My children, there could hardly be a more important book for you to read, understand, ponder and internalize than the book of Proverbs. You are going to discover soon enough that while there are many Christians, there are not many wise Christians. Most Christians believe that if you believe in Jesus, that is enough. And that is enough for salvation. But it is most certainly not enough for a life well-lived. A life well-lived requires insight, prudence, and understanding what is right and just and fair. It requires knowledge and discretion, learning, understanding, and wisdom. And Proverbs promises all of these to its students. I’m more convinced than ever that this book would have saved me from the vast majority of my self-inflicted wounds. I’m more convinced than ever that the more I internalize this book, the more fully, usefully, satisfyingly and joyfully I will live. Hear, my sons and daughter(s?), your father’s instruction.
Have you ever noticed that I, Steve Goold the Dos, am listed as a contributing author to this blog? But I stopped contributing a while ago. Isn’t that weird? Boy. So weird.
The situation is thus: I had a series of posts about my year-long Bible reading thing (which I still do) and I got behind on the posts (not the readings, just the posts) and then I felt like I couldn’t post anything else on the blog until I finished the series (and I still haven’t finished it) and now I don’t want to finish the series at all (because I so massively dropped the ball on it).
SOOOOO… Bryan, I am sorry to massively drop the ball. Is it ok if I just post on other topics now instead of finishing the year-long Bible series? I’m not going to wait for you to respond. I’m just gonna start posting about other stuff and I probably won’t finish the year-long series.
What I want to say in this post is simple and basic and easy and not new and doesn’t need a long explanation, so I’ll just post it and that will be that. Easy. (But I like long explanations so things might go that direction.)
Here we go.
There is a way to make a point while also taking a shot at someone, and then there is a way to make a point without taking the shot. There is a way to communicate a truth while also being snide and condescending, and then there’s a way to communicate the same truth without being snide or condescending. One can express a viewpoint or perspective in a demeaning or insulting way, or one can express themselves in a respectful way.
My suggestion: We – the people of God, the followers of Jesus, the messengers of the Kingdom, those who are charged with making disciples of all the nations – we should diligently choose the latter options listed above rather than the former.
The rest of the post is the part where I do the long explanation thing, so bail out now if that’s something you’re not interested in.
At the Goold house we don’t allow Betty (age 8) and Suzy (age 4) to watch the modern Disney shows. This is frustrating to my kids because the shows are funny and fun to watch, but our house rule exists because the nature of the comedy is so disrespectful. All of the characters constantly speak to one another in very sarcastic and mocking ways, and the studio audience laughs and so do I. Being unkind is funny in these sitcoms, and that’s not a concept that I want my kids soaking up.
Because it’s not true. Being unkind is not, in the end, funny. It’s hurtful and unhelpful and unnecessary. At least I have observed this to be the case.
I have also observed, over recent years, that being unkind for comedic purposes has reached an almost epidemic level in our culture. Making a point while simultaneously making a joke at someone’s expense is now the standard currency of discussion/debate, and this seems to be especially the case in the blogging and social networking worlds. I imagine this is so because of the pronounced instinct (that we all feel) to “win” a discussion/debate, combined with the instinct to cheer for our fellow “teammates” when they are “winning” a discussion/debate. Verbally stabbing one’s “opponent” while also getting a laugh from potential onlookers is perceived as a way to gain more points in the discussion/debate “contest.” And then this phenomenon also applies outside of discussions/debates, spilling into situations like under-my-breath comments while waiting in line for an extra slow gas station clerk, a sharp exchange with an airline representative during a disagreement on baggage fees, or lashing out at a traffic officer during a busy rush hour.
I’m as guilty as anyone. There is a particularly pleasing sensation that accompanies delivering a verbal kick-in-the-teeth to my discussion/debate “adversary.” I know this sensation well. When I’m tempted to try this, and then find myself succeeding, it usually makes me want to do it again. And the onlookers cheer and laugh and pat me on the back, which makes me want to do it yet again.
But I don’t think I have biblical permission to do this. (Sidenote: Do I? Is there a biblical precedent one way or the other on this issue? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. Chime in on the comments if you think there’s something in God’s Word to bring to bear here.)
I mean, we are talking about people here. They have feelings. Their Creator loves them. And we, as followers of Jesus, are told to love them too.
Then there’s the angle of effectiveness to consider. A personal attack is the easiest thing to be dismissive toward. I mean, right? Haven’t we all seen it to be true that disrespectful and demeaning tones cause the person I’m talking with to immediately become defensive and argumentative? I want the folks I’m talking with to hear what I have to say. I actually want to make a point. Or… do I? I admit that, for me, sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes I don’t want to love people, and I don’t want to make a point. Instead I just want to “win.”
Let me be clear as to what I’m talking about right now and what I’m NOT talking about. I can and should represent my beliefs and my convictions. I can and should speak what I know to be truth into social situations that are suffering from a lack of moral compass. I can and should disagree with someone who engages me in a conversation about sin or scripture or doctrine (or anything else) and puts forth a perspective that I feel is incorrect or misleading. And… I can and I should do all of these things without the common point-making tools of crassness, personal attacks, mockery, belittling, condescension, or sarcasm.
Nothing is lost in my argument if I present my argument in a loving way. Nothing is sacrificed in my logic if I lay out my logic in a loving way. Nothing in my point will be missed, nothing in my assertion will be weak, and nothing in my message will be lost. I can and I should handle myself in a loving way, and there is no downside when I do (that I’m aware of).
Some context: This stuff has been on my mind for a while now, but I’m taking the time to write this post today because of some internet articles I just read. Good articles. I’m not going to name names, but these are good articles written by good people who have good things to say. And then they say it with words that cut and stab instead of words that convince and persuade.
Whaaaaaat a bummer.
I mean, Internet articles really are a big thing right now – maybe even the primary platform for the market of ideas. And I want to have my mind affected by the thoughts and messages of these godly and wise bloggers/authors/thinkers! I want to read these articles and benefit from their content, which is I’m sure what the authors also want. But I find more disrespectful joking and jabbing than any Disney show, and I do not want to be influenced by that. I very strongly do not wish to further sharpen my already innate instinct to use low blows as a means of “winning.”
And then the harsh words make me lose respect for the authors. Shoot. I don’t want that to happen! Ummm… let’s quick just all agree to not do that. Don’t lose respect for good people with good things to say just because they choose to use low blows in their speech. “He who is without sin…” right?
Blah blah blah Steve… why don’t you say something about how we can make the situation better instead of just complaining about the articles/authors that you’re not even naming? Ok.
My suggestion: Every time you read a Facebook article or blog post or whatever (including this one or anything else), try to detect any and all harshness or meanness or rudeness or unkindness or lack of love. Then, try to imagine a way to make the same points but without all of that negative stuff. And resist the instinct to lose respect for the authors while you do this.
When I follow my suggestion here a couple cool things happen. The concepts/ideas that I’m reading about tend to solidify in my mind in a more convincing yet less aggressive way, which feels really productive. And this habit also sharpens my ability to detect unnecessary negativity, which is a microscope I can turn back around to myself and my own conversations. So far it’s working pretty well for me, I think. But I suppose I should let others determine that. 🙂
John 13:35, ya’ll. Thanks for reading.
I wish I was kidding.
A friend of a friend suggested rather forcefully that because Christmas trees were not associated with the birth of Jesus in the Bible, and because Jeremiah 10:3-4 can be (bent, twisted and cut-out-of-context in order to be) applied to Christmas trees, that everyone who puts up a Christmas tree is participating in idolatrous worship.
As a Christmas tree-worshiper myself, well… I just wouldn’t stand for it.
I won’t quote him, but if you read what he wrote you would quickly have picked up on the idea that he viewed himself as something of a prophet—someone who sensed a calling on his life to speak for God primarily by condemning practices, beliefs, political ideologies and customs endemic to our culture that he is convinced are evil or idolatrous. That is, they are falsely worshiped—robbing God of glory that belongs to him alone.
Just to be clear: I believe in the continuity of all of the spiritual gifts. I believe in the gift of prophecy. And I believe that there are some people who are, in fact, called by God to speak for God primarily by condemning practices, beliefs, political ideologies and customs endemic to our culture that are evil or idolatrous.
That said, my sense is that there are far fewer prophets than there are people who think they’re prophets or are acting like prophets.
One might think that (with the growth of Facebook and Twitter) there has been an explosion in the number of prophets God has been anointing over the last 10 years. More people than ever before seem to be making bold, public, unnuanced, typically over-generalized, and almost always unsubstantiated statements that often demonstrate a serious lack of the charity and graciousness required of believers’ speech (Col. 4:6).
(I’m aware that I’m not substantiating the above observation with any hard data, so I may be laying myself open to the charge of hypocrisy. But does anyone out there who’s spent any time on social media want to challenge my observation?)
Social media has had the fascinating effect of providing a microphone of sorts to tens of thousands of people who have never actually been entrusted with a microphone by a community of faith, a board, any kind of overseeing authority, and more often than not do not even see themselves as accountable in their speech to even a circle of trusted friends.
The power of social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. There are voices in the church that should be heard widely that may never have been widely heard without the advent of social media, because the roles of megachurch pastor, conference speaker, book author, etc.—the roles that in the past provided the only real public platforms in the church—didn’t really fit their calling or gift set. I think of bloggers like Tim Challies and Justin Taylor.
And there are genuinely prophetic voices out there, who use social media wisely, for the good of the church, and in a way that exemplifies the careful, nuanced thinking and charitable speech that becomes a follower of Christ. I think of someone like Al Mohler.
But most of the many thousands of self-made Facebook prophets out there aren’t prophets. They’re just grumpy. Filled with angst. Probably bored. And holding a social media microphone.
I would like to offer some humble suggestions and guidelines for those who fancy themselves social media prophets. My aim isn’t to criticize merely for the sake of criticism, and I’m not saying these things (just) because I’m irritated, grumpy, bored or filled with angst. I’d just like to see us do better. I’d like us to raise the quality of our public discourse. I’d like to see us reflect Christ more truly in our words and—maybe more importantly—in the manner in which we convey our thoughts.
First, the degree to which we’re certain we can say, “Thus sayeth the Lord” about our public pronouncements must govern how “loudly” we say them. I’m using the word “loudly” to denote a lot of different potencies of language. Some words are much more potent (i.e. “louder“) than others: “Hate” is louder than “disapprove of.” “Always” is louder than “often.” “Pissed” is louder than “upset.” “Moron” and “dumbass” are louder than “foolish” or “ill-considered.”
I’m not necessarily opposed to the use of any of these terms. As many self-appointed prophets are quick to point out, at times the biblical prophets used very colorful, crude, even graphic language when a particular situation called for it. It was rare. But blue language is in the Bible, whether the fundamentalists like it or not.
But… We shouldn’t use it unless we have a very high degree of certainty that we can put “Thus sayeth the Lord” at the end our statement. I suggest that we shouldn’t use any sort of derisive, derogatory or defaming language unless we can support our statements directly, carefully and contextually from Scripture itself. Which means, I suggest, no one should be using offensive language when they’re talking about the minimum wage, for example. Because minimum wage isn’t a biblical topic.
Your particular stance on the topic may, in your view, be derived from biblical texts or biblical principles. But unless you have a very high degree of certainty that God would say the exact same thing as you about a given topic, and no Christ-loving, Scripture-reading, reasonably intelligent person could arrive at a different stance on the basis of the same set of biblical texts, you should be sure to keep the “volume” of your words relatively low.
Even if you’re not someone who derives their views from Scripture, I’d caution you to do similarly, but to change the basic question to, “How certain am I that I have expert knowledge of this topic?” This is an especially important criterion to consider when you are an expert in a different field. Because a person is a widely-recognized expert in business in no way makes them a reliable voice in international politics. Because someone is a recognized expert in entertainment in no way means that their views on religion or biblical matters should be widely heard. And because you happen to be an expert in finance and investment… You get the point.
If you don’t have good reason to believe that you are an expert, and that other experts would recognize you as such, keep the volume down. I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t say what you want to say. I’m not saying that if you don’t have a Ph.D. in macroeconomics you can’t weigh in on the minimum wage. I’m saying that you should set the “volume” at a level consummate with your relative expertise.
Second, we should very often check our level of certainty that what we’re about to say is something God wants said. Steve Goold, my co-author on TWOG, has made some brilliant suggestions about what people are often really doing when they post strong statements on Facebook or other social media. It’s something of a working theory of his that I hope he’ll write a post about at some point… hopefully… Steve?…. He suggests that most of the time when someone makes a strong statement on Facebook, they’re not actually trying to convince anyone of anything. They’re merely broadcasting to their listeners their view of themselves. They want everyone to know who they are—not unlike when someone posts a “selfie” (self-portrait photo).
So, for example, when a person gets on Facebook to blast non-organic food, it’s a fair question as to whether they’re really trying to convince their audience to eat organic for the good of their audience, or if they just want everyone to know that they’re the sort of person that eats organic food—securing for them a certain amount of status and admiration among organic food devotees.
Or when a person logs on to blast away at gun-control advocates, is it really that they’re trying to making a reasoned argument aimed at convincing their audience of the virtues of widespread gun ownership (in which case you would expect… a reasoned argument), or are they merely saying to the whole world, “Please view me as someone who is against gun-control, and not one of those gun-control advocates, because I want to be in with the former group and not the latter.”
So, how sure are you that God wants what you’re about to say to be said? Are you saying this for someone’s good? For their joy? For the progress and defense of the gospel? Are you aiming at convincing someone? In which case, is what you’re saying convincingly stated? Or are you just kind of “e-yelling”? Are there any self-serving motives in your post? Are you “venting,” and is public venting helpful to any person who hears it? And perhaps most telling: Are you imaging applause from those whom you know will agree with what you’re saying? Do you suspect that you’ll be checking back often to see who and how many people have “liked” your post? If so, both your motives and your audience are suspect, and you should think twice.
Third, have you attempted to view your potential statement through the lenses of at least a few other people with different experiences and worldviews than your own? One of the most common mistakes I see self-appointed prophets make is that they assume that their experience and worldview are normative. If you’re a white woman, before you click “post,” re-read your statement and do your best to think through how a black man would hear what you’ve said. Or a Korean-American person. Or a homemaker. Or a teenager. It’s very difficult to do so. And we might not be able to do it very well. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Maybe you’d still express the same core idea. But would you say it differently if a hispanic woman were watching you type it? Would you use different words if your mother was in the room? Are you saying what you’re saying in the same way you’d say it if your intended target or an opponent of what you’re saying were in the room? The vast majority of Facebook criticisms of President Obama (or Speaker Boehner or Sarah Palin) would never be phrased the way they are if the author were sitting in a room with President Obama. Then why say it that way? Because you get to hide behind the virtual wall of the internet? Pardon my loud language, but that’s just chicken shit. And I’d say it that way if I were sitting in a room with you.
Fourth, how accomplished are you at receiving criticism well? This is a tricky one, because you can’t really become accomplished at receiving criticism until you’ve done quite a few things that elicit criticism. So, honestly, I hope you don’t become accomplished at this. Because criticism is no fun. But as someone who (both by God’s displeasure and grace) has become quite accomplished at receiving criticism well, I can say that this is vital.
Receiving criticism well means honestly and carefully listening to the criticism, and trying to hear God’s voice in it. Often times critics have their own issues, and their criticism has more to do with what’s going on in their own hearts than anything you’ve said or done. But most criticism should be carefully considered—particularly when the criticism is coming from people who love you, who want your good, and who are offering the criticism charitably.
If your initial response to criticism is to bristle and to assume a defensive posture, you are not ready to make bold or prophetic statements. Not on social media. Not anywhere.
If more often than not you brush aside and/or minimize the counsel or criticism of trusted and obviously well-intended friends, pastors, mentors, etc., because you’d prefer to listen to the voices of whoever might be applauding you—no matter how suspect their own hearts and motivations may be, and no matter how little confidence you have that they genuinely love and care about you—you are not ready to make bold or prophetic statements. Not on social media. Not anywhere.
These are my suggestions, humbly offered. I’m sure there is more to be said. If I’ve overlooked some important consideration, please do feel free to comment and I may add them as an addendum to this post.
I think we can do better. Myself, certainly, included. I think we can raise the quality of our public discourse. I think we can reflect Christ more truly in our words and—most importantly—in the manner in which we convey our thoughts.
A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:12-17
I think that the most difficult thing about being a pastor was probably the fact that I often found myself needing to teach on an issue—and teach with passion—despite the fact that I didn’t really measure up on that issue myself.
No one assumes that pastors are perfect. But then again, they kind of do. They suspect that pastors have this being-a-Christian thing pretty much nailed down. After all, they’re professional Christians, right? I don’t think I ever projected perfectionism. I tried to make it clear that I was always including myself in my exhortations to the congregation. But still… How do you preach passionately about giving when you’re not a particularly passionate giver? How do you urge people to be compassionate when you’re not all that compassionate? How do you encourage purity of mind, when that’s really not something you’ve got nailed down?
I once heard someone ask John Piper if he considered himself a joyful person. After all, he had written the book on finding our deepest joy and satisfaction in God. He said something like, “No. It’s called ‘Desiring God.’ Not ‘I Have Arrived at Deepest Joy In God.’ I’m not a particularly joyful person. I just know what I want really badly.”
That’s why it’s taken me so long to write this post. It’s tough to write passionately about something I don’t have nailed down. But I know what I want really badly. When you’re a pastor, Sunday’s going to come whether you want it to or not. The people are going to be there. You have to say something. Blogging is obviously different. There’s not that handy built-in deadline. But I need to write this. I’m not standing up until it’s done.
In Revelation 2:12-17, God turns his focus to Pergamum, the third of the seven churches in Asia Minor. the church at Pergamum had almost exactly the opposite problem of the church at Ephesus. The Ephesians were so concerned with doctrinal integrity and internal maintenance of purity and solidarity in the church that they had become completely ineffective at reaching people outside the church. The church at Pergamum, on the other hand, was so concerned about engaging their culture that they had increasingly begun to accommodate and blend with their culture.
Some of them clearly had stood firm. Despite the fact that the social pressure to participate in pagan worship in the many temples in Pergamum was so intense that God describes the city as “where Satan has his throne” and “where Satan lives” (v. 13), he affirms many of the believers:
“Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city…” (v. 14)
But many had not stood firm. There were apparently some in the church who were leading others into idolatry and sexual immorality. People who in the name of cultural engagement and “relevance” were enticing their brothers and sisters to compromise their convictions and throw themselves into the stream of the ways of Pergamum. John draws on a story from the Old Testament to illustrate what was happening:
“There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality.” (v. 14)
Greg Beale explains: “Balaam was a pagan prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to pronounce a curse upon the invading Israelites. God prevented Balaam from doing so and caused him to issue a blessing on them instead (see Num. 22:5–24:25). However, Balaam subsequently devised a plan in continued disobedience to God whereby some of the Moabite women would entice the Israelite men to ‘defect from the Lord’ (31:16) by fornicating with them and joining with them in the worship of their pagan gods (25:1–3). This plan was successful, and God punished the Israelites for their idolatrous involvement. …Balaam became proverbial for the false teacher who for money influences believers to enter into relationships of compromising unfaithfulness, is warned by God to stop, and is finally punished for continuing to disobey.”
The truth is that every believer, at some point, is going to deal with either “Ephesus-think” or “Pergamum-think.” Maybe both. My experience is that most people who grow up in the church are trained in “Ephesus-think” and they have to figure out how to break out of it and become ambassadors of Christ who effectively engage the world without slipping into “Pergamum-think.” On the other hand, it seems that most people who come to Christ later in life find “Pergamum-think” more natural, and they have to figure out how to weed immorality out of their lives and build solid Christian relationships without slipping into “Ephesus-think,” where they don’t have a single genuine friendship with a non-believer and are completely ineffective at drawing near to messy people who are far from Christ.
I’ve lived in both kinds of “think” and unfortunately I’ve allowed myself to be burned by both. Apparently I’m not particularly good at living in either Ephesus or Pergamum. I want internal purity and congregational cohesion, but there have been times when those pursuits have made me worthless as an evangelist and “friend of sinners,” like Jesus. And I want to engage with culture and form substantive, genuine relationships with messy people. But there have been times when those pursuits have drawn me too far in to the place “where Satan has his throne,” so to speak.
I want to be better. I want to be stronger. I want to set a better example. I want to drive the road between these two ditches without ending up in either. And here’s what I’m clinging to:
“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (v. 17)
This is God’s promise of blessing and reward to those who are victorious. And victory, in this case, is navigating the opportunities and dangers of Ephesus and Pergumum while remaining “true to my name.” (v. 13). Those who have lived too long in Ephesus should not go be citizens of Pergamum. And citizenship in Ephesus is not the answer for those who have lived too long in Pergamum. As our lives bring us through the temptations and blessings of being both a citizen of the world and of heaven, our call is not to plant feet firmly in either until heaven comes to earth. Rather, our calling is to faithfulness in both.
To the faithful, God promises “hidden manna”—sustenance, provision. Life. And he promises a “white stone with a new name written on it” (v. 17). Wright explains: “Pergamum’s great buildings were made of a black local stone. When people wanted to put up inscriptions, they obtained white marble on which to carve them. This was then fixed to the black buildings, where it stood out all the more clearly. …The fact that nobody knows this name except the one who receives it [means]… Jesus is promising to each faithful disciple, to each one who ‘conquers’, an intimate relationship with himself in which Jesus will use the secret name which, as with lovers, remains private to those involved. The challenge to avoid the false intimacy of sexual promiscuity is matched by the offer of a genuine intimacy of spiritual union with Jesus himself.” (Revelation for Everyone, 23)
So, God, make me faithful to you through Ephesus and Pergamum. Make me true to your name as I navigate the church and the wider world. Forgive me for the times I have failed to engage the world without being infected by the world, and for the times I have become so insulated by the church that I haven’t loved the lost well. Wash away my filth, heal my wounds, and help me to do better for you this time around. Amen.
That’s probably not true, but it’s going to be pretty stinkin’ long – at least for TWOG.
I thought a lot of you would find the following (15 page) journal entry interesting, and that for two main reasons: First, I know that many of you are interested to know where my thoughts are on whether I should continue to pursue my doctoral studies or set them down. Second, I’m sure that many of you would be interested to know what my process of discernment looks like when I need to make a major decision, and this will serve as a good example.
This entry, of course, does not explain the entire process. In fact, it really only accounts for one day. But I make enough references to other aspects of my process of discernment that you should get a pretty clear picture of what the entire process looks like. I have taken similar approaches to at least 4-5 other major decisions in the last 8 years, but this is the first time I have written extensively about it.
I’d also like to encourage pastors or seminarians to read this entry carefully as it expresses some of my best thinking (however paltry) on the teaching ministry of the pastorate.
So, make some popcorn, settle in, and have a good read. Looking forward to your feedback.
Journal Entry from May 16th, 2008
Reading: Psalm 1; Proverbs 1-3; 1-2 Timothy; Titus
I have come to the point where a decision clearly needs to be made as to whether I continue on in doctoral work or set that aside and devote myself to other things. I have set aside this entire day to seek God in prayer, through his Word, through fasting, and in discernment to decide the matter. I don’t know that I’ll have an answer by the end of the day—God is not bound to speak—but I do hope to. I’ve thought about it much, have prayed and sought wise counsel over the last six months. It’s time to bring it to God and ask him to speak clearly and lead me one way or the other. I am thankful to have come to a place (more or less) of neutrality on the issue, so that I am well positioned to follow wherever God desires to take this. I’m beginning my morning with breakfast and Psalm 1 and Proverbs 1-3.
In reading Psalm 1, I recognize that the first thing I need to do in seeking the Lord’s voice is to repent and seek forgiveness for persistent sin. God blessed those who delight in his instruction, not those who stand in the way of sinners. And, as Proverbs 1 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” I do not expect the Lord to speak clearly to me if I persist in rebellion against him. Clearly, in Proverbs, the contrast between wisdom and folly parallels the contrast between righteousness and wickedness:
Prov. 1:23: “If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my Spirit on you; I will
make my word known to you.
Prov. 1:29-31: “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the
Lord, would have none of my counsel and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own desires.”
Prov. 2:3-7: “…If you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is shield to those who walk in integrity.”
Prov. 3:5-7: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
[spent an hour in confessional and repentant prayer]
I just enjoyed a long time of prayer in repentance from sin, for forgiveness and cleansing through Christ, and for healing, restoration, and heart change from the Spirit. Lying prostrate, face in the grass and hands open, I am refreshed and renewed, and ready to seek God’s will in earnest. I’m going to take time now to read the Pastorals to remind myself of the character and nature of my calling.
[spent about an hour reading the Pastorals slowly and meditatively]
Relevant counsel from the Pastorals for this decision:
- There is a danger in education: namely, wandering away into discussion that just do not matter and do not benefit the church, but rather bring a haughty and arrogant spirit (1 Tim. 1:6-7).
- An apostolic ministry is marked by preaching, message-bearing (ambassadorship), and teaching with faithfulness and truth (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11, 2:24; Titus 2:1).
- The office of overseer is a noble task, requiring sober-mindedness and ability to teach. Presumably, the more sober-mindedness and capability to teach the better (1 Tim. 3:1-2).
- Overseers must manage their household well. If they are not capable of managing their household well, they are not fit to be overseers (1 Tim. 3:3-4).
- Servants of Christ are to train themselves for godliness, and in this context [1 Tim. 4] godliness is especially bound up with right thinking and right doctrine (1 Tim. 4:7).
- The salvation of my people is, in some ways, tied to me keeping a close watch both on my life and on the truth of my doctrine/teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).
- Preaching and teaching in the church is a particularly high calling, and must be taken very, very seriously (1 Tim. 5:17).
- Teaching is incredibly important, but learned people have a particular propensity to get embroiled in controversy because of unhealthy cravings for it (1 Tim. 6:2-5; 2 Tim. 2:23; Tit. 3:9)
- Paul urges his protégé: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved; a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
- It is very possible to learn, learn, learn and never arrive at a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7).
- Preachers need to be as well-equipped as possible to deal with controversy and potentially divisive teaching (2 Tim. 4:3-5).
- In the Pastorals a right heart and proper character always undergird the knowledge required of an overseer.
I need to spend some time in prayer over these things I’ve seen. I’ll spend the next hour in prayer over each of these observations, and then fast and pray over lunch, asking God to help me to begin to put my best case against continued doctoral work together on paper, after which I’ll pray for God’s help in putting together my best case for continued doctoral work.
[spent a little more than an hour in prayer]
My best case against further doctoral work:
The foremost concern I have in considering continuing with my doctoral work is the time it will require and what things I might more wisely do with that time. Realistically, doctoral work from now until the end of my dissertation defense will likely require (granted familial and ministry commitments) 10-15 hours per week minimum for a duration of 4-6 years. In addition, periodic sabbaticals will be necessary before key events (i.e. comprehensive exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation defense), ranging from 2-6 weeks, and I am not certain that these sabbaticals would be granted by my elders nor whether it is justified to take that much time away from the work of the ministry. The weekly time taken for study would be time otherwise spent with family, working on home projects, pursuing other useful reading, and enjoying some rest and time for hobbies. In addition, more time could be given to building and investing in my ministry through New Hope Church.
Also, committing to a certain lifestyle and schedule for 4-6 years presumes that such a schedule will still be possible during all of the next 4-6 years. It is possible—even likely—that within the next 4-6 years I may be in a different ministry position or setting entirely unknown to me at the present, and that Leslie and I will (Lord willing) have at least one more child. In addition, continued Ph.D. work is expensive. Tuition rates will likely continue to climb in this economy, while financial aid will likely continue to decrease in availability. This will cause my family to face more difficult financial decisions regarding finances that we otherwise might.
In addition, there may be averse effects on my spiritual and devotional life. Rigorous study need not, but sometimes does, lead to pride and arrogance, to burnout, to an excessive craving for controversy, and to an excessive focus on minutiae, rather than on the big picture; to viewing the Bible less as the Word of God, living and active, and more as a textbook to be analyzed and criticized. Study can also lead to an overly critical and haughty attitude toward those who are not as studied, and can even lead to an over-reliance on the power of human cognition over against prayerful, humble, faithful submission to God and his Word. I do not presume to be immune to any of these potentially deadly effects.
Finally, committing to this course of study would likely forestall much involvement in the broader national and global evangelical movement for the next 4-6 years and will limit the vast majority of my ministry involvement to my local church.
Lord, is there any significant argument I have forgotten or omitted?
Before going to prayer and asking for God’s help in putting together the best argument for continuing doctoral work, I’m going to work some on a tentative weekly schedule to help determine whether the required weekly time is even possible to build in (see scratch paper).
[spent about an hour working on a schedule for fall, summer, and spring that would allow for 45-50 hours of ministry work, 12-15 hours of study time, and at least one full day, a half day, and two other evenings a week to be entirely devoted to family]
Making a schedule for the summer, fall and spring went fairly well. It is possible, I think, to devote adequate time to family, ministry, and studies. Clearly, however, it would require an extraordinary amount of discipline in time management. The allotted time frames would have to be almost inviolable. It would require that I decline or defer unnecessary counseling appointments and other commitments. I would need to say ‘no’ to plenty of otherwise good and enjoyable meetings and leisure times. It would put greater strictures on my sermon prep time, so that if my sermons are not finished during the allotted time, they would have to be preached unfinished in reliance on the Spirit to use unpolished work. That said, it does seem possible. The hours work.
[spent about 15 minutes in prayer for help in formulating the best case for doctoral work]
My best case for further doctoral work:
First and foremostly, continued doctoral studies would allow me an almost unparalleled opportunity for rigorous study with top-flight scholars, many of whom are among the most godly men I know. This would be an opportunity for extended honing of my skills in rightly handling the Word of truth. In some sense, the opportunity rather creates an obligation. That is, in view of the thousands of men and women—church leaders—around the world who would give almost anything to be able to pursue doctoral studies at Trinity with someone like D.A. Carson, it may be a deeply ungrateful and callous thing to decline such an opportunity.
To be sure, there are times that I have almost convinced myself that further academic study would be of very minimal value to my pastoral ministry. I’m not sure what has led my to think this, however, given that my years at Trinity where the single most formative of my life for pastoral ministry—particularly my time with Dr. Carson—that that I learned so well how to understand, handle, explain, and apply Scripture, which has profoundly impacted the way I do everything else in ministry. I have no reason to doubt that further study would do the same—particularly in light of the benefits I have already reaped from doctoral study for my pastoral ministry.
A Ph.D. would bestow an influence and stature of some degree and would open up more opportunities for broader ministry at home and abroad (e.g. short-term teaching posts in under funded foreign seminaries and pastors’ colleges). Stature and influences can certainly be sought for ungodly and self-centered reasons. But, if like Bonhoeffer, they can be used for the sake of the gospel, they can be incredibly useful.
Furthermore, I sense a good deal of fear and trepidation in myself about the possibility of changing directions in a course that I am reasonably confident God set me on in the first place. I sought the Lord in this matter before I originally entered the Ph.D. program and felt confident that he was blessing this course of action. It is not impossible that he meant for me to begin the program, learn some valuable things, spend the money, and the quit. And it is not impossible that I discerned his will incorrectly from the outset. But both of these appear to me to be unlikely. It seems much more likely to me that subsequent doubts have arisen from the fruits of poor time management, a desire for ease, and a fear of frustration and failure in the program.
The counsel I have received from godly friends and advisors has been split. Interestingly, the almost unanimous sentiment among those of my own generation has been to suggest that I quit the program, while the almost unanimous sentiment among those of older generations has been to urge me to complete the program. It may be that younger generations tend to be more ignorant and dismissive than older people and lack foresight. Or, it may be that older people tend to value “letters-behind-names” too highly, while younger people rightly tend to value authenticity and wisdom more than degrees, letters, and empty credentials. It’s probably impossible to discern these things for certain. I am certainly susceptible to youthful ignorance. And I am certainly susceptible to an idolatry of letters and credentials. But I also believe it to be possible to be wise and authentic and to hold weighty credentials at the same time. However, in light of fairly balanced scales in this matter, and in light of consistent biblical instruction, I am inclined to weigh more heavily the counsel of older men (who include my senior pastor) rather than young men (cf. 1 Kings 12).
Doctoral work completed and credentialed will likely afford me increased opportunities for leadership and involvement in the broader evangelical movement (after 4-6 years), both nationally and globally. For better or worse, more leadership, teaching, training, writing, and speaking opportunities are opened to godly men with academic doctorates. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing in and of itself—it is simply reality.
What is more is that I have always been frustrated by the growing gulf between the church and the academy, where a close relationship existed until even the 20th century. Too often, these spheres do not converse and the result is a lack of piety, practicality, and focus on the mission of the church within the academy, and a dire lack of intellectual rigor within the church. But one can scarcely lament the gulf without attempting to bridge it. Completing the doctorate but continuing in pastoral ministry would uniquely position me to stand in the gulf and converse with both sides.
Lord, is there any significant argument I have forgotten or omitted?
It is 6:30pm. My mind is exhausted. I can’t think of much more that I need to think or pray about, so I am now committing this all to the Lord.
Lord, please grant wisdom and clear guidance. Please show me what is best and I will trust you with the details. I desire to please you and submit to you in all things. Be honored and glorified in these decisions. I ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.