Another School Year: Finding Progress in the Repetition

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Today, ESN welcomes author Allison Downing. Allison draws on her creative writing background and her experience as a student and campus minister to encourage readers as the new academic year starts. 

It’s that time of year.

Since late August hit in my college town, life has become more difficult. Traffic is worse. Restaurants are full. There are more pedestrians walking into the street. And the grocery store lines are exasperating.

A few years ago, when I first moved to the University of Michigan as a campus ministry worker with Cru, I was fascinated by the return of the school year. I came from a small college, and the large university setting was mesmerizing. This year, I am not so chipper. My slow, easy-going summer where I studied or read what I wanted is ending. As an emerging scholar, lately I am grumpy or discouraged with my pursuit of an unrealized future. And soon, the academic calendar will arrive. Students will be told what to read and write. Professors will be told to teach the same courses and grade the same assignments. Campus ministry workers will do the same outreaches and teach the same core lessons.

We of the academic calendar live lives of repetition. Sure, things may not be exactly the same this year. We each have our different “new year” resolutions. Have a better life-work balance. Sleep more. Be more bold with the gospel. Pray more. Get better grades. Finish our book. But for the most part, the academic year will look the same as it did last year, the same as it will next year, the same as it has always looked since we ourselves were freshman.

Halfway through my college years, I went through my first school year crisis. Doing my third year of college, I felt I had exhausted my experiences of new and different. I began to wonder—if the school year is the same, if I go through the same study-exam routine, if my professors are teaching the same things as last year, are we moving forward? Or do we only have a semblance of progress? What exactly am I doing each repetition of a school year? Am I making a difference or changing? Or, like Sisyphus, am I bound to live a life on repeat, never making true progress?

It’s understandable how we get these thoughts. Sometimes, we don’t see our progress. Joseph spent years in jail, doing supposedly the same thing over and over again, never knowing when it will end or if what comes afterwards will matter. David ran and hid from Saul for eight years, all after David was anointed as king.

Like Joseph or David, sometimes we conduct our days or months or years in similar fashion, and we wonder if we’re actually moving forward or if we are only passing over time like a leaf floating up and down in a rippling pool, not really going anywhere. Like a student’s long, run-on sentence, or an essay with words but no argument. Or like a paragraph that won’t end.

If we ground ourselves in some external calendar, we will surely lose grasp on a foundation. That is where Scripture whispers to us again. 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV) says,

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is Spirit.

As Christians, we have the unique privilege to believe that we are making progress even when we don’t see it. We live in a redemptive narrative, but like so many characters in books, we cannot always see where the narrative is heading. This is simply realism. We are not the author. But we have something that characters in books do not have. We know the author. Not only that, but we can talk to him, and we know his character. He is faithful, and he is good, and that tells us something about the quality of the narrative that God would write for the world.

From this we know that repetition is not the enemy. The sun rises and sets. The seasons come in their cycles. Flowers grow and die. God made the world repetitive, and there are many repetitions we find lovely. We only have problems when we lose vision for the meaning of the repetition.

The KJV translation of Proverbs 29:18 says,

Without vision, the people perish.

Similarly, the NIV printing says,

Without revelation, the people cast off restraint.

If we forget or never learned the meaning of the repetition of our work, it’s easy to be discouraged or to grumble. We may replace the God given meaning of our work with a drive for recognition in your discipline, a drive for good grades and a future career path, or a drive for numerical or even qualitative growth in our ministry. We push ourselves into exhaustion studying, staying up late, praying, reading, grading, preparing—but for what?

The key to a Christian’s tenacity is that, whether or not we can see growth, we can still believe God is moving. We need to reconnect with God and His vision in our life. Otherwise, we may stop trying. Otherwise, we lose hope and joy and the fruit of the Spirit. Our spirits will perish, and our bodies will cast off our discipline.

If we are to be joyful this year, we must center ourselves on the redemptive narrative God is orchestrating in our lives.

Practically, some Biblical responses would include:

  • Keep Going
  • Ask God to refresh your vision
  • Ask God to reveal progress you have made but may have overlooked or forgotten
  • Thank God for the progress you have made
  • Thank God for the progress that you will see as you walk in his path

God has called you to your place and your position for a reason. If he has not, get out of there. But if he has, ask him to reconnect you to your purpose. Ask him to reveal to you the progress you have made but perhaps are blind to, or ask him to reveal to you a purpose to focus on. Thank God for the past progress, and thank him for the coming progress he is preparing you for, according to his faithfulness and promises.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

And rivers in the desert.

Isaiah 43:19

Let us pour out our lives like libations, knowing that we do not labor in vain (Phil. 2:16-17).

Image courtesy of natureaddict at

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Allison Downing

Allison Downing graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in English and emphasis in Creative Writing. She currently resides in Ann Arbor, MI where she has worked for Cru at the University of Michigan for the past two years. She is passionate about living a free and a thriving life as Christian! In her free time, you will find Allison cooking new and different things, reading, or exploring the outdoors on her bike or own two feet.

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