Theological Training

I’m proud I graduated from a well-respected seminary. And I’m proud of following that Master of Divinity degree with an advanced Master of Theology degree in Patristics. And that’s precisely the problem . . . I’m proud.

As a Christian, I recognize that pride is one of the most destructive and insidious sins. As a pastor and chaplain, I have seen all too frequently how pride expressly targets members of the clergy. Our vulnerability to the temptation to be proud is one of the common chinks in the armor of the ordained.

C.S. Lewis recognized this fact. In A Severe Mercy, he wrote:

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man. St. Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I shd. have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation; and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap. . . .

In fact, the change [to a Christian ministry] might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology wd. do. Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Lewis understood that “advancement” in ecclesiastical contexts can mask the inner heart and be mistaken as a form of holiness when it is in actuality vanity. I was reminded of this weakness in clerical armor recently, when I read a tribute to a Chinese Christian whose name is little known beyond his homeland. Dr. Sun Yi-yin, known in America as “Freddie Sun,” died in August at the age of 76. A professor of Geology, he lost his faculty position for failing to deny Christ.

Like thousands of other Christians living under the atheist regime, he was imprisoned for his work in establishing churches and Bible schools. He raised the funds to start no fewer than 154 of these training centers, and was key to the equipping of approximately 60,000 underground pastors and teachers. The “underground” Church in China is distinguished from the government-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

For his labors, Sun endured a decade in a Chinese labor camp. (His wife, Dorothy Chang, was also imprisoned. Rather than reducing his faith, during his sojourn in the harshest of conditions, Sun experienced a personal revival and his zeal increased.

His story is amazing, but here is the aspect that hit the mark in the center of my conscience. In his autobiography, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.”

Now, I am grateful that God has preserved me from the “fiery furnace,” but I do long to experience the fruit of the spirit that Sun so richly harvested in prison. While not dismissing the importance of the classical subjects of homiletics and hermeneutics, as the Apostle says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis’ treatise on suffering, he addresses how God can redeem terrible things such as unjust punishments. For those desiring to understand how an omnipotent God can allow evil to occur, Lewis’ presentation is quite helpful. And, the life example of Dr. Sun provides a superb example of its validity.

I advance six propositions necessary to complete our account of human suffering which do not arise out of one another and must therefore be given in an arbitrary order. 1. There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by ‘judgement’ (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying from city to city, and may pray to be spared it, as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane.

But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.

Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse—though by mercy it may save—those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

I thank God for the life and testimony of Sun. I pray God will reap an abundance of believers in China, and elsewhere, due to his faithfulness. And I thank God for using Sun’s words to cause me to stop in the midst of my busy activities and take the time to examine my own heart and motives.

20 thoughts on “Theological Training

  1. I am 45 years old and am only about to finish my Mater of Ministry. There were a couple of years worth of non-accredited or technical schooling, four more years of college and Bible school, then a couple of years for the Masters. I am tired. I feel tied down. I am ready to learn on my own the things which I have not had time to study, like Spanish. I also want to spend more time with my youngest daughter is desperate for my attention.

    Years ago I dreamed of having my doctorate by now. Then life happened. But I am truly thankful. If I had gone to school and seminary when I was young, I would have ended up being even more of a self-righteous jerk than I was. My pride, on top of my legalism, would have been disastrous! But God sent me through a fiery furnace of my own, allowed me to fall, and then introduced me to Grace. I may not have advanced degrees, but I have lived a life that can sympathize with the congregation I pastor.

    But I still have some pride. You can see that in my profile picture. Why else would I be sitting in front of a bunch of books with a green banker’s lamp on my desk? Vanity, isn’t it? Oh well.

    God bless you, brother. The people with the most pride are the ones who say they have none. You’re on the right track.

    1. Thanks for your candid response to my post. (I see what you mean about the officious profile shot!) Blessings to you as you wrap up that Masters. I understand completely about being tired. Life does seem to get in the way, but ministering to our own families needs to remain a constant priority. It’s great having a brother like you walking the same path in this earthly pilgrimage.

  2. A very complex subject. I enjoyed your thought provoking discussion. You have given me something to think about. I am the daughter of a minister/missionary. I have seen too much pride in suffering -Christians wear it as a badge of godliness. I have attended seminary and now see the globalization of religion. We live in interesting times. I look forward to every one of your posts!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement. And thank you for the sacrifices you made as the daughter of a minister (especially a missionary). Too few people understand the price paid by clergy families. God-willing, they receive some blessings too . . . but I’ve met too many PKs who resent the church for robbing them of the time they should have shared with their parent(s).

      1. So glad that we connected. The call of the ministry is not for the fainthearted. We were four children – none of us followed in my father’s footsteps. My parents were remarkable in that they were not mainstream in their thinking. Being an PK/MK gave me a the opportunity to explore spirituality from many angles. In the end, I found that I was faced with three questions: 1) Is there a God? 2) If so, how has he revealed himself? 3) If there is revelation, How have I responded. My father recently passed away – those last discussion we had will be forever treasured. We see in a mirror darkly…but then face to face…we shall be known… What an amazing promise.

  3. I think it was Mere Christianity, but can’t site with certainty the exact location in which CSL talked about pride… He called it the “Great Sin,” and said something like, “There are two kinds of people in the world, the proud who think they’re humble and the humble who think they’re proud.” Sin has an “I” in the middle of it. I still need to get my I knocked out.

  4. Your post echoes Oswald Chambers’entry for Nov 1 in the “My Utmost for His Highest” devotional. His suggested scripture reading for that entry is from Luke 10 “Notwithstanding, in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20)

    Pride is always the stumbling block, it seems. I think it is just as closely tied to our ability to or failure to forgive as it is to ambition and self-satisfaction.

    1. Yes, many of us are quite susceptible to pride. I have known some truly humble people though, and I wonder if they possess any similarities with one another in the gaps in their armor.

  5. I decided to revisit your blog today after I wrote yet another blogpost reflecting on Lewis’ great quote, “The inside is bigger than the outside.” Thank you for these reflections. Too often we take pride in the wrong things and forget to thank God for the seemingly shameful things like our difficulties where we are being trained in the fruits of the Spirit, like Sun wrote. And thank you for that awesome book recommendation, I will definitely look it up. Blessings to you as you continue your life’s ministries.

    1. Thanks. That quotation you mentioned just reminded me of an episode in one of the Star Trek shows (possibly the Enterprise series) where they discover a tiny space vessel from the future. Due to a futuristic manipulation of the laws of physics, the ship inside the hatch is full-sized and quite large.

      Lewis’ insight is, of course, not about the material world . . . it’s about reality. Another illustration of this comes in the microscopic size of the “grey” world, in contrast to Heaven (reality).

  6. Thanks for this wonderful piece and especially for passing along the first quotation from C.S. Lewis. I feel the same way, but Lewis articulated it better than I would have been able to.

  7. I searched for this blogpost of yours this morning and have re-read it this Christmas morning (before the rest of my family is up) because after reading it some months ago, I asked for Sun’s book for Christmas and a thoughtful friend heard me and gave it to me. Another friend (with whom I shared your blogpost) is in line to read it after me. Thanks so much for the recommendation and for this very apt and wise article. It applies to me a lot since I think I am quite prone to the sin of pride. Once again, Merry Christmas to you all!

    1. Fantastic. I hope that the book deeply ministers to you and encourages you. Being aware of our vulnerability to the vice of pride is the key to winning the battle . . . or, rather, getting out of the way so our Lord can slay our pride for us. Merry Christmas to you as well!

  8. Pingback: The Seminary of Suffering « wwgimd

  9. Well it’s me again :-) Today I wrote a blogpost with reflections on Freddie Sun’s book which I finished this week. I hope you don’t mind, but I kind of used the skeleton structure of your writing in this piece, but not too obviously I hope! Thanks again for the book recommendation. I called the blogpost “The Seminary of Suffering” after what Sun called it.

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