Just two months after marrying, I entered Dallas Baptist University as a freshman, excited to take my first steps toward a future career in counseling. Since learning that the Lord was both inclined and able to provide guidance for the decisions of life, I had sought his will concerning what direction to pursue in college, and counseling was the clear response. It was a field I had never considered, as I had long planned for a future in architecture, but the trauma I had walked through as a child and the fallout that manifested during my teenage years had created in me a sincere desire to help others with similar stories find healing. I had only just begun the process myself, but I realized that if God was leading me to one day minister to others in this way, it must mean that I too would be restored and made whole. And so I began college, filled with hope for the future.
Beyond basic core classes, my psychology major required an almost 50/50 split between religion and humanities courses, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled, so eager was I to gain a deeper understanding of the faith I had so recently accepted as my own. But if I had imagined a supportive, friendly learning environment in which young ministry students like myself, seeking to serve the Church and help build the Kingdom, all encouraged and challenged one another along this path of preparation, my very first religion class, Philosophy of Religion, disabused me of all such notions and revealed my naivete.
Each class would begin with the professor introducing the topic of the day, highlighting the most commonly held positions, and usually adding a few diametrically opposing quotes from proponents on both sides of the issue. As soon as he completed his opening presentation, he would toss out a religious-centered philosophical grenade, a leading question, pregnant with controversy: “Are there two wills in God? If there is a God, why does he allow suffering? Does God have foreknowledge of all of our choices?” “Discuss,” he would say, and the room would erupt in loud, fervent debate. Our professor would then stand back in clear amused delight, tracking with razor-sharp precision and a well-honed comprehension that was always several steps ahead of the progressing arguments being hurled back and forth across the classroom. Only occasionally would he interrupt, raising his voice to match that of the more exuberant students, in order to point out some logical fallacy or to require someone to expound on and further defend a stated position.
Several in the class seemed to thrive in such an environment, the most extroverted, vocal, and opinionated in the group enjoying the opportunity to participate in such impassioned discourse. I, on the other hand, being of a personality type that is very reserved and usually prefers to avoid conflict, sat through every session feeling uncomfortable and wishing the hour would end. Even had I been one to speak up, it was obvious to me that the other students had more of a foundational understanding of the topics being discussed, beyond the information provided in the textbook. I struggled to follow the debates.
I was further confused by the fact that my fellow ministry students all seemed to have a “dog in the hunt” so to speak. While I was pleased to examine both sides of each argument for the sake of simply learning, they appeared to have some type of personal history with the issues that incited them to argue zealously, determined to tear down the opposing view and convince others in the room of their position. It was something I could not have understood at the time, having no prior knowledge of church or denominational history. Years later, I would look back and realize that the Church was undergoing some fairly significant shifts during this time period that would have ongoing repercussions and create further division in the years to come. Not only had postmodernity begun to give rise to the emergent church movement, creating concern in many over maintaining doctrinal integrity and fundamental values within the Church, but Reformed Neo-Calvinism was also gaining adherents beyond its traditional Presbyterian circles, shaking things up in many Baptist churches. It was into this religious environment, right in the middle of a Southern Baptist university, that I would receive a crash course in just how seriously Christians take doctrine and theology, and I was ill-prepared.
For me, the hardest day of class came toward the end of the semester during a highly heated disagreement over predestination and the sovereignty of God. As our two most outspoken students, roommates who had entered college together after sharing years of childhood friendship, reached a total stalemate over the topic, suddenly realizing they would simply not succeed in persuading the other, the conversation shifted and their tones became angry. “Man, when we finally graduate seminary and each become pastors of our own churches, you better plan on planting your church on the opposite side of town from mine, and I will NEVER send anyone to your congregation!” one shouted. “Agreed!” retaliated the other. The room fell completely silent.
My drive home was filled with prayer interspersed with tears. These are my brothers in Christ. Were we not commanded to love one another even as Christ has loved us? Will I too have to someday choose sides on all of these points, Lord? Will doing so separate me from those I am called to love? What does any of this have to do with knowing you more deeply?
Our final assignment for Philosophy of Religion made my head start to ache the moment it was announced. We were to write a position paper over the opposing points of Calvinism and Arminianism. While we were not required to fully adopt all tenets from just one doctrinal camp, we did have to pick a side on each separate view and defend our choice using Scripture. And so began my plunge into one of the most highly disputed, divisive debates in all of church history. I researched. I cross-referenced. I sought counsel. And finally, having gained all of the knowledge I could gather on the subject and, finding Biblical support on both sides for the points deemed by many theologians as “incompatible” doctrines, I decided to turn to prayer to see if the Lord might offer any help.
“It is for man to wrestle,” came the reply.
That’s it? That is all the insight you wish to offer on such a difficult topic? I didn’t see how that simple answer was going to help me with my current dilemma of writing my paper, not to mention further me down the road of building a theological foundation. But ironically, as I began to wrestle with what God had spoken, I discovered a deeper truth about the Lord than what could be contained in any doctrinal stance: a life in God is primarily about relationship with the One in whom all truth resides. I read the story of Jacob in Genesis 23, of how he wrestled with God and refused to let go until the Lord blessed him. He left the scene with both a limp and a new name, Israel, meaning “wrestles (or struggles) with God,” a name that would forever define and describe God’s relationship with his people.
I turned into my professor a paper entitled “It is for Man to Wrestle,” highlighting the need for humility before both God and man when broaching theological and doctrinal issues, always keeping in mind our primary goal of relationship with the Lord in such pursuits and continually inviting him into the process. It would be the lowest grade I would receive in the entirety of my college career. The professor felt that I did not adhere to the assignment, and, admittedly, he was right.
In no way did I intend to suggest to my professor—nor do I here suggest to the reader—that doctrine is of no importance. To be sure, misunderstanding the truth about God can seriously impede and even undermine our pursuit of him. Over the years in ministry, I would witness to my great sorrow (and I know to the Lord’s as well) several who, by actively seeking to tear down long-held doctrine under the guise of “breaking out of religion,” have not only misled others but have, in the end, found themselves entirely unmoored and far from the God they claimed to be serving with their deconstruction efforts. Further, in my own life and in the lives of those who I would minister to, there would come situations and circumstances that would test all of our faith, and in those instances, a foundational and robust understanding of God would prove indispensable. For that reason, I look back with immense gratitude to the many people along the way—to the professors, pastors, authors, and mentors—who have challenged me and pressed me to study and to deepen my comprehension.
But the lesson I gained through the Lord’s response that day all those years ago has permeated every aspect of my pursuit of learning, ministry, and faith, and it is this: If we really want to know God, if we desire to be the people of God, then we must do more than just draw conclusions about the facts related to his nature and how he works out his plans for humanity. Knowing him must be accomplished relationally. In our doubts and fears, we must wrestle. In our trials and heartbreak, we must wrestle. In our faithlessness and wandering, we must wrestle. To be found in him, we must wrestle.
“Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord.”Hosea 6:3