5 Holy Patterns for Living in the New Year

I’ve never been one who does well making and keeping resolutions in the new year. I’ve only really been successful at it once, so I only do it sporadically, and usually last-minute. This is probably due to the vagueness of past resolutions, more than my unwillingness/laziness, though both of those have come into play at times.

This year I decided to do something a bit different. I am not making any new year resolutions. Instead, I am setting some specific goals for the year, something Michael Hyatt and my friend Chad Brooks have both stressed recently as important for leaders, particularly leaders in the church. What’s the difference between setting goals and new year resolutions, you wonder?

Resolutions celebrate the destination, often ignoring the process. They tend to be vague, lacking the imperative of deadlines and measurable success. You resolve to lose 15lbs this year; how and when you get there doesn’t matter as long as you arrive.

Setting Goals celebrates the journey toward a specific end. When setting goals, one typically decides on an end result, yes, but also the measurable steps that will be necessary to attain the goal. This provides opportunities to not only celebrate the attainment of the desired end, but also to recognize what is happening along the way. With this frame of mind, you might still set a goal of losing 15lbs, but you will also set parameters for measuring success, such as a completion date, and the steps necessary to attain that goal.

It may be a matter of symantics, but I think you get the point. This year, I am setting some specific goals with measurable markers for success and with plans for how to achieve those specific goals. This year it will be about the process, rather than the end goal.

The grand narrative of the Bible tells the sweeping story of God’s love for humanity. The overarching thread in this story is God’s ultimate goal for his people: holiness, which is righteous love of God and others. This righteousness is something which we are told cannot be produced by us, only received as a free gift of grace. It is a righteousness grounded upon, and set in motion by, Christ’s meritorious crucifixion, death, and resurrection. It is a righteousness that cannot be known apart from a life lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our heavenly Father.

Like goal setting, the holiness of God’s people is not just some vague future goal reserved for life after death. It is a goal to be realized in the present life as well, and God has given us parameters within which his people can grow in holiness, and markers by which we can witness the transformation of lives.

The key to success in achieving goals lies in developing new patterns of life. We cannot hope to achieve new goals while continuing to do the same things we have always done. Likewise, we cannot hope to have our character transformed (to gain holy tempers), if we continue to follow the same patterns that we have always followed.

The Bible is full of God’s decrees, which were made to establish new patterns for Israel. I urge you to take some time to read Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. I know some of the language is difficult, but you can’t help but notice in reading them that God is setting up new patterns for the benefit of his people, not for the purposes of control and repression.

Even (maybe especially) now, the patterns of life that we see in scripture point those who follow them toward God and his purposes. They help to reorient us. Holiness is the free gift of God to those who believe and follow him along the road that leads to eternal life. But there is more to this than simply looking toward the destination. Becoming a holy people is about the journey as well.

Here are just a few of the patterns that the Bible demonstrates for us. I wonder if we haven’t missed something critical to discipleship when we fail to live into these patterns of life, and instead follow our own wisdom.

1. Sabbath

In a recent Productive Pastor podcast, Seedbed Sower-in-Chief J.D. Walt, Jr. mentioned that the Sabbath is the first thing in the Bible that God calls holy. It is a day of rest established to interrupt the ordinary pattern of existence and re-orient us toward God. In Jesus’ day the Sabbath had been twisted through the addition of laws which missed God’s intended purposes, and he reminded us that Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In our day we have done far worse than the first-century Israelites: we have jettisoned the Sabbath altogether. I know very few people within the church who take a true Sabbath (your’s truly included). It is not our right to take down that which God has instituted for his people. What would we look like as individuals and the church if we were to insist on taking Sabbath as God has commanded us?

2. Fasting

This is another area of struggle for me. As an American I live in a place of plenty. Even though my family is at the low-end of the fiscal scale, we do not often suffer or go without. Our society has become gluttonous with success. We have forgotten what it means to rely upon God to supply all of our needs and have built idols of gold for ourselves. Throughout the centuries the church has observed a regular practice of fasting, which continues the pattern set by Israel before. Fasting is observed for many reasons and in many ways, but always at the heart of a fast is the desire to develop complete dependence on God. We are called to fast in solidarity with the poor, to protest injustice, to cry out to God for mercy, and for a myriad of other good reasons. In all of these, we fast in obedience to God until the bridegroom (Jesus) returns.

3. Feasting

The pattern of fasting in scripture is balanced by a pattern of feasting, where the people of God give thanks to God alone for his provision and give praise to him for his loving-kindness. Feasting loses its true meaning without the fast. In our society, feasting has become the norm, to the extent that it is mere gluttony and self-indulgence. When we first live into a pattern of fasting first, we can then rightly feast on the knowledge of God and his good gifts.

4. Mourning

Just as there is a time to fast in solidarity, there is also a time to mourn. Some cultures have created an art form out of mourning, and even employ professional mourners for necessary occasions. This was the case with Israel in the first-century. I wonder if we don’t also have our professional mourners. They don’t follow a funeral procession, wailing and crying for the deceased. Instead, they constantly wail and cry about the church, declaring her damaged or dead, not recognizing that the lifebeat of the Holy Spirit still courses through her veins. They forget that the Bride is beautiful and instead declare her a corpse. But what if we returned to a Biblical pattern of mourning, where we cry out at injustice and persecution, and where we openly lament that so many are wandering lost, apart from the saving love of Jesus Christ?

5. Thanksgiving

As feasting provides the balance to fasting, so also thanksgiving brings balance to mourning. I am saddened when I reflect on the times when I have been thankless, even bitter, in the midst of God’s great blessings. When I read stories of the persecuted church around the world, I am often amazed by the declarations of hope and thanksgiving uttered by those who have lost everything, but gained Christ. What would it take for us to become a people of thanksgiving, who related to others first and foremost through a posture of complete gratitude to God for his love and mercy?

What other patterns of life do you see in scripture that help to orient you toward God? What challenges do you face in living into these patterns? And what do you think about the five patterns listed above? Leave your comments below and let’s reflect together on what it means to be called by Christ to be in the world, but not of the world.


5 Reasons I love My Kindle, But Will Never Stop Buying Books


So I finally joined the new millennium this year. That’s right, I am now the proud/perplexed/amused owner of an Amazon Kindle. You might find this news a bit strange, since I work in the tech sector and am a research student (I read a LOT of books).

I have always been a late adopter of technology, really. I like to wait until all of the bugs are worked out before I adopt a new platform that significantly impacts my life.

With the Kindle, this normal delay was compounded by the fact that I really, truly love old fashioned, hard-copy books. I mean, I really LOVE them. I sometimes go into the old dusty sections of libraries and used book stores just so I can smell the books. Every book purchase makes me excited, and I will almost always buy a book that is on sale if I think I will eventually read it.

I might have a small book fetish, or sickness. Its too early to tell.

But this year, I decided it was time to take the plunge and blend the new and the old. I still love my hard-copy books and will continue to buy them, but I no longer have to space to put all of the books I read. While the library helps me with this problem some, there are plenty of other books on my reading list that aren’t keepers. I won’t read them more than once, and if I do I can always buy a bound copy later. For everything else, there is the Kindle.

Thanks to a lovely gift from my in-laws, I finally got a Kindle this year, and have already loaded it up with books from my reading list. Thought it could never fully replace the “real thing” for me, I find that I have already been sucked into its many awesome features. So, without further ado, here are a few reasons why I love my new Kindle, but will never EVER stop buying books.

Why I love my Kindle

  1. Kindle offers real immersion through an infinite scroll (sort of). I find that my disbelief is suspended much more readily with a Kindle, the seamlessness of the pages really helps to suck me in to a story, and i more easily get lost in the words and my imagination.
  2. Convenience. I’ll admit it. I love convenience, and there is little that I find more convenient as a bibliophile than the ability to carry vast quantities of books with almost no effort.
  3. Caters to my whims. I am a bit ADHD when it comes to books, especially fiction books. I like to read multiple books of varying genres at once, to ensure that I can always step into a story that matches my mood. My wife once questioned my ability to track with so many stories at once, but after explaining to her what was going on in each of the 5 books I was reading at that moment, she has never questioned my method again. The Kindle makes this easier by placing all of the books I am reading at the tips of my fingers.
  4. Instant gratification. This is terrible, probably, but sometimes I just don’t want to wait to get a book. Once I know I am ready to read something, I am ready to get started right then. With the Kindle, if I want a book I can have it instantly.
  5. The cool factor. I may be late to the party, but let’s face it, gadgets are fun whenever you get them.

Why I will always buy books

  1. Permanence. I love the fact that my hard-copy books have a sense of permanence. I can’t turn them off. They remain on my shelves. They have a tangible presence, even when I am not actively reading them. This gives me comfort.
  2. Tactile. There is something genuinely wonderful about holding a book. And let’s not forget the smell I mentioned before. Nothing quite rivals the smell of a good, old book.
  3. Markup. You can (and should) markup real books. Only then are they really yours (see Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book).
  4. Thumb-through. You can thumb through a book to find something you are looking for. I like having the ability to keep my fingers between pages for quick reference, and I enjoy the “big picture” view I can get by flipping back and forth between sections of a book.
  5. Covers. Book covers are like rings on a tree trunk. They tell a story and convey meaning. How many times has this book been read? How much has it been loved? Some of my books are so worn with use that they have been taped multiple times and still hang on by a thread. A simple glance at these book covers reminds me of the content they protect and brings back a flood of memories, some of the book itself, others of my life as I was reading it.

Which do you think is better? Analog or digital? Leave your reasons in the comments, then go enjoy a good book.

7 Reasons Santa is Welcome in Our Christian Home


The conversations that come up around Christmas are always interesting to me. One that has recurred over and over the last few years revolves around the varying opinions of Christians about whether or not we should promote the idea of Santa Claus. I find this particular conversation interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this didn’t seem to be an issue for people just a couple of decades ago.

As the somewhat resident theologian in most of the groups we hang out with, I sometimes get inquiring looks or questions when this topic comes up. This may be because I rarely offer an opinion on the subject publicly, or maybe because people expect me to have some awesome Jesus-y reason that the Bible either supports or rejects the concept of Santa (hint: it doesn’t).

My personal belief is that Christian parents should thoughtfully consider how they want to raise their children, then act in accordance with their convictions. If you choose to include Santa in your Christmas traditions, just do so with temperance and try not to turn him into the Wal-Mart of the North Pole. If you choose not to include Santa, that’s great too, but please don’t force your opinions on every family you meet and don’t ruin it for their kids. Whatever you choose, I urge you to follow your convictions with a humble spirit.

In other words, don’t be a jerk.

This year, since I reflected on the issue a bit more than usual I thought I’d give a few reasons why Santa is welcome in our Christian home.

  1. We don’t just talk about Jesus at Christmas, so by the time it arrives we don’t have to scramble to explain its “true” meaning to our kids. I am not concerned that Santa will draw our focus away from Jesus, nor am I afraid that my kids, upon finding out that Santa isn’t what he is cracked up to be, will flee from the church, turn against Christ, and curse my name for feeding them a pack of lies.
  2. We often talk with our kids about how much fun it is to give gifts and how important it is to care for others who are in need. Santa is a distant second after everyone else. He is more the icing on the cake of giving.
  3. We don’t address presents from Santa (though we are fine with the grandparents doing so). Because we travel every Christmas, we fill the kids stockings on the way out the door, so that they know Santa visits our house too. But all of the presents under the tree are from family and friends.
  4. Our children are just that – children. They will lose their sense of wonder soon enough, so we want to let them keep it as long as they can. I have no problem with our children playing with imaginary friends, pretending to be super heroes, or using their imaginations for any of a hundred other activities. Why should it bother me that they imagine a jolly fat man flying around the world to deliver presents to children?
  5. It is decidedly unkind to spoil the surprise for other families, and children who are in-the-know are ridiculous little evangelists. Its fine if your family doesn’t want to talk about Santa. Its your choice how you want to raise your children. However, not everyone shares your convictions about this decidedly un-Biblical topic, so for the sake of others, at least tell your kids to keep their knowledge to themselves. We allow talk of Santa around our kids in part to preserve the peace and joy for other families.
  6. We don’t buy into Christmas commercialism (pun intended), so our kids don’t view Santa as a magic genie who grants all their wishes. There are many things they simply won’t get for Christmas, even if they ask. So including Santa in our traditions doesn’t carry the burden of breaking the bank so that the kids don’t think Santa doesn’t love them.
  7. If we didn’t let our kids believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy would get pretty lonely around here. And boy does she visit often.

Whatever you decided this year and for your future, I hope you and your family had a very Merry Christmas!

What They Don’t Tell You About Getting a PhD: Wrestling with Doubt

image from stevewright.info

image from stevewright.info

This post is for the current or aspiring doctoral student, specifically the one pursuing an academic discipline in the Church. I am writing to you from beautiful Northern England today. I have spent the last two weeks at Nazarene Theological College (one of the schools of the University of Manchester) working on my doctoral research, presenting papers, attending seminars, and re-connecting with my colleagues and professors alike. Times like this are a very important part of getting a research degree. So much of the process is done in isolation, and it is hugely beneficial to have opportunities to step out of the study space and into a collaborative academic setting. I am thankful to my family and my school for opportunities like this one.

I am now half-way through the fifth year of a six-year program, and I can honestly say how truly fortunate I have been to be able to work with such great people as I pursue the dream of a PhD. I have had ups and downs along the way, have had to change course in my research more than once, and I constantly feel behind in my work. But I have had helpers along the way who have guided me through the process, and have had friends go before me who shared similar experiences and demonstrated that it is possible to prevail.

Despite all of the support and help I have had over the years, though, there are things that I wish I had known going into the program. Things that many people experience, but which no one seems to talk about until they have come center stage.

One of the things that I wish they had told me coming into this program is how much some (many) students wrestle with doubt.

Sure, there are those students who have an unshakeable confidence, either in their own ability or in their calling. But most of the students I know have, at one time or another, experienced doubt in their ability, their purpose, their perseverance, you name it. I have wrestled all of those just mentioned at one time or another and have found that, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with doubts, there are some helpful steps to consider while working through it and pressing on with the work at hand.


5 Steps to Facing Doubt

1. Own it

It does no good to bottle up all of these feelings until they cripple you. If you are feeling doubtful about your ability, your research topic, your life situation, whatever it may be, you will never be able to deal with the problem until you own that it is yours and that it is very real. I have had many doubts along my road to a PhD, and there have ben times where I allowed those doubts to take root and fester, because I was ashamed at my lack of confidence and was afraid someone would figure out that I am a phony. Permitting these voices to speak will only hamper your ability to move forward. Remember that the first step to getting well is admitting that there is a problem.


2. Tell someone you trust

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to talk to someone you trust about your struggles with doubt. Getting a PhD is already a very solitary endeavor. The last thing you need is to try dealing with additional burdens in isolation. So, tell your spouse, your best friend, your pastor, or someone else who will speak truth into your life. Pick someone who will help you wrestle with the dilemma over someone with quick answers. No two situations are the same, neither is there one solution that will work for everyone.


3. Seek help

If your doubt is affecting your work, then ask for help. I was really struggling with my progress last year. I had gone through some employment changes that left me exhausted, frustrated, and a little scared about my family’s well-being. As doubt about my ability to finish the program began to creep in, I sought wise counsel from my wife and extended family, and then ultimately I sought help from my school. I asked questions about suspending my program for a short time (something that is allowed and even encouraged in some situations), and I talked to my supervisor about my struggles with finding time and energy to work on my research. These were uncomfortable conversations, but they helped me to see a way forward, even in the worst case scenario, and ensured that everyone involved was aware of my situation. I urge you to seek help early when you are wrestling with doubt. It may make the difference between our long-term success or failure.


4. Make a decision

Doubt arises for all sorts of reasons. Some of those come from outside influences over which you may not have much control. For example, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, the sudden loss of income or a home. All of these things can inspire doubt in a student’s mind about pursuing a PhD. Will I have enough time to work on research? Does muy family situation mean that I need to work more to support them? Do I need to grieve or help others with their grieving? All of these are valid questions to ask when life throws us curve balls, and all of them can lead us to doubt our ability to finish the PhD.

Situations like these also come with the necessity to make a decision. Will you continue in your research as you have been? Will you take a break for a time? Or do your circumstances suggest tat you need to drop out of your program entirely? Whatever decision you arrive at with your family, the most important thing is to make one. Waffling with indecision only encourages you to doubt more and negatively impacts your progress in the meantime.


5. Let go

Once you have made your decision let it, and your doubt, go. Not everyone is called to pursue a PhD. Sometimes people don’t realize that until they are in the midst of it. There is no shame in recognizing that God has something better for you. If that should happen, turn toward him and follow wherever he leads you.

There is also no shame in taking a break. Life is complicated, and if we are to live our lives fully we must embrace the idea that complex solutions are sometimes necessary to life’s dilemmas. Taking a break might be the best way to ensure that you finish your work well. Getting a PhD isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. It has a rewarding finish line, but one that you will not enjoy if you have injured yourself (or others) along the way.

Finally, getting a PhD is a LOT of work. There will always be things that cause students to doubt. I was once told that 10% of earning a PhD is getting accepted to a program. The other 90% is gutting it out. At the end of the day, only you can decide to push through voices of doubt and complete the work that is before you. If your situation doesn’t require you to quit or take a break, take confidence in your calling and get to the business of getting the work done. It will be a difficult journey, but it will be one that transforms you more than you can possibly imagine.


Sunshine and Roses

While working as an Academic Advisor at Asbury Theological Seminary I regularly met with new M.Div or MA students who professed their desire to continue in their academic careers to the point of earning a PhD or equivalent terminal degree.  Most wanted to do so out of a desire to teach, though some were certainly more interested in research oriented vocations.  It was my job to help them to achieve their academic goals by helping them to plan out the most effective degree path at the seminary.  As a PhD student myself (theology – University of Manchester), I was able to speak with them about the real challenges of applying for (and getting accepted into) a reputable program, as well as the work that it takes to remain in the program.  I was also able to talk with them about the differences between research and taught programs, working over seas versus staying in the U.S., and the availability of funding for various programs.

At that time, I was still very new to my own research program.  The information that I provided to students considering an academic career path was sound and accurate, but it was far from complete.  I have learned a lot about what it takes to earn a PhD since I last worked at the seminary.  I have learned that, while planning and dedication may help you get into a program, it takes an entirely different set of skills to finish what one has started.  There are a plethora of ABD (all but dissertation) PhDers out in the world.  The opportunities to quit before the end abound.  The challenges often seem insurmountable.  And many times, the end does not justify the means.  It is up to each student to decide when enough is enough.

Yet despite the many challenges, day after day, I and many other students continue the long march toward the finish line.  It is this march, and its ramifications, that were lacking from my earlier conversations with PhD hopefuls.  It is this march that is perhaps the most important part of the whole story, because it is this march that tests the character of one who would become a teacher of others.  If I could go back and add something about the ‘experience’ of earning a PhD to the conversations that I had with those students, this is what I would say.

‘It ain’t all sunshine and roses.’

Getting a PhD requires the FULL support of family

While this may sound like an obvious statement, I’m not sure the vast majority of the students I spoke with as an Advisor really understood the impact that such an undertaking will have on a family.  I am truly blessed in at least one regard.  My wife, Sarah, has always been my #1 supporter, cheerleader, and fan.  She has supported me in every undertaking since I have known her, whether professional, personal, or academic.  She was 100% behind me when I decided to enroll in seminary (indeed, without her complete support I never would have attempted it, nor should you without the support of your spouse), she was 100% in favor of my pursuing a PhD, she has been 100% supportive of my decision to drop to part-time work in order to devote more time to research, and she has been 100% behind me as I seek to more fully understand God’s call on our lives and as I continue to wrestle with following His son, Jesus.  All of these decisions have affected her in profound ways, and she has never flinched in her support.

In addition to my wife’s loving dedication, I am blessed with the continued support of my extended family.  I am fortunate to have parents and a brother who love the Lord and understand what it means to take a path that appears foolish to the world.  They believe in me so much that they have supported us regularly with their prayer, presence, and finances.

My in-laws have been tremendous supporters as well.  Though they may not fully understand some of the decisions that Sarah and I make for our family (like leaving a well-paying job to move to a tiny town in Kentucky and enter grad school), they love us and back us up each time.  And they are some of the most giving people I have ever known.  Our children are fortunate to have such wonderful grandparents (on both sides) as living examples of God’s grace.

Getting a PhD means learning to rely on loved-ones for support.  This is most definitely prayer support, but often this support must take physical form as well.  When you enter a long-term research program, you are not the only one getting the degree.  You see, your family is in it with you, whether they want to be or not.  So I would suggest that you only undertake such a task if they have willingly agreed to get a PhD with you.

Getting a PhD requires self-sacrifice and family sacrifice

The reason for this, of course, is that getting a PhD requires a great deal of sacrifice.  On the self-sacrificial side of the equation, a research (or taught) degree takes a tremendous amount of time and energy.  If you think writing a 30 page paper at the Master level takes effort, just think about the sustained energy and time required to write a full doctoral thesis, which is essentially an academic book based on original research that contributes significantly to a chosen field.  Every page that I write takes weeks of dedicated research, and might get rewritten a dozen times before it reaches its final form.  Even then, it might ultimately get scrapped if it proves unnecessary to the project.

All of this research, writing, editing, rewriting, and re-editing takes time.  Since there are only so many hours in the day, this means that you will be sacrificing either 1) time earning a living, 2) time with your family, or 3) sleep.  Since none of us can function long without #3, most of the time required to complete a PhD comes from #1 and #2.  If you are not fully funded (as I am not), this means that you will have to make some serious sacrifices in order to complete your degree.  And these sacrifices are always shared by your family.

I decided early on (well, late in my seminary degree) that I am unwilling to sacrifice more time with my family than is absolutely necessary to complete my research.  At the end of the day, a PhD is a piece of paper.  Yes, it comes with some great perks, but when I finally go to be with Jesus, I want my wife and kids to remember me as a loving husband and father, not as a workaholic who was never at home to play with them.

Even though I made this decision early, our family still has to sacrifice time together in pursuit of the PhD.  I travel to England and to conferences in the U.S. on a regular basis, both for research and professional development.  When I have a deadline to meet, I spend evenings out studying until the work is done, and sometimes I have to say no to fun family events in order to complete my work.  Even when I am home, I run the constant risk of being either distracted by something I was reading earlier in the day or exhausted from the mental task of research.  Every single moment of quality time that I miss with my wife and kids impacts us all negatively.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about the financial sacrifice.  You have no doubt heard people talk of putting their lives on hold for grad school.  I disagree that this occurs to a great degree.  The best parts of my life have occurred while in grade school (i.e. my wonderful marriage to Sarah continuing and the birth of my two children).  However, there are some things that must be paused in order to follow this path.  I gave up a promising career in the tech industry and the accompanying pay check to work part-time for part-time wages for most of the last 7 years, any hope of owning our own home, the security of a full bank account, and the choice of where we live.  If not for the generosity of our families, and some much loved donors, we would never have made it this far.  Even once we are finished, we will have a long row to hoe in making up for lost opportunity.

While each of thee things certainly affects me (and my family) in profound ways, our solidarity and reliance upon God for all that we have (since all good things come from Him) carries us through.  But there are other burdens that, while they may affect family in a secondary way, are the sole burden of the PhD student.

Getting a PhD requires long hours of solitude

If you are a highly social extrovert, these next words will hurt.  They will cut deep.  You see, getting a PhD is not like other degrees.  Even with a taught program, where classwork is still required before writing a thesis, much more emphasis is placed on individual achievement, which means a lot of time spent working on things alone.  When it comes to a research degree like the one I am in ALL of the work is completed in solitude.

On average, I spend 4 hours each day working on research alone.  In addition to this I occasionally spend evenings alone while I write.  I also work in an office with only one other person, and am about to begin working from home as our office goes through a move.  This means that I am effectively alone for 9-12 hours a day.  I am an extrovert.  Let me tell you, this is difficult sometimes.

Even if you love books and love to do research, as I do, the constant solitude will get to you.  For this reason, some of my colleagues and I have scheduled a monthly seminar where we get together to discuss our research and ‘hang out’.  But one meeting in a month doesn’t begin to make up for all of those endless days of solitude.

For those of the introverted persuasion, the idea of spending hours alone might sound awesome.  But I would caution you as well.  Do your friends and family think you are weird now?  Do they say you lack social graces?  Just imagine how you’ll be after several years of near solitude.

If you plan to embark upon a PhD, please please make arrangements to spend time with normal people on a regular basis.  Your family and friends will thank you, and it might just keep you from going insane.

Getting a PhD may lead to depression and anxiety

Grad students in general learn to deal with heightened amounts of stress as they cram for exams and hurry to write papers on a regular basis.  I would love to say that four years in a Master’s program will prepare you for the stress of chapter deadlines and editing schedules, but I would be lying.  When your entire degree rests on your doctoral thesis the pressure to do everything as well as possible mounts to incredible levels and though there may be brief moments of respite, like the days immediately following the submission of a chapter, the intensity level and stress remains high throughout the entirety of your program.

While there are many negative consequences to high stress, the one that I have found to be the biggest detriment to finishing a PhD is depression.

I am going to be painfully transparent here.  I have wrestled with occasional bouts of depression ever since I started my PhD program.  It is easy, when everything rides on one project to begin questioning.  What if my work isn’t original enough?  What if I am not a good enough writer?  What if I get stuck or find out that my goals are unachievable?  What if I am not good enough to get a PhD?  What if I fail my defense? What if they find out that I am really a fraud and have no business in this degree?  What if I fail?  What if I let down my family?  What if their sacrifice has all been for nothing?

This self-questioning can very easily lead to bouts of depression and anxiety, and these things are only compounded by the vast amounts of time spent in solitude.  Though I occasionally go through this myself, there is only one remedy that I have found that draws me out of it.  No matter what your family and friends say, you will always question yourself in a situation like this until you begin to remember.

Remember.  Your worth does not lay in your ability to earn a PhD.  God loves you and considers you of such great worth that he sent his only son, Jesus, to die for you. Remember. Your family loved you before you began a PhD, and they will love you after you are finished. Remember. You had what it takes to get into the PhD program int he first place.  The administrators and professors of your school believe that you have what it takes to succeed or they would not have admitted you.  It it in their best interest to help you succeed.  Remember. Tomorrow brings a new day. Remember. Your family and service to the Lord are more important that your degree. Remember.

In remembering, you will find freedom from anxiety and depression.  Don’t be discouraged.  Just remember.

Getting a PhD will test your courage

Only the arrogant fail to realize what a privilege and responsibility it is to earn a PhD.  For the rest of us, who don’t believe we are God’s gift to the academic world, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to begin on a path that requires such great personal and family sacrifice, that tests our abilities and perseverance, and comes with the possibility of failure (though statistically speaking, most students who begin a PhD will complete it unless they quit.  Students are rarely kicked out or simply fail once they begin).

It also takes courage to announce that you are undertaking something that is looked on by the world with equal amounts of fascination and disdain.  I have often hesitated to tell people that I am a PhD student in theology, because they immediately begin to act weird around me.  Often upon finding out what I do, people begin to use larger words in conversation and try to vainly talk about topics they think are related to what I do, especially of a spiritual or religious nature.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard someone say to me, ‘well, I’m no PhD, but . . .’  It can be a significant barrier to real conversation.

Announcing that you are pursuing a PhD also carries with it the inherent ‘expert syndrome’, where everyone begins to assume that you must be an expert on everything if you are ‘smart enough to get a PhD’.  Some will begin to admire you for knowledge that you don’t possess and expect you to be able to speak intelligently about every topic, while others will loathe you for being a ‘know-it-all’.  I recently had a good friend look at me when I couldn’t figure out something simple about a car door and exclaim, ‘You’re getting a PhD for cryin’ out loud!’ To which I responded, ‘In theology!  Which means that I know a lot about a very narrow group of things.’

While the above scenario was hilarious at the time, it takes courage to daily interact with people who don’t really know what a PhD represents, and who either expect too much from you (and are sorely disappointed when you can’t deliver) or loathe your because they presume you are a know-it-all.

Getting a PhD (in Bible or theology) is a calling

If there is one thing more important than everything else that I have said so far it is this: getting a PhD in a biblical discipline is a calling.  It is not something that you should undertake unless you are certain that God is leading you in that direction.  The path to a terminal degree is fraught with challenge, danger, and sacrifice, and all of this is undertaken in vain if it is not where God has called you to be equipped.

Remember that scripture cautions all Christians about this:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1)

While other terminal degrees in other disciplines may be a simple matter of career choice, choosing to pursue a PhD in a biblical discipline is a calling by God to a vocation of teaching the word.  It should only be undertaken with the utmost humility and discipline.

If you do undertake the challenge of a PhD in this way I am sure that you will find, as I have, that it is worth all of the sacrifice and challenge, and rather than turning you into a person that your family loathes to be around, it will be a transforming experience that God uses to shape you into the image of his son, my savior, Jesus Christ.

Happy Birthday Jerry Walls!

“Ode to Jerry”

This year has passed as though in a blink
But still you work and play and think
A philosopher’s work is never ending
Even when your joints are no longer bending

I remember you breaking your arm playing dodge ball
While these days you kind of just shuffle down the hall
Your may not be nearly as spry as you once were
But don’t give up hope or you’ll fizzle out for sure

Developing good arguments will keep your mind sharp
Like apologetic defenses of cherubs with harps
Keep chugging along and don’t give up the fight
Just focus on your next interview with Bob Knight

If you feel your age starting to make you feel funny
And a doctor prescribes pills that eat up your money
I urge you to say “no”, you don’t need that dope
You’ve got something better as a Prisoner of Hope

Continuing to age like this may be endemic
But faith, hope and love will be your polemic
Against all that comes as you turn one year older
If anything, maturity should make you feel bolder

You’ve got lots of future life left in your ticker
Philosophers live long lives ‘cause their heads are much thicker
So take heart, this day’s not the end of the story,
‘Cause no matter what happens, there’s always Purgatory…

Next Things – For Real This Time

Now its really official. I got the paperwork in the mail today officially offering me a position as a student in the Doctor of Philosophy program at the University of Manchester / Nazarene Theological College. After a full year of applying for programs, writing and rewriting proposals and papers, and refining my topic I will finally be able to take a breath before the running starts again in January.

Thank you all for your prayer and support through this process. I recognize that I could never hope to accomplish this task without it.

There will be more to come in the near future, so stay tuned. The fun is about to begin….