By Dr. Bryan Smith
The past two years have been harder than most for me. The uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 is part of the reason, but only part. I’ve also found myself anxious about the challenges (political, cultural, and financial) facing Christian education. I’ve been made painfully aware of my own frailties and failures. My mother died after an extended illness. And, on top of it all, I turned fifty.
I have learned that the hardships of life have a way of adjusting my focus and modifying my goals. When I was in my early thirties, I talked a lot about changing the world through Christian education. These days, I think I’d be happy if I could just change myself. However, in my more discerning moments, I realize that the right goal lies somewhere between those two extremes. Trying to change the whole world is a task much grander than the one God has called us to, but being content with changing only myself is surely aiming too low.
What should my goal be? Recently I found help from Psalm 71. I’ve come to claim it as the Christian educator’s prayer.
The Opposition We Face
All through the psalm, we find opposition. The psalmist is concerned about “the hand of the wicked” and “the grasp of the unjust and cruel man” (v. 4). The psalmist has enemies who “watch for [his] life” (v. 10) and “seek [his] hurt” (v. 13). And if that were not enough, the psalmist is also concerned about another threat—time. He is aging, and he can feel his energy slipping away. He speaks with anxiety about the coming of “the time of old age,” a time “when [his] strength is spent” (v. 9). When that day comes, how will he provide for himself? How will he complete the mission God has given him?
Are you familiar with these anxieties? We live in a secular age that dismisses religion and is offended by Christian education. As we watch the influence of the Bible diminish in our society, we find ourselves worried about the future. How much longer will the government allow us to teach students a Christian view of science and history? What will we do if we get embroiled in a court case about transgenderism or homosexuality?
But if you’re like me, your concerns don’t stop there. As each year passes, I see the end of my ministry drawing closer. There is a tragic irony in the passage of time: The longer I work in education, the more skilled I become; however, the more time passes, the less strength and time I have to use my skill. This unsettling irony leads all of us to difficult questions. What will happen to Christian education when we can no longer serve it and support it? Will the kingdom of God grow in the coming decades? Will it collapse under the ever-increasing pressure of unbelief and secularism?
The Hope We Claim
With all that opposition, we may be tempted to think that this is a dark and gloomy psalm that will not help us in our troubles. But that would be a huge misunderstanding. It’s true that Psalm 71 does not offer easy answers. But it does give hope—hope in the Lord. We find this from the very first line: “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge” (v. 1). The psalmist has found his hope in God all through his life: “Upon you I have leaned from before my birth” (v. 6). And the Lord has never failed him; He always does what is right: “Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens” (v. 19). The psalmist is afraid, but he has learned to turn his anxieties into prayer: “O my God, make haste to help me!” (v. 12). Because God is who He says He is, the psalmist does not fall into despair: “I will hope continually” (v. 14).
We also need to claim God as our hope. Our hope is not found in political engagement. We need to be politically engaged and serious about finding and supporting candidates who value what we value, but our hope is in the Lord. Our confidence is in Him. Our souls find their rest not in voting but in prayer, and our prayers should be patterned after the prayers of Scripture, Psalm 71 in particular. Political candidates come and go (and all of them disappoint us in some way). But the Lord will be our protector forever; He keeps all His promises, and He hears all our prayers. Our lives in this fallen world will be difficult. But if God is our hope, we will not be disappointed.
The Mission We Pursue
God is the psalmist’s hope. Yes. But for what? What is his mission? The psalmist understands that he is called to proclaim. This, to me, is the most precious part of the psalm. I go back to these lines again and again for comfort and encouragement: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, Until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (v. 18).
This world is full of the glory of God, but people everywhere close their ears and shut their eyes to this glory. So the psalmist longs for the strength and the opportunity to declare the greatness and goodness of God: “My mouth will tell of your righteous acts . . . With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come” (vv. 15-16).
This is my mission. This is the mission of every Christian educator. We are called to proclaim the glory of God to the next generation. We, of course, need to prepare students to be productive members of society. We must give them the knowledge and skills they will need to earn a living and engage in the challenges of community life. But all this learning must take place in the context of who God is and what He has done: that He alone is absolute and ultimate, that He made the world and everything in it, that He has called the human race to rule over the world in His name, that He will one day judge the world for its rebellion against Him, that those who repent and believe the gospel will reign forever in the kingdom of God.
We cannot stop the moral decay of society. We cannot keep our bodies from aging and our years of service from drawing to their close. But we can proclaim the glory of our God. We can tell our students God has never failed His people, and He will not begin to do so in their generation.
And we can pray. Oh, we can pray. We can cry out to God to give us the strength and persuasive power we need to convince the next generation that our God is the true God and that He has no rivals. Secularism exerts great influence, but God is greater. Worldliness and immorality control our culture, but this world is passing away and all its lust. God is king. And he that does the will of God abides forever.
The future is as bright as the promises of God. Go with God, my friend—and with the prayer of Psalm 71!
Dr. Bryan Smith has worked in Christian education for nearly thirty years. He has been a classroom teacher as well as a textbook author. Currently, he serves at BJU Press as the Senior Manager for Biblical Worldview Formation. He and his wife, Becky, have six children.