Monday, 17 January 2011

The Gospel and the Exam Hall

One of the experiences that comes with being at theological college is that of learning to sit exams all over again. The experience of sitting in the exam room is something I've not had since I've left school. Therefore, one of the challenges that this has given me is the opportunity to wrestle with the question: 'How do I sit exams to the glory of God?' What does it look like to sit exams as a Christian, and how ought the gospel shape the way we prepare for and participate in exams?

The following is not a 'How To...' guide for sitting exams. Rather, it is a reminder of some Bible truths that we need to remember as exams approach, either for those of us who are sitting exams, or for those of us seeking to encourage and minister to those preparing to sit exams (such as parents, youth workers, student workers etc.). They are truths that we ought to allow to shape us as we prepare to sit exams as a Christian.

Here are four truths for the Christian to remember in the exam hall:

1) Remember that the only exam that matters has already been passed for us
One of the great dangers the Christian faces in sitting exams is the temptation to seek acceptance from exam grades. We can be tempted to see good exam grades as the grounds for our standing before God and before others. In short we can be tempted to seek justification by exam grades.

However, the gospel reminds us that the only exam that truly matters has already been passed for us in our place. If we are a Christian, then we have full acceptance before God. This is not because of anything in ourselves, or anything that we have done. It is only because if the work of Christ on our behalf. He has lived the perfect life and died the perfect death, taking the punishment for our sin in our place, in obedience to the Father. It is through faith in Him that we are counted as perfectly righteous before God. (Romans 3:28). Everything needed for our acceptance before God has been accomplished in Christ. If we are trusting in Jesus alone we cannot be more accepted by God than we already are.

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says this: "For our sake [God] made made him [ie. Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus is the only one ever who "knew no sin", that is he never sinned. He perfectly obeyed His Father, even to the point of the most humiliating death, death on a cross taking upon Himself the just anger of God in the place of sinners (Philippians 2:8). Yet, at the cross our sin was counted as His and He took the punishment our sins deserve. This is why Paul says that God "made him to be sin". He was counted as the worst sinner as he bore our sins in our place on the cross. he did this "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God". That is, so that we might be counted as perfect before God. Our guilty record has been counted to Him, and His perfect record has been counted to us if we are "in him", if we are those who are united to Him by faith.

This means that, as we walk into the exam hall, we already have ultimate acceptance if we are a Christian. The ultimate exam has already been passed for us by Jesus. Therefore, it ultimately does not matter how well or how badly we do in the exam. We already have ultimate acceptance, and nothing that happens in the exam room (or in absolutely any other context) can change that.

This helps guard against two dangers for us in sitting exams: pride and despair. It guards against pride because the fact that all, regardless of their background, are justified by God's grace alone through faith in Christ alone puts us all on a level playing field. All are equally sinners and deserving of God's wrath (Romans 3:23), and all are declared to be in the right before God, not by anything we have done, but by coming to Jesus with empty hands and trusting in Him alone. It guards against despair because whatever happens in the exam, even if we fail miserably, we still have ultimate acceptance. That acceptance does not depend on anything in ourselves, in our performance or skills, but on God alone. It depends on the perfect finished work of Jesus.

2) Remember that hard work glorifies God
Because we have been accepted by God through Jesus, this frees us up to work hard for His glory. We do not work in order to be accpted by Him, but precisely because we have been accepted by Him. We have been saved by Jesus in order to do good works, which He has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10).

This means that wherever we find God has placed us in life we are to work hard for His glory. Paul calls the slaves in Colosse in whatever they do to "work heartily, as for the Lord and not to men." This is true of whatever work we find ourselves in (it obviously rules us out from certain jobs, since there are some occupations which we cannot do to God's glory, since they are inescapably sinful).

This means that when it comes to working for exams we are to be those who "work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men." (Colossians 3:23). We are to give ourselves to working dilligently. This is not in order to look good in front of others, to please men. Rather, it is on order to bring glory to God. When we find ourselves tempted to cut corners or to take that easy route out, let us remind ourselves that hard work glorifies God. Therefore we are give ourselves to dilligent work in the position in life that God has placed us, and to do so in a way that brings glory and honour to God and not to ourselves.

3) Remember that taking time to rest glorifies God
As we saw above, hard work glorifies God. However, it is just as important to recognise that we also glorify God by resting. Our hard work can become an ungodly trusting in ourselves if we do not take the time to rest.

We need to recognise the truth that God is God and we are not. He is the one who is in absolute control of absolutely everything, not us. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is sustaining the universe by His word (Hebrews 1:3). The only reason that the universe is still in existence is because He is sustaining it. The only reason that our heart is still beating is because He is sustaining it. Everything in this universe is fully under God's control from the largest to the smallest thing; from the revolving of the planets in the solar system, to the slightest stroke of a pen on the exam paper. Nothing is outside His control.

We need to acknowledge this. One of the ways in which we acknowledge this is by taking time out to rest. When we rest we are saying: "You are God and I am not, you are ultimately in control and I am not." The Psalm 127:1-2 tells us:
Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
We can spend days doing "all-nighters", yet all this will make no difference unless God prospers what we do. He is in control we are not. Excessive hard work can be a sign that we are not trusting God, that we think that what we do relies solely on our strength. When we clock off to make sure we get a full nights sleep, or when we set aside that day off once a week, it is a way of reminding ourselves that He is in control and that we are trusting Him. He can be trusted. Whatever happens in our exams is under His sovereign control, and He is working all things for the good of His people to make them more like Jesus (Romans 8:28).

Therefore, we glorify Him, not by spending time worrying and fretting over our exams and working endlessly through the night. No, we glorify Him by trusting Him. Trusting Him that He has given us the time and resources for what we need. Inded He has given us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). One of the ways that we show we trust Him is by taking time to rest (and to allow others to rest), showing that we recognise that He is in control not us.

4) Remember that exams are not an excuse to neglect godliness
In light of the abundant mercy that God has shown us in Christ, we are called present ourselves to God as living sacrifices, set apart for His service and pleasing to Him (Romans 12:1). This call to be living sacrifices is something that is to shape every area of our lives, and to do so all the time.

However, we still want to make excuses for neglecting to do this, and our sinful nature loves to take any opportunity to keep us from godliness. So often the exam season can be seen as a legitimate excuse for doing this. Instead of taking time to nourish ourselves by feeding from the Bible, we find ourselves thinking, "It doesn't really matter if I leave that to one side for a couple of weeks, I can survive without it." Instead of recognising that we are utterly dependant upon God for all things by pouring ourselves out before Him in prayer, we plough on in self-confidence thinking "I don't have time for that right now." Instead of giving ourselves to sacraficially serve others, we think that because I'm doing exams others are there to serve me. This is sin.

We must recognise that it is precisely during such pressured times that we need to be working hard at godliness. We need the word of God more than we need our food (Matthew 4:4), and we wouldn't stop eating for two weeks just because we're busy with study. We need to be constantly coming to God's throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), to "recieve mercy and find grace" to persevere in the Christian life, and live in such a way that exalts Jesus. We ought to be daily shaped by the gospel so that we are constantly laying down our lives in the service of others, which brings glory to Jesus as it reflects His unique and ultimate sacrifice at the cross (Philippians 2:1-11). As those who belong to Christ, we are called to have the same mindset as our King (Philippians 2:5), and therefore gladly lay down our lives in the service of others, seeking their good (Philippians 2:3-4; 1 John 3:16).

Therefore, when the pressure of exams starts to build, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to neglect godliness, we ought to be on our guard all the more. It is a time when neglecting godliness becomes much more attractive, and we might even find others encouraging us to do so. Thus, we need to work all the more at loving Jesus and loving others, of making godliness a priority and not letting it get lost among the revision notes.

Keeping these four truths in mind let us be those who use the exam hall as a place to magnify the supreme worth of the Lord Jesus. Whatever we do let us do it "all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).