Spiritual Formation in Seminary01 Oct 2022 | Masters
Spiritual Formation in Seminary
It’s no secret that I love to study the Bible. My children and wife regularly find themselves listening to the definition of a Hebrew word and how it illuminates and connects scripture. At work, I lead the local site employee Christian group. In my church, I ask questions at board meetings to press the church toward scriptural alignment. In my life group, those who gather look to me as a trusted voice when we struggle through difficult biblical passages ever onward toward Jesus. I have taken to heart the psalmist’s plea to meditate day and night on the instruction of Yahweh (Psalm 1:2) and Jesus’ prayer that we take hold of eternal life: knowing Yahweh (John 17:3).
So it was no surprise to anyone that I began a more formal path of biblical education. Beginning a master’s program at Liberty University will focus my study and provide me with the tools I need to better serve my church, my coworkers, and my family. Deadlines, papers, reading, and formatting constraints will challenge my discipline and like metal in the forge, sharpen my mind into a suitable tool in the hand of the Master.
My journey began with three formational books (and a handful of articles): Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age (by Steven & Mary Lowe), Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (by Walker Kaiser), and Surviving and Thriving in Seminary (by Daniel Zacharias and Ben Forrest). All three pointed to the importance of my own spiritual formation during my study of the Bible, and they all pointed out dangers to avoid and benefits to grasp along the academic journey. The authors of these books impressed on me two concepts of spiritual formation that I plan to take with me into the years of study ahead: intentional connection and humility.
First, the connection between people seems initially to be the most natural thing in the world, but at the same time, making meaningful connections with people is the most difficult thing we can do. Our culture pushes us towards independence and glorifies self-sufficiency, but Lowe and Lowe through their research discovered “evidence in the church, classroom, and community that traditional approaches to spiritual formation are inadequate because they are too individualistic, private, and disconnected.” Connections reach outside of our individualistic focus and tie us together with our friends, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and families into a connected web of relationships. Those relationships require intentional engagement to maintain and grow–much like an ecosystem.
So far, my spiritual formation has primarily been a private affair between God and me. I obviously received input from pastors, authors, and family, but I have always felt alone in my pursuit of transformation and growth. I can’t grow alone. I need my network, and my network needs me. Lowe and Lowe pointed out that we can’t grow alone, “If one member fails to exercise his gift, that hinders both the growth of the whole and the individual growth of each member (no member can grow apart from the whole). The growth of each member is involved in the growth of the whole and the growth of the whole in the behavior of each member.”
Secondly, humility returns to the forefront of Christian belief and action. If this networked ecology of believers really does require a two-way nutrient exchange, then I need to humble myself and accept the wisdom and input from those around me. Even when the people in my community don’t appear to be as passionate or educated, the Spirit of God can still speak wisdom to me through them. Lowe and Lowe pointed out that, “Christians in the body of Christ sharpen one another spiritually through ‘reciprocal ministry’ and through various engagements, interactions, relationships, experiences, and encounters that comprise the rich ecology Christ provides through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”
Plan of Action
How will I do it? How will I maintain my hold on my personal relationship and growth with Jesus while jumping into the deep end of academia? I plan to maintain and prioritize the practices that helped me build my deep relationship and thirst for more of Jesus: reading the Bible regularly, spending time in nature, and wrestling through hard things with Jesus in prayer.
Reading the Bible and asking difficult questions about it drew me into deeper study from the beginning. My morning routine must stay in place. While I’m putting away dishes before the dawn breaks, I listen to an expositor read the Bible to me. The translation will change, and the commentaries will come and go, but the consistent ingesting of God’s word in the morning allows me to move throughout the day with the heart of God forefront of my mind.
Each morning, I spend some time in nature. Lowe and Lowe reminded me, “The biblical authors spent much time in the outdoors and from this vantage point brought their observations of its marvelous attributes into the words they wrote.” After reading the Bible, I spend time walking my neighborhood with my dog. The crisp morning air, awakening birds, and distant view of the mountains remind me of my place in this beautiful world. Occasionally, I even get a chance to take my whole family into nature to camp or just go on a hike. Away from technology, responsibilities, and familiarity, I am grounded in the connection, beauty, and intricacy of the world God made for us to govern.
When I walk, I pray. My mornings often begin with praise, but when my mind fills with frustrations or difficult circumstances cloud my gratefulness, I pour those out as I walk. If my study of scripture and academic pursuits ever eclipse my love and relationship with Jesus, then it has turned on the very purpose that birthed it. My companion through all my successes and despair is Jesus, and I cannot afford to lose my best friend and confidant. Spending intentional time in that relationship remains a top priority over and above any school work.
Advice to a Seminarian
Only a few weeks into my seminarian journey, if I were to give advice to someone considering starting down the same path, I would have a few considerations for them. My thoughts would not be as organized as I would put them in this blog post, but I would attempt to roughly cover these topics: priority of God, family, and work; practical considerations; and reassurances I received from a friend who went before me.
First, priorities. Always keep at the forefront why you are doing this. It is not for the money, the grade, or bonus points at the pearly gates (which are probably metaphorical anyway). The reason you’re working towards a master’s in biblical studies had better be because you love studying the Bible and want to devote your mind, self, and strength to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:5). If your priorities get screwed up, your actions will too. If you have to choose between getting an A and going on date night or caring for your neighbor, you’ve messed up, you’re off the path. Secondly, the practical front. Learn good study methods if you didn’t learn them in high school or college. That includes note-taking, understanding the professor’s intent, project planning, and assignment prioritization. Always return to the question, “Does this help my learning and demonstration of my learning, or is it a distraction and a waste of time?” Take what you can from assignments and books and discard the rest. Lowe and Lowe completely lost my respect when they took a few studies out of context to support their pet project. They misrepresented Paul and discounted the entire Hebrew Bible to make a point. As a result, I went on a weird side quest to take them down. Zacharias and Forrest characterized it well when they said, “we read about concepts and different opinions with the intent of finding the holes in their arguments and to re-entrench ourselves in our previously held opinions. This is not an honest look.” Even with that kind of malfeasance, I could still learn from Lowe and Lowe.
Lastly, I would pass on the advice I received from a Liberty University graduate serving as a military chaplain for the United States Army with a Masters of Divinity. I went to school with Josh Hughes in Malaysia, and when I was considering starting my master’s degree at Liberty, I called him with two questions: what will I gain and will I lose my faith in seminary?
He told me that I would get out of a master’s degree whatever work and thought I put in. Education provides benefits proportional to the effort exerted by the student. If I want a title, that is easy enough to produce, but if I want to learn and grow, that will take significantly more effort, discomfort, and focus.
As for losing my faith in seminary, he told me that I had nothing to fear. Many people enter seminary with a fragile or simplistic worldview. When they confront their own worldview, it falls apart in light of the complex realities faced in seminary. Josh told me that he was confident that our shared background in SouthEast Asia easily prepared me for the spiritual and mental challenges that seminary would provide. He told me that what we learned in 7th-grade Bible class rivaled what seminary students in America struggle to grasp.
So if you grew up with me in Malaysia, take heart. If you just met me, and you want to know if you’ll do well in seminary, buckle up. As Tim Mackie says, “if you’re comfortable with your beliefs about Jesus, don’t read the Bible.” It’s a wild and bold choice to delve into the story and relationship of Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Master of all. Traditions will fail, schemas will shift, and you’ll find yourself in love with a beautiful mind outside of everyone’s comfort.
- Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018)
- H. Daniel Zacharias and Benjamin K. Forrest, Surviving and Thriving in Seminary: An Academic and Spiritual Handbook (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017)