Power, Ambition, Vocation


This article is part of the The Study Center fall 2015 newsletter. Read more articles from this newsletter.

For many years, the Study Center developed a “theme” for the year—an overarching idea around which all of our educational programs would cohere. We stopped doing this because we saw how many different things we wanted to communicate to students, ranging from relationships to soul care, from sororities to Sabbath, and most significantly during their time in college, how their study and work mattered to God.

Yet as we look at this fall semester, we realize that a theme has unwittingly emerged. We find ourselves having many of the same conversations with various students, so our events respond to that need.

With the help of a grant from the Lilly Endowment’s Theological Exploration of Vocation initiative three years ago, we began to organize more of our ministry around the topic of vocation, and we quickly learned a few things. First, we learned that vocation is incomplete when narrowed to the sphere of work alone. We want to help students think about their human calling in light of their whole life, including work, family, church, and friendships—all of which are places we’re called to represent God to the world. Second, we learned that vocation involves a response to the manifold gifts God has given us and to the opportunities open to us in the world. What’s more, we learned that our students are not comfortable with how much opportunity and privilege— let’s also say power—they have. The former we’ve dealt with in many settings, but perhaps most comprehensively in the seminary class taught by Bill Wilder each fall. The latter insight has led us to focus many of our fall semester programs on the disoriented and complex relationship between power, ambition, and vocation.

As a capstone to a semester chock full of conversations on ambition and politics, we’ve partnered with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to invite Christianity Today editor and author Andy Crouchto speak on Redeeming the Gift of Power. In 2013, Crouch wrote an excellent book on the topic called Playing God, about how power is rooted in creation and can be stewarded for good. Now he’s expanded on that work with a little book entitled Strong & Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing. The idea behind the book is simple: true flourishing comes from being both strong and weak, from both authority and vulnerability. We tend to think of authority and vulnerability as poles along a straight line. Either we possess more authority, or we are more vulnerable. Crouch breaks us out of this either/or choice with a both/and alternative. He argues that it is possible to hold the capacity for meaningful action (authority) alongside the possibility of exposure to meaningful risk (vulnerability).

Now, I must confess that I’ve always been suspicious of the category of books you might call “leadership literature.” There are so many books out there offering easy advice with easy steps. Crouch’s book, at first glance, might feel like it fits that genre. It’s simply written, offering one easy-to-grasp idea on authority. However, here’s where Crouch’s work stands out. Crouch names sin for what it is and confronts us with our own idolatry. We are “bent in the direction of privilege,” seeking to control our world and insulate ourselves from any of its brokenness. This is not a problem we ourselves can fix. Crouch writes, “We will not restore the world to its intended flourishing by impressive feats of self-improvement.” The restoration of this world flows from Jesus. Only Jesus. He is the one who possessed all authority, through whom all things were created, and yet he emptied himself, in the pattern of Philippians 2, taking the form of a servant. True transformation comes only as we accept Jesus’ restoration and seek to be conformed to his image.

This book meets our students in their questioning. Andy writes to those who have authority, or to those younger people who bear a measure of authority now by virtue of their gifts, the privilege of their upbringing, or the profound opportunity that a world-class education a place like U.Va. affords. Many of our students will likely hold great authority just a few years from now. Our unwillingness to confront the power we have hampers us from allowing Jesus to transform us into his image. His call to us is not necessarily to abandon that power, but to embrace risk alongside it. What might that risk look like? For one thing, it might mean simply being open as a follower of Jesus. I work with graduate students and every year I meet with entering students who are fearful to reveal to their advisor, lab mates, or others that they are Christian. That fear is not unfounded. There is a risk that they might be judged or stereotyped, though the risk is lower than most anticipate. But I am reminded of Ken Elzinga, who speaks about when he first became a professor of economics at U.Va., and had to affirm Romans 1:16 within himself: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Ken, as a new professor many years ago, took a risk. What fruit it has borne over 40 years of teaching!

Another risk Crouch mentioned to me in a recent email is to think about how we spend our money. I’m reminded here of an engineering student who made a commitment to himself to live only on the amount he received as a stipend in grad school, even after he graduated. He knew that his life was comfortable and he didn’t lack for anything. He went on to work at a big technology research firm, making much more money than he ever had before. He didn’t change his lifestyle, and he was able to give generously in a way that is difficult for most of us to consider. Perhaps we might also be called to take risks in where and how we live. I’ve witnessed this in the lives of Graduate Christian Fellowship alumni this very week. Another couple who recently graduated just moved into a new house this summer with a basement apartment. One day the wife was praying for the conflict in the Middle East, and found herself pray- ing that God would bring a Syrian family into their life. God answered that prayer. Days later, another grad student emailed a few of us saying that he was trying to help a Syrian family seeking asylum in their move to Charlottesville, and would we be willing to help. That family arrives today and will be moving into that basement.

This can all seem overwhelming. Am I saying that we all need to go shout that we’re Christians while giving away two-thirds of our income and taking in refugees? Not at all, though God may indeed call some to that. Each of us has our own calling from God. Crouch challenges us that, in Jesus, we’re free to use the power and opportunity we have in new, creative, and fruitful ways. We’re free to take meaningful risks because we are secure in Jesus, knowing that his resurrection makes sure our future.