On the idols of academic excellence

Heya. I don’t have much Biblical knowledge or insight, and I’m certainly far from the most eloquent. In fact, do forgive my language and grammar (or lack thereof) as I attempt to string together more complete sentences than I have in the past 3 years of my degree. But I digress. Though I’m still imperfect and sinful, by God’s grace I’ve grown tremendously in the past three years, especially in fighting my academic idols. Thus, I’d like to share my story, hoping that it might be of some encouragement to anyone who faces the same struggles.

To me, Junior College (High School) was largely about trying to do as well as humanly possible – to top my examinations and to get multiple Dean’s lists (a pinned-up list that publicly glorifies the top 5% of candidates in each examined paper). This was in part a result of my innate perfectionism, but in retrospect, also stemmed from a longing to prove myself to others and boost my sense of self-worth. Though I was a Christian back then, I never viewed this single-minded pursuit of academic excellence to be in conflict with my relationship with God. Thus I applied to Cambridge, an institution that would seemingly validate my abilities and set me on a path towards greater academic success.

The process of applying to Cambridge (and finding a scholarship) was one that broke me emotionally, with all its ups and downs, setbacks and disappointments. Several times, it appeared that my dreams of getting into Cambridge had gone up in smoke. With my sense of self-worth so dependent on my achievements, the prospect of rejection was not something that I could contemplate. Yet by God’s grace, I miraculously managed to obtain and meet my Cambridge offer, along with an accompanying scholarship that I (and probably many other people haha) feel I did not deserve. This was a humbling experience, a first of many lessons about my human insufficiency and need for God’s abundant grace and generosity. And yet, as I headed into my first year in Cambridge, this lesson was quickly forgotten.

Year 1: You’ve never failed, and You won’t start now

Having heard legends of remarkable seniors who had immortalised themselves in Tripos history, I set myself the goal of topping my academic cohort. This goal consumed me, amplifying the anxieties and complexities of navigating Cambridge life as an international fresher. It also manifested itself in the way I treated my supervision and lab partners when I deemed them to be hindrances to my goals. Eventually, this culminated in a breaking point during the Easter break (at a yearly Christian Conference, Word Alive, which I highly recommend you attend!), where the exam stress in the back of my mind completely overwhelmed me and reduced me to tears. In my helplessness, I cried out to God and decided to surrender everything to Him. As I went on a quiet prayer walk, God reminded me of His past faithfulness, and of how He had miraculously paved the way for me to study in Cambridge. Surely the God who had carried me through every single trial and obstacle in my life would not fail me now! He also reminded me of the incredible truth of my salvation in Christ, and the guarantee of a glorious future with Him in paradise. As I remembered God’s past faithfulness, and held on to His future promises, I was filled with a peace and assurance that surpassed all understanding, which allowed me to surrender my selfish desires and trust Him with my revision and exams.

Year 2: Everything is meaningless!

Through God’s grace, I managed to obtain relatively good grades in my first year. However, the small satisfaction I received from these grades was quickly replaced by an anxious desire to better them in my second year. Even by earthly wisdom, it is evident that the pursuit of good results (or any other form of achievement) is endless and does not truly satisfy. I soon had bigger things to worry about, though, when I was diagnosed with a painful and inconvenient condition that left me in a perpetually depressed state. In comparison to my illness, my past worries about grades suddenly became so insignificant. More importantly, however, I learnt that striving for and putting my joy in any earthly construct (even health!) is a fruitless pursuit. Ultimately, nothing in this physical kingdom can last forever or truly satisfy our souls. These thoughts are echoed by King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, where he, having sampled every possible earthly treasure and pleasure, declares all of them temporal and meaningless (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and instead points the reader to God (Ecclesiastes 12). Indeed, during my illness, I had no choice but to desperately cling onto the only thing that is truly eternal and satisfying – my relationship with Christ and future in Him. I’ll be very honest here – this did not grant me miraculous immediate healing, make me any less depressed, or remove the frustrations of living with my condition. What I did receive, however, was just enough strength to survive each day, and more importantly, the assurance of a glorious future with God where all pain and suffering would be eradicated. This is what I will choose to put my hope in, instead of grades, health, relationships, career, or any other temporal earthly idols.

Year 3: Working for the Lord, not for men

Despite my newfound focus and purpose, it was still challenging to dedicate my life entirely to God. Furthermore, having habitually dedicated nearly all of my time to my studies in the past few years, it was difficult to decide how I should best use my time to serve Him. After some reflection and prayer, I realised that what I was most thankful for in my years in Cambridge thus far was the loving and encouraging Christian community around me. Thus, I decided that regularly meeting up with friends (especially my Christian brothers and sisters) was a way I could use my time to serve God and his people. Furthermore, God used these people to encourage and strengthen me as well as I tried to live a life rooted in Him. As Tripos season approached, I still occasionally still worried about my exams, but increasingly I was able to give up my fears and anxieties to God and receive His transcendent peace. Along the way, I meditated on what it really meant to work for the Lord with all my heart, as written in Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” Too often, we carelessly use this verse to justify the single-minded pursuit of success in academics, sport, relationships, etc. This certainly satisfies the “working with all your heart” part – but who are we truly seeking to glorify? Instead, Colossians 3:1 tells us to set our minds on things above, since we have already been raised with Christ, who is now seated at the right hand of God. Having gained a glorious inheritance from our Lord, we can now freely dedicate our lives (and all that we do) unto Him without fear of judgement from man or anxiety about our uncertain earthly futures. Practically speaking, this means that we can and should continue to prioritise God’s kingdom amidst our revision and busy schedules. This potentially manifests itself as continuing to go to church and Bible Study, keeping up our support and encouragement for our friends, or even taking time off our own revision schedules to help others who are struggling. In doing all these and so much more, we glorify and exalt Christ among our peers, showing them that we truly have something more permanent and precious than anything this world can hold. My friends, instead of doing work excellently (by worldly standards), let us strive to do work in a manner that pleases God, for He holds our inheritance and future.

Looking back at my past 3 years in Cambridge, I now realise that God brought me here not to set me up for academic and career success, but instead to encounter Him deeply and learn how to truly live in His abundant love and grace. Yet, as I walk this path of experiencing God’s faithfulness, I’m consciously more and more aware of how drastically flawed and sinful a person I am. I still struggle with my academic idols, and I will continue to grapple with my desires for achievement throughout the rest of my life. Yet in spite of the imperfections, brokenness and selfish desires that will remain within my human body, I see glimpses of my perfect future self made perfect by Christ in heaven. This I will strive towards as I continue to dedicate my life to Him and His kingdom. My brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope that my story serves as a warning about the dangers of getting sucked into the pit of academic (and other) idolatry, and more importantly, provides encouragement about the miraculous and transformative work our Lord can have in our lives, if only we let Him.

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