God’s Assurance in Academic Chaos

This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org

by Bella Gamboa, Jonathan Edwards ’22.

            In many ways, the month of April is one of unrivaled busyness on campus. It seems that sources of anxiety in every sector conspire to cause a certain chaos and even franticness as students finish midterms, look forward to the summer, and, for a quarter of the undergraduate population, prepare to leave. I was startled by and caught up in the tumult of this season, one in which academic and extracurricular stressors seem at odds with the (slowly) improving weather, longer, sunnier days, and desire to enjoy the last weeks of whatever stage of college we are in. In this clamor, I regrettably have found myself distracted from the deeper significance and proper focus of the next few weeks — not the pile of readings or pages of writings I must tackle, but a man, at first glance a remarkably ordinary one, who died on a cross two millennia ago.

            Although such a connection between this collegiate time and Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, with its annual celebration on Easter, may seem tenuous or irrelevant, it is vital to how I conceive of (or, more honestly, try to conceive of) the endless activities and tasks that are present not only in April, but almost constantly. And God’s relevance is equally ever-present.

             Christianity does not merely offer platitudes with which we ought to bolster ourselves or paste over difficulties. Rather, the claims of the Gospel truly require a reorientation in our understanding of ourselves that cannot but impact even aspects of life from which it seems removed. While reading through the Psalms recently, I was struck by the beginning of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor 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” (Psalm 127:1-2). These verses shocked me in the way they spoke to my rather frazzled and sleep-deprived state. Unless rooted in and coming from God, my labor is futile; only in Him is there meaning and provision. I found this both comforting — an all-loving and all-powerful God will provide for me, even when my schedule seems to be making life unnecessarily challenging — but also an important exhortation. It is all too easy to work away in this sort of futility, fulfilling assignments out of obligation, or even for ourselves, but not through or for God.

            And I do think that only in God can we work in a valuable, sustainable, and truly fruitful way. If we work primarily to excel for our own sakes, to get that internship or that job, any failure becomes crushing, even though, as human beings, we will inevitably fail at times. But the Biblical message about our shortcomings is quite antithetical to such an understanding of our work. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers one of the many possible responses to such an impulse: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Not only are we incapable of attaining salvation, or even simpler matters like academic perfection, but God calls us to receive, not to work and prove ourselves in any way. Rather, our salvation has already been attained on our behalf through Jesus Christ, and our only choice is to accept this freely given gift. Our labors no longer have such power or exert such pressure over us, because there is nothing we can do to further or lose what has already been achieved for us.

            Thus, Jesus’ death on the cross, the significance of which we should always try to appreciate but which we particularly celebrate on Easter, offers a critical reminder and comfort as this holy season coincides with remarkable busyness — we are not what you achieve or do; our labors do not give us value or salvation. We must, and really only can, lean on what Jesus has already accomplished for us, and which we could never do ourselves — in his death, he defeated and saved us from sin and death. Rather than getting caught up in the springtime tumult and exerting, even exhausting yourself, perhaps attempt in this Lenten season to instead admit our own helplessness and insufficiency, and joyfully receive a gift which we can never repay.

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