Monday, November 5, 2012
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Ten Suggestions for New Seminary Students Or What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Seminary
1. Read your Bible. This one may seem obvious. You would think that when pursuing graduate studies in theology that the holy, inerrant, inspired Word of God would continually be the object in view. Unfortunately, this is often not the case (this applies to both orthodox and liberal seminarys). Many courses in seminary marginalize Bible reading. That is why you will have to be ever viligant to guard your own private time of reading and meditating on Scripture. Satan wants nothing more than to keep you from reading the Word. I wish I could say I knew my English Bible half as well as I know some theology books. Do not let the books keep you from the Book.
2. Take the hard classes. Remember that the goal of seminary is for you to learn about God and his Word. Don't succumb to the competition for the grade. If someone is saying not to take a certain professor since he is difficult, that is the very class that you need to take. Don't take the easier class so you can make an, "A." Humble yourself, take the hard earned "B", and seek to learn not so you can master the material but for future growth. In the end, you will be better prepared and your soul will profit more.
3. Do the recommended reading. A lot of students don't even do the required reading (or they skim it) let alone any sort of recommended reading. Don't let this be true of you. Read these books not so you can impress others but so you can expand your learning beyond the mandatory. Additionally, there are topics that your professor will not be able to cover in class. The recommended reading is there for you to go further and deeper into whatever subject you are studying.
4. Pray continually. As with #1, one of the first things to get snuffed out when you come to seminary is your prayer life. The ironic thing is that seminary is the time when you need to pray more not less. The stress of finances, marriage and family (for some), classwork, and the continual exposure of your own soul to the law of God demands a much more vibrant prayer life than ever before. Don't prioritize schoolwork or studying over prayer. Souls shrivel when the mind is filled and the heart is starved.
5. Befriend the lost. One of the best things that happened to me recently was getting to work a job where I interacted with many lost people. I was even able to form a close friendship with an unbeliever. Seminary can become a bubble of believers that isolates you from non-Christians. In fact, unless you take the initiative to seek relationships with the lost outside of school, seminary will be a separatist community. Furthermore, when we are engaged in studying theology and discussing esoteric, fine points of doctrine, we can often forget the lost. What is our theology if we don't put it to use. As Ligon Duncan has said, "Doctrine is for life."
6. Don't let your theology fool you into thinking you can domesticate God. Although you will be and should be increasing in the knowledge of God throughout your studies, it is imperative that you grasp the fact that you will never comprehend God. One of the dangers of seminary is that you are dealing with the Bible and the study of God on such a regular basis that those things become familiar. And familiarity can often create a sort of casualness. Be careful that you do not begin treating holy things as common. When you gather with your seminary friends to drink a pint, smoke a pipe, and discuss the nature of God, remember who you are speaking about! Do not become flippant about the God who made you and to whom you owe everything. You cannot fit the God of the universe into your little box of theology and take him out to examine him whenever you will. You cannot put the Lord on a leash and bring him to you friend's house like as pet as it were. God cannot be domesticated.
7. Be open to criticism. As the apostle Paul says, knowledge puffs up. As you are acquiring more and more knowledge, the temptation will be to think that you are more godly than those who are not in seminary (or peers who do not know as much as you.) This may make you resistant to correction. Tell yourself that with every rebuke, no matter how ridiculous it seems, there is some truth in it. However, it is has been in my experience that most rebukes are entirely true. Acknowledge that the person is correct and ask for forgiveness. Do not ignore the correction if it is coming from someone ordinary (read: someone who is not in seminary). There are thousands of widows who pray day and night who are more godly than you but do not know an ounce of your theology. Simple faith is not weak faith.
8. Read non-theological books. Read books in the mainstream. It is not unheard of for a seminary student to become a theological robot. You want to broaden your understanding of God's world outside the "queen of the sciences." Read well and read widely (but if you have to choose, read well before you read widely). Sounds daunting? Return to #4. Scour books on biology, literature, art, music, history or whatever. Cultivate another interest and it will begin to bud and soon blossom in you. Don't denigrate non-theological books by thinking of them as non-spiritual. After all, it is all God's domain anyways. Or said much better by John Calvin, "All truth is God's truth."
9. Prefer primary literature over secondary. This is somewhat related to #1 in the sense that in all theological study the Bible is the primary text and all others are secondary. However, this principle applies to other areas as well. If a professor has told you that the New Perspectives on Paul is wrong, don't accept it without analysis or critical inquiry. If you want to know what New Perspectives say then read N.T. Wright or E.P. Sanders but don't read books on N.T. Wright or E.P. sanders. If you want to know what Calvin said, read Calvin. That's not to devalue secondary literature altogether. But give priority to the primary.
10. Learn from other traditions. Many Reformed people are unwilling to learn from traditions different than their own. I consider this a massive oversight. Much of my wisdom I have gleaned from conservative Episcopalians and Lutherans. You may meet a Pentecostal and think he has a lot to learn from me. That may be so but equally so is the fact that you have a lot to learn from him. Don't be so naive as to think that one denomination has everything right or has all of their emphases in the right places.
11. Your family is first. Okay. So I know I said I was only going to do ten. I couldn't help myself. Your primary ministry is to your family and not to your studies. You must be the pastor of your home before you become the pastor of any church. You are no theologian if you cannot rule your own house well. What have you gained if you ace every class in seminary but finish without a family or with a family that is crumbling? Don't ever assume that such could not happen to you.
Well, there you have it. Ten, err, eleven suggestions for the starting seminary student. I hope it serves someone well.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
1.Depression is the schoolhouse of God.
You may think that your mental anguish is futile and pointless. God says otherwise. "For this light, momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." (2 Corinthians 4:17) Although depression often brings a fog and a loss concentration, God's light of learning penetrates through the mist. Thus, what is God teaching you through your depression? For believers in Christ, depression ought not be wasted. In the school of knowing God, depression is a classroom. You may say that depression has nothing to do with God, but depression is fundamentally about God. Consider the psalmist pleading with his soul: "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God." (Psalm 42:11) Depression is not only about weaning us off the pleasures of this world but it does serve that purpose. Depression reorients us to our purpose even while we feel purposeless. Are you hopeless? Are you cast down? Instruct your soul to God as the source of hope and happiness.
2. Depression is antigospel.
Depression speaks loudly and clearly about who we are. "You are a failure." "You are worthless." "You have no hope." All of these assertions are fundamentally antigospel. Let me preface before continuing. I am not saying that our struggle with depression is merely a failure to believe the gospel. What I am saying is that depression attacks our belief in the gospel. Consider all those statements in light of what the gospel says about you Christian. Depression says "You are a failure." The gospel says, "You are a success. You have accomplished the law in every respect because of the righteousness of Christ." Depression says "You are worthless" and the gospel says "You have ultimate worth because you are a child of God." Depression says "You have no hope." The gospel says, "My hope is in Christ and the promise of our glorification with him."
3. Depression feels deterministic.
"You will always be in despair." "There is nothing you can do to improve your situation." These are the cries of depression to the tired soul. Depression convinces us that there is an absence of choices and that our lives are fatalistically designed for misery. The reality is that depression does not dictate the trajectory of your life but a sovereign God who loves and cares for you. When depression brings to you its certainties, undermine them with the gospel truth that in Christ you are set free (Galatians 5:1).
4. Depression is shortsighted.
Depression only sees the present agony and never the future glory. In many ways, depression is entirely a twisted perspective on the world. The difficulty is that it contains a half-truth. Outside of Christ and our redemption from the curse, all our work is vain and this existence is useless. The world has been subjected to futility for a time (Romans 8:20), but it has not been subjected by some impersonal force but by an omnipotent God who, as the verse goes on to say, subjected it "in hope." In hope for what? "That the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God." (Romans 8:21)
5. Depression can be overcome.
Although I have not attained this position yet, I plead with the Lord for deliverance and strive to serve him in my pain. Depression may seem like an unassailable giant in your life, but Christ has already defeated the ultimate giant on the cross. Depression too will one day be removed (cf. Revelation 21:4). In the meantime, we must persevere despite whether or not we receive relief in this life or only in the world to come. Until then, onward Christian soldier.
Monday, March 5, 2012
"For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."(Romans 8:29-30 ESV)
What does your life look like right now? If most of us were to map out the route our lives are taking it would likely be full of valleys and peaks, twists and turns. Perhaps you are in the valley right now and you feel stuck. Perhaps you are going around a twist or turn and you do not know what is around the other side. Yet while our lives seem unsteady and topsy turvy, God's plan is not.
Near the end of this great chapter of Romans (a chapter the Puritans referred to as the "great eight"), Paul provides us with a chain of redemption that begins with God in eternity past and ends with believers coram deo, before the face of God and bearing his image. For Paul, the salvific chain is an unbroken one so much so that he can speak of the final stage of our salvation in the past tense ("he also glorified"). Though our lives may resemble a zig zagging line, God's plan for us is a straight line from election to glorification.
This truth has been a helpful one for me as I have wrestled with despair in the recent months. No matter what my life may look like and no matter how screwed up it may be, God's plan is unfailing. The same is true for you if you believe in Christ. Are you depressed? God means it for your glorification? Are you mourning? God means it for you to be conformed to the image of his Son. Are you without? God means it so that you will long for the fullness of being perfected in his sight.
But you may say, "I have denied him." And I will say look at all the disciples on the night of Jesus' arrest. Your denial of him cannot be worse than theirs and yet their faith was preserved. Even Peter who explicitly and verbally denies Jesus cannot be said to have been lost for Jesus said to the disciple upon whom he built the church, "But I prayed for you that your faith may not fail." We know that no prayer of Jesus' can ever be denied. Thus, even when Peter was denying Christ his faith was not failing, however faltering and weak it was.
Therefore, though we may lose our grip on God at times, he never loses his grip on us. Jesus says in John 10:27-28,"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." For what purpose does the Son guard us in his hand? Peter tells us plainly in his first epistle, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV) The reason we "by God's power are being guarded through faith" is "for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time." This salvation ready to be revealed in the last time is none other than glorification. What is glorification? Well, we receive a clue earlier in the passage that it is related to "the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Simply put, glorification is our firm hope when every believer will be made perfect in holiness at the final resurrection. In other words, our lowly bodies will be transformed to resemble the man of heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. It has been secured to us by the death of Christ and it is as certain a reality for the believer as is death itself.
Doug Wilson mentions that we might think it odd that God would raise the dead. However, he rightly and poignantly points out that everything is odd. Existence itself is odd. If we were to somehow communicate to an unborn human what the created order is like, it would sound incomprehensible. Thus, why is it so strange that God raises the dead?
Such a truth as glorification is the bullseye for which we are aimed at. We each have different trajectories to hitting that bullseye but the one pulling the string has perfect accuracy. This truth is not a quick fix it for your suffering but it is the global perspective that we need to recognize that we are being fitted for eternity.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I used to think weakness was a position that could be attained through simple intellectual affirmation. I didn't realize that it was something that came through experience. Thus God, in his grace, brings trials into our lives to bring us to that state of weakness. In short, I am helpless to bring about the recognition of my own helplessness. That is a work that God by his Spirit must do.
Further, helplessness itself is the necessary condition to displaying the power of God in your life. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12, after describing his "thorn in the flesh" makes this bold statement in verse 10: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." Paul's assertion is that he is content in crises! How could Paul make such an outlandish statement? Because Paul knew that, for the sake of Christ, his weakness was paradoxically when he was the strongest. When Paul was most empty and when we are most empty, Christ is most ready to fill us with his Spirit and strengthen us by his power.
Are you content with your crisis? Again, it may take a variety of forms. It may be a difficult work situation where your name has been slandered. It may be a wayward teenager. It may be social rejection. Whatever the case, Christ has called you into the crisis and you can have contentment in the crisis knowing that when you are weak, then you are strong.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
1. Begin by being honest. Confess to the Lord you feel like a hollow vessel. You're not a hollow vessel (you're filled by the Spirit) but that is not what your emotions tell you. List the circumstances why you are drained. Tell the Lord that your tendency is to look for refreshment in all kinds of places other than him. Concede that every other source of strength has failed you.
2. Pray simply. Ask simple requests. It's probably not a good idea to try to articulate all the theological truth you know but to just say what is on your mind and heart. The Lord cares about the simple things.
3. Affirm Scripture. Recite the promises of God as you pray. By doing this, you are not just acknowledging vague truths about God but specific aspects of his character that are comforting. Open your Bible and pray one of the Psalms if necessary.
4. Concentrate on the person you're talking to, not how the activity feels. Always recognize that prayer is dialogue. You are speaking to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and not engaging in some mere ritual. By talking to the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are caught up in the dance of the Trinity. And it is a life-giving dance.
5. Don't give in to despair. Although it may feel meaningless, prayer is the most meaningful activity we can do. Don't look for instant results according to your desires, but trust that the Lord is active and powerful. Open your eyes and by faith see how he answers.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
As my wife and I have grappled with the trials of taking care of Karis and raising Kales, the temptation to despair has all too often confronted me. While I go through my personal struggles of introspection and melancholy, I have been reflecting on how the church's attitude towards Christians and depression. In fact, a book was recently released entitled Christians Get Depressed Too by David Murray (which I have not yet read) that addresses this very issue. In short, my perception is that the church's position is that Christians are always to be cheery, positive, and upbeat. The sad truth is that this expectation does not coincide with the reality that many Christians do in fact get depressed.
As a result of the church's position that Christians do not experience depression, there is a general ignorance among Christians about how to minister to believers who are going through it. Often, depression is mistaken for sadness (which has a singular definite cause or root) and so a person may be told to read the Bible or pray more. While the means of grace are certainly important, true depression is like a fog that looms over us in an elusive manner. Perhaps the worst part of not knowing depression's origin is not knowing its ending either. The fact that depression does not have an immediate cure means that sometimes our own misery is magnified by reflecting on our own despair. As C.S. Lewis said, "Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: the fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."
In light of the reality of depression and its presence among believers, every Christian falls into one of two categories: sufferer or non-sufferer. If you are a non-sufferer and do not understand the nature of this malady, be sure to study up before counseling someone. It is better to be informed than to misspeak. To those who are sufferers, I would like to give you five brief aids (these are certainly not cures) to dealing with depression.
1. Find Friends.
Don't go it alone! One of the most vicious cycles of depression is that when you are depressed you want to isolate yourself and when you isolate yourself your depression worsens. Find friends who you can trust, who you can be honest and forthright with. Forget about the stigma. Seek community.
2. Fake it until you make it.
With depression, we lose interest in doing things, all things in some cases. As much as you can, take small steps towards taking action on things you are unmotivated to do. Read that chapter of Scripture you've been putting off. Clean the dishes. Deliver an errand.
3. Invest in a hobby.
This may seem trite but our Lord is the Lord of leisure as well. Sometimes a new interest (such as taking up basketball, puzzles, writing) may help provide the variety that disrupts the sameness of depression and draws you outside of yourself. God's world teems with various activities and adventures that await us.
4. Memorize simple promises of God's Word.
I emphasize "simple" here because when depressed it is often hard to concentrate. However, you can take one or two verses and say them over and over to yourself. Meditation is key. Quality over quantity.
5. Pray for deliverance.
This is not to be overlooked. The Lord's deliverance is key in the battle against this mental anguish. Cry out to him. Bring to him your despair and your heartache. He is near to those who are afflicted.