The following post is a ‘virtual chapter’ addition to David Mathis’ and Jonathan Parnell’s book How to Stay Christian in Seminary (affiliate link). Mathis and Parnell taught my seminary J-Term class this past month. From our own perspective, and drawing from the class, one of our assignments was to write what we would add as an additional chapter to their book. It was an enjoyable exercise and below you will find my contribution.When I first heard Pastor Tom Steller, Academic Dean for Bethlehem College and Seminary, use the phrase, “Do your best, all things considered,” I laughed it off. In my mind, this was a thickly sarcastic way of saying, “Don’t you dare disgrace this fine institution with shoddy work; we expect excellence in everything, and nothing short of perfection will suffice.” Obviously this was a manufacturing of my own, but I must confess, some of my perception was clouded by the fog of excellence I saw whenever I looked at the progeny that was sent out each year at seminary graduation. As an employee of Bethlehem Baptist Church, many of the apprentices became co-workers and friends, and I was in awe at how well prepared these men were for the ministry. Getting accepted into the program put a fear in my heart that I didn’t know how to handle. Even less known was how God would expand my understanding of grace during the first semester.
Time never seems to be sufficient. I remember reading a blog post from Desiring God that Jon Bloom wrote about time, and one quote in it stands out in my memory. Bloom wrote that when I say that I don’t have enough time, “I’m actually blaming God. I’m essentially saying that God is either insufficient or he’s stingy.” The truth, however, is the exact opposite in both cases. God is the epitome of sufficiency in all things and the most generous being there ever has been or ever will be.
There are many wonderful ways to spend time, and as a husband and father, there are few joys in life that outshine quality time with my wife and children. For me, jumping into seminary meant leaving a full time salaried position and working part time, the loss of a benefits package, moving my children from homeschool to the public school system, and my wife, who has been a stay at home mom since my 13 year old was born, has to reenter the workforce. Not one aspect of life has been spared from change. In addition, the pressure and desire of doing well in class, and the constant comparison of myself to the others in my classes weighs heavy on me every day as I try to make wise decisions about how to spend the precious limited time I have.
There are a certain number of hours I have to work each week to try and make ends meet financially. There are also a set number of hours that I need to be in class each week. What remains gets divvied up into categories of homework, study, being an active parent, and loving husband, taking care of housework, and living out my ministry. As has already been discussed in Chapter 6, I only get this one shot in life at being a good husband and father, so of all the things on that list, in obedience to God’s call on my life, I have to make sure that I do the best I can in those two particular categories. Taking care of the physical home I live in also isn’t very forgiving so when the proverbial ox is in the proverbial ditch, (the hot water heater fails, the furnace gives out, etc) those things have to be taken care of right away. Somewhere in the balance of all of that, my reading and homework for class needs to happen, without relaxing the spiritual disciplines aspect of healthy Christian living.
There is a sense in my heart that rises up and says I can’t let any of these things fail and on top of that I have to prove myself the other people in my class. I have to be a success (even if only in perception), and try to do all these things perfectly, but the truth is that God knows our human limitations (Ps 103:14). What comfort is there in that knowledge? The fact that it is followed by an incomparable compassion (Ps 103:13) through grace. Paul was sharing this with the church in Corinth in 2 Cor 12:9. Doing things to the best of our ability in our own power is always insufficient no matter how impressive our Greek parsing or conjugation is, how well we remember the minutia of facts surrounding church history, or our ability to write from memory the chronology of the kings of the divided kingdoms of Israel.
A couple of notes about this: First, we are never solo in this fight. God is sovereign over all things, and in every circumstance. It is only with this knowledge that Paul can say to the Thessalonians to give thanks in every circumstance (1 Thess 5:16). God isn’t surprised at the weaknesses we have or the situations that we come up against.
My son Joel goes in for surgery Monday, which also happens to be the first day of classes for the next semester. The best place for me to be on that day will be at the side of my wife and my son, petitioning the Lord for favor and grace in the midst of this trial, and through it all I will be holding hard onto the truth of John 16:33, where Jesus says in his own words, the sweetest encouragement for a man in tribulation, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). I’ll probably miss a few things even if I had a recording and the notes from the classes I was absent for, but I have to hold on to the grace that is enough for today. God has ordained my steps, whether they are into an operating room, a classroom, church, or small group.
Second, he has given us his Holy Spirit, and he promises to be our strength when we are weak, but he has also made us part of a fellowship of believers. For this seminary season, that fellowship is my cohort of brothers that are traversing the same terrain as I am every single day. We are working and wrestling through the same scriptures, textbooks, and lectures each day for all four years. Because of this, and the multiplicity of gifts that God gives the body (1 Cor 12), we are to lean on one another, recognizing that we were made to be in community through the Christian life. I need my brother’s eye and hand to complement my foot and ear.
I am not in competition with these men, we are fighting the fight of faith shoulder to shoulder. We should be encouraging one another and building each other up (1Thess 5:11). We need to lean on each others strengths because those strengths are gifts from God good for the building of the kingdom (Rom 12:6-8), of which we are members.
When I take all things into consideration, my unique gifts, the trials of life, the circumstances that God brings my way, my strengths and weaknesses, the time limitations that life puts on me, and the surprises that come my way, doing my best is a fluid concept, but consistently doing it in the strength that God provides never results in failure, and always brings him glory.