The Chinese church has an interesting ministry training model that is birthed out of their intense persecution. Without formal education, they have decided that a person is qualified to be a pastor if they have been imprisoned for their faith. It is here that they learn how to be ministers–suffering is their seminary. In contrast, in the States being trained for ministry involves several years and several thousands of dollars at a formal seminary. Here students learn Greek, correct hermeneutics, and how to dissect a Scripture passage. Seminary gives very valuable knowledge about doctrine, but it does not prepare the heart and soul for ministry in the way that suffering does for the Chinese believers.
Paul David Tripp in his book Dangerous Calling identifies the weaknesses of Western seminary. He notes that theological knowledge can be confused with spiritual maturity when in reality “maturity is about how you live your life. It is possible to be theologically astute and be very immature. It is possible to be biblically literate and be in need of significant spiritual growth.”
Turning Head Knowledge into Heart Knowledge
We tend to look at ministry preparation and discipleship in terms of knowledge only. While this is extremely important, it cannot be the only area in which we focus. It is only when we apply the truths we have learned to the difficulties of life that we truly grow.
In suffering the head knowledge of faith can become heart knowledge. When we suffer, we cry out to God to know he is real and that he cares about us as individuals. We need an understanding, not just of lofty principles of his greatness, but of the nearness of his love and concern. It is when this becomes a reality that we are equipped to walk through the rigors of life.
We All Need to Be Trained
All of us are called to be ministers. We may not all stand in front of a literal pulpit before a congregation delivering a carefully crafted message. However, we all have a figurative pulpit and congregation through the different arenas of our lives–home, work, etc. We, too, need to be equipped to deliver sound doctrine to those in our lives. We learn this good doctrine at church. However, we learn to apply this doctrine through the difficulties of our lives.
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One of the clearest examples of this in my life is motherhood. I am a very selfish person. However, motherhood forces me to think first about three little beings who are dependent on me. I did not want to get up in the middle of the night when I heard crying, but I did because I was needed. I did not want to listen to my kids, each in their turn, struggle through reading as I taught them for hours on end. None of these things, and countless other parental experiences, are easy, but they teach me humility, love, self-sacrifice, and mercy.
These are the real fruits of God’s work in us. We are tempted many times to think that right doctrine is the path to true spirituality, but Paul clearly dismisses this in 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 ESV.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Paul’s chapter on love comes after speaking about spiritual gifts, warning believers not to get puffed up or focused on these gifts. Instead, “I will show you a more excellent way”–the way of love (1 Corinthians 12:31). To ensure they don’t misunderstand, he goes on to explain the characteristics of love–patience, forgiveness, faithfulness, and hope. These are all possible only with humility. When we suffer, we develop this humility as we quickly learn that we cannot do things alone. We lose faith in our ability to pull ourselves out of whatever difficulty we have found ourselves in.
Jesus Went to the Seminary of Suffering
Jesus did not sit at the feet of learned rabbis like Gamaliel. Instead, Hebrews 5:8 tells us, “although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” John Owens, a theologian, explains this verse:
One special kind of obedience is intended here, namely a submission to great, hard, and terrible things, accompanied by patience and quiet endurance, and faith for deliverance from them. This Christ could not have experience of, except by suffering the things he had to pass through, exercising God’s grace in them all.
What suffering did Christ endure? Of course, it is clear that he experienced the suffering of the Cross, but this is at the end of his ministry. Could it be that a lifetime of living in a family that misunderstood him and in a community that judged him was part of the winnowing of his soul? We tend to think of suffering in big events, but it can often be the everyday struggles of lack of connection and familial responsibilities that are the hardest to bear because there seems to be no end in sight.
Lessons from Those Who Have Suffered
We can learn though from those who have experienced extreme trials. The book The Insanity of God is a compilation of the experiences of many Christians all over the world who have suffered for their faith. In particular, one man named Dimitri explains what he did to survive the torture, the isolation, and imprisonment. He had two disciplines, taught to him by his father, that enabled him to survive:
For seventeen years in prison, every morning at daybreak, Dmitri would stand at attention by his bed. As was his custom, he would face the east, raise his arms in praise to God, and then he would sing a HeartSong to Jesus. The reaction of the other prisoners was predictable. Dimitri recounted the laughter, the cursing, the jeers…There was another discipline too, another custom that Dmitri told me about. Whenever he found a scrap of paper in the prison, he would sneak it back to his cell. There he would pull out a stub of a pencil or a tiny piece of charcoal that he had saved, and he would write on that scrap of paper, as tiny as he could, all the Bible verses and scriptural stories or songs that he could remember.
Later, however, these same jeering prisoners sing his song back to him as he is dragged out of his cell–the reward of his faithfulness.
When we clasp Christ’s hand, we too will be pierced by the nails that pierced him. We walk with him in suffering and see his love even more clearly because he is one who has suffered himself, in the everyday trials and in the earth-shattering trials too. When we walk through dark times we learn that every day we will have to preach the gospel to ourselves. It can be like Dimitri through a song so precious we call it our HeartSong or through the recitation of Scripture and it’s promises. It is in this seminary of suffering faith that we can learn the width and depth and breadth of the gospel, girding ourselves with the truth of His grace. It is then we will be ready to deliver this embodied faith to a world that is all too acquainted with suffering, and we will finally be equipped as ministers of the Gospel.