Seminary Is Not an Oasis

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My friends who graduated from seminary told me it would be a place like nowhere else. I would develop lifelong friendships. Healthy churches near campus would abound. They lamented Greek’s third declension and hated some of their assigned readings, but they viewed the labor as worthy since it equipped them to understand the Bible.

I arrived believing seminary was an undivided kingdom of wisdom.

No one could’ve known what was going on in my heart. I went to each campus event and spent free time working on the research project of a lifetime. I was privileged to learn from some of my favorite writers and scholars—they even knew my name. I went to the church many of the other “involved” students attended.

But deep down, I was a mess. While my mind was exploring the Kingdom of Wisdom, my heart was stuck in the Doldrums. Don’t fool yourself like I did. Rhyme and reason can go missing, even at seminary—and if that happens, forget about Reality. It’s invisible by now, haunted by the Terrible Trivium.

Sin Doesn’t Stop

In the early days, I often caught myself thinking, Shouldn’t a seminary student know better? When I was on the receiving end of sin, my tone was even harsher, and more self-righteous: Wow, it’s really easy to learn the Bible but not apply it, huh? Seminarians are all the same, aren’t they?

These sentiments are clichés for a reason. Far too many people start seminary thinking that theological education is designed for those who “get it,” but in the end “getting it” is reduced to puffing up with knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1).

Though others’ pride hurt in many ways, it wasn’t their sin that hurt most—it was my own. Preparing for seminary, I told myself I would stop being so afraid of man’s opinion once I got to campus. Surely if I did something in the name of Christ, it probably arose from right motives. I assumed killing sin would be easier around people who were good at showing grace. Tragically, I believed my sin would pretty much stop in seminary.

I assumed killing sin would be easier around people who were good at showing grace. Tragically, I believed my sin would pretty much stop in seminary.

That assumption nearly wrecked my soul.

Prolonging repentance made me quick to drag others before a jury for the smallest sins, and even quicker to drop all charges against myself. I became woeful at showing grace because I perpetually felt the need to defend myself. Defensiveness stems from insecurity, and it wasn’t until I got to seminary that I learned just how insecure I felt in Christ.

Three Lessons

Jeremiah 17:9, which says the heart is deceitful, is in your Bible for a reason. Your heart’s instinct to hunt or be hunted will lead you astray in seminary. You must stop trusting yourself.

Your primary goal at seminary is not career advancement, opportunity, or straight A’s. Your goal is to know God and his Word more intimately—and though the two aren’t always at odds, I’m afraid more of us need to heed Jesus’s warning concerning those who knew much about him but never knew him (Matt. 7:22). There may be some who say, “Lord, Lord, did we not graduate from seminary in your name?”

Speaking from experience, here are three lessons I commend to students as they head to campus this fall.

1. Know what you’re getting into.

Seminary is often romanticized. It’s actually more difficult than I could’ve imagined—and I’m not talking about Greek morphology. The seminary environment made me feel like a big deal, and the bigger our self-idolatry gets, the harder it falls. The allure of arrogance lurks around every corner. Prepare yourself for the power struggle. My faith in God was tested more during the year I was on campus than ever before. Don’t think of seminary as an oasis; it is a battleground against the principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12).

2. Be vulnerable enough to be insufficient.

You can’t “do” seminary well without being terrifyingly known by others, which means you can’t “do” seminary well without being terrifyingly vulnerable. Had I been more vulnerable, it would have saved me a lot of hurt. Vulnerability is antithetical to pride. It helps reveal sin and cultivates humility. Had I been more transparent with fellow church members about my own heart, perhaps I would’ve had opportunity for repentance without total implosion.

3. Hunt sin or be hunted by it.

Refuse to veil your confession of sin. Position, status, or opportunity will never repay the wages of holiness—and holiness might cost you one or even all of those things. Don’t try to prove you have your act together—you don’t, and you never will so long as you live in a sin-wracked body and world. The only person demanding an account of your righteousness is the One who came to call sinners—not the righteous—to repentance (Mark 2:17). You don’t stop sinning at seminary. And if you don’t hunt sin, it will hunt you.

High Stakes

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be required,” Jesus warned, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be expected” (Luke 12:48).

The stakes of seminary are high, and the succulence of sin is tantalizing. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, you can wage war against your unholy self. Then you will find seminary a far more formative experience than you could’ve ever imagined.

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