

This prayer, prayed regularly with conviction, commits us to a classroom experience with the worship of God at its heart, with the kingdom rule of God as our final end and purpose. It reminds us that we are dependent beings in need of God's daily provision for our physical and spiritual lives. It recognizes that we are placed within the estrangement, loss, forgiveness, and restoration of the gospel. None of us is self-made or able to stand on our own. And knowing as Paul warns us that "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world," we should seek to be free of those sins that keep us from perceiving and obeying what is right. We can only do this with the infinite mercy of God on our daily, indeed hourly, behalf.

Study and Concentration: Study is a spiritual discipline.  We strive to internalize the information we need to know, to cultivate a discernment of something's truth, and to comprehend and evaluate the implications of a matter. For the Christian, this should never be separate from the work of the Spirit.  In some ways, the study that we practice together in church through listening to sermons, attending bible studies, and participating in worship can prepare us for the study we need in every area of life. Kevin J. Vanhoozer has written that the church is uniquely suited to be a place where individuals learn the ethics of understanding.  He notes:

The church is that community in which the interpretive virtues – intellectual, ethical, and spiritual – are cultivated. For it is not only a community’s interests but also its virtues that make it an appropriate environment for obtaining literary knowledge. In short, literary knowledge is not simply a matter of having the right descriptions but also of having the right dispositions.

In Vanhoozer's vision, the local church can be a place where we acquire certain habits essential for the proper interpretation of others' ideas.   We learn how to deal faithfully, honestly, and rigorously with sermons, discipleship studies, creeds and confessions, biblical commentaries, systematic theologies, and of course, most importantly, the Bible itself.  As a result, this kind of regular practice in reading carries over into the way we deal with all human texts.  We seek to avoid distorting the message; we work to nuance the particulars of wording; we learn to balance context, background, and genre. It should be obvious that here spiritual practice and habits of virtue go hand-in-hand.

Likewise, we need a practice of concentrated, close, spiritually aware reading of texts. Not everything can be covered quickly. The medieval term for this is lectio divina.  This is especially important in reading scripture.  We need times where we read slowly and closely the words of the Bible in order to hear what God has to say to us.  In a more limited sense, I believe this practice can be applied to any poem, work of art, or mathematical formula that offers truth.  Admittedly, these human works don't have the same infallibility that God's word does, but since all truth is God's truth, we need to practice listening for the lessons that are in these other works. Indeed, close reading and meditation upon scripture builds in us the discernment we need to profit from other, less perfect works. John Baillie prayed,

Leave me not, O gracious Presence, in such hours as I may to-day devote to the reading of books or of newspapers.  Guide my mind to choose the right books and, having chosen them, to read them in the right way.  When I read for profit, grant that all I read may lead me nearer to thyself.  When I read for recreation, grant that what I read may not lead me away from thee.  Let all my reading refresh my mind that I may more eagerly seek after whatsoever things are pure and fair and true. (Sire 177)

Fellowship: Scripture commands us to be in mutual submission to one another.  This is carried out when we learn to speak and to listen in corporate settings.  We learn to practice a community where we respect, have patience with, and even love each other in our mutual pursuit of God's truth.  Not all fellowship is the same fellowship.  It might even help to think of the classes we take, the papers and assignments we complete, and the books we study and read as different kinds of friends.  True friendship survives disagreement and change because it bases itself on a certain kind of respect and enjoyment united by common pursuits. True friendships come in various shapes, sizes, and conditions. Some are bound to be more long-lasting, emotionally engaging, or evolve at a quicker rate. Our experience of learning is similar. Civic dialogue--whether face-to-face or online or in print--carries with it certain ideal qualities of communication, but not every conversation is the same. Fellowship as a spiritual discipline commits us to continuing in a relationship even in the face of seemingly negligible results. (This is why "church hopping" as its sometimes called is such a bad practice for you--it renders you a consumer rather than a member.) Fellowship waits not passively but actively for growth to be cultivated, and it waits in patience. This is an absolute necessary practice to submit to in the high-pressure environment of college. Otherwise, you are tempted to cut your losses too soon, before you can reasonably expect to benefit from the hard task at hand.

Confession and Submission: Confession of sin to another Christian and submission to someone else's counsel, even mentorship, are risky acts. They render us vulnerable; they expose our habits of self-protection; they open us to another's rejection, misunderstanding, or judgment. Why risk them, then? Because they also offer us profound possibilities of mature growth. Athletes and musicians know this well--you have to train with coaches, let yourself be observed and advised by teachers who know the way ahead. None of us is self-aware enough to be unable to profit from another's skilled hand, eye, and ear. The life of the mind and character is no different. It is important during the college years that you find an older person of faith that you can trust, someone to mentor you. Admittedly, this person may be different depending on the task at hand--a project for a Business class, a particularly different temptation, a problem with your service learning, an internship in the summer, a set of tough decisions. Yet they all recognize that we need guidance. (This is true of your professors, too, as they will all acknowledge. . . . Guidance is needed at every level of life.)

Celebration: Life is sacramental. "Sacrament" may be a word you find strange, or that you associate with things like Baptism and the Lord's Supper, but it's a perfectly good word. It describes the quality of God's power and presence in tangible things. Karl Rahner once wrote, "Grace is everywhere," and once you sense that God is truly omnipresent and omniscient then this truth comes home to you. The lordship of Christ applies to all of life because he is the Lord and Maker of all things. Yet this is not simply a legal principle or a theological claim, it is a way of celebrating the utter goodness of life. The Christian faith teaches us (and Christian experience bears it out) that we meet God most perfectly in Jesus Christ and in the revelation of himself in the scriptures, but we also meet God in creation, in other people, in what we read and watch, and in the day-to-day of normal living. Like fellowship and submission, celebration requires us to show up and stick with something--in this case, the hope and practice of valuing the goodness of what God is up to. Try going through a week, looking each person silently in the eye while thinking, "You are the image of God, however broken." Or going to class with these thoughts: "This is the gift of God for me today." Or as you study, read, write, or debate with your friends, vowing, "Here I am to worship." Would not this infuse your life with real celebration? Just the thought makes me want to dance.

As a teacher (and regular student) and as I look over this list, I am mostly aware of my own failings, but I also look forward with hope.  My prayer for our semester is that we may grow in virtue and discipleship together, pursuing God's truth and beauty wherever they might take us.



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Murphy, Debra Dean. Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education. Grand Rapids: Brazos , 2004.

O'Keefe, Mark. Becoming Good, Becoming Holy: On the Relationship of Christian Ethics and Spirituality. NY: Paulist, 1995.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1993.

_____. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Schwehn, Mark R. Exiles From Eden : Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Stassen, Glen H and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

Sire, James W. Habits of the Mind: Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.

_____. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

_____. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.