One day, I told myself, I’ll be somebody.
There was just one problem: something wasn’t working.
- So-and-so reads a book every week; I should do that, but I can’t manage it. I can’t be very clever.
- So-and-so has published multiple journal articles; I should have done that, but I haven’t. I’m so lazy.
- So-and-so knows so much about this subject; I should too, but I don’t. I’m not committed enough.
- So-and-so has gone to Oxford; I haven’t. I need to be more ambitious.
I felt like an imposter. Yet I kept trying, chasing after the wind, as if success was just over the horizon. After all, this is what being a theologian is all about right? Isn’t this what the really important people do? There seemed to be no other way. Skip to a grey afternoon in 2010. I’m sat at my desk with my Bible open in front of me. I had studied this particular passage so many times before – but something was different now.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead!
God’s not at all dazzled by letters after a name, and neither should we be. They feel great, sure, but what do they amount to? We must be honest with ourselves: we will never have our fill. We will never really be satisfied and content with our academic position. You will never be finished, and one day, it’ll all simply fade to dust. But by then it'll be late to learn that one can never actually catch the wind.
So, what then? Is this the final defeat of all theologians? Are we to give up and go home?
Not at all. We must fight The Long Defeat.
In modern secular thinking, we’re to be champions of the notion of ‘progressivism’. We are to value prestige and upward mobility. We’re expected to move onto constantly better and better things, from great to greater. “Our whole way of living”, writes Henri Nouwen, “is structured around climbing the ladder of success and making it to the top. Our very sense of vitality is dependent upon being part of the upward pull and upon the joy provided by the rewards given on the way up”.
The way of Christ stands in stark contrast to this kind of thinking. This world is broken and it’s not getting any better. God has subjected creation to futility (Rom 8) and we are lost in a vanity of vanities (Ecc 1). This is the Biblical view of human history. What’s astonishing, however, is that Jesus never once calls for our abdication. He doesn’t ask that we find a cave to hide in for the rest of our lives. He doesn’t ask that we establish a commune and disappear from ordinary existence. Instead, He demands our full participation – even though everything’s falling to bits.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” [Matt 16:24]
On that day in 2010, God might have stolen away my collection of academic idols.
But in exchange, I was given His image of what it means to be a theologian.
I saw in Phil 3 all of what it means to be an ‘intellectual disciple’ – to consider all one’s academic gains as loss in order to enjoy Christ and know Him as all-sufficient. To refuse to weigh one’s worth according to which University one went to, or how well decorated one’s CV is. We accept less of what flatters us, to gain more of Christ who satisfies. We want to know Him more. We long to be open to His calling on our lives, even if it proves ruinous to our best-made plans. This is not necessarily a pretty calling. You might not enjoy that antique leather chair or deliver plenary papers to hundreds of adoring peers. But it is Christ’s calling.
In the words of Bonhoeffer,
As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time.
[Bonhoeffer - Cost of Discipleship]
In any case, we must remember: it is Christ you’re serving. It is His Cross you’re displaying to a watching Church and world. It is indeed the Long Defeat you’re fighting. In Phil 3 we read of our reward: that in all this, we will know Christ more, and Christ will be made known through us. And so, we press on towards the goal - the call of God in Christ.
I thank you Father that you have not revealed this to the wise and the intelligent but to little children [Matt 12]
The medical student says of his encounter:
“Although my fate and my life were at stake, those others came at me with their routine. I found in them no trace of life or truths learned by experience. I smelled only corpses of lifeless ideas. … I was looking for a Christian in whom I could detect a flame. I found only burnt out slag”.
Brutal. But, if we're honest, well-observed.
When I first started studying theology I despised Church services. Not because of the persons involved, not at all, and not in the sense that I 'disliked' the experience. But in the academic sense, I regarded much of what transpired with contempt. I would chortle to myself: if they only knew. Such arrogance is unfortunately typical of many theologians, and I know, because I was that person and I've seen it over and over again. We become like those in Thielicke’s study: rebellious and proud, as much of a blessing to others as burnt out slag. It’s one thing to recognise that our academic gains are rubbish compared to the value of Christ. It’s quite another to recognise that God is not on your side just because you know stuff. God is on the side of the least. The poorest. The uneducated. The unnuanced. The conservative pastor who has never learned Greek. The worship leader whose choice of words might be imperfect. We must give up our unkindness, our rebelliousness, our groping ambition - not primarily for the sake of others, but because we serve Christ when we serve them.
In all this, we learn what it means to fight The Long Defeat.
To embrace the academic walk, despite its imperfections, in the employ of another Master.
To teach that which might be difficult and offensive, ready to brave the ire of one's peers.
To cultivate a zealous love for Christ, even when clouds of cynicism obscure the dawn. To disregard one's own fame and live for that of Christ, over and above public recognition. To refuse to chase shadows, but instead, look to the rising of the sun.
This is your Long Defeat, theologian. Here’s your cross. Pick it up.
Until then, we press on together, to fight the long defeat.