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the christian life isn’t an exam. it’s an essay.
faith is more like responding to a prompt than taking a standardized test
I am terrible at taking exams.
In college, I’d spend weeks studying for a test, only to freeze at the first multiple-choice question. I knew how to navigate my concordances, lexicons, and textbooks and I understood the methodology that was supposed to lead Christians to arrive at a definitive answer to the deep questions of our faith. Yet, when the test came, I would always be filled with overwhelming anxiety about choosing a single, correct answer. The sakes were so high, and yet the deep riches of theology that I had learned felt too complex for a simple ‘true or false’ answer.
However, this is how most Christians today imagine their faith. It is a standardized test—a series of questions that we must answer correctly: What is the Christian position on marriage? How do I share my faith with my Muslim neighbor? How do we best translate this ancient Greek word into English?
Through this lens, when complex struggles and circumstances arise, we are left to believe that God must be testing us. God is not a place of refuge, a conversation partner, or a source of wisdom, but a divine and silent judge waiting to receive our completed exam and offer a grade.
Outside the classroom, this framing of Christianity made it incredibly difficult to apply my faith in any concrete or meaningful way:
A course on disciple-making taught me about the Great Commission, but not what discipleship looks like among children living in an underfunded foster home.
My introductory hermeneutics course taught me about the inerrancy of Scripture, but the students in the after-school program I taught at at didn’t care about my historical defense of the Bible, they wanted to feel seen and cared for in an education system that saw them as expendable.
My systematics course taught me about the differences between ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ but for all the talk of God’s selective “election,” the kids I sat with at a foster care home only wanted to know that someone loved them and would willingly choose them.
I also quickly found that shared doctrinal beliefs didn’t always lead to the same application. While my peers would all affirm that Jesus is Lord, students seemed to apply this truth in conflicting directions. One student would claim that, because Jesus is Lord, we should use militant force to make sure America remains a Christian nation. Yet, another student in the class would say that, for the same reason, we ought to be pacifists because Jesus’ lordship is one marked by peace and non-violent resistance, not war. We all answered the exam question the same way—Yes, Jesus is Lord—but outside the classroom, we hardly agreed.
It wasn’t until I began my Masters at Princeton Seminary that I was able to name why I felt so uneasy about this Christian lens. Rather than exams, we had semester-long seminar discussions, book reviews, essay prompts, and a final paper at the end of the course. I didn’t take a single quiz in my three years there. My professors didn’t just want to know if I had learned the material, they wanted to see me engage with the content of the course by articulating it in my own words, applying it to different contexts, and critiquing it with charity and respect.
The more I see and experience, the more I believe that following in the way of Jesus looks less like a multiple-choice quiz and more like writing a series of long essays. As we live out our faith, we encounter difficult questions and complex circumstances and must navigate them through our knowledge of God and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Rather than a standardized test, the ‘essay’ life is formed by and molded through open-ended prompts: a same-sex couple has joined my church, how will I love them? My Muslim neighbor is hosting a potluck, what will I bring? The Greek idiom used in this verse doesn’t have an equivalent in English, how can I faithfully convey the meaning to my congregation?
What does this mean for our Christian life?
First, it changes how we approach our time in the Scriptures. Instead of opening our Bible in search of the answer to a single question, we ought to read God’s word in its entirety, leaning into the Spirit’s guidance as we discover lessons of how we ought to live, speak, love, and serve. The Bible is not an IKEA manual, social manifesto, or list of demands. We cannot cite Paul’s epistles like judicial code before a judge, or the Genesis account like a scientific textbook. The Bible is a sacred collection of stories, letters, literature, and poems all divinely inspired by God. Even the New Testament gospels are not a laundry list of shared doctrinal beliefs, but long essays telling the story of Jesus’ life and ministry as the incarnate Son of God through particular lenses and vantage points.
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Second, this impacts how we engage with the diversity we encounter in the world—especially the differences we don’t like. As many commentators have pointed out today, our society today frames disagreement as a matter of morality: “If you agree with me, you are good; but if you disagree you are evil.” Essays, though, are never this simple. To understand an essay requires a practice of empathy and compassion—it is a willingness to read the experience and thoughts of another while opening up oneself to the possibility that one might see something we cannot.
Even more, rejecting the argument of an essay looks very different than disagreeing with a truth statement. Instead, we must engage charitably with the poetic flow of knowledge and application being proposed, first seeking to understand before finding places where we may question the knowledge offered and draw different conclusions.
Finally, by understanding the Christian life as an essay rather than an exam, we live into two theological realities: that we are unified in Christ and that the diversity and difference we find among the people of God is a gift to us. As essayists, we are empowered to draw from the specific people and particular locations that God has placed us in and around and bear witness to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit there.
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