It happens at the end of every term.
The final assignment in my course is a large research essay, due electronically during finals week. It comprises a significant portion of my students’ final grade. And at the end of every term – at the end of every single term – there are always a few students who simply don’t turn in the assignment.
It wouldn’t be so bad if they were failing to begin with, but most of them aren’t. Most of them have been B or A students throughout the course; they’ve turned assignments in on time, have completed the work I’ve asked them to do, and have put a significant effort forth. Missing this assignment will send their grade plunging down.
I used to wonder why. I used to blame it on computer problems, on confusion. I encouraged them to submit “test run” papers to make sure I could receive their communications properly. I promised them that they would receive emails from me if I did not receive their assignments so that they could then promptly turn them in. I encouraged them to monitor their inboxes for an email from me saying, “Hey, where’s your paper?”
But, as I’ve learned over the years after talking to the these students, the problem isn’t a lack of safeguards. The problem is simply that, somehow, close to the finish line, they falter. They stumble. They overestimate the amount of time they have and underestimate the work. They forget the due date. The priorities of their daily life force them to forget about school. They email me with blunt and brutal confessions:
“Sorry. I just couldn’t finish it in time.”
“Time got away from me.”
“Life got crazy and the due date passed before I know it.”
And I – a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist with an overachiever streak – boggle at the madness of it. How can you just forget? How is it possible that, having completed most of the work of a course and done well, you whiff at the very end? How is it possible to not prioritize something that is going to have a calamitous impact on your grade and your transcript?
But it’s a reminder to me that we are never safe from our worst selves – not as students, and not as Christians, either. Because I suspect complacency and indifference grows as we mature. Secure in the knowledge of our salvation, with a lot of good fruit behind us and the promise of heaven ahead, we can falter. Fail. De-prioritize our purpose.
In Hebrews 12:1, Paul says:
…since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
The image I have with that verse, always, is of a runner shrugging off fatigue and obstacles and charging forward on a second wind. There is a sense of urgency and energy to the verse. Perseverance. Don’t slow down to a walk. Don’t saunter to the finish line. Keep going. Keep pushing. Keep challenging yourself.
As believers, we can accomplish a lot, but it’s easy to go out with a whimper rather than a bang. It’s easy to fall into the belief that we’ll get around to what remains to be done…sometime. That what is ahead of us is important, sure, but that it can wait. And that temptation grows the more mature we are, the older we get, and the more accomplished we become. Like my students, we can falter in spite of – and sometimes because of – our progress, and in doing so affect everything that came before.
Be wary of stumbling. Acknowledge your tendency to lose interest, to wear down, to stop planning or caring. Keep up the urgency that drove you to this point, and cultivate it as you move forward – or, like my students, you might end up de-prioritizing the work of Christ, growing careless with your duties, and shrugging off the wonders of God’s great love without ever intending it to happen.