Recently, I’ve found myself feeling a bit like the centurion in Matthew 8/Luke 7. No, no, I don’t have a level of trust that impresses Jesus. The centurion was a man with authority, and he applied his experience with authority to help him understand a much more profound, spiritual truth.

Last fall, I got to start teaching my very own college history course. Being a teacher – having a position of authority for the first time in my life – has on several occasions reminded me spiritual principles or passages in the scriptures.

One of the most flabbergasting moments I’ve faced so far was a student who told me my grading wasn’t fair. On an essay question, she had done some internet “research” (instead of using her class notes – the information I, myself, told her) and had written a bunch of stuff for her answer that was factually true but irrelevant to the question. She insisted her answer was “correct” and tried to convince me to change her grade because of all her hard work. She even asked how I could discount all that “research” she did – weren’t historians supposed to like research? As I faced this student, I thought of:

You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, that what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”; or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Is. 29.16)

The student-instructor relationship is not quite the same as a clay-potter relationship, but there is still absurdity in the idea of a student insisting to the teacher that her answer is correct, or that she deserves a better grade. That’s not how authority works. Humans often treat God similarly. Even Christians who say they accept God’s word find things that make them uncomfortable, things that might force them to change thinking or behavior, then decide “No, that can’t possibly be right.” Do we truly submit to Authority, or, in subtle, quiet ways, do we try to insist we are “correct?”

There’s also the issue of how the student did “research.” In my course, I lecture about topics, events, ideas, and people I consider important, and then I test the students to see if they learned those things. When students “research” (though Wikipedia doesn’t actually count…) and tell me a bunch of stuff they found elsewhere, they haven’t given me what I asked. Even if it’s all true, it’s not what I wanted – which reminds me of:

Has Yahweh as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Yahweh? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. (1 Sam. 15.22)

As instructor, I have the authority to expect my students to respond to my word. When they say, in effect, “No, I didn’t write about what you talked about but I wrote this stuff I looked up, isn’t it great?” the answer of course is, “No, you didn’t pay attention to what I said.” We can do the same thing to God. Have we ever tithed mint and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters (Mt. 23.23)? It’s perilously easy to convince ourselves that such-and-such is the most important thing in the Bible, make it our hobbyhorse, and then neglect other things God may actually want us to focus on.

Another student, one who has been repeatedly late or absent, told me, “I do want you to know that I take this class seriously.” Neither the history teacher nor God is impressed by cheap talk not backed up by action:

Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Lk. 6.46)

Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ (Mt. 7.22)

Sometimes even Christians can self-deceive themselves about how devoted they really are – are we checking carefully in the “mirror” (James 1.22-24) to make sure we’re more than talk?

One last area of student behavior that has fascinated me is the expectation of extra credit. Students have complained that I “never negotiated” and that “the grading scale was ridiculous… allowing for no extra credit.” Where did students get the idea that the instructor should negotiate with them? On what basis do they suppose that extra credit is obligatory? There is no extra credit in real life, no free way to do some extra work and erase bad consequences and make them disappear. In school and in life, we can always try to change and do better the next time, but we don’t get extra credit. Do we use “extra credit thinking” with God?

It takes two forms. We may think, “If I work extra hard and go out of my way to be really good, it’ll make up to God for this failing.” Such thinking may originate from a failure to apprehend God’s grace, but it could also stem from a desire to tweak God’s will – “Hey, God, how about you judge me based on this good thing I’ll do rather than on this area where I falter?” The other form of “extra credit thinking” says, “Yeah, I had this problem, I did this wrong thing, but I don’t do this other bad thing, surely you’ve got to give me some credit for that.” NO. Just no. If you’ve been a bad student, bad parent, bad spouse, or bad disciple of our Lord, you don’t get to point out other bad things you didn’t do and expect them to make up for it:

So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.” (Lk. 17.10)

Even if we got “100%” on doing God’s will, we would still be only unworthy slaves – there is no extra credit to negate our failures.

Jonathan Engel