Seeking Wisdom in the Wilderness of College (Student Series 2023)

Students preparing for college are often in for a shock. The familiarity of high school gives way to the mayhem of new faces, ideas, and possibilities. Each day, students will make thousands of decisions: about what to wear, eat, study, think about, or do. Not to mention when, where, how, or with whom to do these things. This alone is overwhelming. It’s also the first time that students are asking big questions regarding majors, careers, and life goals. And if these aren’t daunting enough, college highlights the questions of identity: what kind of person am I… and who do I want to become? 

As students prepare to enter a new stage— and sometimes a difficult one for their faith, encourage them with this: What makes us followers of Jesus is not whether or not we make every right decision. Making every right choice is impossible. In fact, the pursuit of making the “perfect” decision actually drives us further away from Jesus’ grace. It pushes us into our own prideful efforts not to need him. 

The Decision Dilemma 

As your students begin to seek wisdom for these big questions, youth pastors can point them to the truth of God’s word. Matthew 7 tells us that if we ask, it shall be given. Proverbs 1 tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Yet, students often wonder what God’s wisdom has to do with those forks in the road they face each day: the ones without direct Bible answers. Well-meaning college students may become frustrated that there is no “Christian script” for picking friends, a date, a campus organization, or a major. 

Encourage your students that before they ask the Lord for wisdom, it may be helpful for them to check their hearts. From experience, I know I must ask myself if I really trust that Lord will give me the wisdom for a particular decision. I also must ask myself if I trust that he will not leave me, forsake me, or be ashamed of me when I make a decision that seems wrong. 

Even after asking myself these things, I am left with a false assumption about exactly what it is I expect God to give me. I think it must be a little tidbit of knowledge: some new factor to add to the decision making equation. Surely he will give me just a little more information about the situation that will clarify things. Surely, wisdom means I will suddenly know what is right. 

Wisdom vs. Knowledge 

I am often disappointed when I feel as if God has not given me any new knowledge. Yet, I neglect to realize that human knowledge is not equal to God’s wisdom. No doubt your students forget this important truth as well. 

I remember sitting with an older and wiser friend, eating bagels and musing about life in college. She sighed, “Ugh. Why can’t our brains remember this stuff? It’s like— we know it, but then we forget so fast. Why would God make us creatures who can forget?”

As we half-laughed, half-lamented the aptness of this question, my nearly reflexive answer surprised us both. “I guess… this is where we reach the difference between wisdom and knowledge.”

We both stared, thinking. What if our human weakness— shown in the very inability of our brains to retain important knowledge— was part of the key to understanding God’s wisdom? Perhaps he didn’t make us able to know all things as he does in order to protect us from living selfishly and independently apart from him. Perhaps God uses even our forgetfulness to remind us that we are meant to depend upon him for wisdom in a more urgent way than even we depend on bagels for food. And He delights in our depending. 

It’s important to remind your students that knowledge is not inherently bad; it’s beneficial to know Scripture and study theology. It is even wise to make well-informed decisions. Yet the introduction to J.I. Packer’s classic, Knowing God, startled me: “knowledge about God, and the capacity to think clearly and talk well on Christian themes, is not at all the same thing as knowing him” (26).

If we feel satisfied with knowledge about someone, rather than the personal knowledge of an interactive relationship with someone, we are no more than nosy, isolated, know-it-alls. In the same way, turning to Jesus in decision-making doesn’t always mean knowing the right answer. It means turning to him in prayer, reading his Word, and taking that uncertain next step. This is how God imparts wisdom: by teaching us what it means to abide in him.

Where We Find True Wisdom 

Students can rest in Jesus because Jesus is the wisdom of God. The wisdom by which God formed the foundations of the world and gave the law of Moses took on human form. The incarnation means that the Father’s perfect wisdom entered our broken, messy world. Not only did wisdom walk among us, but our union with Jesus through faith means that his Holy Spirit teaches us his wisdom now. Like Jesus (and, miraculously, with him), we are asked to face real choices in the wilderness amidst the clamor and chaos of life. Unlike Jesus, we are not asked to get it perfectly right. Even with his help, we can’t. But we can rest knowing he already has. 

What makes students followers of Jesus is their very act of turning to him for help in each decision and the faith to take action even when there doesn’t seem to be a textbook answer. Urge students to consider the myriad of decisions they will face in college as an opportunity to learn wisdom on God’s terms. Encourage them to view each crossroad, big or small, as a chance to walk with Jesus, trusting him to give them wisdom. Or, more precisely, to give them himself.

Students afraid of the big question marks, even those about identity, purpose, and belonging, can rest in the truth that Jesus’ wisdom is enough for them. As they face each one, they can see that they are free from the pressure to get it right. Instead, they can turn to face Jesus and seek help from the only one who can perfectly offer it. Through his grace, he always will. 

Interested in helping the students in your ministry learn more about what it means to trust Jesus? Consider Rooted’s study, “Knowing Jesus,” available on Rooted Reservoir.

Mary Allison graduated from Auburn University in 2022 with degrees in History and English Literature. She spent the past year (2022-2023) as a Trinity Fellow in Charlottesville, Virginia, working as a research assistant for Ken Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics at UVA. Mary Allison loves running, reading, learning bass guitar, and challenging her two younger siblings on the pickleball court.

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