Editor’s Note: What follows is the text of an address given on May 29, 1970 at the honors assembly of the Hope Protestant Reformed Christian School. I was requested at the time to prepare it for distribution; I chose instead to publish it here.
I suppose that most of you know why you have come to chapel this morning. I won’t venture to ask just exactly why you wanted to come. I am quite familiar with most of those reasons I’m sure. But, in case you are really bewildered, this is supposed to be a recognition or an award assembly. Certain people will be singled out for outstanding accomplishments. This whole award business has been pretty much narrowed down to academic accomplishments, to the recognition of the valedictorian and the salutatorian, but I can easily remember that we used to do other things here as well. We used to hand out those pretty little attendance certificates but the Vander Kolk pink-eye scandal and the spontaneous regurgitation of several hot lunches took care of that. But I am glad nonetheless that you have at least narrowed the awards to the academic.
Now, however, strange as it may seem, I am going to turn right around and make this whole occasion just as general and broad as I possibly can. You see, I have been asked to talk about academic excellence; but, if I refer to this subject to mean only that and only those who are at the top of the class, to only those who are called the valedictorian and the salutatorian, I would not have many people to talk to. I might just as well dismiss the rest of you and have a nice private conversation with just those few people.
No, I want to be very general today. What I have to say concerns every one of you. When I talk about academic excellence, I am going to talk about something far different from what is usually meant by it. I am not here to pat the eggheads on the back nor, for that matter, am I here to motivate the guy who is the average student. What I wish to do today is to lay before you your obligation toward learning, toward the gaining of knowledge, toward the whole idea of education.
My topic for today, then, will be “Academic Excellence” or if you want me to give a subtitle, “The Christian’s Obligation to Know.” As I talk to you I want to confront you with four basic questions: (1) What is this thing called academic excellence? (2) Why is this whole idea so important and also necessary? (3) Why is it so urgent that we seriously consider this topic? and (4) What are the costs for obtaining academic excellence?
Just what, then, do I mean by academic excellence? Let’s take the words one at a time to see if we can gain some understanding of the concept.
First, what do I mean when I talk about the academic? If you check your dictionaries carefully, you will soon find out that academic has always been connected with the school. The word academy was used in the time of the Greeks to refer to just exactly that – a school, a place where learning took place. I suppose of all the academies Aristotle’s was the most famous. This may be extremely hard for you to believe but students actually fought to attend his school. But if I describe it further it might even look good to some of you. Classes were held outdoors, everyone gathered in a circle at the feet of the teacher eagerly awaiting each word that he spoke. You might like that first part about the outdoors but probably not the last.
The word academic, however, has still greater meaning. It refers to more than just a particular type of school. The distinction is often made between the academic and the technical. Very simply put, the academic would refer to a training in ideas, it would involve your thinking, you head, but the technical would refer more to being trained for a specific job. Hope School is concerned about the academic rather than the technical. You do not come to Hope to learn how to be a plumber or a carpenter or a horse jockey. No, you come to be trained in the whole business of thinking and the whole business of learning how to express those thoughts.
But, we’re not through yet. We have to make one more crucial distinction if we are really going to understand what is meant by the academic. We concluded that the academic referred to the gaining of knowledge but the Christian must be very careful here. He doesn’t just go after anything that interests him or appeals to him. Not all knowledge is worth having. Sometimes, I think, we lose sight of this fact. I know that I did as a teacher. There were many things that I taught that were not worth teaching and I am afraid that there are going to be many things that you will learn that will not be worth learning. You simply may not read anything that you please, you may not see and hear anything that you please. No, our search must be guided by the Word of God.
Really, then, the fundamental question here is this: What does God want us to know? The answer is really quite simple. We must know about Him. The Bible is very clear on this point. God is a jealous God. We must be concerned only about Him and about knowledge concerning Him. This is certainly true in the church. There is a reason why we place such great emphasis upon catechism. But his is certainly true I the school as well. We must know His Word. We must know what He demands of us and what He says about Himself. The same is true of our contact with creation. We may not ignore it. He reveals Himself here as well. In all of our searching for knowledge, in all of our efforts to fill our minds and memories, we must be motivated solely by one thing: we are searching and seeking after the knowledge of God.
To sum up a bit then. When I talk about the academic in academic excellence, I am talking about getting knowledge but, more than that, I am talking about filling your minds with facts and ideas. But, I don’t end there. I am talking about filling your minds with ideas and facts about God. This is what I mean by the academic.
Now it is with respect to this knowledge that we must obtain excellence. I can hear many of you already. “We can’t all be valedictorians. We can’t all be at the top of the class. We can’t all get all A’s on our report cards.” I am well aware of that and I’m not particularly concerned about that either. What I have to say does not center about grades or a grading system. Sometimes I think that we would be far better off without them when I look around and see what grief and agony and, as far as that goes, what pride and conceit grades have caused some people. What I have to say centers about motivation and effort. I am well aware that God has not given all of you the same mental capacity, the same amount of brainpower. But what I am getting at is that all of you are obligated to stretch the brainpower you have to the fullest. What I am asking you to do is to work, to work hard. I am asking you to give your studies all you have – to strive, to seek, to desire to do your best. What we need is more effort, more striving, more work. We need more desire to realize the brainpower which God has given you.
This is exactly what I mean b the whole idea of excellence. One of the biblical ideas of excellence is exactly this. To excel means to strive upward, to rise toward something. It refers to a growing process, a maturing. That’s the way Paul describes a Christian as one who “daily grows in grace and knowledge.”
You see, then, that knowledge, the academic, and excellence go hand in hand. The Christian has been drawn close to God and he responds to Him. He must necessarily strive to know more about Him. He must constantly strive, though many times it may be hard and painful, he must nonetheless strive to know, to know God, to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word and in His Creation.
As you can readily see, I consider academic excellence to be a very important topic and a very vital part of the Christian’s life. It certainly is not to be limited to just a few. Everyone must be concerned about growing in grace and in knowledge. The next inevitable question of course is: Why? Why is this striving and seeking after the knowledge of God so basic and so important?
In response I would point you immediately to the Bible where we read in the gospel of John that “to know God is life eternal.” Stop to think about that for a minute. To know God – that is life. And, the opposite is just as true – not to know God is death. Why is it so important that we seek after the knowledge of God? It’s a life and death matter. If the Christian claims to live, he certainly may not neglect the revelation of God. The point must be emphasized again. We are not dealing with just plain old knowledge and facts in our school, we are dealing with revelation and that makes our topic of the greatest importance.
Revelation has a purpose. God reveals Himself so that we may know Who He is and what He has done. But the point which John makes is that to know God is Life. We may not take an indifferent attitude over against that knowledge. We may not stand before it and be unmoved or nonchalant. We must not act as dead men. God has given us life not only but he has given us the wherewithal to keep alive. If we want to cook on a fire, we don’t pour water on the coals. That would be terribly foolish. If we want to cook our meals, we would feed the fire. Such is my point here as well. To live a full and true life, to be truly living, we must seek after that which will keep us alive. God feeds us with His Word; we must seek after it.
We must seek not only but we must grow. Too many of us, I am afraid, are on a starvation diet. Too many of us are barely eking out an existence.
Why then is this topic of such great importance? It’s a matter of life or death. It’s a matter of being a living Christian or a half-dead one.
You see, then, that this whole business about academic excellence is serious business. And, because it is so serious it becomes very urgent for us to maintain a right concept of it, especially in our day. To say the least, I am deeply concerned about each of you. I am concerned about your growth – not your physical growth but your spiritual and intellectual growth. It appears to be today that the whole world is just like a huge department store window, a window loaded with things and attached to those things are the price tags. Trouble is, however, the things of the greatest value to the Christian have the smallest prices. They’re not worth much to the world, they are pictured as being cheap trinkets, inexpensive, practically of no worth. Isn’t this true of the world today and, if we’re really honest with ourselves, isn’t it to a great degree true of us as well? It appears to me as if we have our values tipped upside down. I have been reading the book of Jeremiah of late. To be very frank with you, I tremble when I read that book. There are far too many familiar things that I read. Israel, the people of God, had forgotten about Him. They were not hungry after His knowledge. They had other things to do. They were more concerned about their own pleasures and their own welfare than they were about the state of their souls. But God had no mercy on them. I tremble when I read that book of Jeremiah because by experience speaks loudly of similar circumstances. I’m talking about my experiences with many of you. Where was that drive to learn? Where was that awe and wonder about the creation of God? I had to beg some of you to learn. What has happened to our appetite? Let’s take a good hard look at ourselves. During this past school year – what did you do with your time? Why all the grumbles and complaints about your school work? Where did your efforts and energies go: football? basketball? television? I say again that this is serious business. The Bible speaks very clearly – those people who are not hungry, though they appear to be fat and jolly, are in reality starving. They are as good as dead.
It is urgent, in the second place, because of the times in which we live. Dumb Christians will have a hard time surviving in the future. We are going to be put to the test b the devil like no one else in history before us. The Bible tells us that. The time to work is now, when the opportunity is there.
You can easily see, then, that there are going to be costs involved. What are they? I think most of you know. Certainly one of the costs is going to be the denying yourself of many of the pleasures which you now think are so necessary. Simply put, it’s going to take a lot of your time. Are you willing to give it?
But, it’s going to take more than time. It’s going to take work. Adam and Eve found that out, this is the consequence of sin. So, too, with us. We are going to have to work at gaining this knowledge. Maybe you wonder why your teachers make you work so hard. This is the reason: they’re concerned about the future, they’re preparing you for what lies ahead. Question is, are you willing to work? Are you willing to pay the price?
The last thing that I ask you to do is to reflect. Take a good hard look at yourself. Take a good hard unselfish, unpitying look at yourself. How do you measure up?
Eager to learn? I hope so. Dissatisfied with yourself? Don’t be discouraged. It’s sin that we’re fighting here just as in everything else. I can leave you with the piece of advice, not my own but God’s: James says, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” That’s the message: Pray! Pray that God will give you the strength and the desire to “grow in grace and in knowledge.”
Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 4 June-July 1970