As most know, I was on sabbatical during the first half of this academic year—during the fall semester. My time off was restful, and it gave me an opportunity to pray and reflect on aspects of my life both professionally and personally. I even broke out my old violin and got back into playing music again. I also was able to get several writing projects done, which I am excited to share with all of you in the near future. I am truly thankful to the Lord for providing that meaningful time. I also thank our board of trustees for granting me those precious months, to our faculty and staff at the RTS/Washington campus whom I deeply missed, and to our students. My sabbatical was fruitful, but I love my work and the community at the seminary and I’m definitely happy to be back.
My time away gave me a chance to meditate on many things. One in particular ministered to me. That is what I would like to share with you. Here it is—I was reminded that I am a beloved child of God. That may not sound very profound to you, but it sure means a whole lot to me. Let me explain.
I’ve been on the go and serving in the context of the ministry for as far back as I can remember. Although I’ve taken my family on short vacations, they were always working-trips for me. I never had an extended period of rest (like a sabbatical) until recently. I can recall a time several years ago when things were especially crazy where I was juggling different things and running all over Maryland, DC, and Virginia. I was a doctoral student, taking classes while working on my dissertation. I was teaching Biblical Hebrew at the Catholic University of America, and serving as resident faculty for RTS/Washington. I was a church planter, ministering the gospel to many within my community, evangelizing, casting the vision of the church, preaching, counseling, and administrating. This does not include my familial duties. After several years of this, life simplified a bit when I stepped down from pastoral ministry. That was gut-wrenching, but I could now dedicate myself to building up the ministry of RTS. As I recently shared with a friend, I felt that all the prayers and dreams of my life had been answered. Then came my sabbatical, and for the first time ever I was facing what I call an “existential crisis.” What I struggled with was a sense of self-identity and self-worth. After all, if I’m NOT a professor at the seminary nor a pastor of a church, then who am I? What value do I have? What purpose do I serve? I was working on various writing projects. As long as I was producing, I felt pretty good, but there were so many days where I hit a writing wall. During those times, I again questioned my value. I realized that I had defined myself in various different ways…all but the most important.
The words of Gal. 4:7 rang so clearly to me, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Perhaps it was the simplicity of this verse that put things back into some focus. Perhaps being a father of six made my own identity as a son difficult to appreciate. Perhaps it was the reminder that to call God “Father” is one of the highest blessings and joys we have. Truthfully, I still continue to mourn the death of my earthly father (he passed away several years ago) and needed to reorient my basic perception on God as my True Father. As I meditated on this passage, I was reminded that before I am anything—professor, pastor, teacher, even before I am a husband or father—I am a blessed son of God and He is my Father (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). As Jesus called His Father “Abba,” so now in Christ I can do the same. God is my Abba. As I come to a deeper appreciation of this, I know that I will be a better professor, pastor, husband, and father.
I fear that we live in days in which we fall into a dangerous trap and define ourselves by our performance and how well we do it. As long as we succeed, everything is fine. However, in a fallen world, nothing is that stable. Sooner or later, things fall apart. As the prophet Isaiah says, “The grass withers and the flowers fall.” It is only “the word of God that lasts forever.” For our dear students, I fear that much of your stability in life is based upon your academic performance. I pray you succeed in your studies because I know it is important to you. But the Lord does not love you less because you did not get the grade you hoped for in an exam or a term paper. Also, no one in the church will ask about your grades. They will ask about how to find hope in hopelessness, or joy in despair, or foundation in turmoil. In such cases, they will not be impressed with your perfect GPA unless your exam answers and term papers translate to something that is meaningful to them. They need Jesus and that is who you need to share with them in all His glory and splendor; they need to know who they are in Christ and to live their lives accordingly.
I know that this is a struggle for pastors. We define ourselves on tangibles of ministry: the size of our congregations, the financial amount of our collections, the busy-ness of our schedules/ministries, etc. When these various areas do not measure up, we sheepishly avoid them in conversations with others, or find some way to make it sound better than things really are. That may be the way the world defines us, and sadly, this may be the way some in the church defines us. But that is definitely not how God does. He gave His Son so that we can have the right to become “children of God” (John 1:12) who possess an eternal inheritance “that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). Before we are pastors, we are sons. And that thought is worth its weight in gold. It gives us a foundation to stand upon when we face the inevitable ups and downs of ministry. If it is true that God is the one who gives the growth of a church (1 Cor. 3:6-7) and that Jesus is the one who is building the church (Matt. 16:18), then does it make sense to measure our success on the alleged “3 B’s of a successful ministry (the building, bodies, and budget)? Isn’t just as important, even more so, that we proclaim and exalt He who is the “grower” and “builder” of the church?
During my months away, I was reminded of a simple lesson and I remind myself of it constantly. Who we are is based on who Christ is and what He has done. And how well we perform is not nearly as important as who we are in Christ.
Before anything else, I am a Christian, beloved of God, redeemed by the precious blood of the true Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. In Christ, God says “You are my son” (Ps. 2:7). I was once enslaved in sin (I remember those days), but no longer. By the precious blood of Christ that was shed for me, I am now free and there is no longer any condemnation (Rom. 8:1). I can do the unthinkable and call our sovereign, holy, and just God with the term of a loving child. He is my father. Seminary taught me this and I continue to learn it in greater depth.
Now, I want everyone to know how great and awesome my Heavenly Father is and His One and Only Son, Jesus Christ. That is my goal as a husband and father, to remind my wife and children of who their God is. That is my goal as a professor, to instruct future leaders of the church that Christ is the end-all message of Scripture and that this is not a mere academic exercise but the very heart of the message of the Bible. That is my goal as a pastor—it is “Him we proclaim” (Col. 1:28) and we do so with heartfelt passion and love.
Peter Lee, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.