by Stephen Alston
Principles are tricky things. As Christians, we know that principles are meant to be timeless truths grounded in the Word of God, but as our screens, airwaves, and homes are filled with arguments, protests, and violence, the question of when it is time to fight for the timeless must be asked.
Psalm 1 compares the man grounded in Scripture to “a tree planted by the rivers of water” (Ps. 1:3). As I meditated on this verse, I was reminded of a quote by the French writer Victor Hugo. Hugo advised people to “change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots.” It struck me that the challenge we face today is to remain rooted in the Word of God without getting lost in the leaves.
Our students face two great temptations today regarding principles. The first is to treat every conviction as a matter of opinion. They can easily become rootless, plagued by doubt, and capable of being pulled in any direction by a clever line or emotional cause. The other temptation, perhaps the one we Christians are more apt to ignore, is to treat all opinions as matters of principle, to confuse leaves for roots. The danger there is that we soon turn every disagreement over policy or taste into a battle to the death. A friend’s take on the latest Marvel or Star Wars film is treated with equal passion as his view of Christ. Once this happens, we sentence ourselves to become either battle hardened warriors who can no longer see others as anything but adversaries to be crushed, or we become battle-scarred veterans who face the world with detached apathy.
To live with principle is to be willing to fight, but we must fight for the right things and in the right way. We can’t afford to sit passively by for the sake of peace. Christian theologian Abraham Kuyper once warned: “When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin…” So we must prepare ourselves and our students to battle for their faith. At the same time, not every disagreement touches on our deepest convictions, so we must also equip ourselves and our children with the tools to pick the right battles. Lastly, we must never fail to remind ourselves and those we teach that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23a.).
When we study history at Providence, we are exposing students to the stories of what happens when people stop fighting for the principles rooted in the Word , fight for the wrong principles, and fight for the right things in the wrong way. At the same time, we hold up those stories of men and women who fought for their deepest convictions without becoming battle hardened or battle scarred. This forms a key part of shaping students into people who can live principled lives. In every class, we seek to strengthen their roots by drawing them back to Scripture and our deepest Christian convictions. As they progress through the school, we equip them with skills in logic and persuasion, so they will know how to defend their principles without getting lost in the leaves of opinion. Finally, we strive to model virtuous conduct for our students so that they will fight for their principles in the right way.