I thought I’d write to pass along a bit of advice about your studies from St. Paul. I suspect now may be as good of a time as any, since you’ll likely receive this right after your midterms. (If not, feel free to put my note on hold until you’ve weathered that storm.) Before passing the advice along, however, let me first try to give it some context. One of the realities of your new life as a seminarian—one which, I imagine, may have drawn you in in the first place—is that you’re on the receiving end of a lot of biblical instruction, whether through your courses themselves or, if your experience is anything like mine was, through weekly chapels and conversations with your friends. (And this is to say nothing of the weekly cadence of your local church.) Paint this picture for a fellow in the Chinese underground church and he’ll say you’re blessed indeed. How could you not be? Look at all the resources—and freedom!—at your disposal. How could this not lead, almost automatically, to the production of a mature faith? The math seems so simple. I suspect, in fact, that the folks in your local church would tend to agree, especially if they are first generation Christians. Perhaps you’ve noticed this already. They probably wish they’d had these sorts of opportunities when they were younger—they think of the better decisions they would have made, the values they would have prioritized differently, the better example they would have set for their children. Tell them about your experience in seminary and they’ll say you’re extraordinarily blessed. How could all this Bible instruction not lead to maturity, to wisdom, to godliness…. Of course we both know it’s not that simple. You and I both know that not everyone who’s sat in the classrooms you’ve sat in, or read the books you’ve read, or heard the sermons you’ve heard has, in fact, grown in their love for God. Some—too many, sadly—have experienced what you’re experiencing and have walked away from the faith. They’ve abandoned everything they heard. What probably started out as a bit of boredom, matured into a settled indifference and then, for some, flowered into outright contempt. Familiarity can have this sort of effect, can’t it?
This is where Paul’s advice to you comes into play. There’s a little prayer at the beginning of his letter to the Colossians that I’d like to draw to your attention. It tells us how we can protect our hearts from such callousness or, as Paul puts it, how we can make sure our knowledge of God leads to joyful gratitude. “I pray,” he writes, that “God [would] fill you with the knowledge of his will…so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord…[which looks, among other things, like] giving joyful thanks to the Father” (Col 1:9–12). Based on this prayer and on a few things Paul says elsewhere in this letter, let me offer the following lines of advice. I’ll stick with three and try to keep them brief.
(1) Work hard to connect what you’re learning about God to the Bible’s larger story-line, which is to say, to the gospel.
This may not be immediately obvious from Paul’s prayer, so let me explain. First, notice the kind of knowledge that leads to joyful thanks. It’s “the knowledge of God’s will.” Probably the key to understanding what Paul means here is found in v. 6. There Paul talks about the gospel as something that is “bearing fruit and growing,” which is precisely how he describes the effect of knowing God’s will in the prayer I’ve just noted. While knowing God’s will leads to joyful thanks, it also leads to “bearing fruit…and grow[th]” (1:10). Thus, to talk about growing in the knowledge of God’s will is to talk about growing in the knowledge of God’s redemptive will, which is to say, the gospel. Second, what further points in this direction is the way Paul describes the grounds or, better, cause for the joyful gratitude. Right after the note about “giving joyful thanks to the Father” Paul describes what the Father has done for us, thus giving us the reason for our thanks: he’s “qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (v. 12b), an idea Paul then further explains in vv. 13–14. (If you’ve got time, you may want to take a look at 1:15–23, 24–27 and 2:6–15 as well.) Thus, to say it again, when Paul prays that the Colossians would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, he’s praying that they’d be filled with the knowledge of God’s redemptive will, which is to say, with a knowledge of God’s salvation-historical plan.
If you’ll work hard to connect what you’re learning to this larger story, this narrative, it will inevitably lead you to reflect on what God has done for you, which will inevitably result in joyful thanks. (If it doesn’t, it’s likely you’ve not yet understood things correctly. So, keep working at it!).
2. Speak often about the gospel with your friends.
If you’ve had a chance to read anything by Jerry Bridges lately, then I’m sure you’re familiar with an idea he’s popularized: preaching the gospel to yourself. It’s a useful habit to get into and a very good way to encourage the gratitude Paul prays for here. (It’s also quite good at relieving stress, but we’ll leave that for another time.). Beyond this, however, you really need to get into the habit of talking about the gospel regularly with your friends. This is what Paul is getting at a bit later in the letter when he encourages the Colossians to “let the message of Christ [probably, about Christ—and what God has done in him] dwell among you [the pronoun is plural here] richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude [there it is again!] in your hearts” (Col 3:16). This, of course, need not be the only medium for these conversations, but I suspect you’ll admit that it’s quite a natural one. Let me encourage you then to not only speak of the gospel often with your friends but make sure you’re making good use of corporate worship—incl. your time in chapel or when you’re officiating youth group. Such experiences will help keep your heart tender toward the things you’re learning—esp. if the song or hymn reflects directly on the gospel—and, therefore, ready to respond with joy-filled thanksgiving.
3. Diligently ask God to give you a deeper knowledge of and more profound love for the gospel.
Here’s the final one I’ll pass along. It’s right off the top, isn’t it? After all, the line about joyful thanks comes from Paul’s prayer. Let me encourage you then to simply follow Paul’s example here. Ask God to fill you—and your classmates—with a knowledge of his will that will lead to joyful gratitude. This is the sort of prayer you can be sure God will answer. He may not give you that “A” you want on your midterm or let you write that exegesis paper in a single weekend, but he will help you more fully understand and readily embrace the gospel, if you’ll ask him.
Let me close with one last note about Paul’s prayer. I haven’t yet said anything about the ultimate reason all this is so important. There’s something even more important here than your own joyful gratitude. I skipped over this bit when I cited Paul’s prayer earlier. After he tells us that he’s praying for the Colossians to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that they’d live worthy of the Lord—which is to say, so that they’d bear fruit, grow, experience God’s power, and respond in joyful thanks [four participles for you to consider later]—he tells them why. Such knowledge will lead to a kind of life that will “please [the Lord] in every way” (v. 10). Your joyful gratitude and, more broadly, your perseverance in the faith is important, of course, but it’s God’s pleasure that is ultimate. Let me encourage you then to pursue your studies with this in mind. I’ll be praying that you do.