As I walk down the street, the jacaranda trees are blooming and shedding their flowers everywhere. In my part of the world, these blossoming jacarandas are a sign that spring is upon us—and academic exams are looming. It’s the time to prepare for exams, sit them, and wait for results to be released. For some this induces stress and anxiety; for others, it is another Everest to courageously conquer. When it comes to measuring our performance in exam season, we all have different standards. For some of us, anything above 50% is a bonus. Perhaps for you the benchmark is a result with a 9 in front.
But what standard should we aim for as followers of Jesus? When we look back, how will we know if we have excelled in exam season? What should you be encouraging your children or friends doing exams to aim for?
A quick glance of the New Testament doesn’t give us a number or a score. Instead, it gives us a picture of what excellence looks like and how we are to excel as Christians. As exam season comes upon us, here are a few things that we would do well to pursue in our love and service of the Lord Jesus:
We are to excel in love. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is that their “love may abound more and more” (Phil 1:9). We are taught by God to love one another because of his love for us in the Lord Jesus (1 Thess 4:9-10), and this comes from God’s character as one who “abounds in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). It is only because of the Lord’s help that we can “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thess 3:12).
In exam season, it can be tempting to look inward and be concerned for yourself and your performance, but this call to love is a call to the reverse. It’s a call to consider those around you and how you can seek their good above your own. So how might you excel and abound in love during exam season? You could help a friend who’s got an exam by cooking or buying them a meal. You might send them a package with some study snacks. You might babysit or play with their kids so they can be freed up to study. Whatever it is, it’s all about looking out and around for others and putting them above yourself. Exam season is a perfect time to show brotherly or sisterly love.
We are also to excel in building the church. When he is expounding the place of gifts in the church, Paul urges the Corinthians to “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor 14:12). Whatever our gifts are or wherever we find ourselves, we are to build up God’s people, his church.
This presupposes that you are and will be amongst God’s people, continuing to meet with them. You can’t build up God’s people if you’re not beside them! As another part of the Scriptures reminds us, we are to not neglect meeting with God’s people (Heb 10:25). It can be easy to put meeting with God’s people on pause, especially with deadlines approaching or an exam the next day. But meeting with and serving God’s people is core business for followers of Jesus and shouldn’t be stopped during a season of busyness. So be eager to build into God’s people, especially during exam season.
We are to excel in the work of the Lord. Again in 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages believers that because of Christ’s resurrection we are to be “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labour is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). While we can labour in preparing for and sitting exams, the labour of doing the Lord’s work transcends this.
Sometimes in the aftermath of an exam we can feel deflated. We study certain content only for it not to be in the exam. We receive our exam results and think that we should have gotten a higher mark. In short, we can feel that the work of study and revision was fruitless. But unlike your exams or assessments or projects, the work of the Lord is “not in vain”. God’s work of sending the Lord Jesus to save the world was not wasted. The privilege Christians have of being involved in the Lord’s work of saving people and building his church by speaking God’s word is never pointless. This is also a helpful reminder that the work Jesus has done on the cross and in his resurrection is what defines us, not the work or the result of sitting an exam.
We are to excel in being generous. The Corinthians were exhorted to be generous because of Christ’s generosity towards them, which leads Paul to urge the Corinthians to excel in grace-filled generosity (2 Cor 8:7-9). While Paul was most likely speaking of the Corinthians being generous in relation to a financial gift to other churches, the same principle of cross-shaped and grace-filled generosity applies to us, even in exam season.
Since a large component of study is about acquiring knowledge for yourself and taking rather than giving, being generous may seem countercultural. Turn outward and see who you can give to. If you have been given the gift of intellect or a firm grasp on a particular subject, then being generous means you might use your expertise to help someone who is struggling. If you are on top of your revision, you might be generous and give some time to a fellow student who is not. You might have resources and study notes that you can share with others.
Like Christ was to us, we are to be generous to others, even in exam season.
We are to excel in thanksgiving. As we are built up in Jesus and established in the faith, a fruit of this is that we abound in thanksgiving (Col 2:7). Thanksgiving is a key mark of being a follower of Jesus.
Amidst the pressure of exam season, it can be easy to grumble and be frustrated, lamenting that a teacher didn’t cover certain content or that the exam was trickier than you were led to believe. But we are called to excel in thanksgiving, so don’t forget to be thankful to God. You can thank God for your teachers and the provision of education. You can thank God for what you have learned and how that helps you as one of his ambassadors here in this world. You can thank God for your classmates who you’ve been studying alongside. There are many things that we can be thankful to God for.
While these things are by no means exhaustive, they are a start in pursuing gospel excellence. Excelling in exam season does not depend on how confident you feel or how you actually perform—and even if it’s been a while since you’ve sat an exam, these are things which you should aim to excel in for the sake of Jesus and for God’s glory.