It has taken me a long time to realise that for me, exams are about a loss of control. I wake up stressed and exist in a state of low-level panic, never sure I’ve done enough to pass muster. There is no direct correlation between the work I put in and the outcome – after all, it could still be that the exam itself will ask for something I can’t give. After umpteen hours of formatting and printing and highlighting and summarising and coffee-drinking and underlining, I may not get over the line.
I resent this perceived loss of control which is actually recognition of an ongoing reality. I resent not getting to rest when I am tired. I feel owed a payoff for my hard work and fatalistic about the inexorable march of time, too quickly toward exams and yet far too slowly to being relief.
I feel determined, instead of active. And I rail against the oppression.
It has taken me a long time to realise the irony in this. It crept up on me while studying doctrine this morning, despite the immensity of the task and my woeful recall. It crept up, because of the repeated emphasis on the way that salvation comes to me. Again and again, the rhythmic reminder – I am saved by Christ’s work, not my own. I am saved by grace. How long will it be until I really understand this?
That the thing I so resent in this exam period, is actually the defining mercy of my life. There is no direct correlation between the work I put in and the outcome.
In exam stress, perhaps I get a tiny glimpse of what it may be like to think that I am responsible for passing muster with God. My effort tallied. My hours devoted. My soul exhausted, striving for a bar I cannot know if I will reach. And, in that same stress, I am reminded of the truth. That Jesus’ finished work is the grounds of my salvation, full and free for me, but ever so costly for him. All that follows – every blessing poured out – is because of that finished work. As I am joined to Jesus, I am saved, made right, renewed, adopted, changed.
This creeps in to soothe my restless soul. When it comes to exams, my work determines the result. I will work hard, and hope that it pays off – this is well and good. But when it comes to Christ, my work doesn’t get me over the line. There is no agonised wondering if after all, it will be enough. Jesus has done all that is needed for me to be right with God.
There is still a week of this to go, study and stress punctuated by meals which take on epic importance in this residential college life. Another week of throwing myself on God’s mercy, not just before the day begins but again and again as I come up short and am tempted to trust in my own abilities. Another week to ask God for strength, as mine drains away. Another week to praise God for grace, that this exam period of striving is not a depressing picture of normal life, but just the opposite.
Today I am reminded of what it means that I am not my own. The price at which I was bought was enough to reconcile me to the God I’m made to worship, and it was a price I did not – could not – pay. I am thankful for the blood spilled for me, and the way it shows all my filthy-rag works to be just that, and the way it washes me clean. This stubborn wannabe master of my own destiny, is today and again, abundantly grateful that I am nothing of the sort.
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9.
“Not the labours of my hands, can fulfill your laws demands.
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone, you must save and you alone.”