The Pressure of Finding Purpose
About the Guest
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Shelby AbbottShelby Abbott is an author, campus minister, and conference speaker on staff with the ministry of Cru. His passion for university students has led him to speak at college campuses all over the United States. Abbott is the author of Jacked and I Am a Tool (To Help with Your Dating Life), Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress and DoubtLess: Because Faith is Hard. He and his wife, Rachael, have two daughters and live in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
Campus minister Shelby Abbott talks about some of the stressors students face in today’s culture. While stress is a natural part of college life, social media can make it worse. Abbott also addresses the stress of discerning God’s will.
The Pressure of Finding Purpose
Bob: One of the sources of anxiety and stress for college-age young people is thinking about the future and about what they should be doing with their lives. Here’s Shelby Abbott.
Shelby: A lot of students—I’ve found—ask the question, “What’s God’s will for my life? What does God want me to do?” I think it’s one of those questions that is asked from a good heart, but in reality it’s the wrong question. It’s not, “What is God’s will for my life?” it’s more, “How does my life fit into God’s will?” It’s not necessarily making yourself the hero of the story. There is already One hero; Jesus is His name.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, August 8th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson, and I'm Bob Lepine. How can we help college-age young men and women get their arms around the big questions facing them in life and in their faith? We’ll talk with Shelby Abbott about that today; stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
When I was growing up, I remember my mom saying to me—she was excited for me to go to college, and she said, “Your college years are going to be the best years of your life. You’ll meet your best friends there, it’s going to be—” What she was really saying was, “My college years were the best years of my life.”
Bob: I got to college and I thought, “If this is—”
Ann: “This is it?”
Bob: “If these are the best of years of my life, life’s not headed in a really great direction at this point.” I think a lot of college students today do walk on the college campus with expectations about what those years are going to bring.
Ann: I think a lot of parents have said those exact same words to a lot of their kids.
Bob: Then they find that there’s really some stress or challenges—you’re smiling. Did you say those to your kids?
Ann: I think you said that, Dave.
Dave: I liked my college experience.
Bob: Well, you’re the star quarterback!
Dave: It was fun!
Ann: Exactly! Who doesn’t like that? [Laughter]
Dave: After two days, my freshman year, you know we’re there before the students, I called my mom and I said, “I want to come home. I can’t do this, I hate this—”
Bob: Because the workout was tough?
Dave: Yes, it was just my first time alone. So I do remember four years, and I do have a positive experience, but man, I was ready to go home. I’ll never forget—she said, “I ain’t picking you up, and you’re not coming home. So figure it out. See you later!” Click.
Dave: And I had to figure it out—I mean, she was a loving, wonderful mom, but she was like, “That’s not an option. They’re paying for your education to play football—you’re playing football, and you’re going to like this.” And I figured it out, you know. You sort of have to.
Ann: I went four hours away from home. I didn’t know one person at the University of Kentucky. I was miserable for the first four months—so miserable—I would go to Bob Evans every Sunday—by myself—and have, like, three breakfasts.
Bob: That’s sad!
Ann: Isn’t it?
Bob: Did you put on the freshman—
Ann: Yes, by Christmas.
Ann: Yes. I was miserable.
Dave: She was awesome. That’s when I was dating her, and—
Ann: He didn’t even recognize that.
Bob: I don’t think moms and dads have a full appreciation today of the pressures that college students are facing on the college campus, in part because it’s a whole different set of pressures than we faced. I mean, I had the pressure of, “A paper’s due on Friday,” or, “How do I make my schedule work?” It’s a whole new level for young people today.
Ann: I don’t think it’s just limited to college, either. I think middle school kids feel it. I think elementary school kids feel it at times—and especially high school.
Bob: Well, Shelby Abbott is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back!
Shelby: Thank you! It’s great to be here.
Bob: Shelby is a part of Cru staff, works with high school and college students, he’s an author, he’s a speaker, he’s done standup comedy, he’s written a book called Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress.
Did you experience student stress?
Shelby: Oh, of course. I think every college student does. They go through it in multiple ways. But I went to Virginia Tech, where at the time the enrollment was like 26,000 students. Going to my freshman psychology 101 class, there were 650 people in there, sitting in that auditorium and watching the professor, looking around and going, “I’m going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.” It just felt good to me.
It wasn’t that small class, where I felt connected—it was this large, giant auditorium where I was like, “Everybody’s in this together.”
But yes, I think pressure is one of those things that’s a natural part of college life, and I think today students deal with pressure in ways that previous generations have not had to go through—namely, where we’re at in this day and age with social media, technology, phones. This constant “connection” to people has raised the stakes when it comes to pressure in their lives that they deal with on a minute-by-minute basis.
Dave: Talk about that, because when you started with the social media, I thought, “Well, it could be an escape, it could be a way to deal with pressure. You have somebody to talk to, somebody to text, somebody to get feedback from.” But you’re saying it’s negative. Why?
Shelby: Well, it’s not only one or the other—I think it’s a both/and. There’s a tremendous amount of positive things where it can find groups of people that you wouldn’t have been able to do before. You can communicate lightning fast, you can get responses from people, which is great. All of that stuff is great. I’m not anti-technology, at all, in any way.
I think what it does, though, is there’s a constant window into what’s happening out there, and you’re getting real-time feedback. I think everybody’s saying the world today is way worse than it used to be—I’m not sure that’s 100 percent certain. It ebbs and flows. I just think we have information access to everything that happens in almost-real time.
Shelby: Consequently, the anxiety goes up, the stress goes up, and then with social media in particular, when you’re looking at other people doing certain things and living an Instagram lifestyle, you think that their life is perfect, their life is wonderful. They’re having so much great connection with people. “What about me? Why am I not?”
Or your friends are posting stuff, being out doing something together, and you weren’t invited. Then all of a sudden you’re like, “Why don’t they like me?”—so I think in those ways it has a tendency to raise stress and anxiety. Those things were always there, but we’re just more keenly aware of it now.
Dave: Yes. Your point in the book, Pressure Points, is that it can actually be something that’s good, right? Talk about that.
Shelby: Yes, I think those kinds of things—when it comes to pressure and anxiety, obviously there’s good stress and then there’s distress, and distress is one of those things that can lead to anxiety and worry, all those kinds of things.
But if you’re going through stress in general—when you work out a muscle, you break it down and it builds up stronger. You break it down and it builds up stronger. I think that needs to happen socially as well. When we’re experiencing hurt or things that are difficult, it breaks us down and we’re able to build back up.
Now, of course the difference with college students who are Christians is something that is way different, and I think it’s a type of subset of American college students that wrestle with a lot of the same things, we just have a tendency to put a Jesus spin on things and not address the real problems—namely, the gospel, the truth of the gospel, how Jesus transforms our lives.
Not just, “One day we’ll be with Him,” but, “How is He with us right here, right now? How does the gospel change my perspective on the normal, everyday anxiety I’m experiencing? How does it help me deal with those things in a way that is honoring to the Lord and makes me stronger in the Lord?”
So those are kind of the things I talk about there. There’s good stuff that builds you up and makes you stronger, but also being able to lean into Jesus in a way that other students don’t have the opportunity to do because they don’t know Him.
Dave: Talk about the Jesus spin. I think I know where you’re going, I think I’ve seen it—I’ve probably done it. What do you mean?
Shelby: When someone goes through a hard time, we have a tendency to be like, “Oh, Romans 8:28—God works for the good of those who love Him.” Well, that’s true—it’s definitely true. But when someone’s going through—“Just failed a test,” “Hey, I just broke up with my boyfriend or girlfriend,” “My mom is going through cancer,”—I don’t want to hear platitudes right now. I want someone to live life with me, to cry with me, to throw their arm around me, to go buy me breakfast at Bob Evans. I want a friend to be with me to show me the love of Jesus, not just communicate truth and cold comfort.
Now, there is a place, there’s a time and a place for all of that. I believe that we need to live biblically in those kinds of ways, but Christians think sometimes they have to have just the right answers and the right answers will put a fix on those things—when in reality you’re just trying to put band-aids on huge gashes in people’s lives. It can come across as almost insensitive and offensive if you’re throwing religious platitudes at people and not helping to address some of the real problems, because Jesus is with us in those problems.
Bob: Ann talked about Bob Evans every Sunday, alone, eating the buffet. Is that still the case for a lot of college students, where this loneliness is a big part of the pressure they’re experiencing?
Shelby: Oh, absolutely. My dad was in the Air Force, so I went—my freshman year we were in Virginia, while my dad was stationed at the Pentagon. My sophomore year I was in Montgomery, Alabama. My junior we were in Great Falls, Montana; and then my senior years my parents and my sister moved to Central America while I stayed behind and lived with a different family.
Ann: That’s hard.
Shelby: So I experienced four different things in high school—which are very formative years. When I got to Virginia Tech, I literally knew nobody—not one person there. In fact, when we arrive on campus the Saturday before classes started on Monday, we stopped at the info booth to ask where my dorm was.
Shelby: I showed up to my dorm and my roommate was a sophomore, by God’s grace, and he showed me where my classes were on Monday. After classes on Monday I went to find out where my Tuesday/Thursday classes were. So I felt very, very alone. “I’m the only person in the world right now. Everybody else knows what they’re doing, and I don’t”—but when we think, “Oh, it’s just us,”—it’s not just us. Everybody is thinking and feeling it in a certain way, it’s just whether or not they have the veneer of confidence.
Bob: So if you’re sending off a son or a daughter who’s about to be a freshman in college and you’re giving them a strategy, what’s your advice to them?
Shelby: They’re going to—initially—need to plug into some sort of student campus ministry—if they’re a follower of Jesus. That’s one of the best things that you do. The Christian life was never meant to be lived in isolation—ever. If you’re feeling lonely or even if you’re not lonely—regardless of what you’re feeling—you need to get plugged into a body of believers who preach the Scriptures and who provide an opportunity to fellowship with other believers.
Bob: Find out if Cru’s on the campus, join up with them—
Shelby: Yes, find out if Cru’s there. There are tons of other campus ministries that could be there. There are tons of churches who run campus ministries in the area as well, and I think it’s one of those important things that you do, because then you have an opportunity to not only grow in your relationship with God, you grow socially, you grow in opportunities to learn how to share your faith—I know Cru does that a lot.
We teach people how to share their faith and be a part of the solution when it comes to helping fulfill the Great Commission. I loved my experience being involved—I was involved with Cru initially and the Navigators, when I was a freshman, and then eventually I chose the ministry of Cru, and that’s who I came on staff with.
I became a believer January of my freshman year, so I was involved with the student ministry before I was even a Christian. I finally recognized, “I don’t know if I’ve ever made this decision to become a follower of Jesus before.” So I did that—and when I did that my whole world changed.
Ann: That’s exactly my story, too. I got really involved with Cru. I was amazed—this person came to my dorm room and discipled me, which I thought, “This is amazing!” Went to a fall retreat and got to know so many people, and that became my social circle. It really is life-changing, because I started to see my college experience as more than just learning—which is important—but also reaching people with the gospel of Jesus. That really changed everything. We ended up coming on staff with Cru as well.
Shelby: When you’re a student, you start to ask larger questions. When you get out of high school and you start thinking and doing things on your own, when you can eat your meals whenever you want to, when you can put on whatever clothes you want to and shower whenever you want to—it can lead to bad places—but in general, you start to make your own decisions.
So, when you go to a campus ministry, you’re not going because your mom and dad want you to go. You’re going because you actually want to be there, and then you inevitably start asking deeper questions about your life, like, “What does God want from me? What am I supposed to do? What is God’s will for my life?” You start asking questions like that—I’ve heard that a number of times.
“What does God want me to do? Where does God want me to go? Who does God want me to date? Where am I supposed to go in my future? What kind of job am I supposed to have?” The book addresses a few of those things—to help you ask the appropriate questions—and then follow after what the Lord calls all of us as followers of Him to do.
Bob: Yes, because that’s another source of stress or pressure. As young people start to think, “Okay, what is God’s purpose for my life? What am I supposed to do?” now they can get all locked up in, “How do I figure this out? How do I know God’s will? How do I know that this is God’s will? Am I doing the right thing?”
How do you help coach young people with those questions?
Dave: You know what—that’s in the book, isn’t it?
Shelby: It is.
Dave: Let’s hear about it!
Shelby: A lot of students—I’ve found—ask the question, “What’s God’s will for my life? What does God want me to do?” I think it’s one of those questions that is asked from a good heart, from a good perspective—but in reality it’s the wrong question. It’s not, “What is God’s will for my life?” it’s more, “How does my life fit into God’s will?” It’s not necessarily making yourself the hero of the story. There is already One hero—Jesus is His name, and the Bible constructs a narrative of that from Genesis to Revelation, that it’s all about Jesus. So, “How do I fit into what God is already doing?”
When you ask the question appropriately, your heart gets aligned to not only find out what the story is by digging into the Scriptures more—which is a value added—but it also helps you to understand that God will use me, He wants to use me, and He wants to be in relationship with me—because it’s all about Him. It’s not necessarily about me.
So we make sure that people ask the question appropriately, and I want to make sure that people are asking good questions as they’re going. But then, in the daily life of, “How do I handle the void in life?” Sometimes there are things where it’s like, “I just feel empty and—even though I am a Christian—I want to run to places that I used to run to when things start to get difficult.”
Ann: This isn’t just for college students.
Shelby: No, no, no—not at all!
Ann: This is any age.
Shelby: Yes, and I’ve written this primarily to college students because it’s such a unique point in someone’s life—but high school students can definitely benefit from this as well, because—
Ann: And adults!
Ann: Like the 40-year-old mom.
Shelby: Yes. Perhaps. If you’re 40 years old—like me—and you want to read it, more power to you—but yes, handling the void is one of those things that we look back to who we used to be when we were young and silly and went to instant gratification lifestyle. People who are in the quarter-life crisis or the midlife crisis—and even college—they look to those things, and they regress back to what used to make them feel good instead of moving forward into deeper levels of maturity—especially maturity with the Lord.
Instead of running to your old habits and your favorite coping mechanisms of the past, moving deeper into your relationship with God—which is hard work—it’s difficult to do that. It’s difficult to offer yourself to Jesus and say, “You can do with me whatever You want to do.” That is vulnerable and it’s terrifying—but it’s the best place in the world to be—because it’s in the very center of God’s palm.
Dave: I can remember a moment in my college career where I got a sense of God’s call for my life, and the long story short is I get in a football Bible study, which I didn’t even realize at the time was led by a Cru student—not a staff member, senior student, married, had a heart for athletes; leads this Bible study, starts meeting with me weekly to disciple me. The first time in my whole life—I’m a junior. Opens the Word of God, shows me what’s in the Word of God.
I’ll never forget—he says, “Hey, we have a meeting—Cru meeting—Thursday nights, such-and-such hall—you need to come.” I’m like, “Okay.” You won’t believe this—the first time I go, by myself, I walk in and I’m looking for Bill—my student leader; right? Can’t find him, sit in the back. It’s sort of weird to me—I’ve never been part of church, I just became a Christian a couple months before—I’m 20-something years old. The guy gets up after they sing and says, “Tonight is evangelism night.”
I’m like, “What’s that mean?” He goes, “Pair up with another person, go to the dorms for a couple hours, share the gospel, come back, and we’ll tell stories about it.” I’m like, “I’m out!” I just got up and I started walking out. I’m like, “I’m going back to my dorm. This is weird,” you know?
Bill comes running over and he goes, “Hey, where you going?” I go, “Dude, I’m not into this thing. I’m brand new at this.” He goes, “You go with me.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He goes, “You go with me—you don’t need to say a word, just pray. I’ll show you.” I go, “Okay—we’ll go.”
I’ll never forget this—we ended up in a dorm room talking to a guy—and I don’t say a word. I sit there, just—I’m supposed to pray, so I’m praying and Bill’s sharing the gospel with him. It’s really good. We’re ten minutes in, this guy looks over at me, and he keeps looking at me, and he goes, “Hey! You’re the quarterback of our football team! You’re Dave Wilson, right?” I go, “Nope.” [Laughter] I was like, “I do not want to be identified with this whole thing—”
Bob: “I don’t know him.” It’s like Peter’s denial.
Ann: Did you never confess that it was you?
Dave: I honestly said no. Bill thought I’m joking. “Oh, that’s funny, Dave! Yes, he’s the quarterback.” I’m like, “Okay.” He goes, “You’re with this thing?” I’m like, “Uh, yes. Sure.” I’m like, “Please, please take it back.”
Here’s what happened—Bill leads this guy to Jesus. I watch it. I remember laying in my dorm room bed that night realizing, “God has a bigger story than my little story, and maybe I’m supposed to be a part of that.” Because I knew this—what I witnessed there was eternal. I’d never been a part of anything worth anything—I’m playing football—who cares, right? This was something big! I’m like, “Maybe God wants to use my life to do what Bill did,”—and here I am.
It was that moment in college where I sensed what you’re talking about. It was a moment that says, “This is a calling that’s for every believer, and I’m going to be a part of it.”
Shelby: It helps to create a purpose in your life in a way where it’s not just about you, because if you’re thinking about you being the hero of your own story—which is a very culturally relevant thing today—making yourself just the servant in the background of what Jesus is already doing is a very biblical yet anti-cultural thing today—but it’s truly the only way to live, because that’s where we find true life—is in serving Jesus and allowing Him to work through us in ways that we see people—like what you’re saying—come to know Him, just in front of our eyes.
Bob: College students aren’t the only ones dealing with, “What’s my purpose? What am I here for? Am I doing what God wants me to? What’s His will for my life?” but certainly there’s a concentrated group of folks on college campuses who are wrestling with this—some of them for the first time. To have your guidance and what you’ve offered in the book Pressure Points, this is something invaluable for those students.
In fact, I would think, for college students to go through this book together in a small group—take, what? Six weeks? Eight weeks?
Shelby: There are three different sections—and you can kind of speed through some more quickly than others—but there are discussion questions at the end of every chapter or kind of reflection questions; you can do it by yourself, you could do it in a small group, you could do as a study going through—even with co-ed kind of groups. It really is one of those things that we tried to design—my publisher and I tried to design it—for kind of a jack of all trades to help people not only admit that there’s stuff going on in their lives, but we can deal with things in a biblical, gospel-centered way.
Bob: Yes. If somebody’s involved in campus ministry and they want a great study to take young people through, or if you have a son or a daughter on the college campus, get a copy of the book Pressure Points. We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order it from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com—look for the book Pressure Points, by Shelby Abbott. Or you can call to order—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.”
You know, as I think about our sons and daughters heading off to college, really this is part of the release phase of parenting. When we were putting together the Art of Parenting video series, which we released last year along with the movie “Like Arrows” that was in theaters, our focus was on helping moms and dads prepare for that release point, which can be hard for us as parents. We’ve been very encouraged over the past 12 months by the response to the Art of Parenting video series, not just here in the United States, but worldwide.
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Now, we hope you can join us back again tomorrow, when Shelby Abbott will be here again. We’re going to talk about the stress that comes from living in an instant gratification culture, and how we can help young people navigate that. Hope you can join us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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