Westminster Theological Seminary has shaped my heart and head in more ways than I can list. But for those who haven't been to seminary and are curious, or for those who have been and need a reminder, I thought I'd list the three most important truths I've learned there. I should clarify, though, that these are truths I continue to learn. The heart needs repetition to grow. Iteration leads to germination. Every time I think I've learned these things, an experience will throw me into frustration or discouragement, and I'll hear the Spirit say, "Did you really learn these things yet? Let's go over this again." Here they are.
I am not God.
I know, you don't need seminary training to get that one. But this is one of those truths that looks like a rain puddle, when it's actually deeper than the ocean. You might hear it referred to as the Creator-creature distinction. That's just academic jargon for the plain fact that God is God, and you are not. If this truth is so obvious, why do I say I needed to learn it and keep learning it?
We have this relentless pursuit of control. We're like little watch makers huddled up in our shadowy shops, playing with gears and gold, trying to piece together our lives in a way that ticks with predictability. And then our father dies of cancer right in front of us. Or we develop an anxiety disorder (see Struck Down but Not Destroyed). Or we fall into a bog of self-loathing. I talk about my experiences with all of these things in Finding Hope in Hard Things. The point is that life's unpredictability assaults us everyday. And it reminds us that we're not in control. We don't hold the reins on the bucking stallions of the present and future. In fact, we don't even hold the reins on the past. We understand so little of what happens to us, and it takes all that we have to trust in the God who governs every bird wing and blade of grass.
We know, conceptually, that we're not God. And yet we can't break the habit of pretending that we are, of trying to control everything, and of the burning frustration that ignites when we see, once again, that we can't. As little watchmakers, we pound the table when the gears don't fit together, when we drop a pin, when someone else enters our shop and kicks the table leg by accident. Spiritually speaking, we have to keep learning that we're not God every single day.
We understand so little of what happens to us, and it takes all that we have to trust in the God who governs every bird wing and blade of grass.
But this is actually the best news in the universe. It's so obvious that I can't control the smallest of things. I can't even promise you that I won't drop my cereal spoon tomorrow morning. That's good news because the one who's infinitely wiser, stronger, more gracious, and more merciful than I can dream is the one in control. There's not a terrorizing tyrant on the throne of providence; there's a loving Father, who gave his only Son, that you might be filled with his life-giving Spirit and be with him forever.
The independence of God, and our dependence on him, isn't a curse. It's a gift. It means that the way our lives go, even in the worst of pain and paralyzing doubt, is up to someone who has our best interests at heart. Our best interests, however, also go beyond our wildest dreams. And that's where the second truth comes in.
Suffering is the path to Christ conformity.
We could take the phrase "best interests" and put it as a question. "What's the best thing that could ever happen to you?" Be real with your answer. Jesus and Paul are certainly real with us in theirs. The best thing that could ever happen to you is that you'd be made more like God. Does that not stop you in your tracks? Is that even allowed? Here's how Paul put it in Romans 8:28-29.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:28-29 ESV).
"Conformed to the image of his Son." The Son is God (just as the Father is God and the Spirit is God). We were predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son, to be made more like God. And if God is the greatest, then what could be better than that?
How does that conformity happen? This is where Christians wince. Through cross-bearing and suffering. Go ahead. Take a minute to swallow that. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 16:24-25). Deny yourself (that's pretty wholistic), take up your death (the cross) and follow him. Oh, and by the way, you're going to lose your life before you find it. That runs counter to how we've been trained to think in the West. We assume that we find our life first, and then we get to choose how we will give it to others, how we will "lose" it. Jesus says the opposite. Loss is the way to gain. Suffering and death in him is the way to joy and life in him.
The path to resurrection life leads through suffering and death, not around it.
Paul follows Jesus. And he says he gave up everything for Christ. Why? Look at what he says. It should appear a little insane at first glance. "That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10). Sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. That's not suffering for it's own sake; it's suffering for a purpose: resurrection. The path to resurrection life leads through suffering and death, not around it.
It's taken years for me to learn this truth, and the work of Richard Gaffin Jr. has been instrumental (see especially his article "The Usefulness of the Cross" in Word & Spirit), but so has my seminary training. My professors constantly spoke of suffering as a path to glory. What I heard in the halls and classrooms took a while to seep into my heart. I follow Jesus. His footsteps are my footsteps. This is ecstatically liberating because it takes the very things we want to avoid, the things we hate—suffering and death—and makes them tools for our spiritual growth. It takes the worst and makes them the best. That doesn't mean we don't hurt and heave with despair at times. But it does mean that a candle light of hope will always be burning in front of us.
The greatest hope, of course, is the hope we have to be with God forever. That's the last truth.
I'm destined for communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Geerhardus Vos said that everything in us is "disposed for communion" with God (Reformed Dogmatics, Anthropology, p. 13). Everything in us bends towards him. We're born leaning. Nothing can pull us away from that deep-seated desire to be with God. It's how God made us. We were made as his creatures (truth #1), resemble him more faithfully when we're shaped to Christ (truth #2), and will be fully satisfied only when we stand in his presence (truth #3). All of life, in God's shepherding hands, draws us towards the one who communes with himself in eternal love. I can't wait to see his face. I can't wait to see the faces of those who are in his presence right now. I can't wait for eternal communion to start.
Everything in us bends towards him. We're born leaning.
And, in a sense, it already has. I'm already united to Christ by the Spirit. I'm already reconciled with my heavenly Father. I know and feel his love. And I live with expectancy, with hope, in what's ahead. I make this concrete with the word "family." God is my family now. And God has a big family. When my time here is up, I'm going home, not away. I'm destined for home.
Those are the three most important truths I've learned at seminary. I'm sure I'll keep learning them in new ways. I hope they're a light to you wherever you are right now.
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