Thursday, October 30, 2014

Privilege and "Putting God First"

Image source.

Back when I was in college, I was super-involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Large group meetings, small group bible studies, church on Sundays, prayer meetings, leadership meetings, etc.

And that stuff was really good for me. But I totally judged other Christians who claimed they "didn't have time" for it.

Like, come on! God should be the most important thing in your life! Surrender all to Jesus! Everything else- your grades, your academic goals, your life plans- it's all garbage compared to knowing Christ. I'd give it up in an instant.

Which was really easy for me to say, and really easy for me to believe, because I'd never imagined the possibility that I wouldn't have a college education and everything that comes with it.

My parents went to college, and they were saving money in a college fund for me from the day I was born. There was never any question in my mind- of course I would go to college. Everyone goes to college. That's how it works, right? You graduate high school- that's easy- and then you go to college.

And it was easy for me, because my family always encouraged me to do my best in school. And when I wanted more science and math than public school could offer me, my parents bought me books and science kits and everything. (And I'm smart and not a perfectionist, so I think I finished my homework a lot faster than other people.)

I always knew I'd go to college, any college I wanted, because I was smart. Money would be a big factor but not a deal-breaker. We'd find one that would be great for me.

Yeah, so that's what I did. I went to a nerdy engineering school and double-majored in math and engineering. Paid for it with a big scholarship plus my parents' money. No student loans.

And then I declared that I didn't care about anything in life except Jesus. And that I would give up everything for him. And that people who "didn't have time" to come to bible study were making an idol out of their education.

Maybe the truth was that they knew the value of something I had always taken for granted. Maybe their parents hadn't gone to college, and getting a degree was this big seemingly-impossible dream, and they worked hard for years and years to get into such a well-ranked school. And they are here for one primary reason: to do their best and get that degree and all the opportunities that come with it. And maybe they have dreams of going on to grad school or med school and getting Phd's and all that.

The truth is, all of us were there for one main reason: to get an education. Some people were more honest about that than others. In my case, I believed I was there because, you know, everyone goes to college. Everyone goes to a college that's totally great for them.

I just saw it as the situation I happened to be in at the time, and, you know, in every situation ya gotta put God first. So church comes before homework.

What if, for other people, homework HAD TO BE the most important thing, because if it wasn't the most important thing, they wouldn't have even come to this college in the first place?

Image source.

So that's what privilege is. It means that, because of my background, stuff was easier for me than it is for other people, and it's easy for me not to even realize that.

It doesn't mean I didn't work hard. Of course I worked hard in school. And my parents worked really hard too, and they always encouraged me. So I never had to wrestle with the question "will I go to college or not? how?"

And that's a really good thing for me. Privilege is not automatically bad. Of course I'm really happy that I come from a background where everyone valued education. Yeah. Privilege doesn't mean I'm a bad person for having opportunities that other people didn't have.

It only becomes a bad thing if it makes me blind toward other people's reality. If it makes me judge my classmates for spending so much time on their homework, for *gasp* making their grades more important than God.

For me, it would have been pretty much impossible to not go to college. Other people aren't so lucky. And I need to actually care about that, instead of criticizing them.


  1. Random Former Methodist ReaderOctober 30, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Good post.

    One important point needs to be made though: putting God first is not synonymous with putting a particular church activity, Sunday School, bible study, etc. above everything else in your life.

    I firmly believe God puts other people, activities, responsibilities, etc. in one's life that aren't directly related to the church one attends, because serving God (or "putting God first") doesn't necessarily involve church attendance or attending a Wednesday night bible study, but in following Jesus' primary command to love God and love your neighbor. What that looks like in practice is going to be different for everyone.

  2. Well said. Part of the biggest problem with Christian groups and churches is that sometimes they conflate themselves and their activities with God. Devotion to God and devotion to InterVarsity are two different things. And really, the best expression of devotion to God is not church involvement, but commitment to the people and responsibility towards the duties in our lives. Including homework.

    I'm reminded of that passage where Jesus blasts the Pharisees for telling people that they could tell their aging parents, "Anything I would have used to support you is devoted to God [by which they meant "given to the Temple"], and therefore I don't have to support you." Applied to this issue, a student loves and honors her parents (and thus loves and obeys God) by focusing on doing well in school. I doubt, PerfectNumber, if you were ever in danger of failing school-- but if you had been, I think prioritizing InterVarsity meetings over school work and failing school (wasting the money your parents lovingly saved) would have been similar in principle to devoting money to the Temple instead of supporting your parents.

    FWIW, the Christian group I was with (Maranatha) often demanded devotion to them as if to God, over school and homework-- so I've thought about this issue for many years since then!

  3. Yes- this is a really good point, thanks for commenting. "Putting God first" will look different for different people in different situations.

    I think privilege means assuming everyone is the same as ourselves- everyone should go to church on Sunday or else they're not real Christians, etc, being blind to the fact that some people have legitimately good reasons for not going to church, and that doesn't mean they love God any less.

    I guess Christianity is easier when you just make it a bunch of rules like "you HAVE TO go to church every week" instead of dealing with the messy reality of life.

  4. This is interesting, because in the past I definitely have thought along the lines of "devotion to God means commitment to whatever Christian meetings." Probably because the way my brain works, I really focus on rules and black-and-white thinking. So if the rule is "you have to go to church/bible study/etc" then it's really easy to tell if I'm being a properly obedient Christian. But if one's heart is more important than following the rules, then there's no obvious way to tell if I'm doing the right thing or not.

    For example, I have to work weekends, so if I want to go to church I either have to get up really early or go in the evening after work. And I'm usually just too tired for that. And I worry a lot about if that's a "good enough reason" to not go, or if I'm being a bad Christian. Sometimes I feel like I want to go to church just so I don't have to worry if I had a "good enough" excuse not to go. Or, I want to be the kind of person who goes to church, but when it's actually time for church, I don't want to go.

    Reminds me of a time in college when I was really sleep-deprived and accidentally slept til like 2 in the afternoon and missed a few classes, and then I decided to skip another class too or else I wouldn't have time to read my bible that day. You know, because devotion to God comes first, and "devotion to God" means "you have to read the bible for half hour or so every day." And something about trusting God- because I was skipping class for God, God would protect me from any bad consequences.

    (This is really long and rambly- maybe it should be its own blog post...)