Faith P. from Atlanta, Georgia, asks,
I'm a junior at a Bible college. These past semesters I've had a very difficult time enjoying church. I'm just wondering if this is normal of pastors, seminary students, and theology professors. And also how does one escape spiritual apathy to enjoy the worship and teaching of church services?
We posed this question to Ray Van Neste, associate professor of biblical studies and director of the R.C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University.
Yours is a good question. Yes, it is common for students to deal with some sort of lethargy, so be encouraged that you are not alone. However, it is not good, so be challenged to move forward.
The causes of this spiritual apathy can be many. For students, moving away from the church community you have known and encountering academic study of the Scriptures for the first time can be a really difficult combination. Academic study can seem to take the "heart" away from your own reading of the Bible just as you lose much of your support structure. Then as we learn some theology, pride can seep in, and we can look down on sermons and lessons from people who don't seem as informed as we are now sure that we are. Also, as in any other stage in life, if we become comfortable with our own sin (perhaps now made easier by isolation), excusing rather than combating it, our desire for the things of God will wane.
Various other causes could be mentioned, but your question centered on solutions! Here are a few thoughts.
1. Know that you are not alone. This is a common struggle (1 Cor 10:13).
2. Since it is common, there are fellow strugglers with whom you can talk. Your pastors and professors have no doubt walked through this as well. Talk to them.
3. Don't succumb to overwhelming guilt causing you to pull away from the Lord. Our hope, even when we offend him, is always Christ. Look to him. Don't run from him. Take your cold heart to him. Because of his cross and resurrection, forgiveness is sure for all who are in him. "For the LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him" (2 Chron 30:9).
4. Keep the gospel before you. You aren't saved by the level of your zeal. Regularly being reminded of your sin and then being reminded of your forgiveness in Christ and his steadfast love for his own will help fight off apathy.
5. Again since this is common, Christians have reflected on this in the past, and you can read what they have said. I have my students read several pieces on this theme that have been a great benefit to me along the way:
- B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students. You can find this in a published booklet or online. It is a brilliant sermon from a hundred years ago that deals with this topic and other challenges of the academic setting. We need to hear Warfield's challenge: "God forgive you, you are in danger of becoming weary of God!"
- Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. This is a brief book that addresses several challenges for those beginning a study of theology. His discussion of the subtle, unintentional shift from addressing God in second person to referring to him in third person was a great benefit to me in college. Kelly Kapic has written a "new" Thielicke titled A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology. I have not yet been able to read it, but based on his previous work, I think this would be a great help as well.
- Carl Trueman, "On the Importance of Being Earnest." This is a great article that nails this topic and provides key advice. Trueman (like Warfield and Thielicke) stresses the value of being rooted in a congregation. My advice comes largely from my engagement with these writings.
6. Invest yourself in a local church where you can hear the word preached, serve, and be in community with other non-student believers. If you try to study theology apart from the church you are doomed for trouble. Interacting with believers from various walks of life and age groups will help to keep you balanced. Being responsible to care for them and for them to care for you will keep you living out your faith rather than slipping away into a laboratory imitation of the faith designed only for analysis and speculation. As Warfield said, "the regular public worship of the church, for all its local imperfections and dullness, is a divine provision for sustaining the individual soul."
7. Continue to read your Bible and pray. Some people, meaning well, say there is no point in reading the Bible or praying when your heart isn't in it. This is dead wrong. We can't give up just because we are dull. We must continue to meet with God, knowing that any relationship is built by consistency over time, not just by occasional fireworks.
8. Engage spiritually in your theological assignments. Don't think of them as merely academic and don't allow a division in your mind between spiritual and academic work. All biblical study or theology, properly done, should lead to a deeper love for people and for God resulting in deeds. All theology should be doxology.
9. The two great commandments apply to academic study as well as to the rest of life. We are to love God and love our neighbor. All study should lead us in this direction, and then this love should lead us to action and involvement with others.
I hope these points are helpful to you and that you have a community there to walk along with you.