Welcome back to the podcast. You send us the questions on your mind, and longtime author and pastor John Piper opens his Bible and finds answers for those questions. And speaking of the big questions in life, there’s one major question facing every college student, and that’s the question of major. What direction to go in life, what field to pursue, what college, what vocation — all of those things.
Many high school and college students seek to make that decision simply based on money. But for Christians, the money decision is a secondary one, leading to today’s question from a young woman named Kerri. “Pastor John and Tony, thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast. I have listened to every episode. And most of those episodes while walking my dog, to the point that my dog gets super excited every time she hears the intro jingle! My question for you, Dr. Piper, is this. When deciding on a college major, how much should future income factor into the decision? What other general guidelines and factors should be considered by a young Christian wanting to not waste his or her life in the vocation he or she chooses?”
I have a very personal stake in this kind of question because I do serve as the chancellor and as a professor at Bethlehem College & Seminary here in Minneapolis. We have a college of a very particular kind, and I feel that sense of responsibility to help parents and help young people decide if this school is possibly the kind that they would benefit from by attending.
What I’m going to say doesn’t relate only to our school but to education and vocation in general, in the hope of helping young people or even older people, as we’ll see — I think people are making midlife changes about education and vocation all the time — decide what kind of education and vocation to pursue. So, let me start with five observations that put this question in a certain context.
Five Observations About Education
First, most of the world does not have access to the kind of education assumed in the question about choosing a major. Most of the world moves from family to a rudimentary, basic education of reading and writing and math (if that), and then into some kind of apprenticeship, or simply into the family occupation. Higher education, as we know it in America, is simply not an option most places in the world.
Second, even in developed countries like America where higher education exists, only about 62 percent of high school graduates go to college. That’s a lot of millions who don’t. There are all kinds of paths into useful vocational life through trade schools, technical schools, or on-the-job learning. So, I don’t assume in answering this question that everyone should go to college.
Third, for those who do go to college, the choices are very many. There are huge universities with hundreds of majors. At the University of Minnesota, a mile from where I’m standing right now, there are 150 majors in eleven colleges, many of them tailored precisely for specific kinds of vocations. And then there are smaller — like two thousand or three thousand — liberal-arts colleges, which offer a blend of general education and vocational specialization. And there are a handful of colleges like ours: very small, with a focus on more classical education with a view to building a kind of person whose maturity and character and habits of mind and heart fit them for a life of wisdom and wonder — we like to say — and fruitfulness for Christ in any vocation.
Fourth, we should always remember that a decision at age seventeen about college or major or vocation does not mean you will have the same job for a lifetime. The average American changes careers three to seven times in a lifetime. Many people in midlife decide to go back to school. This is one reason we put such an emphasis at Bethlehem College on the kind of habits of mind and heart that will bear fruit in all vocations, because students may think they know what they’re going to do five years from now, but they don’t know what they’re going to do twenty years from now. But they will be a kind of person twenty years from now, and we would like to help that be the right kind of person.
Fifth, there is no sure connection between choosing a major and earning a certain level of income over a lifetime. Some specialized majors do open doors to higher-income professions. That’s true — like medicine, say. But far, far more influential, in general, in a person’s success and income are character traits: initiative, discipline, self-control, ambition, creativity, relational wisdom, vision, analytical skills, problem-solving insight, integrity, faithfulness, steadfastness. Give me a person like that; they will do something with their lives, and they’ll probably be well paid for it too. Some of those traits come from our genes, our parents’ genes, but some are learned and refined with good teachers and life experience.
Besides thinking about income, Jesus says, “Seek the kingdom first, and all these things will be added to you” (see Matthew 6:33) — the practical necessities of life. So, I would say don’t think income. Don’t make it ever a deciding factor in choosing a major or a vocation. Make it way down the list of your priorities when making those choices.
Five Guidelines for Choosing a Major
So, with those five observations setting the stage, here are my guidelines for those who are choosing a vocation or a college or a major, who don’t want to waste their lives but make them count for the glory of God.
1. Aim at God’s glory.
Let’s start right there with the glory of God. The Bible says, “Whatever you do,” — choosing a school, choosing a major, choosing a vocation — “do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Or, “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). One way to turn this guideline into a question would be this: When you consider a major or a possible vocation, do you get excited about the ways you could glorify God or make much of Jesus in this major or in this vocation? Or do you have to bracket that whole question because it bothers you; it just gets in the way? That’s not a good sign.
2. Pursue personal holiness.
Since the Bible is clear in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 that “this is the will of God, your sanctification” — your holiness, your godliness, your moral rectitude — do you have hesitations that this major or this vocation might compromise or hinder your sanctification, or do you get excited about how this path might advance your own holiness, your pursuit of godliness?
3. Consider your gifts.
Do your intellectual, emotional, and physical abilities — call them God’s gifts that define much of who we are — fit this major or vocation? The biblical analogy here is the body with many members or parts. One person is a hand, another is an ear, another is a nose. We are all so different by God’s design, and we should not try to be what we aren’t, and we should try to know the unique way that God has made us to be and then ask, “Does that fit with this major or this vocation?” I don’t think God made round holes for square bolts. He wants there to be a fitness.
4. Ponder your desires.
Very closely connected with those gifts is the question of your recurrent desires. Now, I don’t mean flash-in-the-pan desires right after a conference or something, but ever-returning desires. They just crop up over the years. They seem to be circling back because there’s something in me that makes me this way. I am assuming that these desires are growing in the heart that has a passion for holiness and for the glory of God.
Now, I know not all desires are good guidance, but many of them are. The psalmist prays that God would incline our hearts for guidance (Psalm 119:36; 141:4). In other words, “Give me desires, God. Incline my heart for the discovery of your ways.” So, as you submit your entire life to the glory of God, what desires keep growing up in that soil? What kind of activity do you feel at home in? My mind, my emotions, my body have come home.
5. Pay attention to needs.
Let the needs of the world have their proper effect on shaping your education and vocation. Of course, the needs of the world are spiritually and materially immeasurable. You can’t be led by all of them. So, here are two ways to put that last question in order to make it livable, I think:
- What needs of the world are you moved by over and over again? How has God wired you to respond to the needs of the world? What kind of good do you repeatedly feel drawn to do for others? That’s one question.
- What connections do you see between your gifts, your at-homeness, and the needs of the world?
Bible, Fellowship, Prayer
So, those are my five guidelines for choosing a major, choosing a vocation, or thinking about the future of your life and how to spend your time so as not to waste it. And as you ponder them, do it in this way: Be saturated continually with the Bible. Be embedded in a healthy church that counsels you, surrounds you, helps you recognize who you are and know what your gifts are. And finally, be continually in prayer. God won’t let you waste your life if you seek him like this.