Saturday May 12th at 1:00 PM was my graduation from Lincoln Christian University with my Master of Divinity degree. Or at least, that was the plan.
After four years of full-time study while working in ministry full-time I was more than excited to have a day to celebrate with friends and family. In fact, the only person more excited was probably my wife, Margo, who affectionately referred to post-graduation as, “The Year of Margo.”
Unfortunately, I spent my graduation in the Emergency Room writhing in agony. After spending a day golfing with my dad, mowing the lawn and otherwise preparing the house for a party, I woke up that Saturday finishing last minute chores and playing with my ten-month-old daughter on the floor. Around 9:00 AM I started to feel a twinge in the upper right side of my abdomen. The pain grew progressively worse over the next forty-five minutes and soon Margo was speeding me off to the hospital at ninety-five miles an hour.
As it turned out I had a kidney stone, which I’m told is in the same realm of pain as childbirth. Admittedly I am unqualified to compare, but I can honestly say that the physical agony was the worst thing I have experienced in my life. It literally made me crazy. When I arrived at the hospital I was shouting wildly, “HELP ME!” I thought my insides were exploding.
While waiting for a diagnosis I pounded my fist against the wall of my room and loudly moaned, “I have insurance!” Apparently I thought this would convince the doctor to hurry.
Even a dose of some potent drug, supposedly ten-times more powerful than morphine, did not alleviate the pain. The doctor was concerned because my initial blood tests showed dangerous chemical imbalances in my body as a reaction to the pain. The imbalances were righted once I received an overwhelming amount of painkillers so I was sent home.
Over the next few days I laid on the couch feeling sorry for myself in a vicodin fog. I began to think about how my graduation was ruined. Then I started thinking about my experience in light of my education. Having just finished a thesis related to Paul’s view of suffering as a means of participation in Christ and some ongoing work on ancient education I began to re-evaluate.
One of the staples of ancient education was that the truly educated man must embody his learning. Otherwise, this supposed “wise man” is an unworthy imposter. Epictetus, for example, devotes a diatribe to those who think themselves wise and ready to lecture but are not:
Those who have learned the principles [θεωρήματα] and nothing else are eager to regurgitate them immediately, just as those with weak stomachs vomit food. First, digest your principles, and then you will surely not throw them up in this way. [. . .] The builder does not come forward and say, ‘Listen to me deliver a discourse about the art of building.’ But, he takes a contract for a house, builds it, and thereby proves that he possess the art. (Diss. 3.21.1-4)
Epictetus is adamant that one must both learn the principles or theorems and put them into practice to truly communicate them. In another discourse, Epictetus describes the man making true progress in education, “When he rises in the morning he proceeds to keep and observe all that he has learned” (Diss. 1.4.20). If someone failed to practice his teaching he was nothing more than an educated imposter.
This same idea is prevalent in numerous places in the NT. Two examples will suffice. First, in an exhortation to his young apprentice, Paul encourages Timothy to follow his own example in contrast to false teachers:
But you, having closely followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings [. . .] remain in what you learned and were convinced, knowing from whom you learned, and that from infancy you have known the holy writings, the ones able to make you wise to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim 3.10-15)
For Paul teaching was a way of life to be followed not a book read or a degree earned. Yet, in the midst of this exhortation to follow Paul’s model there are educational imperatives to read and engage the sacred books (cf. 1 Tim 4.11-16). Paul assumes Timothy will diligently read and then embody his education as Paul did.
As a second example, words from the letter of James are piercing. With a metaphor of extreme vanity James describes those who “learn” without practicing their knowledge:
If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man staring at his face in the mirror, then after staring at himself and departing he immediately forgets what he looks like. (2.23-24)
Or again with sobering simplicity,
Who is wise and learned among you? By good conduct let him show his works in gentle wisdom (3.13)
Despite the pomp and circumstance, a good friend tweeted at his bachelor's graduation, “At the end of the day, we’re just some kids who had the privilege of wearing plus-size dresses and putting squares on our heads.”
Graduation is fundamentally concerned with celebrating educational progress. Sadly, contemporary education often celebrates degrees earned and books read rather than the embodiment of truth.
If suffering is a means of participating in Christ as I so convincingly argued for ninety-five erudite pages, then perhaps my intended graduation day was more indicative of my lack of progress than anything else. At the very least, the experience taught me that I have much to learn.