The Wisdom of an Elder
I’ve been writing about history a lot lately (at least a lot for me), but I have a confession to make. While it may have all sounded academic, formal, and the like, my reflections have really all been more personal than I’ve let on. That is, one of the reasons why I’ve been writing about the “value” of history in the academy is to justify it for myself and in part to justify this year of my existence which I’m spending getting an extra masters in history.
For the past six months or so, I’ve been in a sort of minor existential crisis over history and over studying church history in general. The crisis has simply been, “Is it worth it? Does learning history really carry great value and even if it does, is studying church history the most useful thing a hopeful future pastor/teacher could be doing with his time?” I’ve also struggled with history from a slightly different angle, as I’ve considered (for the Nth time) the idea of trying to pursue PhD studies in the field in the future. Is devoting 3-7(or 8?) years of your life to studying dead people really worth it?
To help me sort through these questions I’ve talked to friends, I’ve conversed with mentors, and I’ve done plenty of soul-searching myself. This past Tuesday, however, I went and spent the dinner hour in the office of a soon-retiring professor, a man who is a great historian, a warm Christian, and who has been teaching church history in the academy for over fifty years. I’m thankful to God that I have such a gold mine to pull from when I want, and my finally getting up the resolve to go and have this conversation proved worthwhile. What happened went something like this.
I came into my professor’s office, after having informed him via a vague email that I had “a few things I wanted to ask him about.” Immediately I jumped to it. “Why, in your opinion, is studying church history worth it?” I asked. “Of all the things that one could do, what makes studying church history worth a lifetime of dedication?”
While he told me many things over the next forty five minutes, only one of them has really stuck with me. And it was simple, so simple. What he told (or rather, reminded me of) is that God has made all of us with different gifts and with different interests. He then made the simple suggestion that perhaps the right thing to do is really just to follow those interests that God has placed there. While I’ve been spending several months agonizing over the time I put into studying history, this simple thought had never really occurred to me. It struck straight at the overly-pious thought I realized I’d been having: “I probably shouldn’t do what I actually want to do.” In his career, he said, he had never quite been sure that in taking big steps he was following “exactly” the will of God. Rather, he said that he simply followed the desires he had, all the while figuring that if God wanted to put a big roadblock in his way then he was more than capable of doing so.
This proved liberating to me on two levels. First, it reminded me that the interests I have are not inherently bad (this is not “I’m really interested in getting rich quick and hoarding all my wealth”) and that it is ok to follow them. Second, it cut away at the need I feel to try and do everything and to be the best at everything. For me, the main competitor with studying church history has always been to engage in the field of biblical studies. After all, I reasoned, what does the church need more than proper interpretation of the Bible? And while I still believe that to be true, I am now beginning to be ok with the fact that maybe I don’t have to be the guy to deliver that. God gifts people in different ways, and maybe he has called me to serve in a role of secondary importance, studying not his clear revelation in his word but rather how his people have lived and understood his word over the ages. I do love biblical studies too, but now the question for me has changed from “What can I do to be of the absolutely most maximum ‘usefulness’ to the church?” to “What interests has God uniquely placed in me that can serve his church?”
All of that to say, I don’t know if I’ll ever pursue a PhD in church history and I also don’t even really know what I’m most interested in. What I do know is that I do not need to be able to do everything and that God doesn’t need me to accomplish his work. Rather, he has invited me into it and given me specific gifts and interests, which can be used as my small thank offering unto him, to the praise of his glorious grace.