How to Approach Academics as a Spiritual Discipline

Categories: Life at Columbia

Ferin Willms graduated from the BA in Biblical Studies before becoming one of Columbia’s Academic Support Coordinators (currently on maternity leave). She recognizes how challenging it can be to see a connection between a personal relationship with God, a call to ministry, and homework. Here’s her best advice for approaching academic study as an important (and amazing) part of your spiritual life.

Everyone knows that the best things in life aren’t free. Or easy.

In fact, the journey to the best things in life is part of the adventure and emotional gratification of them actually being “the best”!

The view of Vancouver after hiking the Grouse Grind.
The most delicious taco at that hidden gem on the backstreets of a busy city.
Meeting your tiny human after months of waiting, pregnancy woes, and a long labour.

Ok, maybe the last one isn’t as relatable to most Columbia students, BUT you get my point.

In Academic Support, we often see students who are challenged by some of the academic expectations at the college level. Due to the personal nature of faith, it can be hard to see a connection between a personal relationship with God, calls to ministry, and homework.

When I came to Columbia, I had no idea how transformative my journey would be.

My first year classes were challenging and the instructors drew on academic scholarship versus their own interpretations of scripture. The assignments for our courses required us to perform academic research and challenge our own biases and beliefs in an objective way. We were expected to increasingly perform at a higher academic level. I wondered how all this was connected to spiritual formation.

God changed my life through homework.

I vividly remember reading through the whole New Testament for my NT Survey class with John Vooys (Professor Emeritus at CBC). I grew up in church my WHOLE life and thought I knew everything. I could have rushed the reading and saved myself some time and energy.

Instead, I prayed. I asked God to help me read the text with fresh eyes.

I got through the gospels and realized I did not actually know as much as I thought I did! I felt like I was meeting Jesus for the first time, despite being a committed Christian for many years. When I got to 1 Corinthians, God met me where I was at in my life. Much like the Corinthian church, I was far from perfect, but God loved me anyways. He wanted to use a normal person like me for his Kingdom work.

After this first experience, I took the same approach to every assignment. I decided that, so long as I was here, I was going to treat academics as a spiritual discipline.

Why treat academics like a spiritual discipline?

Because it is!

Gordon Smith, a noted scholar on the topic of spiritual practices, suggests that “no tradition takes teaching and learning more seriously than the Judeo-Christian tradition”. Think about it: Jesus is a recognized teacher with students expected to listen.

The church itself is a teaching, learning community. We sit and listen to a sermon weekly. We may engage in a weekly Bible study, or Sunday school class. Learning is something we engage on Sunday mornings, so why not take the call to academic study just as seriously?

Here are some tips to allowing academic scholarship to become a spiritual discipline.

Honour Your Time (& Money)

One of the biggest mistakes students make in approaching academics as spiritual discipline is mismanaging their time.

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…” (Eccl. 3:1 NIV)

A fact of life is that we have limited time here on earth; it’s the human dilemma. “We can choose to live graciously with the time God has given…there is no more” (Smith).

In Academic Support, we tell students that this time in their life, the life of a student, is a “season”. This means re-orienting our lives to reflect the season we are in, for better or worse. Saying “yes” to homework is a reality of a successful student.

Time is precious, but so are the financial resources being invested in academic studies. Be a good steward of both. Through being a good steward of these resources, I was rewarded with valuable mentorship relationships, spiritual growth, and character development.

Practice Makes Perfect: Spiritual Disciplines Take Time

“There is a mine for silver and a place where gold is refined…[humans] search out the farthest recesses for ore in the blackest darkness…they tunnel through rock; their eyes see all its treasures…But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell?” (Job 28:1, 3b, 10,12).

The common misconception that Bible College ought to be “easy” can be countered with academic preparedness and hard work!

A student told me last semester: “I’m just not good at school. I’m not super smart”. This is simply untrue. While not every teaching style will connect with each student, and there may be a process of discerning if a program or school is the right fit, doing well in school is not a matter of natural intelligence (or lack of it). Students who put in the hard work are guaranteed to get something good back.

In the passage above, Job uses mining as a metaphor for gaining wisdom (Job 28:1-28). Humans work really hard to find precious stones and minerals, digging into the depths of the earth. Have you ever seen a clean miner on the job? Or a miner who looks like they have a great skin care routine? Miners are tough! The have calluses on their hands, their skin is rough from hard work, and they are covered in dirt. Mining isn’t for the faint of heart.

Neither is academics.

There is no magical solution to being a good student.

There’s no product you can buy that will make you a great writer or researcher in 10 payments of $9.99.

Discovering the wisdom of God is not an easy task; it takes our whole lives to find it, and we must prioritize it. It takes hard work and perseverance. If you’ve chosen to come to Columbia, you’ve already taken a first step in pursuing God’s wisdom.

So, what can a student do to gain wisdom? To get to the good stuff, individuals have to work hard to build up academic skills such as writing, reading, researching, note-taking, and studying for exams. There are practical ways to do this.

An Example: Writing & Editing as Spiritual Disciplines

Smith suggest that “writing gives us voice that is ideally congruent with our identity,” and it helps foster self-identity: “The act of writing is the act of learning to be true to one’s self”.

College students do not often come up with mind-boggling new ideas of their field of study. Rather, they’re joining in a larger conversation that scholars have been having for a very long time. Thus, practicing academics as spiritual discipline requires humility.

When starting an essay, I would encourage students to pray before starting and being attentive to the Spirit while they write. What is God trying to teach you through this assignment? How are the words you choose going to impact what God could say about this topic to them?

Once an essay is complete, it is time to proofread, proofread, and proofread some more. Why? The “revision processes helps us identify falseness and failures in our voice and thoughts”. By editing your work, and having someone else do so, students can see where they may need to be challenged, how to can improve, and reflect on what God has taught them through that assignment.

Finally: Pray & Stay Focused

Students come to Columbia because of a calling. Whether it is to grow in faith for one year, or follow a vocational path in ministry, students hopefully arrive at the Spirit’s nudging.

So, instead of complaining about the long list of assignments coming due, I encourage students to find out what God would want them to learn from such experiences.

Pray about it: “God, help me to be open to your Spirit during this class/homework time.”

Stay focused on the prize, whether that’s your own personal enrichment, character growth, or potential vocational training! By treating academics as spiritual discipline, you can honour God with your mind and maybe get something out of it too [insert wink emoji].

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22: 37-38, emphasis added)

Works Cited:
Smith, Gordon. “Twelve Spiritual Practices That Complement Word & Prayer”. Spiritual Practices, 2 & 3 Dec. 2016, Regent. Class Lecture.

~ by Ferin Willms. 

BTW: Ferin’s office is in the library. Academic Support’s drop-in hours are Monday – Thursday from 2:00 – 4:00 PM. She and her fellow Academic Support Coordinator Robin Lawrence would love for you to come introduce yourself!