Fear and Forward Progress in Spiritual Formation or: “I went to sleep a kindergartner and woke up a PhD student.”

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December 3, 2014 by cbbeard

This morning I woke up and realized I am a PhD student. Not just an “accepted to the program” PhD student, (which was scary in and of itself), but a bona fide, up-to-my-eyeballs-in-research, should-be-done-by-this-time-next-year PhD student. I’m working hard on compiling this year’s work into a single volume, and the initial composition is 212 pages. My email inbox contains a publisher’s proof of an article I wrote that will be soon published in a peer-reviewed journal. I’ll be doing my field research in just a couple of months. This morning I woke up and realized that the shizzle just got real.*

Isn't he cute?

No dissertation worries on this guy’s mind!

Here’s the crazy thing…last night I went to bed as a Kindergartner! Not literally, of course, but it sure feels like it. As I stand where I am, and look back my educational journey, each step feels like a whirlwind. I can’t believe I started this PhD thing almost 3 full years ago. I can’t believe I started my Master’s program 8 years ago. I can’t believe it’s been almost 20 years since I graduated High School! Part of me still feels like that little kid in the “Rough Riders” t-shirt (isn’t he cute?).

But here’s the other crazy thing…if you would have told that cute kid in the picture that he would someday need to work on a dissertation using words like “andragogy” and “hermeneutic phenomenology” on the reg, he probably would have kicked you in the shins and then hid in a corner somewhere.

You see, Kindergarten me never would have imagined he could become High School me, let alone PhD me! But indeed, I went to sleep a Kindergartner and woke up a PhD student. And every step of that journey had two things in common: fear and forward progress. Let me explain…

  • In Kindergarten, I was scared to death of elementary school…how could I go to school ALL DAY? How could I be any good at spelling tests and multiplication drills? But once I got there, I realized I was more ready than I realized, and pretty soon I was rockin’ elementary school!
  • In elementary school, I was scared to death of middle school…NO RECESS?!?!? Changing classes?? But once I got there, it wasn’t long before I was cruising through middle school.
  • In middle school, I was deathly afraid of high school…two words…TERM PAPERS! Someone told me that those papers had to be like 10 pages long at LEAST! But I finished those term papers and even managed to get a decent grade.
  • In high school, it was college I dreaded next…not only different classes, but different buildings. Not to mention bigger textbooks, longer papers, and a lot of reading. But before I knew it I was walking across the stage with a Bachelor’s degree.
  • After college, I didn’t initially consider graduate school…too scary! Theses and projects and hardcore classes seemed too high an edifice. But wanting to become a better minister, I tiptoed into the waters of graduate school and realized the water was fine!
  • Then came the PhD. My master’s degree was so beneficial to my life and ministry, I knew I wanted to continue to grow to be the best leader and minister I could be. But I was scared to death. In an initial phone interview, the program director asked me about my research and dissertation interests. I had no clue, and am surprised that I wasn’t kicked out of the program after what was surely a less-than-impressive improvisation of an answer. But today I woke up a bona fide PhD student.

So what does this have to do with spiritual formation?

As Christians we are called to follow in the steps of Christ (1 Peter 2:21, 1 John 2:6), imitate him (Ephesians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 11:1) and allow him to live through us (Galatians 2:20). In other words, are lives are to look like Jesus. That’s a pretty tall order when you look at where we need to be compared to where we actually are; that’s a chasm that’s even greater than the difference between a kindergartner and a PhD student.

But as we become better disciples of Jesus and as we make new disciples of Jesus as we partner with God in his redemptive mission, we must realize that just as we don’t go to sleep a kindergartner and wake up a PhD student, we don’t go to sleep with lives full of selfishness and sin and wake up with lives that look just like Jesus. Instead, every step of our spiritual formation process will have two things in common: fear and forward progress.

Two verses from Paul are appropriate:

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV 2011)

Each step of the way our spiritual growth might seem scary or unattainable, but in each step God prepares us for the next step. The beauty of spiritual formation is that it’s not instant, but cumulative…like a pyramid, our lives are built on previous experiences and growth as we move closer to our goal of being like Christ.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14, NIV 2011)

While the spiritual formation process is not instant, we also must be sure in our own growth and in our discipling of others that the process is also not stagnant. Nobody probably expected me to be a PhD student when I was in kindergarten (except maybe my mommy). But they DID expect me as a healthy and growing student to move on to first grade. Spiritual formation must always be marked with forward progress.

So as we grow as disciples of Jesus and as we make more and better disciples of Jesus as God has called us, my prayer is that we are able to wake up one day and say “wow, I look a lot more like Jesus than I used to!”

*I’m not sure if a bona fide PhD student is allowed to use the word “shizzle,” and I’m fairly certain that I used it incorrectly. But you get my point.
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