College Doesn’t Change Your Heart, It Reveals It

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Campus Minister, Columbia, South Carolina

Every summer the same thing happens to my inbox. I open it to find a steady stream of emails from concerned parents, youth pastors, and older siblings, asking me to check in on so and so when they get to campus in August.

They all want the same thing: to see their beloved 18-year-old get involved with our ministry on campus and grow in their faith. The problem is that more times than not, this isn’t exactly what the beloved 18-year-olds want for themselves.

What do they want? That’s the question I’ve asked myself for the last eight years doing campus ministry. The question itself embodies everything I love and hate about campus ministry. College students, typically ages 18 to 22, are working out for themselves, not what their parents want for them, but what they want. It’s thrilling. It’s maddening. It’s discouraging. It’s exhausting.

Some are trying harder than others to figure it out. Some come in thinking they’ve already got it figured out. It takes time. Few of them realize how precious time actually is. It also takes mistakes. Lots and lots of them typically.

The Drama of Emerging Adulthood

Few have put what college feels like better than Notre Dame sociology professor Christian Smith. He writes,

To an extent matched by no other time in the life course, emerging adults enjoy and endure multiple, layered, big, and often unanticipated life transitions. They move out, they move back, they plan to move out again. They go to college, they drop out, they transfer, they take a break for a semester to save money, some graduate, some don’t. They want to study architecture, they hate architecture, they switch to criminal justice, a different career path. Their parents separate, make up, get divorced, remarry. They take a job, they quit, they find another, they get promoted, they move. They meet new friends, their old friends change, their friends don’t get along, they meet more new people. They get new roommates, their roommates don’t work out, they find a new apartment. They buy insurance, they wreck their car, they cancel their insurance, they borrow a car. They find their soulmate, they get involved, their soulmate dumps them, they are crushed. They believe in saving sex for meaningful relationships, they hook up, they get angry with themselves, they look for a meaningful relationship. They smoke, they want to quit smoking, they quit for some days, they start smoking again. In these and other ways, for emerging adults not a lot in life is stable or enduring. (Souls in Transition, 34)

“College students are trying to answer two questions: ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Can I get my own way?’”

If you read through the lines, college students are trying to answer two questions: “Am I loved?” and “Can I get my own way?” (According to Dan Allender, these are the two questions every child is born asking.) Their parents have already attempted to answer these questions for them (some better than others), but now it’s time for them to begin to answer these two questions themselves. In other words, every college student has a story and that story is a drama with the central storyline being twofold: Where will they find love and how will they learn to live for something bigger than themselves?

No Student Is Safe

Woody Allen once famously said that “the heart wants what it wants.” Thomas Chalmers would agree. The problem isn’t that we desire, it’s what we desire, and why. Our hearts are fickle things, and more than anything, that’s what college reveals. As Paul Tripp might put it, it’s not that college changes your heart as much as reveals it. It isn’t the secularity or the immorality that is to be feared. According to Jesus, it’s the propensity of our hearts to either want the wrong things or try to anchor themselves in the wrong places. All the while, Jesus is simultaneously the one we’re running from and looking for.

C.S. Lewis wrote about his own heart, “For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.” Far from being a bad, morbid, overly introspective thing, this was how he became a Christian, how he saw his need for a Savior who promised he came not for the healthy but the sick. Sick-hearted people are the ones Jesus came for.

This means the only freshmen who will be completely “safe” in college are the ones with completely pure hearts. And the last time I checked my Bible, that’s none of us. Even the high school senior who was the youth group hero and “so mature for her age” isn’t safe. I’m sure she’s great — actually, according to Jesus, I’m not so sure. Because often that high school senior loves the approval and affirmation she gets from her youth group leader, her teachers, her parents, really just any adult in general. More than Jesus, she loves the religious pats on the back that simultaneously make you feel godly and better than all of your peers.

What to Do with a Broken Heart

I know this well because this was me. The heroic (at least in his own mind) high school senior who loved approval transformed suddenly into the lonely college freshmen who thought he was better than everyone, yet at the same time was afraid of being known by anyone. An antisocial butterfly, who loved to flutter his self-righteous wings, mistook his flying as his own doing instead of the pure gift of God.

What do you do with a broken heart? Not a romantically broken one, but the one all of us carry around, the one broken by the fall. The one that caused David to seduce the hottest girl on campus (2 Samuel 11:2–4). The one that caused Peter to not eat dinner with “the losers” (Galatians 2:11–12). The one that causes us to choose almost anything but Jesus.

You bring it to Jesus. He’s the only one who can heal a broken heart. The only one who can fill it. The only one who can make it new. The only one who can answer in a satisfying way the two questions it’s aching to have answered. Yes, you are loved — so loved that he knows every twisted, dark spot of your heart, yet refuses to let you go.

“What our students need is the one thing Jesus said was necessary: a heart that’s found its rest in him.”

And, no, you can’t have your own way. Our hearts are quick to want the wrong things, or indulge good desires in the wrong way, at the wrong times. He loves us enough to disappoint us, to discipline us, to teach us, to change us.

What our students need is the one thing Jesus told Mary was necessary: a heart that’s found its rest in him. Restless hearts leave a wake of self-indulgent or self-justifying wreckage behind them. Only hearts that are resting in Jesus are able to embrace all of life, with its thrills and heartbreaks, ups and downs, with the calmness and courage of one whose life is secure because it’s tucked away with Jesus above.

The heart doesn’t want what it wants. Whether it knows it yet, or is still struggling to believe it, the heart wants Jesus.