If there’s any experience that can pull up to the surface the pride hiding down in our hearts, it’s seminary. The very privilege of it can go to our heads. Think about it. What percentage of Christians over the past 2000 years have studied the Bible at the level of the original languages? I have no idea. But my hunch is, one percent is too high. Studying Greek and Hebrew and biblical exegesis – with all the other majestic disciplines of a seminary education – should humble us into the dust. What a privilege! But if our hearts are not humbled, we will graduate from seminary in worse condition than when we began.
When I began seminary, my dad said to me, “Go through seminary on your knees.” I did. But I still discovered stirrings of my pride I hadn’t seen before.
I was studying under world-class scholars – Bruce Waltke in Old Testament, and others. I worshiped the ground these godly men walked on. Without realizing it, a new feeling began slipping into my heart. It was this: “Hmmm. If I become as smart as these men, whom I so admire, people will admire me the same way. Then I will matter. Then I will feel good about myself.” Not that it was a conscious thought. It was a subtle inward shift from Christ to Self. It was justification not by trusting in Him but by leveraging my knowledge into human approval. I starting seeing the world as my audience, and I was on stage to be noticed. But the thing is, it was all in my head. Everyone was displaying something of their own, hoping I would notice them too. Everyone on the face of the earth is playing this game of self-exaltation. It’s all wrong. And seminary doesn’t prevent it. Seminary can arouse it, if our hearts drift from the all-sufficiency of Jesus.
The Bible bluntly says to every seminary student, “Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Seminary students should be the most grateful people on the face of the earth, because what they are receiving is the precious Word of God. It is not their own, and it is not for self-display. It belongs to God, and it is for Christ-display and for serving others.
I recommend that every seminary student read – and the sooner the better – Horatius Bonar’s classic Words to Winners of Souls, especially chapter four, “Ministerial Confession,” taking us back to 1651 and the repentance of the ministers of Scotland. My dad gave me this little book the week before I left for seminary. Reading it was eye-opening in an unforgettable way.
There is no shortcut to the personal significance every one of us rightly longs for. Significance is not as simple as going to seminary. It comes at the cost of deepening character. And there is no way to go deep without humility before God.
This Scripture often comes to mind: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). Walk into every seminary lecture with a thought that goes something like this: “Hey you Self in there, you don’t deserve this. But God is sharing it with you, because he wants to bless you with it. Receive it with meekness. It will save your proud soul.”
[The above is at the request of our friends at Desiring God, in connection with this series.]