As I mentioned last time, I’d change a lot about the way I handled seminary. But ultimately, my mistakes boiled down to just a few key issues. Things that seem so obvious that we can actually overlook them in the heat of the battle.
Some of you may already be in the midst of your training and now sense the need for a course correction. Or, maybe you haven’t started yet, but have an awareness of the potential pitfalls and would like to avoid them. Perhaps you aren’t in seminary, but know someone who is and would like to encourage them in their journey.
What are those all-too-obvious issues we – or someone we love – might miss?
The Presence of Idolatry
Here are two likely suspects for students in theological training.
We know that school is supposed to help us know Christ more deeply. But very quickly we can lose sight of this central purpose and start to find our meaning and value in school itself.
We know it’s a lie; we know that Satan ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). We can even start to think that getting better grades proves we’re smart, better equipped and more valuable to the kingdom.
Oddly enough, seminary can be a season where others increase and Jesus decreases. I can honestly remember idolizing one of my professors. I mean, this guy could write books, teach classes, conduct research, mentor students and serve in leadership at his church with little to no effort. Another guy in my class graduated a year ahead of me with a nearly-perfect GPA and did every page of reading while working as a consultant and raising a family.
You may feel like some of your professors, leaders at church, or classmates are nearly superhuman. After all, they’re smarter, more disciplined or ambitious than you are. We can start to seriously question our gifting and God’s ability to use normal people like the person who stares back at you in the mirror.
And of course, our idols of school and others often team up and play off of each other. We might, for example, devote all our effort to school in order to please a professor we really admire.
The Pull Of Idolatry
Ezekiel 14:1-5 reminds us that idolatry is a very real possibility even (especially) for ministry leaders like us. And gives us a short, vivid primer of its lethal danger and effects.
Which is good news: if we can grow in awareness here, we’ll enjoy God more and be ready for life-changing ministry. That’s why we’re going to seminary in the first place, right? So, what are some things that will help us remember the pull of idolatry?
1. First, remember that church and ministry leaders are not exempt.
Ezekiel starts off by saying Israel’s elders have ‘taken their idols into their hearts’ (14:1, 3). Perhaps their exile among the nations presented a special temptation to mix-and-match their faith with that of their neighbors. Most Christian leaders today live in a similar setting, so this is an always-timely reminder that, as we prepare to help others, we must keep in view.
Beware of blurry vision. Ezekiel says that the idolatry of Israel’s elders has made their spiritual vision hazy. They have ‘set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces’ (14:3).
In one of our seminary classes, I’ll never forget Paul Tripp illustrating this passage and principle in a powerful way. He began by asking us to hold our hand in front of our faces as we looked all around.
‘What do you see?’, he asked.
Wherever we turned, our vision was compromised because our hands were in the way.
Dr. Tripp continued, ‘That’s exactly what Ezekiel is saying here. When we worship idols, it distorts everything in our lives.’
I remember getting anxious when my neighbors would try to talk with me on my way home from class. I worried that engaging them would take me away from valuable study time. (Yes, you are definitely detecting an idol-pattern in my life!) My idolatry of school clouded my ability to see them as one of God’s many blessings in my life.
2. Avoid any distance from God.
The worst part of our idolatry is that it creates distance between us and God. Not eternally if we belong to Christ, of course (Romans 8:28), but it deeply affects the quality of our relationship.
It’s a lot like a marriage where the love has grown cold. The husband and wife are still married, but their enjoyment of the marriage erodes because of how they treat each other.
In the case of the elders in Ezekiel’s time, due to their idolatry, God said he wouldn’t respond when they sought him out (Ezekiel 14:3). They were ‘estranged from [him] through their idols’ (verse 5).
For students in seminary, it’s typically much more subtle but equally dangerous. Important spiritual foundations are being laid, and we want to relate to God more and more intimately so that we’re positioned well for life-giving, gospel ministry. We never, ever want to be in the position of offering others a drink from a fountain we have abandoned.
So let’s step back for a moment. Seminary can be a wonderful, deeply fruitful time where we grow closer to the Lord and get ready to serve his people. But it can also quietly lead us away from him as the idols of grades and others gain ground. If that happens, we lose our ability to see clearly and the quality of our connection with Christ weakens.
Let’s get practical as we close. Here are four steps we can take to make sure the Lord stays front and center during our time in seminary.
1. Repent of known idolatry.
We won’t always recognize our idolatry, but when we do, we should repent of it. This is exactly what God urged the elders of Ezekiel’s day to do. ‘Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations’ (Ezekiel 14:6). There is enormous power in the simple, ongoing act of confession: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9).
2. Pursue real gospel community.
We know–in theory–that we need real relationships to keep us grounded during school. But in the grind of papers, exams and ministry responsibilities, community is one of the first things to go. Let me encourage you: Make a commitment to nourish friendships where you’re honest and rehearse the amazing news of the gospel on a regular basis. If you’re not in seminary yourself, but have friends who are, you can make a massive difference in their lives simply by spending time together and keeping the gospel front and center.
3. Develop idol-specific strategies.
On one level, faith and repentance are generic. We confess our sins and turn to God in trust again. On another level, though, different struggles require different battle plans. For example, after getting married my last year in seminary, I committed to treating my work like a regular job. I’d start around 9 and end at 5, which created time for important relationships and rest while weakening sin’s choke hold on my life.
Where do you need an idol-specific strategy? Consider writing it down and telling a trusted friend who can check in with you.
4. Don’t enthrone others.
While we should celebrate the gifts God has given others, it’s critical to remember that ‘there is no one who does not sin’ (2 Chronicles 6:36) and that ‘there is no one like the Lord our God’ (Exodus 8:10). My classmate who had near-perfect grades and held down a high-powered consulting job eventually became so stressed out that he couldn’t find the entrance to a major highway he took every day! It turns out that he was human, too. Go figure.
Instead of worshiping the people you admire, consider getting close enough to them where you can see the bigger picture and find out how you might serve them.
Above All, Rest In God’s Sovereignty And Grace
Looking back, a lot of my struggles came from thinking about how much my success in life and ministry was up to me. Without realizing it, I became big while God became small, leaving me anxious and controlling.
But we serve a God who fills heaven and earth (Jeremiah 23:24). He has ‘called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). He has called us to serve him, and led us to theological training in preparation for a glorious call. Getting us through seminary with the grades, relationships and experiences we need is nothing for him. You can’t really mess up His plan!
Our hope, though, is not merely in God’s sovereignty. It’s his grace that ‘teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives’ (Titus 2:11-12). When we understand that Jesus ‘gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own’ we renounce our idols, and become ‘eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14). Growing delight in Jesus exposes the impotence of our favorite idols and breaks their power.
So yes, do your work with passion and vigor for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), but rest in God’s grace and sovereignty. With his help, your time of training can be one of the best seasons of your life, and serve as a rock-solid foundation for your ministry.
For further reflection: What idol(s) are you most susceptible to as you pursue (or consider pursuing) seminary? Which of the suggestions above would be most helpful to you in keeping your focus on Christ?