Editor’s Note: Dr. Matthew Y. Emerson is Dickinson Assistant Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University. He received a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is post originally ran in two parts in August 2016.
According to the Meyers-Briggs personality test, I’m an ENTJ. For those of you not familiar with that (somewhat dubious) method of understanding how each of us tick, it basically means I have the classic CEO personality type. At its worst, it means that, left unchecked, I tend towards overconfidence, arrogance, derision toward those who disagree, and tactlessness. Thankfully, the Spirit of God works to transform me into the image of Christ, and thus checks these tendencies in me, usually through the needed reminders from my wife.
Obviously these are not necessarily the greatest set of sinful tendencies to have in your early twenties, without much life or pastoral experience, and with, in my case, an ability to read and write quickly. When I came to SEBTS, my first year placed all of these on display. Mercifully, the Spirit was not going to leave me in this sinful place, but used seminary to keep me humble. I want to emphasize this – when I came to SEBTS, I did not recognize any of this about myself. God used my time at SEBTS to begin to wake me up to my sin, and to teach me to rely on the Spirit to continue to transform me into the image of Christ. Instead of “staying humble” in seminary, then, the truth is that I was humbled again and again.
There are at least three distinct moments that I can recall that the Spirit used to humble me. The first came in my first year. I took Biblical Counseling with Dr. Wade in my first semester, and it was in the preaching classroom in Adams. I don’t know if it’s still there, but there was an old, 1970s green checkered blazer in the back room in case preaching students forgot their coat on the day they were to preach. I used to put that on every day in Wade’s class, and thought it was hilarious. One of my friends and I sat near the back and we would crack jokes the entire class. Dr. Wade, surprisingly (at least to me), never rebuked us publicly that I recall. But over the course of the year he took the time to have lunch with me a few times, and allowed me to preach at his church for preaching class, even though I was a total idiot in that fall counseling course. Toward the end of the spring, he asked me to lunch, and as we ate he began to lovingly confront me about my arrogance, an arrogance that I had never even considered as an issue in my life until that moment. I do not remember his exact words, but I remember two things: that he cared deeply about me, and that his words were used to by Spirit to filet my heart open and lay it bare, showing me the depths of my sin. Even as I write this it brings tears, because I remember what it feels like to have the truth spoken to me in love.
The second proverbial smack in the mouth also came in the spring of my first year. I took Dr. Hogg for Church History I & II, and we had to write short analyses of primary documents. One of them was on Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly,” and I received a “B” on it. The only comment was, “this is satire”; I had not explicitly identified it as such in the reflection. I walked up to Dr. Hogg, one of the kindest men I know, after class – this still embarrasses me to no end – and said, “I’m a graduate student. I know what satire is.” Dr. Hogg just looked at me and said, “Ok, I’ll take another look.” The next class period he silently handed me his marked up copy, which was blood red with ink. The phrase I remember is, “it took you this long to get to a thesis??” I knew then that I wasn’t as smart, as incessantly correct, or as good a writer as I thought I was. It was academically humbling.
The final one came in PhD work, during my last seminar – Theological Foundations. I’m pretty sure my classmates remember me exactly as I was: an arrogant, overconfident jackwagon. My PhD supervisor, Dr. Hogg, was the professor, and I knew we were on the same page on many of the topics covered in class. Many of my classmates weren’t on that same page, and I just didn’t understand why. Classic ENTJ stuff. So in class I was constantly flabbergasted by the ideas they proffered, and by their unwillingness to just agree with what I said. A couple of things happened in that class. First, one day at the very end of class, so that I had no time to reply, Dr. Hogg, in his unassuming Canadian way, asked me a question. After I gave a brief answer, he then kindly showed my reply to be absolutely wrongheaded and dismissed the class. The other moment in that course, and one that I try to remember as often as I can given my academic vocation, came in a pointed conversation that the-now-Dr. Quinn (Medicine Woman; sorry, Benjamin, had to do it) intentionally had with me after class one day. He asked me why, if I was so intent on my classmates understanding my point of view, I couldn’t show some respectful engagement with their ideas that they, too, were offering in the class discussion. In other words, why would I expect anyone to listen to me if I wasn’t willing to listen to him or her in return?
Each of these moments, among others, sticks with me to this day. God used my seminary experience to show me my pride. This was all grace. Obviously the latter two of those big moments I described were explicitly academic, but all three of them, as well as others, were used by God to show me my spiritual condition. I didn’t stay humble in seminary; God humbled me.
Let’s say you’re not an ENTJ, though. Maybe you don’t struggle with some of what I’ve mentioned. Seminary can still be a place that gives your pride a voice. How do you avoid that? Some suggestions:
- Pray. This probably sounds like a trope, but seek the Lord’s face. Understanding God’s kingship and your own place in his kingdom is the first step to humility. Ask God to demonstrate this to you.
- Get involved in a local church. I don’t mean just attend a church; I mean let the pastor, staff, fellow members, get to know you at more than a surface level. Biblical counseling, confrontation of and warnings about pride, take place first of all in the local church. Put yourself under good preaching, but also make yourself available to needed, intentional relationships that provide the opportunity for brothers or sisters to speak the truth to you in love.
- Get a good anthropology and ecclesiology. God is the source of all the natural talents with which you were born and the spiritual gifts you received at your new birth. You cannot accomplish anything – reading fast, writing well, preaching that shucks the corn and shells the peas – without the help of God Almighty, and you do not exercise those talents and gifts apart from the context of the larger body of Christ. Recognizing that is a big step toward humility.
- Listen more than you talk in class. Ask good questions, but don’t just say stuff to say it. Sit at the feet of those who are the experts. Don’t assume because you’ve read one book on a subject that you can now demonstrate to your professor where their oh-so-obvious error is.
- Peruse the library. I don’t mean that you should take a nice stroll to clear your head, and because many of us are theo-nerds the place to do that is the bookshelves. I mean, go walk around the library and see how many people have thought deeply, carefully, and thoroughly about biblical studies, theology, practical disciplines, and the like. As the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun, and this includes whatever magnum opus you plan to write for your Theology II research paper. Or your dissertation. Get a good dose of academic humility by meditating on what others have done before you got here.
Humility is in many ways about perspective. We need to see our own place in God’s story, we need to see how God has gifted the brothers and sisters around us, and we need to see all the hard work that scholars in our various fields have put in before we got here. All of this gives us perspective about our own place, our own abilities, our own ideas. Humility comes from knowing ourselves in light of who God is and who we are in the midst of the rest of his creation. Maybe some of you will be able to take that advice and stay humble, or maybe some of you will be humbled in spite of your own blindness to your pride, like I was. Either way, God is faithful to conform us into the image of his Son through the power of his Spirit. Praise him for that merciful grace.