I’m a seminary student now. If there was any doubt about this before, the stack of 17 books I checked out of the library yesterday shattered it. Now my life primarily consists of sitting in three hour long classes, memorizing dates and Greek paradigms, and reading lots and lots of books. There’s some sleeping and eating in there somewhere, and my work at Greyfrairs, too. But seminary defines my days. And for the most part, I’m thoroughly enjoying the process. The information is interesting, the books stimulating, and the ideas engaging. But a rain cloud hangs over my studies and I only hope it doesn’t take me three years to realize that I’m wet and it’s been raining all this time. The rain cloud? Spiritual dryness. It’s an egregiously inconsistent metaphor, but the point is an important one: for many, spiritual dryness in seminary makes as much sense as a rain cloud pouring dryness on the world. How could you become spiritually dry when you are immersed in a spiritual community dedicated to training you in reading the Scriptures, knowing God, and loving people? Sadly, this paradox catches many a poor seminary student–and loving onlooker–unaware.
With all my studying and note-taking and memorizing I’m constantly assaulted by the temptation to treat these courses as simple mental exercises or challenges to excel above my peers. I’m tempted to treat these things with indifference or as a tool for gaining a degree. And it scares me. When sacred theology and sacred Scripture become tools to simply earn a grade or massage the mind, the sacred becomes profane, stripped of its glory for the sake of something that will not last. I suppose this is a danger with all types of study: for all types of learning can be sacred if taken as they were intended, a means to make us more like Christ and give us a deeper sense of worship and awe of the Creator; so when we use them as mere utilitarian tools, it loses its sacredness as well. But Scripture is a special means of Grace, far and above all means of knowing and worshiping. Scripture is God’s letter to us, and when we use it for our selfish agendas, we have thrown the letter into the fire: it burns in use for a moment, but the beauty and power of its purpose are lost. And if I follow this trajectory of using these Sacred studies as a means to a temporary end, then the fire will spread and all form of the life-giving water of the Word will be dried up in its path.
A sobering thought, is it not? Sadly, many live this reality every year as seminary becomes a cemetery of enlivened minds and dead hearts. We students are tempted to become so absorbed in our studies, that we forget that the beauties of God we encounter in our books should motivate us to show that beauty to the world. We forget that the love of God we read about in our textbooks should flow out into loving relationships with those around us. And most importantly, we lose sight of the fact that the marvelous character of God we discuss every day must stir our hearts to worship and awe and wonder. The Person of God and the hurt of the world can become mere concepts while our hearts remain unmoved.
And the temptation can seep into the lives of all Christians, no matter if they’re seminary students, stay-at-home moms, or bread-winners. The maxim holds true that familiarity breeds contempt. And as the Scriptures, the community of God, the preaching of the Word, and the sacraments of the faith become normal to us, they can lose their life and their power. But there’s hope. These blessed things don’t have to create a desert in our souls–but only with effort.
If seminary and religious study can create a desert, then the only hope is try to allow these beautiful truths to fall afresh upon our souls. And for me, I’ve determined to make this happen in a few different ways.
First, I try to think before I study. It sounds funny, since thinking is the point of studying in the first place. But it can become so easy to thoughtlessly pick up homework and read in order to fulfill my assignment than to actually dwell on the thought that these studies have life-giving truth within them. I must be thoughtful as I approach my reading and my classes, acknowledging that these can be tools for my growth or instruments of stagnation.
Second, I pray. God is the One who gives life. He is the Living Water. And unless I consistently remained connected to Him through prayer, it matters little what I read or consider. Christ calls us to “Abide in Him,” and I can’t do this unless I’m constantly and consistently engaged in prayer. I try to pray before I enter class and before I read, asking God to use these things to draw me into a deeper relationship with Him, creating in me a deeper awe and wonder at His goodness and grace. Chesterton said it well: “This world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.” It’s a sad fact that we can become callous to the wonderful truths of Scripture. And, as a result, callous to all things wonderful in the world which would by nature direct our eyes to God. So I pray for renewed wonder as I approach my studies and this world, always hoping that I will not grow callous or cold to the infinite beauty and goodness of our God.
Third, I seek to love. An understanding of God’s grace cannot help but pour out into our relationships with others. Karl Barth said “Grace means bearing witness to the faithfulness of God which a man has encountered in Christ [. . .] it carries with it mission, besides which no other mission is possible [. . .] for the name of [God] must be honored, and for this mission grace provides full authority, since men are shattered by it.” Grace shatters us, amazes us, and brings with it a mission to show that grace to the world; for God’s grace is the most valuable of prizes and the most generous of gifts. Merely reading about God’s grace and forgiveness will never help us fully embrace it or understand it unless we fulfill the mission to show this love and grace to others, seeking to live out this grace practically in our lives. It is by this practice of love, and our failure to fully and consistently give it, that we experience God’s grace anew and see first hand a grace that transcends our efforts and intentions. We see God’s love shown through us even in our failure and experience His grace more fully as we step out in faith onto the sea of unpredictable and difficult relationships.
I pray that as we seek to know God in books and sermons and Bible studies, we may always be thinking, praying, and loving so as to keep these Sacred truths always before us, seeing them with fresh wonder and responding to them with renewed joy. And maybe in the process we’ll discover that we’ve been soaked to the bone by the showers of God’s grace all along.