I Need a Rest – NOT

A friend said something on FB yesterday that seemed a little off. He loves Jesus a lot and has been a blessing to me in many ways so I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just not as precise as he could have been.

Men w small kids:Your wife really needs a 4-hour block of time weekly to herself. Time to “be”not just grocery shop. Will u do this for her?

All I said was “We should be careful about using the word “need” for things God does not call a need. Things can be advantageous or beneficial without being a need.” It brought the predictable response that rest is needed and even the Bible supports the idea of taking a break. (The reality is that it seems like most of the time the Bible talks about “rest” it is referring to heaven either literally or allegorically.) These things have some truth to them but in a leisure soaked society it is useful to filter them through the Scriptures with some questions.

Am I spending and being spent for the Gospel?

Paul said his goal was to spend and be spent for the gospel (2 Cor 2:15). He said he did it gladly. This is a guy who was shipwrecked, stoned, beaten with whips, hunted and abandoned over and over. Was he looking for rest? No, he was looking to give every ounce of his being over to the cause of Christ and he was joyful in doing it.

A lot of people I meet who “need” a break are spending and being spent chasing the middle class, white American dream of a nice house, two or more cars, educational achievement, soccer camps, and whatever else they see on TV or Amazon Prime. People like this don’t “need” a rest in any biblical sense of the word. They need to use that same level of ambition on pursuing Jesus before they can claim any biblical basis for rest.

Am I seeking refreshment in the ways God has provided?

John 15 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. The basic idea is that Jesus is supposed to be the vine that provides us nourishment, life, and purpose. The way to access that is to abide in, or remain connected to, him. People who are exhausted because they are not abiding in Jesus should try that first before they start demanding rest.

Or consider Hebrews 12:3, Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Here, the author of Hebrews says that one key to not growing weary (needing a rest) is to actively consider what Jesus endured as a fuel and motivation for further gospel centered action on our part. The verse before this says that Jesus endured dying on a cross for the joy he got from it. It’s hard for me to reconcile this with the “need” for resting from things like a job in an air conditioned office, caring for kids that love you, or even building up the body of Christ.

Is the rest I am seeking drawing me closer to Jesus or my creature comforts?

I’ve heard many people talk about how Jesus took times by himself to rest and that is certainly true. The overwhelming evidence of the New Testament is that when Jesus did this it was to get alone with his Father. For example in John 6:15 we read “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Here Jesus got away not because he was focusing on himself but because he was focused on the Father’s mission for him. In Luke 6,  Jesus spends the entire night alone praying before calling the Apostles. His “me time” deprived himself of sleep before he deprived others of his presence. Even in the well known Psalm 23, David enjoyed the green pastures and still waters but he enjoyed the God who provided them much more.

What happens when my rest is interrupted?

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Gospels and one thing that is impossible to miss is that Jesus almost never actually rested. Even when people notice how much he “needs” a rest and make provision for him, it is often interrupted. So in Mark 6, when people are convinced Jesus needs a rest and shuffle him off in a boat, how is he going to respond when the crowd literally runs along to shore to intercept him again at the other end? Is he going to pout or retaliate or whine about not getting his “me time?” No, he sees this crowd so hopeless and lost and gives up any idea of rest because of the great compassion he has for them. Rather than rest, he teaches them late into the night then organizes the biggest buffet in history feeding something like 20,000 people.

Am I letting God determine the right rest?

One of the concerns I had over the way my friend phrased his post was that he was dictating a particular type of rest that would be uniformly applied to all moms of young kids. Not only is this “need” impossible for any single mom to ever achieve, it just isn’t right to declare one particular type of rest like this because even if the Bible does say rest can be a good thing, it never gets very precise about what that looks like. God seems to know the right kind of rest and can supernaturally intervene to provide it. One comment from a dear sister made it seem like unless her husband had chipped in and helped her when she had four kids under four, God would have been utterly helpless to meet her needs. While I’m grateful this man cared for her well, I have to lovingly say her God is far too small if she can only imagine one way that he is able to provide for her well being.

If I believe in rest, what am I doing to make it possible for others?

I hinted at this above, but my friend’s comment is very  white, middle class. In my church context, very few moms of young kids have this option. I wonder for those that do, are you finding ways to use your blessing to be a blessing? Parachuting into a poor community is generally a bad way to minister, so are you going to find a semi-permanent way to serve these moms who almost certainly need a rest more than you do?

What I’m not saying…

I’m not saying rest cannot be helpful or that husbands should never look after their wives in this way. Looking after the well being of your wife is one obvious way husbands can love their wives as Christ loves his church. But doing that well means you will study your wife to see what it would look like to care for her in particular. Maybe my friend’s post is a helpful starting point, but it should not be an ending point. Based on the marriage counseling I’ve done, many stay at home moms would prefer a reliable 30 – 60 minute break when their husband gets home from work more than a single four hour block of time once per week. This is an issue that a married couple should discuss themselves rather than follow a well meaning but ultimately arbitrary mandate. And while you are having that discussion, talk about how you can serve those moms with young kids who may be divorced, abandoned, or widowed and have no husband to help them.

Receiving the Kingdom like a Child

I was mentioning to someone yesterday that my blog has become a book review site. This is extremely embarrassing for a self-proclaimed non reader so I felt compelled to write a bit about the passage we will be looking at during the Living Stones gathering today, Luke 18:15-17.

In the passage, people are bringing their kids – even infants – to Jesus. The disciples around him seem to think the kiddos are a distraction from important work or something and try to keep them away but Jesus tells them to knock it off. But He doesn’t stop there. He uses the presence of the kids as an object lesson for a couple of really important points about following Him.

First, he says the Kingdom belongs to “such as these.”  The NLT captures the idea when it translates the phrase “For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” Jesus is not saying that the Kingdom belongs to these actual kids, but to people who resemble them in some way.

He explains it further in his second statement, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Jesus is saying that the only chance to receive a place in His Kingdom is to do it like a child. How does a child receive stuff? I don’t think any of my kids ever was skeptical about a gift. I don’t think any of them ever suspected that when I offered to take them for ice cream that I was secretly going to take them to a trash dump. On Christmas morning not one of them ever pulled out the FBI’s bomb threat checklist to inspect the presents we had prepared for them. They received the gifts with joyful expectation and trust.

This passage is more than that though. When we look at where it is – placed right between the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector and the account of the rich young ruler. Luke wants us to see that part of receiving the Kingdom as a child is that we receive it consciously knowing that there is nothing we did to contribute to it. Unlike the pharisee in Luke 18:11-12 and the rich young ruler in Luke 18:20-21, these little children wanted Jesus knowing they added nothing to the process. Luke paints the picture vividly by telling us even infants were being brought. What did the 9-month old contribute to his encounter with Jesus? Nothing. And that’s one of the big takeaways from Luke’s presentation here. There is nothing the pharisee, the rich young ruler, or anyone else can do to make themselves good enough to deserve the Kingdom of God.

This is great news. It means that no matter how bad someone is, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater. Since we contribute nothing to the Kingdom equation, nothing we do can eliminate us. There is perhaps no better example of this than the Apostle Paul who called himself a violent persecutor of the church that hated God. God not only saved him from his sin, but raised him up to write half the New Testament. Why did God do it? Was it to show everyone how good you could be if you just put your mind to it? No, according to Paul. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Tim 1:15-16)

The God of the Bible is patient with those who refuse His rule and opens His Kingdom to all those who will put on the humility and empty hands of a little child. If it sounds too good to be true, you need to know that it is really that good.

Thanksgiving in Zephaniah

We spent our Thanksgiving service thinking about the idea of thanksgiving from the book of Zephaniah. I got the idea because Zephaniah 3:17 has been such an encouragement and cause for thanks in my own life, I wanted to spend more time tracing where it came from. We made the point that since thanksgiving requires an acknowledgement of a benefit received or promised, the degree to which you see yourself benefiting from God’s work on your behalf will determine your level of thankfulness

The book is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah during Josiah’s reign. The first two chapters are pronouncements of judgment on first Judah then on the nations surrounding her. One of the things that struck me was that God’s judgment began with Judah, and the prophet spent as much time pronouncing judgment on Judah as he did all the other nations covered combined. The other thing that seemed really important was that according to 1:12, God’s judgment was not just directed at those who violently opposed Him but those who were simply ambivalent toward Him. All those who did not respond to God’s goodness with thanksgiving were equally doomed.

The reason for thankfulness is that God has made a way of escape from His judgment. Last week as we were discussing the persecuted church around the world we mentioned that God only promises escape to those who seek Him (Heb 2:3), and the escape from persecution might just be death, so we continued by asking what kind of escape had God provided for those who trusted Him?

The answer is twofold. First of all, God provides an escape that includes far more than just a lack of judgment – it includes great blessing. God does not just restore sinners to a “fresh start” where they can start digging their hole again, He actually grants them His favor by giving them the status of Jesus. He takes away both His judgments AND Judah’s enemies, and when He’s done he hangs out with His people (v15). We looked at several verses in chapter 3 that show us that it’s actually God who is doing the work to restore these lost sinners (esp. 3:9-13). He is the one who gives His people a pure heart with pure speech, and unites us and removes our shame. And it’s not because we’re so great that we deserve it – the passage describes those over whom God rejoices as lame, outcast and shamed (3:19).

So when God rejoices over lost sinners turning to Him with loud singing (3:17), He is actually rejoicing over Himself and His work on our behalf. When you consider how necessary it is for God to work in this way, it’s not hard to acknowledge the benefit those who put their faith in the one true God have received. That’s the key to growing a thankful heart.

A Final Word on Seminary

This is the last post in a series that makes the case, from my perspective, that seminary is a not a good way to equip people for the work of ministry. The other posts can be found Post 1Post 2, and Post 3. This is true whether their ministry role is vocational, voluntary or bi-vocational (like me). There is no biblical argument for seminary and in fact the opposite is true, namely that the fact that the apostles were ordinary, unschooled men, added to the impact they were having. My own seminary experience only reinforced that reality and as I’ve said in an earlier post, most of the people who I know that enjoyed their seminary experience would not be useful to me in my current mission field and context.

That being said, there is some utility to seminary and I tried to point that out in one post. I would like to close this series with some tips on how to maximize the benefits of seminary if you do choose to go in that direction.

  • Seminary is primarily academia. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does mean that you should consider it for knowledge transfer. Anything beyond that is unreliable. Want to learn Greek? Seminary is a good place to do it. But don’t expect seminary to help you understand the way Greek ought to impact your walk with God or ministry to others. It won’t, and many preachers who learned Greek in seminary prove that every week by showing off Greek pronunciation and root words without ever connecting them to real life.
  • Only consider seminaries that have strong connections or are hosted by a local church. One of the ironies of my disappointing degree program in biblical counseling is that the same seminary does what seems to be a great job with a residential MDiv program where students are actively plugged into local church ministry. If seminary is going to have much value, you will want to design as many connections between what you are learning and helping others walk in the light as possible.
  • Distance learning is fine for Greek or Church History, but it is not that useful for anything related to ministry skill. There really is only one way that people grow in their ability to minister to others and that’s by doing it under the watchful eye of someone who loves Jesus and loves them. Having a course on counseling someone with addictions is only of marginal value compared to actually working alongside someone experienced in counseling someone with an addiction.
  • It bothers me to say this because having a piece of paper on the wall was my primary goal, but if seminary is going to be meaningful it cannot be about the piece of paper you hope to put in a nice frame when you are completed. I’m sure this perspective eroded some of the benefit I might have otherwise received from my studies and it will yours also. Professional credentials are fine and they do prove you can learn and recite facts, but they shouldn’t mean anything in the Kingdom. Go into your seminary experience fortified with an understanding that if you grow closer to Jesus but don’t finish your degree it’s a good outcome.
  • Seminary tends to complicate truth rather than distill it. Sometimes it is wonderful to see the multifaceted glory of God from 100 different angles or read an 850 page book on one theological topic. That just isn’t what Jesus did. He looked around and found common things like seeds and sheep and lost sons and towers and talked about truth from there. If you choose to go to seminary, ask the kind of hard questions to get you somewhere that doesn’t leave you unable to make the transition from super detailed theologically worded answers to simple answers that a child can understand. Look at the books written by the faculty and see whether they do this in their written works. If they don’t do it in their books, they won’t do it in their classes.
  • I once heard Darrin Patrick say that Christians reproduce after their own kind. I think that is true and it’s why I say seminary is the place where middle class white people send middle class white guys to minister at middle class white churches.Diversity is not a strength at most seminaries. Basically none of what has been most important to me in my current context came from seminary. They didn’t even discuss it. Try to find a seminary that actually lives out in the present the ministry future you believe God has in store for you.
  • A notable brother in Christ in defending seminary wrote “So even with tuition and exams and papers, the essence of seminary will be sitting at the feet of Jesus.” If this were true, I would be a huge proponent of seminary but it is not because nobody gets graded on how well they sit at the feet of Jesus. Accreditation will not permit it, and seminaries generally want to keep their accreditation. This goes back to my initial point that we all have to remember that seminaries are primarily academia.

Finally, there is an excellent book designed to help those in seminary grow their love for Jesus rather than their knowledge of facts about Him called How to Stay Christian in Seminary. You can purchase it here. There is a related, but shorter series of articles here . These are written by brothers who have a very different perspective on the value of seminary than I do but are still concerned that many people pursue seminary with the wrong goals and unrealistic expectations.  I would commend it to anyone who does decide to pursue seminary.

Seminary’s high points

This is the third in a short series of posts addressing my belief that seminary is actually a pretty terrible way to equip saints for ministry in the local church. In the first post here, I said that seminary is certain not a complete waste of time and money. It simply is not the best use of time and money. In the second post here I shared some of what made seminary a generally less than ideal experience for me. In this post I wanted to share some of the positives about seminary.

I mentioned in the first post that one massive benefit of going to seminary was a class that had as a primary focus to wake us up to the reality that our own walk with Christ matters more than all the book learning we could get. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this and how useful it has been as an accountability measure for my ongoing walk with Jesus. One of the books we used in that process was Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp. I would encourage it for anyone in vocational ministry if you read it with an open mind.

A older, godly friend once told me that seminary is really about the books you read, and having finished now I would say that’s largely true. I read several books in seminary that I would not have been likely to pick up otherwise and for that I’m grateful. Here are some of the books I read due to seminary curriculum that I would highly commend to the kind of person that reads my thoughts:

  • God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation by Andreas J. Köstenberger, David W. Jones
  • Seeing with New Eyes by David Powlison
  • Why I Am Not an Arminian by Michael Williams and Robert Peterson
  • Tell the Truth by Will Metzger
  • Master Plan for Evangelism by Robert Coleman
  • Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch
  • Relationships a Mess Worth Making by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp

A had a class that required me to memorize Psalm 34. Prior to that I probably never used Psalm 34 in any of my counseling. Since then I probably use it 80% of the time in some form or fashion. Dozens of people have refreshed their confidence in God the deliverer as a result of this assignment. I’d encourage you to go read this Psalm right now and imagine how potent it could be to someone who is stuck in a habitual sin, suffering from a chronic medical condition or just having serious marriage problems.

While it was not as helpful as it might have been, I have gained a few contacts through my program that have been useful to some of the pastoral work I am doing. It’s possible I’d have developed a similar network without seminary, but I doubt I’d have gotten to be personable with these particular brothers and sisters in Christ.

My program required me to have supervised counseling. While I had already done this for my certification and there wasn’t anything new, my supervisor was very helpful for me because I had pivoted off of counseling for a season and was needing to gear back up. Some of the basics he brought me back to saved those I met with during that season a lot of bad conversations and unhelpful homework assignments.

Semi-nary a good experience

I introduced this series on the relative value of seminary here if you are interested in reading the first installment.

The goal of this blog is to highlight some of the really difficult times I had in seminary. I don’t mean difficult as in academically challenging, I mean difficult as in befuddling or spiritually draining. There are good reasons people write books like “How to Stay Christian in seminary” and often I wanted to wrap my head in duct tape so it didn’t explode.  I’ll list a few specific instances at the end of this article but I’ll kick it off with the two general things that drove me nuts and offered no redemptive value.

I mentioned in the first installment that seminary is deadly primarily because it is academia. It is sad to me that we think spiritual qualifications are built on how well someone navigates the academic world. This is especially true when reading the New Testament and seeing that one of the things that grew the gospel witness of the Apostles is that they were “uneducated, common men.” (Acts 4:13) I went to the Greek like a good seminary dude and it turns out that in the original language “agrammatoi” means “uneducated” just like in the English translation. It may have even carried the connotation of being illiterate, but certainly meant they didn’t have formal religious instruction. I realize seminaries say there are lots of reasons why they are necessary and I don’t debate that there are some valuable things a seminary can bring, but those gems are limited by things like accreditation and extra-biblical requirements on higher education centers.

Here’s an example. I was already done with a paper when I heard that the grader (not the professor) had a problem with bullet points. In the real world, bullet points are valued because they offer clear communication in a concise manner so I asked him how much of a problem it would be if I kept my paper as it was. He said it would cost me a letter grade, maybe more. Who knew Jesus hated bullet points so much? Why are thesis papers formatted differently than every other paper? Why does the proper order of items in a footnote matter? Why are a thousand things true of seminaries if their goal is to equip church leaders for local church ministry? It’s because they are primarily institutions of higher learning. I was so dejected about the bullet point thing I almost quit 2/3 of the way through my program.

What’s worse is that seminaries basically misrepresent what they are doing when they say they are preparing leaders for local church ministry. There are some that do this well and I’ll talk about those in the fourth post, but because they are primarily academia they actually prepare people to read books, listen to lectures, take good notes and write papers. It’s like what Mike Ditka said when they asked him if it was a good idea to draft a quarterback and let him learn the position while sitting on the bench. “All he’ll learn by sitting on the bench is how to sit the bench. If he wants to learn the position he has to play the position.” He also said “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms,” but that’s another blog post.

Perhaps this is related, but the second I found so surprising (and lots of others who have been to seminary after spending time in the private sector have agreed) is the level of administrivia and lack of customer service at seminary can be appalling. It was not uncommon for me to wait 1 – 2 weeks for a one sentence answer to a time sensitive question, and sometimes it was longer. While students were expected to meet requirements and sanctioned with lower grades when they failed, in several cases the staff were not generally held to the same level of accountability as the students or expected to lead with excellence by example. Maybe it’s a resource constraint issue, and maybe I’m too much of a consumer, but when I pay money for a degree I expect a level of service commensurate with other things in that price range. Maybe lack of communication and delays are normal in academia and so seminaries are in line with their peers, but that sort of makes my first point about seminaries being primarily academia.

Some other things that were befuddling or aggravating to me about seminary:

  • I had a class that included helping those with eating disorders. It included the requirement that I submit everything I ate through myfitnesspal.com before I went to bed each day. It seemed overly intrusive, but was more befuddling when someone in the class who had previously struggled with an eating disorder was excused from the assignment with the rationale that focusing on food would be bad for her. Huh?
  • The Oxford comma. If you know what this is you are perfectly fit for an advanced degree or a grammar Nazi. If not, you are probably a normal human.
  • Seminaries use words like proleptic and polemic as if they were words anyone understood in the real world. Introducing these terms into those wanting to shepherd ordinary people is actually counterproductive. (I didn’t have this experience in my program, but I would add to this doctrinal things like whether supralapsarianism is the right view. Nobody in the real world cares about these things.)
  • My thesis project was nowhere near worth the level of effort it required. I had a great and godly adviser who didn’t have a lot of time. Whereas I thought it would be a way to work through the content, his main role was really to help me publish a paper properly (and I would never have finished without him). I probably read well over 3000 pages to get enough citations and even then had to scour the internet for blog posts and online articles to back up my points. I would have gotten just as much benefit from a couple weekends alone and a few phone calls with people who could contribute to my thinking.
  • I don’t think I’ll ever understand how you can take a class involving shepherding a person’s soul, have a professor never once watch you shepherd a person, and somehow get graded on it. What does that tell you about how connected seminary is to real life?

In the next post I’ll highlight some of the high points of my seminary experience.

Is seminary a complete waste of time and money?

Since I finished my seminary degree, people have been asking me whether it was worth it. Even before that, when people heard I was in seminary, a good percentage asked whether it was a waste of time and money. I wanted to do a short series on the topic. While my own experience is of course front and center, I have tried to temper it with experiences of others who have gone to different seminaries and asked myself whether my answer would be different if I went to a different seminary.

The big caveat beyond that is that I love the brothers and sisters at my seminary. We are joint heirs of the Kingdom and I will enjoy the presence of the King of Kings with them for all eternity. Some people I love have made a career choice of working in a seminary environment, and there’s probably nothing wrong with that. This series is about the relative value of a massive investment of time, energy and money in seminary vs. other ways that investment might be spent.

The simple answer to “Is seminary a complete waste of time and money?” is, no. It is not a complete waste of time and money. I personally would not do it again and think most people would get better outcomes for what they desire somewhere other than seminary. I certainly know some people who benefited tremendously from a seminary environment, but it is the minority. There are several things I gained in seminary that I may not have gained through other avenues. But the reality is there are very few people I know who say they enjoyed seminary that I would want to have on a church planting team in my context.

I’ll devote a whole post to what I didn’t find helpful about seminary, but the biggest thing is that seminary is primarily academia. If you are the kind of person who likes to read books and write papers and debate finer points then you will enjoy seminary and probably exaggerate its value in real life. If you don’t enjoy those things or are primarily a pragmatic person (which is true of me), seminary will be a dull, life-sucking chore. It also means that things move slowly – whether that is because of lack of motivation or lack of resources is not visible to me- and that can be inordinately frustrating at times. I suspect it is a mixture of both. I frequently struggled with the idea that my seminary generally did not treat me like they were preferring me in honor as a brother in Christ or a customer of their service. It was pretty much: “This is the way we do things here. Deal with it.” There is no doubt that my makeup and career in the private sector colors this a lot, and maybe I’m wrong, but I do know that if I treated those paying my salary the way my seminary treated me, I wouldn’t have any more customers. That’s not an exaggeration.

Which may make you ask, “Mike, why did you go to seminary in the first place?” The answer is I wanted to be a church planter and a godly man who I have great respect for told me that church planters in the west needed a piece of paper on the wall. It was just a cultural expectation. What I have found in our ministry context of low income, mostly minority people, is that nobody cares that I went to seminary. What I have learned through a wide variety of places is seminary is basically a place where middle and upper class white people send other middle and upper class white people to get the credential they like to see in middle and upper class white churches.

Again, I’ll devote a whole post to what was beneficial about seminary, but to me the highlight was one class (thank you Dr. Carson) that made the central point that our own spiritual condition is the primary thing we bring to our ministry experiences. It’s easy for me to go into pragmatic “fix it” mode, and that reminder more than anything else has been etched into me permanently.

I suspect most people who go to seminary would be far better served by joining a local church context where they were challenged to live by increasingly greater faith rather than an academic context where they were required to grow their brain.