Academic Lessons on Pain and Suffering

calvary_hillHow do you deal with temptation and trials? How do you view suffering or pain that you experience? Is the recognition of pain and suffering in the world render your belief in God futile?  Does the suffering in the world seem senseless random?  Why does the ‘good’ suffer while the evil prosper (Psalm 44:9-16)? As a lowly university mathematics professor let me offer an analogy from my regular experiences with students.  I implore the thoughtful reader to read the scripture references; you can access a bible for free at www.youversion.com.

In the beginning of each semester, during the first class I offer the student a class vision, even if they do not have the ability to understand it.  I ask them, however, to believe and put their trust in my guidance (Isaiah 55:9, John 3:12, John 6:47-51, Psalm 118:81 Pet 2:6-8).  You see throughout the term each student’s vision is incredibly short-sighted and cloudy (1 Cor 13:12).  Indeed, they will all struggle in different ways (1 Cor 8:9-13).  Often it is working with others that can make a big difference in their work (Prov 27:17), and I hope that they allow me to keep their paths straight (Prov 3:6). Oh, as my previous students can attest, they undoubtedly suffer through the work (James 2:14-26) and various tests (James 1:13, 1 Thes 3:3-5, Deut 8:2-3, Exo 20:20, Psalm 66:8-12).  They are all accountable and know this! In fact, they are disciplined/graded (Deut 8:5,  Rom 3:19) to provide additional instruction (Psalms 32:8).  Often, students will cry out for help and I do console them (Psalm 23), however, I assure them that they are never being tested more than they can understand or bear (1 Cor 10:13).  Consequently, each student is built up (2 Tim 3:16) and, thusly, learns endurance/perseverance  (James 1:4).  Unfortunately, some will fail, trusting that their way is simply better (Prov 3:5, Isaiah 8:15, Romans 1:21-32).  They no longer listen to sound teaching  and, in desperation they follow unsound paths (2 Tim 4:3-4).  The take the easy road rather than the narrow path to understanding and truth (Matt 7:13).  Oftentimes, the failing student becomes embittered to the success of other students (Matthew 24:10), they even make fun of the Way (John 15:18-25).  In contrast, to those who have endured (2 Tim 4:7-8) they look back and realize the immeasurable good that came out of their pain, suffering, trails, and temptations (Romans 8:28). Finally, the student comes to the realization the love that I had for them (Matt 6:26) and that I longed for them to allow me to lead them and serve them in this way (Matt 23:37).  In all, the semester starts with a student’s personal decision to receive (John 14:15-18), respond (John 3:16), and, subsequently, trust (John 12:35-36, Psalm 118:8).

 

 

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The Highest Law of the Land

gavelThe Tucson sun beat in through my double-pane office window, I could the feel the heat attacking them.  The late spring time temperature was soaring close to the triple digits.  Thankfully, the spring mornings are relatively cool, almost teasing your body and mind.  I turned back my attention to the student in my office, my indifference easily readable to even the most absent-minded passerby.  My gaze met the student’s eyes for a mere second and I knew the delay in my response was causing the tears to further well into their eyes.  “Good, they deserve that feeling,” I coldly thought.  I pressed into the student then, thwarting down their vain attempt to improve on their failing grade.  “You will fail, regardless of what occurs here,” I surmised. My insinuation leveled their tears and brought forward a sterner disposition.  Pleasantries were offered and the conversation promptly ended.

That was in 2003, when the unsettling discourse and struggles of my own academic life started to powerfully ooze into my interactions with students.  I was a starved shark just looking for a minnow.  The momentary power-trip, albeit rare, was elating, providing a momentary lift from my personal frustrations.

How do we weigh the damage that was inflicted and inevitable caused?  How many future students does it take to offset the destruction of just this one? Was there a law that I violated, punishable by our judicial system?  No. But does that it make it right?  No. What other wrongs have we committed that are outside of our judicial system?  Is something wrong/right just because our judicial systems says it is?   Heck, on the Vegas strip prostitution is legal.  Binge-drinking is not outlawed nor is smoking, albeit how damaging it is to your own health. Laws will inevitably be passed, it is up to the individual to realize the ultimate totality of truth that they may hold.  However, where does the selection of our morality stem from?  In other words, there is a set of actions, say A and B.  Who chose A (do not rape) to be the just and right one? If our morality purely stems from an undirected evolutionary design, if the process was repeated would B (rape is acceptable) now be selected? Or does the process need direction, guidance to obtain A again.  What information is then needed and where does that stem from? At an even higher level, why is justice preferred over injustice?  Why is altruism deemed honorable, while selfishness dishonorable.  Why choose such virtues as correct and true?

It reminds me off Psalm 40:8, ‘I desire to do your will, my God;  your law is within my heart.’  I, like you, strive to do what is right, to follow the law within my heart, yet I, like the apostle Paul, do the very things that I know are wrong (Romans 7:24).   I am guilty of an uncountable amount of crimes to the law written on my heart, who will save me? If justice exists then I am guilty, but the loving judge does not wish to seek the punishment on me.  However, justice must be satisfied, someone must pay the penalty.

‘I’ll pay,’ is what Jesus says to my heart and I accept that forgiveness.

Praise you God for offering forgiveness.  Offering the only path to redemption and justification.  For I am a glass of water tainted by oil and my ‘good’ works only put more water in without ever removing that dirty old oil.

The Prodigal Son: Reflections on Teaching

ProdigalSon As the semester winds down grades are submitted and the usual exodus from the dormitories begins.  A certain silence permeates the campus offering a time to reflect.  While the details of each semester may differ, the type of students and problems remain very much the same.

At the most basic level you have three types of students.  The A, B/C, and the failing student.  The A student typically does not see the need for your help, rarely comes to office hours, but from time to time will ask a question or two in passing.  They often take very little of a professor’s time.

The B/C student typically realizes their great need for help to understand the material.  More often than not they populate your office, send frequent emails, lack confidence when they begin to struggle, and tend to view your help as a necessary part for them to succeed.

Ironically, the failing student you rarely see and, when pressed, admit that they felt guilty to come to your office and ask questions.  Often you’ll see them after a failing exam (or semester) soliciting advice, too often it falls on deaf ears.  The student is not ready to forfeit themselves over to your guidance, guilty of showing their full weakness or lack of understanding.  In turn, they see your role as a helper once they get to some level of sophistication and comfortability with the material. In other words, they have to go clean up first!

In reality each student needs additional schooling in the material, even the A student has not fully mastered the material.  In fact, holes can easily be identified in any relevant discussion on the mathematical topics.  They are all in that same need and when they seek that help are welcomed.  In fact, you rejoice in that moment.  There is no greater happiness watching a once struggling student begin to be helped to their feet and stand on their own.  Comparably, it is a remarkable moment when the top student begins to bridge the material together in ways that may even surpass yourself.  These are wonderful moments.

Of course, this similar to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) .  In fact, each of us have a need for our heavenly Father in our lives, however we may not be at the point to freely admit it.  However, when we turn our attention back to Him, we find those arms outstretched, welcomed regardless of the circumstance. The prodigal son was filthy, dirty, felt unwanted, guilty of his current circumstance.  However his father wanted to hear nothing of this, rather to rejoice that he had returned.   In other words, the son did not have to explain and get cleaned up first before being accepted back.  The rejoicing was now, the clean-up can be done later.

Regardless of the student’s story or ability, they are always welcome in the professor’s office.  Similarly, regardless of your own circumstance, we are always welcome back into God’s arms.   And for that, there is always rejoicing (Luke 15:7).