College Students: This Year, Who Will You Choose to Be?

This month, classes resume at universities all across the country. A new year is a chance to start over—what will define you this time?

Freshman year, I tried to change myself. Something about leaving home, family, and high school made me want to leave my old persona behind as well. While girls say they like a guy who can make them laugh, my dating history told a different story. I was tired of being the humorous guy. I wanted to become the so-smart-cute-girls-think-I'll-make-money-someday guy.

In short, starting school meant a whole new face for Curt Harlow. Unfortunately, my new face was a lot harder to pull off than I expected. I didn't intend to change my values, only my personality. By spring, however, I was still pretty much the same guy, only I had gotten my heart broken (twice), gained 10 pounds, and started nursing an addiction or two.

In my last two and half decades on campus as the west coast director of Chi Alpha, a national college ministry, I have seen this freshman identity reboot play out again and again. Sometimes it works, and an amazing new beginning grows before my eyes. Often it leads to disasters even more massive than mine.

The Bible is full of people going through these reinvention moments—some great, many disastrous. First Corinthians is a great example of this. The believers in Corinth had a lot in common with today's college freshmen. For one, the residents of Corinth lived at the center of cultural development and philosophical progress. Along with this influence, Corinth featured deeply ingrained sexual customs that were embedded into a complex system of idol worship. Like freshmen, the believers of this trendsetting city experienced a lot of excitement, a little fear and they had lots of questions. In other words, Corinth was as close to being a major state university as you can get.

Paul sets out in his first letter to correct two major problems. First, some new believers are doing their best imitation of Jersey Shore. Second, the rest have
a major spiritual pride issue. They are choosing to ignore the problem, isolate themselves and brag about their spirituality. In chapter 5:1-8 you can almost hear Paul bellow as he confronts both spiritual pride and an anything- goes attitude:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. (NIV)

Telling folks you’ve “passed judgment,” and you’re ready to “hand over to Satan” are not common in most Sunday sermons these days. But with an audience only interested in cutting corners, Paul had reason to be so direct.

Safety and Shortcuts

Shortcuts are never shorter. As a man who travels a lot and who has no sense of direction, I know this to be true by painful experience. I have missed more than a few planes by saying to myself, “This way looks shorter.”

Shortcuts of virtue are even more costly than shortcuts on the road. Powerful forces have strong potential for both enormous good and enormous bad. For instance, when we use nuclear material for medical imaging, it allows us to save lives by seeing tiny anomalies deep
inside the human body. However, when a shortcut in obeying safety regulations occurs at a nuclear power plant, that same radioactive material can poison our world for generations.

As the strongest of all human desires, sexuality has this same bipolar potential. When handled as God intended, it facilitates lifelong bonding between lovers and literally generates human life. However, when shortcuts are taken in the handling of our sexual ethics, disease spreads, children are enslaved, poverty grows and life-changing emotional scars are left on the human heart.

Paul, knowing the destructive power that comes with the sloppy handling of human sexuality, commands the Corinthians to deal honestly and directly with the denial in their church. It is not harshness that motivates his words, but the conviction that these believers take their identity from God’s grace, not the city of Corinth’s party scene. All powerful human desires demand this careful handling. At the beginning of your time away from home, it is crucial to keep this in mind as you build relationships and determine your core values.

Sincerity and Malice

When you’re in a foreign environment, it’s easy for difficult situations to get away from you.

Once while attempting to replace a valve on a broken water heater, my son repeatedly said, “You don’t know what you’re doing, Dad.” Of course I ignored him. I had googled “water heater valve replacement,” so I was basically an expert, right?

A hundred gallons of water on my garage floor later, I realized I should’ve listened to him. Worse yet, three months later, I discovered the moisture had caused mold to cover the crawl space. I spent the next two months up there with a respirator and a bottle of bleach.

The first week on campus, no one thinks they are going to let mold take over their new life. For most students, freshman year begins with a healthy balance of spiritual walk, study and social life. Bit by bit, though, the influence of college culture and classroom stresses can tempt you to tip this balance toward eliminating God and the influence of mature believers. By the time graduation nears, some may find their GPA, social life and walk with Christ have been all but decimated by sleep deprivation, toxic relationships and the deep fatigue that comes when people seek their own desires. Paul warns that even the smallest bit of anything-goes license can grow into a corrupting influence throughout the entire body (5:6, 7) and responding to this freedom with pride is even worse.

However you end up defining your personality, you periodically need to ask yourself if you are open to the correction of trusted friends. Are you tempted to walk in an attitude of superiority toward the instruction of others? Compromise often starts with an inability to receive advice. When it spreads, it grows faster and destroys more than one ever expects. This can be avoided by committing to a healthy on-campus community like Campus Crusade, InterVarsity or Chi Alpha Campus Ministries.

Keeping your faith and school life in check can help you become the most authentic version of yourself—and authenticity will play a huge role in your new college life.

Real and Imitation

My mom was notorious for buying off- brand food. We never got Cheerios, we always had the generic, sandpaper- textured cereal, “Oh’s-of-Cheer.” The worst of the worst, however, was the powdered dry milk. While it says “milk” on the label, it’s not the real deal.

This same juxtaposition between real and imitation helps us understand why Paul was so adamant about expelling the man who was claiming to know Christ and yet was still sleeping with his stepmother (v. 1). Paul’s instruction on how to respond to seekers who are nowhere near faith, compared to individuals in the church who claim to know grace but are living in sin, reveals Paul’s true motivation (v. 8).

For Paul, it’s all about an internal grace transformation versus the futility of external law obedience. As a Pharisee among Pharisees and a Zealot to boot, Paul was convinced external obedience to the law was the only way to earn resurrection from the dead. For this reason, the Christian message of eternal life given freely by internal faith in Jesus was abhorrent to him. He was so convinced external obedience to the law was the true way to God that he celebrated at Stephen’s stoning and made it his mission to persecute the Jews who were preaching this “new way.”

Of course, that all changed when Paul himself was knocked out by the presence of God’s grace. Jesus, using the Damascus road encounter, flips Paul’s convictions about law and grace on their head. Paul’s extensive understanding of the law, combined with this powerful experience of undeserved love, transforms him overnight into the most devoted and intelligent grace preacher the world has ever seen.

It is his deeply personal understanding of the futility of the law to produce internal transformation that compels Paul to be so strong with the Corinthians.
To him, it is obvious that those who are demonstrating spiritual pride have forgotten this very grace. Similarly, those who are walking in sexual sin have also forgotten, or more likely have never experienced, genuine grace. In light of his commitment to grace, Paul demands this man be excommunicated, not out of harsh retribution, but out of an absolute conviction that he must encounter the real love of God.

He’d want that very same real love for those trying to follow Christ on campus today. He would insist we not base our worldview, personalities and faith on prideful legalism but grace. At the same time, he would exhort us to avoid laissez- faire license and live holy lives in response to grace. Make no mistake—Paul’s standard for holy living is very high, but higher still is his call to grace.

My effort to put on the mask of the suave guy just about ruined my faith. By God’s grace, however, I made some friends who had both the grace to confront my bad choices and love me through the process of figuring out who God intended me to be. I even eventually found a great wife (I guess funny guys win in the long run, too). Like the Corinthians, I discovered nothing short of building my identity on grace could stand the pressures of campus life.

Whoever God has made you to be, and whatever you become during your campus career, remember to carefully handle your most powerful desires, humbly seek the advice of brothers and sisters regarding all variety of influences on campus and insist your entire life be founded in grace alone—without masks or false identities.

1 Comment

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Moses T commented…

Fantastic article Curt! I found this to be very life-giving. As a college senior (second go around!) these truths are just satisfying. Grace is such a beautiful gift from God! Praise Jesus! May I live in this grace and suppress potential imitations. Forgive me Lord. I as well hope young Christians may get to experiencetrans-formativegrace!

Be blessed and filled in Jesus name!

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