I was doing some thinking (big surprise) lately on one of the ironies of life as a seminarian: how you can be in a place where you are constantly learning about God and studying the Bible, but yet can (potentially) grow further apart from God rather than closer. How is it possible that seminary could potentially kill your spiritual life rather than strengthen it? Surely if God founded a seminary his students would not have to balance working, studies, relationships (including family), local church commitments, and their spiritual life! They would have all their needs provided for without having to work for them; would be able to handle their assignments with relative ease; their relationships would be supportive and spiritually beneficial; and since the rest of their life would be stress free their local church commitments and spiritual life would seem like blessings rather than burdens! This would no doubt be a better way to strengthen their faith and prepare them for ministry rather than the way our present seminaries do.
As I thought about this more though I realized that God would not run his seminary in the way I would have expected (see above paragraph). First of all, God does give his followers easy lives. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and many other devoted followers did not live easy lives. Furthermore, many present day Christians do not live easy lives either (e.g. those living in Islamic countries in the Middle East). Secondly, trials refine us and strengthen our faith (James 1.2-4; 1 Peter 4.12-13), not comfort.
If God is indeed sovereign over all creation and more powerful than any heavenly being then why does he seemingly punish those who follow him rather than reward them? What is the point of doing things in this manner? How does having to balance a million different things help prepare someone for ministry?
While I do not know the full answer to these questions recently I have realized part of it. Seminary is preparation for ministry in our crazy, messed up and Fallen world. And in this world we will have to balance our family obligations, ministry work, and studies all while maintaining a close walk with God so that we can be faithful ministers to the people whom God has given us, just like we are doing now at seminary. I think of seminary as preparation for the front lines of war. In order to survive we must know how to overcome and manage the obstacles and hardships that we will encounter there.
While the classic (and certainly essential) tactics for negotiating the spiritual battlefield are probably well known to most seminarians (prayer, bible reading/devotions, fasting, etc) there is a new tactic that I’ve encountered recently. Not new in the sense that it is innovative and has never been used previously, but new in the sense that it is so under utilized human forgetfulness erases all memory of it before it is encountered a second time.
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
(James 2:15-16 ESV)
I’m going to call this “new” tactic Tangible Acts of Encouragement. With this tactic instead of saying something merely along the lines of “I’ll pray for you” you actually do something tangible to encourage the person. This can be done regardless of whether or not the person displays a need for encouragement. If they like a certain restaurant buy them dinner there (or a gift card). If they like a certain movie watch it with them. If they need a break at work give it to them. If they need someone to talk to listen to them (I mean really listen and remember what they said, not just nod your head and say “yes”). If they need a coat to stay warm give them one. If they need food to eat give them some. With this tactic you go beyond mere encouraging words (though they should definitely be there), which too often seem like a cop-out to someone who is feeling down, and into acting on those words.
You’d be surprised how often you can employ this tactic. Even in a situation where words and prayers seem like the only thing you can offer for encouragement, such as when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, you can do something tangible for them. A cup of coffee, an attentive ear, and an encouraging tongue can do more to encourage that person that a million prayers they never hear you pray.
Don’t over or under utilize this tactic though, otherwise your recipient will be inclined to doubt your sincerity.
I was recently the recipient of a Tangible Act of Encouragement from my mother. Two of my favorite foods are chocolate and popcorn and my mom recently sent me a package filled with them. It was one of the best encouragements I’ve received so far in seminary and it didn’t require a single word. Thanks mom!
So don’t forget to encourage your local clergy (and seminarians) in tangible and appropriate ways. If you are a layman in your local church they are the ones who are (or will be) shepherding you on the front lines of the spiritual war raging all around us. They are human just like you are and need encouragement just like you do, though it may not obvious when they are struggling and need it. It is to your benefit and theirs that they remain spiritually strong and Tangible Acts of Encouragement are highly effective in this endeavor.
Now I had not been busy and frustrated with trying to balance all the things in my life I would not have realized just how effective this tactic could be. Thus I would not have been able to share it with all of you, nor would I have been able to use it myself in order to encourage my brothers and sisters who are struggling with me for the cause of Christ. The stress that comes with seminary is indeed an essential part of ministry preparation.