1. It turns out the professors were right.
There is really something unique about setting aside a time in your life, and I mean a time measured in years instead of hours, to focus almost entirely on studying the Word of God and developing a solid worldview. We heard this over and over from the professors (and also from visiting pastors and alumni) who said that we would likely never get another season like this in our lives. It’s been true for me that since graduating, life has kept me very busy. Marriage, children, and other responsibilities make it difficult to make anything the singular focus of my life the way I was able to at Bible College. On top of that, for young people in their late teens and early twenties, there is still a malleability in one’s character and convictions and a still-forming personality that tends to harden and petrify with age.
Having said that, I want to stress that it is never too late (or too early) to have profoundly shaping encounters with the Word of God and good teaching. For me, there was a period of time between my spiritual new birth at the age of nineteen and stepping onto the campus of a Bible College at the age of twenty-one that was, in hindsight, a time of dynamic personal revival. A time when the Bible spoke with a kind of irrevocable power into my life, when good teaching not only blessed me, it changed me. I look back now and realize that this was extraordinary, and sadly, not the norm. Bible College is an environment that fosters these kinds of experiences, but God is more than happy to turn a life upside down, soften a hard heart, and pour out his Spirit on people of any age, at any time.
That is why it is so worthwhile to pray for this to happen, to set aside time and make the effort to read good books and to expose yourself to good teaching in a setting where the distractions of normal life are not competing for your attention.
2. Life is not meant to be a never-ending summer camp
One of the ironies of Bible College is that one of its greatest strengths can turn into one of its most pernicious dangers. Anyone who has been to a Christian summer camp, especially as a youth, knows about the summer camp high. It is the cumulative effect of a number of factors: a setting removed from normal life, excited leaders, lack of parental oversight, close proximity with people of the same age and interests and beliefs, enthusiastic singing many times a day, lots of sugar, and frequent dynamic teaching aimed directly at young people. Add a campfire to the mix and the result is an experience that is unforgettable for most and life-changing for some.
Bible College is similar in a lot of ways, especially if you live on campus. But the difference is that it doesn’t stop after one week or two, or even a whole summer. It lasts all year and for those taking full degree programs, it goes on for many years. At the start, the intensity of this environment is really wonderful. Not only are you being stretched intellectually, academically, and spiritually, but there is also a depth of fellowship and friendship that is new and exciting. But as time goes on, it’s not uncommon for people to start to feel like they need to get away for a bit, especially those who are more introverted. This phenomenon hints at the fact that, while wonderful, these so-called mountaintop experiences are not sustainable.
After three years on campus, the sheen had worn off completely. The constant exposure to the Bible and theology and the blaring impossibility to personally apply or internalize the majority of what I was learning had the effect of dulling my receptivity to those things. Where once I had been thirsty ground happily soaking up any drop of rain, I was now a flooded garden unable to absorb anything, and tragically I somewhat lost the taste for it. Not only did I feel this sense of spiritual disillusionment, but I felt a lot of guilt for feeling that way. After all, how many pastors in less fortunate parts of the world would love to have this kind of opportunity to study the Bible and theology? I know that my experience was more severe than most, but it was different in degree, not in kind; it is extremely common for people in Bible College and Seminary to feel like the Bible has become dry and academic, and for them to go through a period of disillusionment.
But what I have learned is that these seasons are not meant to last forever, and I think I stayed longer than was beneficial for me (all told, I was there for about 6 years!). Real life is full of gloriously gritty, imperfect, confusing situations for which there are no easy answers. Time at Bible College is most valuable if you eventually pack up your theology books and move back into the mess of the real world.
3. Childlike faith is a rare and beautiful treasure
Knowledge puffs up. It really does. It takes a special dose of the Spirit to keep a young theologian humble. I saw this over and over during my time at the school. Young men full with equal measures of knowledge and pride, and sometimes not that much knowledge. Conversations and debates teeming with bravado; a stench in God’s nostrils surely. The only thing more depressing than seeing some of these young men, these supposed future leaders, full of arrogance and pride was realizing that I was no better at all, for I was not only guilty of the same things as they but I also had the gall to look down on them too. God help us.
What I’ve learned since then is how beautiful it is to see simple trust and love for God. I don’t believe at all that theological and Biblical knowledge and childlike faith are mutually exclusive, but I do believe that my heart and yours will grab onto anything to feel superior to others. It does my heart so much good to see what I affectionally call ‘normal church folk’ sharing what God has been doing in their lives, overflowing with simple thanks and praise. It helps chip away at the layer of cynicism that has encrusted itself over my heart. It gives me hope that I can cultivate that in myself.