Pastor Peter’s “Letter to Parents of Children Still in School: Exams”

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An open letter to parents of children still in school

Dear parents,

Working around the exams of our children has been the accepted practice in Singapore for as long as I can remember. I think this comes from our heritage. The imperial exams in ancient China offered a path of success in government service. Working for the government was always the best deal. Trade skills were under appreciated. Businesses built over years could collapse overnight with the winds of change. To work for the government through good exam results was the surest and safest way towards power, security and money.

Exams are not evil. Employment by exam results was China’s great equalizer based on meritocracy rather than family connections or other forms of cronyism. Can you imagine a society where ability and skill count for nothing? To this day, humankind has not devised a better broad-based and effective alternative to exams. Employment by exam results is not a necessary evil, it is an imperfect good. Christians have every reason to thank God for the institution of examinations, even if we think there are better testing methods.

Commandment 1

To be part of the exam-taking system is to engage in something good. But you don’t need me to justify the importance of exams. We urge this upon our children.

It is with every good thing that we find the danger of idolatry. An idol is a good thing that becomes the ultimate thing. The greater the good, the greater the danger of idolatry. We cannot reject the good for fear of idolatry. Nor can we ignore the danger of idolatry because something is good.

What then is the appropriate emphasis on exams? When do good grades or the quests for success become idolatry? I like to suggest 2 considerations to discern whether we are engaged in idolatry or using a social good when we try to do well in exams. (1) The end of exams. (2) The fixed points.

The end of exams

Why do you want your children to do well for their exams?

Having the right answer is important because it directs our hearts and minds. If you can only say, “So my children will enjoy a better life,” you are engaging in idolatry for “the better life.” If you can only say, “So you enjoy beating your peers,” you are engaging in the idolatry of success. If you can only say, “So you can make more money,” money is your idol. Where is God in your answer?

I hated school. I studied so I could get my parents off my back. I tried to get away with minimum. Certainly not a good student. Then I met Jesus. Then I learned about living my life for God’s glory. If he had given me abilities, flourishing them is my God-given calling. I tell you the whole truth when I say Jesus redeemed me from laziness, mediocrity, indifference, and all things that frustrate parents.

My motivation was not fear of failure. Not to please my parents. Not for success in employment. My motivation was to live life to the full as God intends for me to live. If I use all that God has given me, I will live life to the full. If I remain bored with life, be it education, sports, life-long learning, skills development, I would have chosen emptiness, underperformance, and would waste away my life.

Soon after my conversion, it became clearer and clearer to me that when I live my life for Jesus, he will make me all that I can be. In addition to having a new motivation for doing well in exams, I had a renewed interest in running.

I’m only an above average runner, not competition standard. So I took up running. That is what God gave me and that is what I will use. I also took an IQ test. My score was reasonably good. Better than the 50th percentile in my school-placing would suggest. So I could do better than the 50th percentile if I tried. So in obedience to God’s call for me, I tried. And God blessed.

But a school life of poor discipline does not change overnight. I don’t think I came close getting the grades I could get, but they improved significantly. Perhaps more importantly, I began to develop a love for learning, and to live life to the full, be in school or sports.

What do you tell your children when you wish to motivate them to do well for exams? If you give them all the wrong reasons, and you yourself believe in all the wrong reasons, your reasons betray your heart. You have allowed a good thing to become the ultimate thing.

The fixed points

The real irony in my life is that when I wanted to glorify God with what he has given me by doing well in my exams, the older Christians discouraged me!

My first real Christian community was Zion Church. If you had known me then, you would see this fourteen year old sitting by himself on the second or third row during worship – not with his peers. I wanted to learn. I wanted to worship God on Sunday. This was the best hour of the week and I don’t want to miss out on anything.

When my dad became a Christian the following year, and he preferred Life Church, I went with him as an added incentive for him to worship God on Sunday. In the meantime, I was actively involved in the school Christian fellowship.

While I was in Life Church, someone urged me to join the Youth Fellowship. I declined. My involvement in the school fellowship took up enough time, and I could not spare my Saturday afternoons to attend the Youth Fellowship. This same person berated me. He challenged me with the question, “So do you study on Saturday when you don’t join the YF?”

“YES!” came my reply.

“Pppffff” He scoffed.

But I was undeterred. I understood my calling. I was behind in my studies. I had been unfaithful to what God had given me. I really needed to get back up to speed. I had my fixed points: worship and service in the school fellowship. That was enough. I did not need others to tell me what I needed to do. I do not need to prove anything to him. I am accountable to God. This man is no more than one of many Pharisees I will meet in my life. He is no more than one of those who only want to fill their program with people. He is not interested in my life giving glory to God. He used any emotional blackmail and mockery to populate his programs. He did not speak for God.

I think the opposite is true today. Students keep their noses to their books. Christian parents encourage that. But they can encourage studying to the point where there are no spiritual fixed points in their children’s life. They compromise worship and scale down on any activity that they think will take away from their children’s development. They will look for a worship that works around their children’s private tutoring, or ballet class, or music lesson.

What are your fixed points? Those immovable, uncompromisable, non-negotiable fixed points for your children and yourself.

If you work everything around your children’s exams, you need to ask if you are asking your children to make exams their idols. I see so many conflicted Christian parents in Singapore. On the one hand, we want our children to grow up strong in the faith. On the other hand, we tell them, through our actions that everything is moveable except their exams. Exams are the fixed points in their life. Even God is there to help them do well. “It’s all about you and your exams!”

Conclusion

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Christ in the Centre

There is only one God. There can be no divided center. No wheel can spin when the center is placed to the side. No Christian can live his life with purpose until God is his center. Not me. Not you. Not your children.

If Jesus is not the Lord of all, is he the Lord at all?
 

Pastor Peter

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