By Caitlin Magness
Remember when you were a child, and being good was a simple matter of doing what your parents said and treating others the way you wanted to be treated? It wasn't easy, of course, but at least it was straightforward. Then you blinked, and now you're in college, surrounded by conflicting messages about seemingly countless issues people like to get upset about. Everyone seems to have a slightly different opinion, so no matter what you do or say or think, you'll still be offending someone. What's worse, everyone seems to expect you to have a fully-formed worldview now that you've reached 18. After all, 18 means you're an adult, and adults know what they think, right? (Right?)
Last year was my first year attending public college. I'd been homeschooled in a loving, traditional, Lutheran family until then, so the transition was a bit rocky. As a chronic overthinker, I was already struggling with some tough questions, but even the Internet, books, and my overactive brain couldn't prepare me for the diversity of thought on a college campus. Perhaps most unexpectedly, the experience actually taught me to place my trust more fully in God.
It's difficult for a young Christian going to college to know what to expect. On the one hand, you have well-intentioned older Christians telling you to gird your loins for battle, as a lone Christian soldier about to embark for an alien world of drunken debauchery, sexual immorality, and general godlessness. On the other hand, you have modern culture telling you to throw off your outdated, puritanical beliefs and join the party. Both messages place a heavy burden on a young Christian's shoulders. The first teaches her to be fearful, judgmental, and isolated; the second threatens her conscience and her faith. Combined, they teach Christian students to view school as a battlefield, and themselves as soldiers in the so-called culture war.
The real world is much more complicated. I go to a tough liberal arts school, and just as many students are drinking Mountain Dew and crying over an overdue paper on Friday night as are out partying. People have all sorts of beliefs, opinions, lifestyles, and worldviews that go far beyond "good Christian" and "godless liberal." People are generally accepting; no one I know has ever dismissed or disrespected me because of my religion. I see people from opposite ends of the political spectrum hanging out and getting along. I have learned that people's worldviews grow from their experiences, and that it's difficult to separate the two. People in college, it turns out, are just that: people, flawed and multifaceted and desperately in need of God's grace and forgiveness. A two-sided war would be easy to deal with by comparison.
As a Christian, you are called to love your neighbor, to empathize with and listen to him. The question is how to do this without compromising your own beliefs, even as you gain a deeper understanding of your neighbor's opinions and experiences. Issues that seem simple on a theoretical level are complex, sensitive, and confusing when encountered in real life. What do you say when your gay friend joyfully tells you about his new boyfriend? Or when your female friend expresses her deep and long-held longing to be a priest? Or when someone invites you to a worship service of a theological persuasion you don't agree with? Far from coming with pre-scripted solutions, these situations must be dealt with on an individual level, with careful thought, consideration, and Christian love. That means you will probably mess up a lot.
When difficult questions arise, it's hard not to feel like an inferior Christian, especially when you're surrounded by fellow Christians whose faith seems so much stronger than yours, their opinions more confident, their worldviews more secure. It's even harder when those same Christians dismiss your deepest struggles as mere sinful weakness, or as proof that you're being brainwashed by modern culture. In frustration, you may even find yourself blaming God for your doubt. Why is this happening? Why am I so weak and gullible and insecure, so hungry for other people's approval, so easily confused by conflicting messages? Why didn't You give me a stronger faith?
But it is not our place to critique the Holy Spirit's work. He created your faith, so to question its strength is to accuse him of giving you anything less than a perfect gift. We do struggle, constantly, and our struggles are tainted with sin, but that doesn't negate God's work in our lives. Indeed, it's often in our difficulties that God's hand is most evident. It's entirely possible that, in allowing you to wrestle with this or that issue, he's preparing you to help someone else struggling with the same question. Remember that Christ experienced every possible human suffering and temptation, so that he could empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
One of God's first decisions in creation was to create people, not automatons. Rather than making us mindless robots, he gives each of us a beautiful, personal, and unique relationship with Him, tempered by fire and powered by His unconditional love and forgiveness. We don't have to produce it, only grow into it. Like all growing processes, this can be confusing, daunting, even painful at times. But through all of it God is still forgiving you and working for your good.
I don't think I'm called to preach on street corners. Maybe some people are, but I believe most Christians are called simply to honor God in their everyday lives, and to love their neighbor. For the Christian college student, my best advice is to be honest. Don't be afraid to talk about your faith as well as your struggles, so that God's hand may be shown in your life. When dealing with difficult questions, I was never more lost and confused than when I tried to come up with an answer before I was ready. You don't have to have all the answers. Simply keep returning to Word and Sacrament and trust God's love in your life, and you'll be fine.