The Apostle Paul on Getting an A

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The school year at CenterForLit has taken flight, which means that the hustle and bustle involved in administrating the start of our Online Academy has largely receded, to be replaced by one of the most rewarding parts of my job: getting to know my students. And let me tell you, these kids are wonderful.

They’re intelligent, cooperative, and eager to dive into learning. They’re kind, showering their classmates with compliments and their teachers with admiration. They’re respectful, receiving criticism with humility and diligence. But across the board, at all ages, they are preoccupied with a particular aspect of the educational process which any former student, and surely any current teacher, will be able to name without much thought.

You guessed it. Grades.

I have generally just finished welcoming them to class before the first tense, fearful comment rolls in: “I didn’t understand this book, so I don’t know how I’ll be able to answer the essay question.” Beneath this question lies a preconception that I think we all share: my identity depends on my accomplishments, and, since I cannot be sure of a perfect record, I cannot be sure that everything is, truly, ok.  

In considering this fundamental human fear, few arenas are more potent than one organized entirely around performance and evaluation. Schooling calls us all, students, parents, and teachers alike, to take up our burdens and get down to the business of self-evaluation, and it is seldom a painless experience.

Here at the beginning of the year, even as I remind myself, I’d like to offer a word of comfort and reassurance to my students, and to their parents: the burden you’re carrying around isn’t yours to carry. It belongs to the Lord.

Early last year, I was reading in Romans and came across a verse that has become a well of encouragement in my life. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4)

As usual, Paul is about the business of educating the church, this time on the topic of observing the law in a community of mixed origins, Jewish and Gentile alike. Speaking to both parties, he admonishes them not to “quarrel over opinions,” citing the eating of meat and the observation of various feast days as divisive issues that have caused people to stand in judgment over one another’s character, based on what they believe important. He goes on to state that whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s, asking again why we presume to pass judgment on one another.

Two things struck me as I read this passage. Firstly, as is often the case in Paul’s writings, he is not merely addressing the issue of the actions themselves, but is talking about the power the law holds over the members of the church to define their identities in their hearts – the one who eats sees himself, fundamentally, as an eater, while the one who abstains sees himself, fundamentally, as an abstainer. The law stands over them and reminds them “you ARE what you do – so do rightly.” Paul comes against this perspective mightily, asserting Christ’s claim over those who are members of his family: “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Your identity is no longer yours to craft, either by your law-keeping or by your lawbreaking. You are neither eater, nor abstainer – you are beloved. This is what being a slave to Christ means. So be free!

Now, if you’re anything like me, you get this far, and say something along the lines of “Great, Paul. That sounds fine, but…here I am, faced with a decision: eat, or abstain? And try as I might to take the truth of my identity in Christ to heart, I cannot will that choice to disappear. So, not to put too fine a point on it, but oughtn’t I to worry just a bit about my grades? Shouldn’t I ‘strive diligently to show myself approved to God’ (2 Tim. 2:15)? I’m frankly not all that good at being good; doesn’t that matter at all?! Isn’t bringing my success rate up, however slightly, part of the whole point of education, of life, and of faith?”

Paul’s response was on the table before I even asked the question, way back in verse 4: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

This question rang a little louder the second time around – let me put it slightly differently.

Whose servant are you?

God’s.

Is your performance review then any of your business?

No.

In whose eyes do you stand or fall?

The eyes of Jesus.

So what will happen to you?

You. Will. Stand.

Why?

For the Lord is able to make you stand.

Notice that none of this is qualified! Paul does not say, “In some areas God’s power is what will enable you to be secure, but in other areas, make sure you hold up your end of the bargain or else the whole thing falls apart!” No, he says unequivocally that your worry over your performance and your ceaseless impulse to measure yourself against the law is useless. You are not your own master and the evaluation of your actions simply isn’t up to you.

Furthermore, and before your fear pipes up again, the one whose business it is has already decided how things will go with you – and you, parents, will stand. So will your students. So will I.

Education, thanks be to God, is not a self-improvement opportunity. It is not a This Old House episode for your soul. It is a tool for confronting our students with the wondrous work of our merciful God, and the understanding of that mercy comes just as quickly at the hands of a poor grade as it does a good one, perhaps even more quickly. Either way, nothing could possibly matter less. For in the end, our kinship to the one who earned all A’s is all the provision we will ever need.

So, as we tackle the school year together, let’s remember our great good-fortune, and remind ourselves that it applies not only to our own hearts but to those of our little charges. Our Master has already spoken His verdict over all of us, and against His word no other word can stand, even our own. Especially our own.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

 

On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
All other ground is sinking sand.”