I learned a lot about discipleship in classrooms full of atheist students and professors.
It certainly was not something I expected to happen when I enrolled in a secular university. Some of my Christian friends who had gone to public colleges told me stories about classes that challenged their faith or insults they’d receive from their peers — I was expecting constant pushback to my faith.
At the time, it was difficult to understand why God would call me to such an unpredictable, foreign environment, but I knew I was supposed to be there. Years later, as I study at a Christian graduate school, I can see how the Spirit was teaching me about discipleship throughout my undergraduate years.
Eugene Peterson has summarized discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.” For Christians, obviously this direction should lead us toward Christ, but discipleship in general is not an exclusively Christian concept. During my undergraduate studies, my non-believing professors and classmates exemplified a certain kind of discipleship. But while their discipleship could be described as a long obedience in the wrong direction, their devotion challenged me to examine my own walk with Christ.
My professors modeled discipleship through their monk-like devotion to scholarship and intellectual growth. Many were in the process of writing books and doing constant research to come up with new perspectives and novel ideas. One particular professor, who had been teaching for over 50 years, was still excitedly looking for ways he could advance in his field. Halfway through the semester, he casually mentioned that he was fluent in seven languages and was teaching himself Mandarin in his spare time! Clearly this man knew something about constant discipline towards a desired end.
Many of my classmates had similar mindsets. They’d spend hours and hours studying their subjects, constantly sacrificing sleep for the sake of improving their grades or fine-tuning their papers. Of course, there were other students who just wanted to have a good time. But even they were obedient in their pursuit of the hedonistic college experience. Perhaps this group, above the rest, most clearly counted the cost of their discipleship and deemed it worthy of all the necessary sacrifices!
These men and women weren’t modelling the Christian life of faith, but they did model lives of devotion to something beyond themselves. I am grateful because their dedication challenged me to ask myself a difficult question:
What was it that discipled me?
Sadly, my answer didn’t look much different than theirs. I still went to church and read my bible, but I didn’t really devote myself to God. At least, not with nearly the same passion my professors and classmates devoted themselves to their desired ends. To anyone who might’ve been watching, I hardly looked different than those around me.
I was simply a disciple of my studies and what I could get from them; I was not a disciple of Christ, but was entangled in the pride of life.
Every step I took, every choice I made was in the direction of keeping up my GPA so I could graduate with honours. I was haunted by the question people would often ask me: what do you plan to do once you graduate? Thinking about this made me measure the value of my education by a future return instead of a present gift. From early on, I failed to see my college career as a special, formative place filled with opportunities for meaningful learning. It was instead just a road I had to take to get me somewhere else. I was a disciple of my own vision for my life.
Graciously, the Holy Spirit began to convict me, leading me to prioritize being a disciple of Christ first and foremost during my season of “secular learning”.
An Educational Call to Faithfulness
My time of undergraduate studies has often brought to mind the story of Daniel. The tyrannical nation of Babylon had just captured his homeland of Israel and threw him and other young men like himself into their education system. The Babylonians thought they could redirect the obedience of Daniel by bombarding him with their teachings. Practices like this were not unusual in the ancient world; oftentimes, conquering nations would use education as an opportunity to change the core beliefs of the conquered people.
But Daniel didn’t crack. He resisted the request to eat the king’s food, refused to abandon his prayer life, and remained faithful to God despite the challenging circumstances around him. Even when Daniel had no idea where God was leading him, no idea what his future would hold, he remained faithful, and God blessed him. The Bible says that God gave Daniel and his friends “learning and skill in all literature and wisdom”(Daniel 1:17). Their faithful work helped them establish positive reputations in the kingdom, and eventually, Daniel rose to become a leading political figure of Babylon.
It can be easy to miss how crazy Daniel’s story is. He came to Babylon as a captured prisoner of a recently overthrown nation! There was no flipping through a course catalog, no option to choose a major, and no internship opportunities. No, Daniel had no freedom of choice but to just stay faithful in the specific place God had him.
When I started college, I was the opposite of Daniel. I didn’t know how to be faithful in the moment. I assumed that nothing was more valuable than accomplishing my future goals, and I grew anxious as I tried to make them happen. I thought God could wait because graduation couldn’t.
Things started to change when I began to ask for the Spirit to lead me towards Christ, to reorient my heart in the right direction. I began to see his purposes in all that I did. Even the courses that focused on secular literature, philosophy, and history, began to draw me towards Christ! Every nihilistic novel or philosophical explanation of existence gave me a chance to see the unique claims of Christianity. Little by little the Spirit freed me from the burden of trying to plan every moment of my future and helped me care about the call he had for me each day: to gratefully and faithfully follow the Spirit of God wherever I found myself.
Spirit-Led Learning in My Christian Education
My wife and I are pursuing theological education at a Christian seminary. It has given us the unique opportunity to see how God uses education to lead his people towards him in both secular and Christian settings. In some ways, they’re not that different; it can be just as easy to miss the Spirit’s leadership in theology as it can be in literature.
I still fight the same temptation to desire a grade or degree more than I desire to care about the subject at hand. As soon as I treat my classes as merely checkpoints on the way toward my future, I become deaf to my educational calling: the call to look and see how my education can teach me something new about God and His creation.
Despite the similarities, I’ve found it is easier to follow my educational calling at a Christian college. This, I believe, is because the environment is much more welcoming to the Spirit’s leadership. None of my professors in undergrad ever prayed before any class – I think they’d be fired if they did! – but every one of my professors in seminary open our time together by inviting God to join us. How cool is that?
I can feel that these professors care about their students. They desire for us to grow spiritually as well as academically. Having those kinds of mentors and teachers around has made it much easier to get through the days when I feel myself wandering and need some guidance.
Knowing that my classmates share my beliefs has also helped keep me focused on my educational calling. Building community and fostering relationships feels more natural than it did in my time at secular college. Just the other day, a fellow student and I prayed together simply because we stopped and chatted for a few minutes while on the way to the library. We had only met once before, and we haven’t talked since. But in that moment our paths crossed, we shared our burdens, confessed sin, and called on God to lead us together.
I’m grateful for the ways the Spirit led me in my secular classrooms and is leading me again now in seminary. In both spaces, he instilled in me a desire for spirit-filled learning. It’s a desire that I’m hoping will continue long after graduation, throughout my professional career, and even into retirement. This vision of learning is about more than goal setting and achievements — it’s about continued obedience in whatever direction the Spirit leads. It’s about discipleship.
As you go through college, resist the temptation to treat it merely as the road to get you to the next destination. Instead, I urge you to view this time as a calling, a sacred season in which you can grow as a disciple, through the power of the Spirit. Your future plans matter, but so does your spiritual life today.
Artwork is The School of Athens by Raphael