I was with Mark at his son’s college graduation—with James receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer science. At some point in the pleasant tedium of giving and receiving diplomas I started counting asterisks to see if they reached ten percent of the whole. These markers in the program noted special honors. Some asterisks indicated Cum Laude—“with honors”—and others noted Summa Cum Laude, or even Magna Cum Laude. These were the best and brightest of this class.
So let’s ask, what do these distinctions mean in real life?
For one, high distinctions set apart students suited for advanced studies. Students with high marks are more likely to be accepted by admired graduate schools. So, as a former college prof, whenever I gave an “A” it was my signal to other educators that this student was qualified for advanced studies. We were building a reliable pathway to success.
It also pointed to favorites. I could always expect about ten percent of my students to be high achievers. They were well prepared for class discussions; they wrote good essays; and they turned in their assignments on time. Professors are cut from the same cloth so it’s easy to like the stars of the academic scene. There are other student groups, of course. The social set. The athletes. Those who struggle. And those who don’t care.
This, of course, builds a positive identity in the best students: they know they’re special. At least by the standards of the academy. And since these students have, for the most part, won awards all through early life they may come to see themselves as essentially superior to others—as elite figures in life.
Let’s turn now to a basic question raised by Christian faith. If sin is ultimately self-love; and if spiritual conversion—coming to know Jesus as our beloved Lord—stirs a love for God and for others, how do these comparisons help? Is it really useful to offer academic honors when one common result is to fuel fires of personal pride? To perceive oneself as more valuable than others?
And here’s a follow-up question. If God is truly a wise and good creator why doesn’t he do a better job in creating us? Some of his creatures are bright, some witty, and some beautiful. But many more are plain, ordinary, and dull. Which takes us back to my asterisk-counting exercise. Wouldn’t the world be a better place with everyone becoming a Magna Cum Laude? Why does he top out the category of “most brilliant” at one percent of the whole?
The answer on all counts is that God knows what he’s doing. So that each of us who know and love the Son will earn an eternal distinction. And those who, in pride, ignore the Son and live to achieve selfish glory will fare poorly. The apostle Paul hit this point straight on when he confronted the church in Corinth for their blatant deference to the wise, wealthy, and powerful members of the community.
He wrote, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:27-29).
The deeper question we should ask is, “Lord, how can I display your wisdom in all I do today?” The aim of life, in other words, is to discover the true glory of our many distinctions. God, for instance, provided brilliant craftsmen—Bezalel and Oholiab—to build the Tabernacle. There were also people gifted in raising the animals then needed for Israel’s ceremonial devotion to God.
In the New Covenant we find God’s plans for all believers to be equally fair and wise. “To each of us is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This verse in 1 Corinthians 12 is part of Paul’s extended instructions to the elite-focused Corinthian church. His point was that the church is like the human body. Each element—each person—has a unique role to play, and every role is needed for the body to prosper.
The real basis for God’s heavenly asterisks—if there are such things—is our love. Paul points this out in the very next section of the letter. Without love “I gain nothing.” The point is that we’re made for each other—and ultimately for God in Christ. Any brilliant academic thinkers without able craftsmen to build out their brilliant notions, or farmers to feed them would soon be forced to learn some farming for themselves.
Our faith in God’s goodness, then, is the basis for seeing and enjoying his love. If we compare ourselves with others and covet what they have, we’re foolish. We make ourselves into agents of self-love and critics of God’s Divine wisdom.
By the end of the graduation ceremony it was nice to relax as I realized God had made every one of the hundreds of graduates “for good” and that if they could only know and love Jesus their future would unfold for them as “the very best God has to offer!”