The Gospel’s Response to Final Exams

Hindsight is surely 20/20. I wish that I had approached the stress of my kids’ exams with more Gospel and less me. Now that they are grown, I see my mistakes more clearly. The “truth” of a standard education system, both public and private, is not the truth of Christ’s grace and unconditional love for each of us. The system has our children climbing their way up the educational ladder, as they are graded and assessed on every rung. By contrast, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36.)

Here is what it looked like in my home, and how I botched reflecting Christ’s perfect love to my kids:

Before exams, one child would cover the kitchen table with books, index cards, notes, a laptop and a rainbow of colored pens. Sticky notes color coded her color coded index cards! I had to make her stop studying long enough to eat and sleep. I cheered on her efforts. She was pleasing ME.

My other child opened a few books, re-read the notes he had taken in class, looked over his teachers’ hints regarding the content of his exams, and called it a great study session. It seemed to me that he just could not be bothered. I nagged. I sent him back to his study spot. He went to bed the usual hour, and got up at the usual time. Needless to say, I was much more concerned about his performance than he was.

Then the grades arrived. My “studious” one would dissolve into tears because once again she earned a B in “stupid math,” and she had failed her goal of all A’s. I would try to console her, tell her that her dad and I were proud of her hard work, and assure her that a B was good. She still had a great GPA.

My son, on the other hand, was satisfied with his grades. He consistently earned a range of grades that gave him a B average. I went immediately to the one or two Cs on his report card. “Son, if you had put any effort into studying for Chemistry, you would have pulled that C up to at least a B! When are you going to get serious about this?” Our son would protest that a B average was fine. I insisted that he could have done better. I made my displeasure and disappointment in him clear.

In the scenarios I describe, none of us had a Gospel perspective. None of us were living Ephesians 2: 8 – 10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we might walk in them.” My daughter and I were living under the law of the measuring stick. My son was unmindful of the good works prepared for him beforehand.

It’s been four years since a child in our home has gone through exams, and I still get a pit in my stomach when the season rolls around. If I could go back, I would pray for a different attitude and godly wisdom.

First: I would do a serious self-inventory before the Lord. What is my own relationship with grades and academic achievement? How much do I define myself based on my children’s performances? Am I guilty of comparing and envying those who seem to have a house full of academic superstars? Have I left Christ out of this picture?

Next: I would teach my children that their performance on exams does not affect one iota God’s perfect, unwavering love for them. I would tell them that their response to academic expectations is an opportunity to honor God. I heard Tim Keller say at a conference, “Do your work as unto the Lord.” Preparing for adulthood is the “work” of childhood. We want our children to believe that taking exams is an opportunity to love and serve God.

This approach to taking exams is counter-intuitive to the world of measured achievement, for sure. We still can be captive to making our identity the results of our work, or in my case as a parent, the results of my children’s work. How do we parent our children when the results are “bad?” When they are “good?” How do we model Christ?

In parenting the successful student, we respond in gratitude to God, not pride in our child, and steer our successful student towards the same understanding. Saying to our child “I am so proud of you” points in a horizontal direction. We point vertically when we say “Praise God for blessing you in this way! I am so grateful to Him, and delight with you in this blessing.”

“Bad” results are much more complicated. The educational system defines D’s and F’s as failing, and the consequences are serious. We know that the reasons for poor grades can range from an undiagnosed learning disability to being a square peg just not interested in the round hole. Parents need discernment and students need their parents’ steadfast love. Wise parents of the underachiever take their cues from the child’s response to the grades earned, and take the opportunity to orient their child toward a new way to pray to God. An underachieving student can learn to take her hurt, her disappointment, or even her lack of preparation to the Lord who loves her and does not see her on a 4.0 grading scale.

In my situation with my B average son, who was content with that grade, the problem was all mine. The system does not define a B or a C as failing. If, however, my son had been disappointed in his performance, then together we could have taken that in prayer to God.

A life in Christ is a life of freedom from grades and assessments. A life in our local school system is not that kind of life. Fortunately our children’s lives as Christ followers are not defined by their performances, and his perfect sacrifice on the cross is our final assessment. St. Paul writes, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him”. (I Corinthians 7 -17) May we govern and teach our children that in Christ we live confidently the life that has been authored by Him and assigned to each of us.

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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