Over a twelve-month period, we have invited Stephen Rees — an experienced pastor — to share his thoughts on various topics. Whilst his column may be edited for reasons of length or style, his views are his own and may not necessarily reflect positions held by the Evangelical Times.
It’s exam time. Over the next few weeks most of the youngsters who attend the church I pastor will be sitting exams of one sort or another. SATs, GCSEs, A levels, university assessments, music exams: from early childhood into our twenties we face one daunting educational hurdle after another.
And some of us then go back to do more exams as mature students. Exams can be among the most stressful experiences of our lives. I still have dreams (nightmares) about school or university exams.
How should Christians approach exams? Let me suggest some Bible principles. I’ll address each one to those of you who are sitting exams. But please don’t stop reading if that’s not you. We should all be supporting and praying for those who are facing that challenge. So we all need to know how we can do that, and how we should be praying for them.
1. You must aim to please God and bring him glory.
That is the overarching rule for all life’s activities. ‘Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31). ‘We aim to please him’ (2 Corinthians 5:9).
Your friends who aren’t believers are driven by all sorts of motivations. Some of them are thinking about their future careers. They’re determined to go far in life. They know that to get a high-flying job they’ll need good qualifications. So they push themselves ruthlessly to do well.
Others feel that they owe it to their parents or their teachers to do the best they can. They know that their parents have made sacrifices to provide them with their education. So they’ve got to show them that it’s not been wasted. Or they know that their teachers have put in a lot of effort to prepare them for the exam so they don’t want to let them down.
Others again are just born competitors. They can’t bear to see other people doing better than themselves: they’ve got to be the winners whatever the cost. And others have just got a vague sense — even if they never put it into words — that it’s a moral duty to do your best. Even if nothing hung on the result and if there was no one to compare themselves with, they’d still feel that they’d failed in their duty if they hadn’t done as well as they could.
Well, some of those may seem worthy motives, others less so. But what they all have in common is this. They leave God out of the account. People who think in these ways are breaking the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other God beside me’. These friends are living for their career, or their self-esteem, or their parents, or their teachers, or for a vague moral code, instead of living for God himself.
But if you are a real Christian, you have renounced their approach to life. You have ‘turned from idols to serve the living God’ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). For you now, everything you do must be driven by your desire to honour and please God.
So as you prepare for your exams, and then as you go into the exam room, and then in that last minute before you turn over the exam paper, and then in the moment five minutes later when you start to panic, and then on the day when the results are published, remind yourself, ‘the only thing that really matters is that I should bring honour and pleasure to God my Father’.
What does it actually mean to bring glory to God? It means that other people see God’s reality in the way that you act. Your friends, your teachers, your family, are all watching you. They need to see that God’s power is upholding you, that God’s love is strengthening you, that God’s promises are encouraging you. They need to see that you think of him as sovereign and wise and kind. They need to see that you are depending on him totally and submitting happily to him.
And when your believing friends see these things they’ll give honour to God who has shown his faithfulness to you. And your unbelieving friends will be confronted by the reality of the God who has been with you through it all.
Of course, it’s not just people on earth who are watching you. Angels and demons are watching you too. And again the angels praise God when they see your courage and your calmness and your submission and your obedience to his commands. And even the demons have to confess that God’s power to uphold you is greater than their power to shake you. They are forced, reluctant and raging, to pay honour to God.
It’s our goal to bring glory to God. And it’s also our goal to bring him pleasure. How do we do that? Well, God loves his Son, the Lord Jesus. The Lord Jesus is always the joy of the Father’s heart. God delights in him — and God delights in us when we reflect Jesus’s character.
When God sees Jesus’s faith and love and courage and kindness and zeal mirrored in you, God is pleased. And this time when you’re facing the challenge of exams is one opportunity to bring God that pleasure.
So whatever else you’re praying for over these coming weeks, pray that you’ll be helped to bring God honour and that you’ll please him. Pray that your attitude, your choices, your reactions, will reflect the character of Jesus Christ and show the reality of God.
And for those of us who are praying for you, we’ll be praying for those things too. May you bring honour to God. ‘Hallowed be his name’. And may you ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him…’ (Colossians 1:10).
But now to some specific areas in which you must honour and please God.
2. Since God has given you this opportunity to study and to learn, make full use of it.
‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might’ (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Remember, you are not working to satisfy a teacher or an examiner. You’re working to please the Lord. So do your very best.
Paul’s counsel to slaves was, ‘obey in everything your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service as man-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord and not for men’ (Colossians 3:22-23).
Most of them would have been working for unconverted masters. But they were still to think of each task as being assigned to them by the Lord Jesus, and they were to do it for him. Much of the work must have been tedious and unrewarding. But they were to work at it heartily for his sake. Instead of doing the bare minimum needed to satisfy their earthly masters, they were to give themselves to the work wholeheartedly (‘with sincerity of heart’).
If we take Paul’s words seriously, we will want to do every essay, play every scale, complete every exam paper as well as we possibly can — why? — because we’re doing it for Christ.
Perhaps you would do well to sing George Herbert’s great hymn to yourself each morning over coming weeks!
Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see;
And what I do in anything,
To do it as for thee…
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and the action fine…
If that’s true for sweeping a room, it’s equally true for memorising dates, or proving theorems. You may feel that much of what you’re learning is pointless. You may say that you’ll never make any use of it and that it’s a waste of time. But that’s not a reason to be careless about it. The fact is that it’s the work that he’s given you to do at this time. That’s what gives it its point.
3. You must keep the sabbath.
Preparing for exams and then sitting them will drain you physically and mentally. And you may have very little time to wait upon God. You have to be at school for 8.30; you sit a three-hour exam paper; you snatch some lunch; do half an hour’s last moment revision; then rush to the exam room for another three-hour paper. You arrive home, sit down for tea — and start preparing for tomorrow’s papers. You fall into bed shattered, with facts, figures and quotations whirling round in your head. And tomorrow will be no different.
Thank God that he’s given us a sabbath. He’s told us that after every six days of labour, we must stop. One day in seven is set aside for a more important work — the work of worshipping him and meeting with his people.
God’s command to the Israelites was this: ‘Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In ploughing time and in harvest you shall rest’ (Exodus 34:21). The Israelites waited eagerly each year for the time when the weather would be just right for them to plough their land. Once the time came, they knew that they could afford no delay. If they left it even for a day, the weather might change and the opportunity could be lost.
They waited equally eagerly for the time when their crops would be ready to harvest. If the crops were left unharvested, they could be destroyed by locusts, a thunderstorm, or by heavy rain. So much work to do, so little time to do it in. A day’s delay could mean that a year’s work could be wasted. But the Lord said to them, ‘you must still keep the sabbath — yes, even in ploughing time and in harvest’.
Often, at exam time, Christian students feel that they can’t afford to ‘take a day off’ from their revision. But the Lord tells us that we can’t afford not to. He created us — and he knows that our minds and bodies need that one-day-in-seven break from the work we’re doing on the other six days.
We cannot function efficiently on the six days if we’re not resting on the seventh. And he knows that we need that time to focus on himself. Our spiritual lives will suffer if we have failed to set aside that day to set our hearts and minds on him.
Keeping the sabbath during exam time is a simple matter of faith. We say, ‘we’ll put away our books and our laptops for that day; we’ll spend it seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ and we’ll trust him with the consequences’. Which brings us to our fourth principle.
4. You mustn’t worry.
Many of your friends will worry frantically as their exams approach. They’ll worry because they feel that they’re not on top of the subject. They’ll worry because they’re behind in their revision. They’ll worry that the exam paper will be loaded with questions that they weren’t expecting. They’ll worry that everything will go wrong on the day. And when the exam is over, they’ll worry in case they’ve failed or done badly. If they found the exam difficult, they’ll worry that they’ve blown it. If they found the exam easy, they’ll worry that they must have failed to recognise some subtle difficulties in the questions.
And you…? Well, you don’t need to worry. Jesus has told you that you have nothing to worry about. Read through Matthew 6:25-34. Three times in those verses Jesus said, ‘Do not be anxious’. He assured his disciples that they have a Father who takes care of all their interests. He promised them that if they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, everything they needed would be added to them. That applies to exam results as much as to food or drink.
Paul echoed Jesus’s words: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…’ (Philippians 4:6). He tells us to ask God for what we want and what we think we need — and then to stop worrying!
Exam times are a real test of faith. We have to learn to trust God to do what’s best for us. He has never promised that you’ll be brilliant at everything. He’s never promised that you’ll do as well or better than others in your class. He’s never promised that you’ll get the questions you hoped for in your exam paper. He’s never promised that you won’t get an unfair examiner. He’s never promised that you’ll get the results you hoped for. But he has promised that he’ll give you what’s best for you. He’ll give you just as much ‘success’ in your exams as will be good for you in the long run.
He knows what we really need — we don’t. You have your own ideas about your future — what job would be best for you, where in the world you should live and so on. You’ve chosen your exam subjects with that in mind. And you know what grades you’ll need to make your dreams come true.
But God’s plans for you may be very different. If everything goes ‘wrong’ on the day or if you fail to get the grades you hoped for, that’s God’s overruling. He’s closing the doors you wanted to walk through, but only in order to open other doors that will lead to greater usefulness and happiness.
Worrying is natural. But for a Christian, it’s completely unnecessary. As you walk into the exam room Jesus walks with you. And he whispers in your ear, ‘You don’t need to worry — I know what’s on the paper and it’s all going to be fine’. He’s not telling you you’ll do brilliantly. He’s not telling you you’ll even pass. But he is telling you that you’ll get exactly the result your Father has decided will be best for you.
God’s told us what we need to do. We must work hard six days a week. We must set aside the seventh day as holy to the Lord. We must pray for God to overrule. And then we can stop worrying and we can leave the rest with him.
Freedom from worry is one of the great privileges of being a Christian. And it’s also one of the most powerful ways in which we bring honour to God. Your calmness is a testimony to all your unbelieving friends that you really do believe in God’s sovereignty and kindness.
What does that mean for you? It means that you must care about others who are sitting exams too. You must care about them as you care about yourself.
5. You must love your neighbour as yourself.
Competitiveness — the desire to outdo other people — runs very deep in fallen human nature. But for a Christian it is simply forbidden. Paul writes, ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:3-4).
He was writing there specifically about our attitude to other believers but the same principle applies to all our relationships. Comparing ourselves with other people and hoping that we’ll do better than they will is selfish and greedy.
Yes, it’s important that we should do our best. But it’s not at all important how our achievements compare with anyone else’s. If we come out higher in the rankings than they do, well, that’s nothing to be proud of. Paul again: ‘Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you did not?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7).
And if they come ahead of us, well that’s no shame for us. If God’s chosen to make someone else cleverer or better at exams than me, why should I be upset about that?
We should be as ready to rejoice in other people’s success as our own — even if they finish up ahead of us. And if others are disappointed we should feel disappointed for them. We ‘rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15).
Again, it will be a powerful witness to our friends — and others — if they can see that we really care about them as we care about ourselves. It may be harder to congratulate warmly someone we don’t like than it is when the winner is one of our special friends. But if we are really mirroring Christ’s love, we’ll be able to do it and mean it.
It’s natural to pray for our friends when they’re sitting exams. But are we praying for our enemies — the people who have hurt us and sneered at us? God is kind and gracious to those who hate and despise him. It brings glory and pleasure to him when we truly love our enemies and seek their happiness.
Well, there are five principles. There’s much more I could say. But I mustn’t. After all, you’ve got revision to get on with…
God bless you — all of you who are sitting exams — and grant you peace and joy in the midst of all the challenges. May the Lord give you the results you hope for. But much more important, may you bring honour to God, regardless of your results.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk