Have you ever found yourself guilty of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?
By saying that you “found yourself,” I mean that you were surprised by the sight of wrong motives in your heart. You genuinely thought you were doing the right things for the right reasons, but further reflection revealed mixed motives.
Pursuing theological education is, for many people, a very “right” thing to do. Few experiences afford the sort of opportunity to grow biblical and theological knowledge like seminary. As with most every other “right” thing, however, you can pursue theological education for the wrong reasons.
Weeds in My Heart
One of my chores as a kid was pulling weeds in the vegetable garden. I loathed this chore. One weed was especially insidious. The scientific name is the ipomoea purpurea, but it’s known by most as the “purple morning glory.”
The blossoms of morning glory are honestly quite beautiful. Many people even plant them in flower gardens. In a vegetable garden, however, these flowers are an unwelcome nuisance. They are a vine plant and they grow fast. They excel at wrapping their deadly tendrils around the stalks of vegetables. In a mature garden, they are difficult to see (especially if you are an eight-year-old boy who would rather be throwing rocks at squirrels) but also because their leaves closely resemble those of certain vegetable plants.
If I was ever greeted by the sight of purple blossoms dotting the leaves of the garden, I knew I had missed a vine and that it had been growing undetected for days. My next hour would be spent tracing the vines from blossom to dirt, uprooting them, and delicately unraveling any tendrils from the good plants.
As my formal theological education draws to a close, I’ve been looking back over my experience and into the “garden” of my heart. To my discomfort, I have been surprised to see several “weeds” in full bloom. Where I had presumed there to be only right and good motives, I was surprised and ashamed to also find several wrong ones growing as well.
Keep Your Heart
I had carefully and prayerfully contemplated my motives for attending seminary (especially prior to pursuing the second degree). What had happened? These wrong motives had drawn from the playbook of the pesky ipomoea purpurea––they closely resembled the good ones.
I felt the truth of Jeremiah 17:9, which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I had been deceived by my own heart. Where I had presumed myself to be pursuing a good motive, I saw the corrupt caricature of that motive growing instead.
If you are a comic book fan, the relationship between “Spider-man” and “Venom” (or, for DC fans, the relationship between “Superman” and “Bizarro”) helps illustrate the way these motives work––the wrong motive looks a whole lot like its good counterpart, but it’s been twisted the wrong direction.
I can’t speak for you, but I’ve found the pursuit of theological education to be an especially dangerous playground for the heart’s deceitfulness. Seminary is by nature a good and right thing, so we are prone to presume that our motives for attending seminary are also always good and right.
Perceiving the wrong motive is a difficult task and requires diligent obedience to Proverbs 4:23, which says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Keeping (or guarding) your heart is largely about staying acutely aware of what’s going on in your heart, much like a security guard who closely watches a facility’s cameras.
If you have pursued or are currently pursuing theological education, take a close and honest look at the motives driving your pursuit. You will find many good motives, I’m sure, but pay close attention––at the mercy of a “sick” heart, even the best of motives can be quickly turned.
Based on my own heart-keeping, here are three wrong motives I believe are all too common in the hearts of seminarians.
Wrong Motive 1: Building a Network
We set out with the good motive of building genuine relationships with co-laborers. Seminary affords an opportunity like no other for meeting like-minded people with the same goals of serving the church and advancing the gospel. Deep friendships with brothers and sisters in Christ are truly one of the most precious rewards of pursuing theological education.
But when your sinful desires step in, rather than seeing others as friends and co-laborers, you will begin to see them as stepping stones to your own ambitions. You will work to build relationships, but not for the simple joy of friendship and caring for others. You build relationships to build your network.
Your time and care will become mere investments for your own gain. The actions may look the same as genuine friendship (listening, sharing life, etc.) but the operative motive is not purely friendship––you’re banking on a return one day. “It’s not what you know, but who you know,” and the more people they know the more likely you are to pursue their friendship.
This wrong motive can even rear its ugly head years after you finish seminary. Perhaps you had a genuine friendship “back in the day.” Life got busy and you lost touch but through social media, you learn of that old friend’s new appointment to a “big” role (much bigger than your current station). When you reach out to congratulate and re-connect, there may be a genuine motive at work but, in all likelihood, there’s a corrupt motive at work––you’re hoping to cash out the investments you made all those years ago.
Wrong Motive 2: Boosting Your Resume
We set out with the good motive of boosting our competency for ministry. Seminary indeed affords a beautiful opportunity for developing and sharpening the tools you need for faithful ministry.
To be clear, resumes are a necessary component of finding a ministry position. You should work to have a good resume as a record of how God has prepared you for faithful service. And, yes, a seminary degree is a good thing to have on a resume.
But the desire to add a degree to your resume must never supersede your desire to be equipped. If the motive of boosting your resume takes over, you will find yourself resenting the journey, miserably trudging through coursework. You just want it to be over. Assignments in seminary should be regarded as tools in the Lord’s hand intended for your sanctification and equipping. When your motives get mixed up, however, assignments become meaningless tasks, busy work in the way of your shinier resume.
Wrong Motive 3: Begging for Approval
We set out with the good motive of seeking wisdom from godly mentors. Godly seminary professors are a treasure to the church and offer a wealth of wisdom for willing students.
But when our sinful desires take effect, that desire for godly wisdom morphs into a petty pursuit of approval. Like puppies, we want our heads patted and to hear, “Good boy!” The satisfaction of good grades and positive feedback become the motivation that drives us to excellence.
As long as you get good grades and produce praise-worthy work, this motive for approval will yield up its rewards. But when you turn in an assignment with the confident expectation of hearing more praise only to be met with a glaring red “C” at the top of your paper, the wrong motive reveals its ugliness.
You’re sent into a rage. You think unthinkable thoughts against the professor. You rip a rude email, questioning his decision (and perhaps his intelligence). Why this fury of emotion? Well, that’s what happens when our idols are attacked––and approval is a terribly common idol in all educational pursuits.
When, however, your genuine motive is to gain wisdom from godly mentors, a bad grade is not perceived as a personal attack. Rather, a bad grade is merely another tool for gleaning their wisdom. Sure, bad grades are a more painful way of gaining wisdom than, say, a conversation over coffee. But bad grades can be just as (or more) effective a means of gaining wisdom (if your motives are in check).
Many more motives could be listed. For every good and right motive for pursuing theological education, there is a corrupt counterpart waiting to weave its tendrils through the garden of your heart. So, in your pursuit of theological education, be careful not to lose your heart. Seminarian, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life.”