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The Challenge of Making the World Better

At my college, we were passionate about making the world a better place...

By Heather Williams

I am a Stanford student, everyone reminds me. Stanford -- the Harvard of the West, the Disneyland of the North -- producing hundreds of world leaders every June. Here at Stanford, we are passionate about making the world a better place, bringing all our strengths to bear in making it perfect. "You can make a difference!" "The power lies within!" These are the mottoes that we hear and by which we live our everyday lives. The dominant world view at my university does not really allow for moral or personal weakness. To need salvation is to admit defeat.

When I entered Stanford, the world lay at my feet then, waiting to be revolutionized. I attended political meetings, took classes on racism and social justice, and immersed myself at the community service center. I believed in the power within me to make a significant difference in the world. I tutored underprivileged elementary school kids; I ran the day camp at a homeless shelter; I collected leftover food to feed the hungry. Yet, the more I tried to change the world, the more frustrated I became. I confronted bureaucracy, apathy, and...sin. I began to think that maybe human nature needed a basic overhaul.

During this time I was challenged to read the Bible by a friend of mine. I had come to college hating the Bible. I thought it was sexist, homophobic and rigidly self-righteous -- the basic blueprint of intolerance. You see, I grew up in the "Bible Belt." Throughout high school, most of the Christians I encountered were more concerned about knocking some sense into me with the Bible than they were concerned about explaining to me what its pages contained. Most were vocal about their conviction that I was going straight to hell because of my liberal agenda. Yet, when my friend in college challenged my actual knowledge of the Bible (garnered from childhood Sunday school lessons and the literature class examining history's "great works" my freshman year), I realized that I knew very little about Jesus and His followers.

So I read it. One night, I happened upon a story that Luke, a follower of Christ, told in his account of the good news of Jesus. The story is about a woman who lived a sinful life in a certain town. She had come to Jesus to cry at His feet while He was in the home of a prominent man. As I read, it became clear that this woman wanted forgiveness -- a word from Jesus that would speak to the weariness in her heart and the weakness in her life. Never before, in all the books that I had read, did I identify with a person more than I did this woman. I, too, felt weary and weak -- weary of working for good causes, weary of being a confident, "together" woman, weary of the charade and shame of my personal life. As I cried my own tears, I said out loud: "Jesus, if You're real, if You're still the same person as You were in this story, I need You in my life." Jesus' words to that woman almost 2,000 years ago were the same words that echoed in my heart: "Your sins are forgiven."

That night all my frustrations came to a quiet and unexpected breaking point, and, in that brokenness, I discovered the power to live the life of justice and mercy I always wanted to live. The old Bible school song proved to be true: "We are weak, but He is strong." Admitting my sin and my weakness brought me to a place of humility. I realized that effective and powerful change begins at an encounter with the source of powerful love -- Jesus, Himself.

After that night, I read more and more of the Bible, sought out other Christians, and tried to make intellectual sense of the Jesus I had met. My friends around me and my boyfriend, at the time, worried that I was becoming a religious fanatic. I worried, too! Eventually, I grew apart from my closest friends. My transformation from intellectual agnostic to committed Christian was just too weird for them. They couldn't relate to the freedom I found in acknowledging my "sinfulness." It made them edgy. They worried that I was judging them, seeing weakness and imperfection. One friend said to me, "I don't understand how someone as intelligent as you can buy into all this sin and forgiveness jargon." Now I don't understand how we can function in this world without it.

I can no longer believe that we are pure moral beings capable of establishing and abiding by a rational morality. We are weak, and, in our weakness, we sin against each other by our pride, our selfishness, our lovelessness. I now approach my life and the world not from the point of view that we need better education or better government or better communication. We need deliverance, not improvement. The basic concept of sin is that we are deeply flawed and we need divine intervention to help us and to heal us; we cannot help ourselves.

So I leave my college experience a very different person, although I am still passionate about social justice and righting wrongs. Stanford has given me amazing opportunities to grow as a woman and as an activist. The crucial difference is that I now know that any power I have comes from a daily dependence on Jesus and His power to overhaul and recreate my basic character. I still want to revolutionize the world, only now, it's one soul at a time.

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