“…they want to hang on to different parts of religion that they find to be beneficial to their lives—but strictly on their terms.”1
– Description of Emerging Adults
When I met the older widow, I would be interviewing, I would not describe her externally as rugged. She was small and thin in stature and would remind college students of their grandmother, since she was now in her seventies. A few years earlier she had lost her husband of close to fifty years who had been a pastor. At the time I interviewed her, she was living in Vladimir, Russia northeast of Moscow as a missionary.
Life in Russia in 1994 was difficult since the country was experiencing the breakdown of life after communism. Plus, she had to walk everywhere or take public transportation. Shopping did not involve a quick trip to the Western-style grocery store. Instead, one had to shop most every day and haul everything home by hand. For over half the year, snow and ice covered the ground. I can still remember waiting 30 minutes for a bus in -10-degree Fahrenheit weather with the wind howling off the Volga River in that city. Just living life took a great deal of grit.
Yet, this older widow had chosen not to live the last days of her life playing bridge in a retirement community in Florida or Arizona. Instead, she had decided to move to Russia to suffer for the advancement of the gospel. More than other team members, her body felt the pain of life in Russia, and she asked me if I knew how to help the muscle cramps she felt constantly (she claimed later my encouragement to eat a banana a day helped her). She also faced the constant danger of falling and breaking a bone since she had to traverse snow and ice where one fall could easily lead to a broken hip. Yet, she persevered and laughed that this life reminded her of when she grew up without all the modern conveniences. She was rugged. I thought to myself after our interview, “I hope I am like her when I am seventy.”
Today most American youth do not dream of becoming rugged. I have asked hundreds of college students across the nation the same question, “What does the good life look like to you five [or sometimes I ask 10] years from now. At least half wanted what this student wanted: “It’s not like I have a dream car or a dream house, I just hope to live comfortably, I guess. Not living in someplace cold.” Being a missionary in Vladimir sounded out of the question. It was cold and certainly not comfortable. Plus, it would mean living without one’s dream car or dream house and riding public transportation.
This standard applied especially to homes and cars for students. One student dreamed, “I’d say having a decent home…. I don’t want like a mansion, or like two houses, I don’t want things like that, I just want something that I can live comfortably in, a nice car, maybe, not an extravagant car, just a nice car. I just want to be able to live comfortably without having to live paycheck to paycheck….” One gets the idea. These students wanted a comfortable house and car, a secure job, and a comfortable life. They wanted primarily to be secure and comfortable. As one student shared, she wanted the following: “a job that I enjoy, be single, make enough money to be living comfortably, like I don’t need to be making like $100,000 or anything, but I don’t wanna be like I’m struggling to have to pay rent in not a very nice place, just like always having to worry about that.” For all these students, the good life involved enjoying certain things that would make them comfortable. It should be no surprise that a recent survey of U.S. Protestant pastors found that the pastors identified comfort and control/security as the top two contemporary idols.
A second group of students simply wanted to be happy. Indeed, when we asked Gallup to conduct our poll of college students across the nation, we discovered the number one purpose in life that over 90 percent of students strongly desired was to be happy. One student at a state university shared in our interviews:
I guess being happy with the job I’ll have or if I’m in med school or being happy with that or having stability like knowing that I’ll be able to be going towards a job. Stability would be like being happy with whatever job I have, if it’s with med school it’s having the stability that knowing that you’re making good enough grades that you can get admission into whatever’s next in your path. Whatever phase I’m in, that’s gunna determine how happy I am.
Some students wanted both comfort and happiness as this student shared, “I just want to be in a place where I am happy. I feel comfortable in whatever I’m doing like I just, just like what my dad always told me, like find what I love and find a way to make money doing it. So, I just want to be happy…” These students did not dream of being rugged.
That’s why one young woman at a large state university caught my attention. When I asked Trinity [not her real name] this question, she paused and then answered, “Well I’m a follower of Christ, I love Jesus with my whole heart and so I definitely see my purpose in life as to bring glory to God and doing that in everything that I do whether it be my career, my friendships, or not just bringing others to Christ, but also living my life out in His name and for His glory.” This robust purpose and not a vision for comfort or happiness guided her plan.
Trinity went on to share, “The reason why I changed my major from audiology to social work was because I very much feel called to the like orphanages and foster care system and adoption and that kind of thing. I really feel like that’s where God’s leading me on my path and that’s where I will ultimately lead out my purpose and His plan.” Trinity did not run toward comfort and happiness. She ran toward God and loving others. Interestingly, her parents who had struggled with money for much of their life were aghast—they knew the salary difference between an audiologist and social worker.
What would the good life look like to Trinity five years from now? “I would love to be sleeping on a roof in Haiti, washing my clothes on a washboard with, you know, cold water that’s sat there all day, something like that…. I would just love to be missioning somewhere, anywhere. Preferably with orphans, but I would love to, even if I was just a teacher in an orphanage somewhere, I would love that, that would be so great.” Trinity had rugged dreams.
This academic year will you challenge yourself and your students to have rugged dreams? That we are to follow Christ with this kind of sacrificial suffering for good, is a consistent theme throughout the whole New Testament and is found in virtually every book of the New Testament (Matthew 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 14:27-33; John 15:12, 20-21; Romans 6:6-11; 1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10; Galatians 2:20; 5:24; Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 1:29; 3:10-11; Colossians 1:24; 2:20-3:1; 2 Timothy 3:12; Hebrews 11:1-12:5; 1 Peter 2:20-21; 3:14-18; 4:12-16; 1 John 2:6; 3:11-16; Revelation 12:10-11).2 We are to be servants and experts at suffering for good. We are to die with Christ and die to ourselves. We are crucified with Christ, imitators of Christ and therefore should love sacrificially like Christ.
If there is one thing that becoming a Christian involves and even requires, it is becoming rugged in this sense. The whole New Testament is quite clear that all of Christ’s followers truly follow him through loving, self-sacrificial obedience that requires learning how to serve and suffer. We must seek to become rugged.
To gain Christ-like ruggedness, means we do not encourage students to seek the usual goals as related by the college students I have interviewed. The Christian life is not one characterized by comfort or even happiness. The good life is about learning to serve and love when it is uncomfortable, to be joyful when not always feeling happy, and to suffer for good with the strength and grace of God. It involves developing virtues through hard practices that make us tough enough, hardy enough, resilient enough, and strong enough to endure the difficulty of dying to ourselves and joining with Christ in seeking to reverse the effects of sin in the world. We can only help students and ourselves become rugged by God’s grace and Spirit. I pray you help students become rugged this academic year.
- Melinda Lundquist Denton and Richard Flory, Back Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 226.
- Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: Harper Collins).