My most recent book was on the relationship between evangelism and social action. It was five-year project and I poured my heart and soul into it. When I was done, I had mixed emotions. I was proud of the work and felt the argument was worth making.
But I was troubled.
What specifically troubled me was that, as I looked back, it occurred to me that over the last five years I had spent far more time thinking, theologizing, and theorizing over evangelism and compassion than I had spent actually doing those things. And even in my role as professor, I became increasingly burdened by the fact that I was spending an awful lot of time talking about the work of the church, but not a whole lot of time doing it.
Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in the importance of sound theology and the need for theologians in the church. But I began to wonder…
Had Christianity become to me more of a nice theory than a way of life? I suspected it had. How could I legitimately look my students in the face every day and ask them to make sacrifices for the sake of the gospel if I wasn’t also making those same sacrifices ? How could I encourage them to be willing to leave all for the sake of the gospel (Luke 18:29), while I sat comfortably in my office sipping coffee and grading papers?
I began to realize maybe for the first time how very easy it is for those of us in academia to fall into the theory trap when it comes to our faith. By that I mean falling into a way of following Christ that is high on lofty ideals but short on actual gospel engagement. And, how without that kind of engagement, without costly, sacrificial service, Christ can become for us something other than the Person who lived, died, and rose again, and who will one day come again in glory.
You see, the trouble with a theoretical faith is that we can convince ourselves that it’s the real thing…that like Peter we are prepared to give all for the sake of our Lord. And we can settle easily into that comfortable lie because our faith is never tested and our self-assurance is never challenged.
And so maybe the best lesson I could give to my students was to step out of the classroom, where I was comfortable and confident, and into this military chaplaincy environment where no one cares if I have PhD, or what I’ve written or published. They only care about whether I am capable of caring…caring for the souls of those entrusted to me as a chaplain.
And one week into chaplain school, I know only this: that I’ve never felt such an overwhelming need for the Spirit’s power and guidance and presence as I now feel.
And that’s a great place to be.