I Only Cheated in Seminary

I Only Cheated in Seminary

That title isn’t click bait. It’s just a fact.

Nine years ago I showed up at seminary with mixed feelings. I didn’t really know what seminary was. I was unexpectedly called, fearlessly convictional and recklessly immature. I just wanted to learn the Bible.

I thought: Whatever, Lord?

Fresh out of undergrad I felt an explicit call to counseling. A few Google searches later a cradle-raised Episcopalian in a sorority t-shirt wandered the halls of a Southern Baptist seminary. I asked stupid questions. I wondered why all these people were here if they already knew the whole Bible. I continued drinking wine with no idea I’d apparently signed an abstaining contract. I talked to everyone! And I wondered why everyone who friended me on Facebook sat a row further from me the next class.

I thought: Whatever, Lord!

Despite all my inglorious cluelessness, you’d have been hard pressed to find a more earnest student than I. I took pages of notes. I listened to every word. I marveled at the opportunity to learn the Bible. I whole-heartedly, gratefully sat under the spiritual and intellectual process of being trained by God’s Word.

I thought: Whatever, Lord.

Ends and Means

As seminary progressed, the work got harder. Jumbled fear and fearlessness made me take matters into my own hands. Rather than study for a few closed note take home tests, I opened some books and got them over with. I, a person who had never cheated in any secular context, cheated in seminary. I didn’t really want to be in school. I didn’t really care about grades. This wasn’t about grades anyway, right? This was about learning the Bible. Surely God would understand. I’d done so much for Him by doing something as radical as coming to seminary. The least He could do was let me accomplish His call my way.

When the stakes were raised I wasn’t sure I could make it. In the name of self-preservation and comfortability I sacrificed:

1. obedience for expedience,

2. diligence for ease and

3. faithfulness for self-sufficiency.

I thought completing a work for God through ungodly means would be fine with Him. I thought the ends would justify the means. I underestimated the holiness and authority of the God I sought to follow, fearing failure instead of Him.

But don’t worry. I didn’t get away with it.

Rethinking Our Call

If God calls us to a faithful endeavor, completing His call through unfaithfulness will never be part of what pleases Him (Rom 14:23). How many of us lose sight of this?

None of us are perfectly faithful (Rom 3:23). That shouldn’t stop us from doing ministry (Matt 28:16-20). But there’s a difference between the sin I can’t see in myself and the sin I choose to hide by deceiving myself (Ps 19). The sin I rationalize and downplay is the sin I allow to spread like leaven when I think wrongly about God’s biblically revealed will and my own foolishly overestimated importance.

If I think I have to compromise God’s commands—through lying, cheating, manipulating or treating others unlovingly—to build the thing I think the Lord is calling me to build then I’m building the wrong thing. If there’s not a way to do something “for God” with integrity, do we ever stop to consider whether He wants it done in His name at all?

If you love the Lord and seek to please Him with your life, here are five things to consider:

1. When we willfully engage in unfaithfulness to pursue God’s call, we sin against God and misrepresent Him to those to whom we think He has called us. When we act this way people will smell us, not the aroma of Christ. This isn’t ministry.

2. Integrity means we can’t divorce our ends from our means. Another word for integrity (integritas) is wholeness, or holiness. Therefore, godly ends don’t justify ungodly means. If your means are ungodly, so are your ends. Ministry shouldn’t be unholy.

3. Faithful intentions done unfaithfully aren’t faith. Faith always obeys. If you disobey God, that’s your flesh, not your faith. If you begin the work God has set before you by conviction, but complete it through the flesh, you cease to serve God. Ask yourself then, whom does this work serve?

4. If you don’t love God in how you pursue your ends, you won’t love others well either. If you disobey God, you pursue selfish gain. If you pursue selfish gain, you’ll forsake others to get there. You will hurt people, even if the person is just you. If you don’t love others, whom do you love?

5. If it seems impossible to pursue God’s call without compromising God’s explicit commands, you misunderstand Him. Our God is a way maker. If you can’t find a godly way to accomplish your ends, you’re going the wrong way.

Called to Die

The funny thing is, the only person who ever served God perfectly faithfully was a man who ministered three years and died a shameful death. He was never wealthy. He wasn’t beloved by all (Jn 15:18). He often walked away from crowds and told people not to tell about the things he’d done (Mk 7: 33, 36). Few of the people he taught ever really understood what he was saying. He didn’t make his hometown proud (Mk 6:4). But he trusted God enough to fail in the eyes of the world because he knew his failure in the world’s eyes was always the point. He never failed at faithfulness. But his faithfulness looked like failure to us.

We are not like this man. We are like his friend, Peter.

Peter often thought he was doing things for God, but did them from willfulness, not faithfulness (Mk 8:33, Jn 18:10). He denied Christ for self-preservation (Mk 14:66-72). He hurt people through his foolish zeal (Gal 2:11-21). He feared the wind more than he trusted Jesus (Mt 14:28-33). He tried hard but he failed often. Jesus forgave him (Jn 21:15-17). He still received his crown in heaven. God still loved him, kept him and used him for his glory, not because of Peter, but because of the faithful man who had died for him (Mt 16:18).

We are like Peter. God can surely redeem our sinful means and selfish ministry goals. As Paul said, even if the gospel is preached for selfish ambition, we rejoice that the gospel is preached (Phil 1:15-18). But that doesn’t negate the damage sin does to us, those around us and a lost watching world in the process.

This brings us to repentance.

Dying to Live

In my last year of seminary I ratted myself out for all my crimes. Fear of the Lord came in hot as He taught me—a wild, unbroken young woman—more about His holiness and authority than I had yet learned in my lifetime. I boiled in His conviction. I walked to my death again and again as I pursued total confession and repentance before God, others and the seminary. My friends and family thought I was crazy. (Crazy for God, suckers.) The seminary forgave me with some appropriate consequences. I graduated. And I came out of seminary a person actually equipped for the work of ministry: I feared the potential of my own sin enough to finally fear the Lord.

When God invites us into his work, zeal to do whatever, Lord is not enough for faithful obedience. We must also possess the fear of God that begins wisdom. His work must be done His way because He is holy and we are not. He is wise and we are not. He is good and we are not. If we lack this wisdom, God will mercifully teach it to us. He knows what He’s working with in us. He knows we are dust, prone to wander, with deceitful flesh still very much at work (Ps 103:14; Jer 17:9; 1 Jn 1).

He still worked with Peter. He will still work with us. Not for our sake, but for Christ’s.

Questions for reflection:

+ Do you elevate God’s grace over God’s wrath instead of keeping a balance?

+ Do you have people willing to be honest with you about your sin?

+ Are you growing in awareness of your own sin as you grow in awareness of God’s kindness toward you?

+ Does waiting on the Lord bring you peace or anxiety? 

+ Are you willing to hide things in order to grow your ministry?

+ What’s your goal in accomplishing great ministry?

+ Are you actively seeking to understand fearing God?

+ Have people been hurt by you in ministry?

+ Do you daydream about having a bigger platform or more influence at your church, over your city or in your sphere?

+ Do you pray the Bible or pray for great things for your ministry?

Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.i

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