God Isn’t Your College Professor

It’s the end of another semester. Final exams need to be marked and grades need to be assigned to a group of students anxious to learn “what they got” for the course.

There’s so much in all of this that begs for the usual justification. Teachers remind students that they don’t get grades, they earn them. And these same teachers, especially if they’re seasoned, in turn remind themselves that although they love to teach, it’s the grading part of the job that can be unpleasant. Because grading means judging, weighing performance against expectation; and when the former fails to meet the latter, disappointment is sure to follow. The end of the semester . . . exams . . . grades: all of this is as predictable as it is necessary — it’s what school is about because without it there’s no such thing as graduation.

It is also true that we have just passed through the Lenten season, another time of reckoning. We begin Lent as we might begin a new semester, realizing that expectations are high, worried that performance may be disappointing, and knowing that judgment will be passed. In so many ways, the forty days of Lent represent the whole of the liturgical year, the whole of our lives — with one essential and necessary lesson: the lesson of Salvation, writ large. This is the lesson that God teaches. It is the lesson that we hope to learn. And our life here on earth is the class room where it is taught.

What if God were your college professor?

He’d begin the semester with a warm welcome, inviting students to take a seat. “Come up here,” He’d motion, “there’s plenty of room in the front row.” Then He’d distribute the syllabus — it’s a plan, a synopsis, of what His course is all about. As He reviews it with His students, He’d alternate between encouragement and prescription. It’s a college class, of course, and so He might say something like, “Now, you are adults, each of you, and so I can’t make you come to class, and I can’t call your parents when you don’t.” He’d follow this with a clear but subtle distinction by declaring in a voice that has more than a hint of pleading in it, “Now, don’t get me wrong: I expect you to be here, every day, but in the end, it’s really your choice.” For some, this is a call to attention; for others, permission to skip class. In the end, it’s both.

“And the textbook, of course, is required,” He says with a smile, “I wrote it Myself.” Students who’ve been students for a while realize that this is as good as it gets: He wrote the book and so whatever we don’t understand, we can ask!

Someone on the back row asks about exams. “Oh, yes, on the last page of your syllabus is a calendar of dates for your exams.” Students eagerly flip to it and are relieved to see only three tests, scheduled far in advance. Whew, we can worry about them later, they sigh in collective relief. “Now, you should know that these tests are comprehensive in nature,” God explains, “the lessons you’ll learn this semester build on each other. We start simple, with the basics, because you have to understand the basics before you can move on.” Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard that before, mutters a student on the back row to himself as he scrolls through his smart phone. The students on the front row exchange knowing glances — they’ve heard it before, too. One student sitting on the end of a middle row nods, but he’s the only one who makes a note of it, adding an asterisk beside it.

God stands there in the front of the room, hands in the pockets of his khaki slacks, sweater buttoned neatly. He looks both comfortable and confident. But He’s quiet long enough that the silence is a little uncomfortable. He’s waiting to get everyone’s attention — silence is a good way to do that. Then he resumes, quietly but firmly, “Now, you need to realize this: there are scheduled exams, but these are easy to prepare for — because you know that they’re coming, and you know what they’ll cover.” Of course, smiles the front row stars: they’re professional students and hearing this reassures them: we got this, they declare. But then God adds, “But there are pop quizzes, too.” The guy on the back row didn’t even hear that part of it. “And these are more important,” God continues, “than the scheduled exams because they will assess your everyday preparedness, your as-it-happens learning.” The middle-row student writes that down, too. Then he underlines it twice in red.

God wraps up the first day of class by saying, “Every day I’ll give you homework that I expect you to do. And every day I’ll begin class by asking for questions. So you have to be engaged enough in here to ask questions: I need your participation. Think of this class as your job, and you need to show up in the fullest sense because it is your job. Every day counts.” The back row student has already slipped out of the lecture hall: He hasn’t really covered anything today is his excuse for an earlier-than-anticipated trip to the coffee shop. It’s just what the front row expected to hear, too, but for a different reason. Still, it’s only the middle-row note-taker who closes his eyes for a moment to think about it before he writes down the reminder in capital letters.

This story is not as fanciful as it seems. It happens every semester, in every college class, and so there’s every reason to expect it of God. All of its basic elements appear in God’s Word. Isaiah 28:26 tells us that it is God who teaches us, and Psalms 71:17 reminds us that He has done so from our youth. As for God’s syllabus, Jeremiah 29:11 is plain: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.” The Ten Commandments are as clear as any ten-step PowerPoint presentation shown in a college lecture, and together with Jesus’ teaching, God’s Word is complete — not one iota will go unfulfilled (Mt 5:18). In college, students attend class, they skip class, and the decision is theirs. Galatians 5:13 makes it just as clear that we are free: we are free to choose for ourselves whom to serve (Jos 24:15). If we choose God, though, we must realize that He has expectations of us, and these expectations could not be higher: Jesus instructs us that we are to be perfect, even as His Father is (Mt 5:48).

And God tests us — we may be sure of this (Jas 1:2–4) — as he tested Abraham on Mount Moriah (Gen 22), as He tested Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 32:31, as He said He would test us in Deuteronomy 13:1–3. David (Ps 26:2; 139:23) pleaded for the Lord to test him, to search him, to know his anxious thoughts; and Jeremiah (17:10) knew that each of us would be tested according to our ways.

There is one thing that every college professor absolutely loves in his students — their questions! In preparation for our life’s tests, we take courage in James’s (1:5) urging to ask God for the wisdom we lack, knowing that He will give it to us without finding fault. Just as some exams in college are scheduled, some of life’s important lessons can be anticipated. We may expect that our faith will be tested when we encounter normal changes that come with life’s development — when we leave home for school, when we face challenges on the job or in our marriage, when we lose loved ones to sickness and death: all of these are stages of life that can be anticipated, that can be prepared for (1 Pt 4:12–14). But many of the trials we face are far from anticipated — we do not know what tomorrow will bring (Jas 4:13–14) and challenges to our faith can be as unexpected as a sudden storm on the sea of Galilee (Mt 8:23). But we know that God’s tests are fair (1 Cor 10:13), and a deep faith in God’s providence teaches that we should not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon us (1 Pt 4:12).

My own final grades are now submitted to the registrar’s office. As I looked over my students’ papers and the record of their efforts cataloged in my grade book, several realizations were painfully obvious to me. My students knew what this course was all about: I told them so. I asked them to read my syllabus. They knew that I expected their attendance, their participation, even if I could not force it. I have been teased more than once by my front row students that I begin every class by asking the same question: “Well, before we get started today, what questions do you have? What can we clear up from last time before we continue?” This opening to class is as predictable as the silence that follows it. Having looked over their grades, I found myself asking familiar questions. How can those two students not have realized that there was a second exam on that final Tuesday — it had been listed in the syllabus that I distributed on the first day of the class in January. For those students who took the exam, they knew what topics it covered; why those three low scores? And those pop quizzes? For students who were prepared, well, a pop quiz really was no surprise.

There’s something that happens nearly every semester after final grades are submitted. A student comes by my office to talk about a final grade. She calmly explains that she’s scheduled to graduate this semester, has family arriving from out-of-town to celebrate her big moment, and a job waiting back home. Except she failed my class. We go over her grades — it’s not impossible that I recorded a grade incorrectly or misplaced one of those pop quizzes. If all’s in order, though, we sit there in my office uncomfortably looking at the spread sheet of grades. She swallows hard and asks, “Can’t you just give me two extra points? — that’s all it would take to get me into the C range. After all, I hardly missed any classes during the semester. Just two points? Please?” Everyone knows that “a curve” is an easy fix to these kinds of problems, and some instructors build one into their grading system.

I ask my student a question, trying to make it as simple as it is true: “If I can add two points to your grade, why couldn’t I deduct two points from your grade? Suppose you had a 71% at the end of the semester, but I decided — without basis — to subtract two points. Could I do that?” “Of course not,” is her immediate reply — if she had earned 71%, then I can’t give her less than what she earned. Yes, I agree with that. I try to explain that this principle works both ways. In fact, the only fair thing for her, for everyone in the course, is to average the grades as recorded. “After all,” I gently remind her, “I don’t give you a grade: you earn it.”

God as the professor described at the beginning of this essay would be every student’s dream: someone who’s warm and welcoming, organized in laying out course objectives and goals clearly, who nurtures students with patience and understanding, building their confidence without dismissing their anxieties as the semester progresses from its first day’s introduction to mid-term assessments to final exam synthesis of the course’s material. But it is also true that a professor must grade according to standards accepted in The Academy. And so God as professor when it comes to the final grade? — that’s every student’s worst nightmare.

We reflect on the wisdom of Isaiah who tells us that it is none other than God Himself who teaches us; and the Psalmist’s acclamation that He has done so from our youth is a needful reminder of this truth. Yes, God in His fullness is our Teacher: it was God the Father who instructed Moses on the mountain (Ex 19:3). It was God the Son who as a boy amazed — indeed, he taught — the Temple elders with His answers to their questions (Lk 2:41ff). And it is God the Spirit whom the Father sends to teach us all things (Jn 14:26).

I’ve struggled to learn many lessons in life. There are two Gospel lessons in particular that I am reminded of as I submit final grades every semester. In the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25 1:10), the foolish virgins are left behind, excluded from the wedding feast. They brought their lamps, yes, but not the oil that was needed to sustain them through the long night until the Groom’s arrival. Nor could the wise virgins’ oil help them. Why not? Perhaps the lesson that Christ wants us to learn is simply this: there are some things that we must do, each of us, for ourselves, some things that no one can do for us. This is a hard lesson.

In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we are taught a different lesson (Mt 20:1–16). Those workers who arrived late in the day received the same wages as those who labored all day. The vineyard owner’s justification could not be more plainly explained (Mt 20:14–15): “I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Mercy and justice — they meet at the Cross. It is there that final judgment takes place, there that we receive, through God’s mercy, His own justice as well. A professor can’t do that. But God can. And it is with deepest humility and eternal thankfulness that we turn to Christ on the Cross and ask God for his Mercy, knowing that our efforts weren’t — couldn’t ever be — enough to “pass the course” that is our life here on earth.

David B. Wester About David B. Wester

David B. Wester is the Frances and Peter Swenson Endowed Chair in Rangeland and Restoration Research and is a professor and research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and the Department of Rangeland and Wildlife Sciences at Texas A&M University – Kingsville in Kingsville, Texas. His essays and poems have appeared in The Catholic Leader, The Catholic Poetry Room, Crisis Magazine, First Things, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and The Imaginative Conservative.