I remember well my first semester as a full-time professor of Bible at Biola University. Every minute had a purpose and there was no time to be idle. “Give it five years,” I was told by my more experienced colleagues. “You’ll start to find a rhythm and flow after you have taught for five years.” The idea of achieving balance and stride seemed a bit like an unfulfillable dream. Yet, it did provide some consolation to think: “It won’t always be this way.”
In time, I found it to be true that there comes a rhythm and flow after teaching the same classes multiple times. Even in teaching new classes, there is a general confidence that just comes with experience. In time, anxiety decreases and, even more, the joy of teaching increases. Having less preparation time opens up opportunities to engage more with students and colleagues, to write more, even to indulge in a little bit of free time.
Yet, confidence has its own risk: it can turn into self-reliance. In my first year of teaching, I was on my knees praying about every class. I knew I needed God’s help, and he was indeed faithful. Sure, I made mistakes, as any novice does. But when I reflect on that first year of teaching, the faithfulness of God was manifest as I saw students growing in their understanding of Scripture and in their love for God. This was the answer to my prayers, and all the glory belongs to God. Since that first year of teaching, however, I have worked on refining my lectures and my teaching style, and I have enjoyed not needing to spend as much time prepping for each and every class. But I have noticed the sense of urgency to seek God’s help lessens as my confidence grows through experience. It is tempting to think I do not need to pray as much as I once did.
We as professional Bible teachers would all do well to ask ourselves: How can we safeguard ourselves from self-reliance when we are five years into teaching—or ten or twenty? How can we continue to walk in a posture of humble confidence, knowing and expressing our utter dependence upon God no matter what stage of our careers we happen to be in?
The manifold witnesses in Scripture remind us of our need to continually depend on God in all things. Here we will look to both Paul and Jesus.
Paul’s advice to the Corinthians
The apostle Paul writes in a striking way to the Corinthians about the importance of relying on God. In 1 Corinthians, he has a lot to say to those who think they are wise. Paul says that God actually chose the foolish, the weak, the low and the despised things of the world to shame the wise and the strong (1 Cor 1:27–28). God’s purpose in choosing the weak, foolish, and low is so that no one can boast before him (1 Cor 1:29).
The first chapter of 1 Corinthians is a passage I have meditated upon often. I remind myself frequently of its truths in an attempt to shield my soul from any temptation of pride. I know that it is not because of my innate special abilities, intelligence, or strengths that God has chosen me—and this knowledge certainly manages to humble me. It is not just that I have nothing of myself to boast about, but rather that Christ has become everything to me. It is “in Christ Jesus” that I gain wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1:30). Indeed, in Christ we Bible teachers, along with other Christians, do not lack any spiritual gift (1:7). There is an appropriate kind of boasting, then: instead of boasting in ourselves, our boast is in the Lord (1:31).
Later in the letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (4:7). All believers come to the cross in a state of neediness, and that neediness carries into our lives and ministries for the duration of our time here on earth. To pretend that we are operating out of our own strength is to deny the power of the cross in our lives (1:18). Indeed, there is nothing to boast of in ourselves, but only in Christ.
I appreciate that Paul often follows his exhortations to others with testimony from his own life. In 1 Corinthians, he even includes himself in his own humbling admonitions. Paul himself, he says, did not preach in such a way as to draw attention to himself as a wise and lofty orator (1 Cor 2:1). In fact, Paul seems to intentionally eschew eloquent speech so that the faith of those to whom he ministers will rest solely in the power of God and not on him (2:5).
Paul also has no problem sharing his weaknesses in his letters. In his next recorded letter to the Corinthians, he catalogues his sufferings for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor 11:23–27), as well as his personal anxieties and shortcomings (vv. 28–29). Paul doesn’t merely admit these weaknesses; he boasts in them (v. 30). The cultural norm then as now was to boast in one’s accomplishments, intelligence, or wisdom. Paul does the opposite.
From Paul we learn to remember our start—our humble beginnings—and to remember our source—the Lord who enriches us with everything we need for life and godliness. We learn what a proper boast looks like: deflecting honor from oneself and giving it to God alone. At times, proper boasting means even boasting in our weaknesses.
Jesus’s need for the Father
When we look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, we readily discover an emphasis on dependence in his teachings as well. In the Gospels, we find that the God-man came not only to save us, but to provide an example for how we are to live.
John 15 is a passage I go back to repeatedly, because it illustrates our complete dependence upon Christ with the beautiful imagery of branches drawing their vitality from the vine. Jesus’s simple instruction for fruitfulness is: “Abide in me” (John 15:4–10). Dependence upon Christ is not just one option among many. Jesus states in no uncertain terms: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Christ’s expectation that his disciples will bear much fruit (v. 5) is, as Carson explains, “the outcome of persevering dependence on the vine, driven by faith, embracing all of the believer’s life and the product of his witness.”1 Such fruit is the result of praying in Jesus’s name and is for the Father’s glory (vv. 7,8, 16).2
Notably, Jesus did not just exhort his disciples to depend on him. He also modeled a life of dependence upon the Father. Over and over we read of his withdrawing to a quiet place to pray. In Matthew’s Gospel, we discover that Jesus inaugurated his ministry by spending forty days alone in the desert to fast and pray (Matt 4:1–11).3 Then, before he chose his twelve disciples, Jesus spent an entire night alone in the desert hills (Luke 6:12). Such dedication reveals the need for close fellowship with the Father and discernment from him before big decisions. Time alone in prayer was also needed after intense periods of ministering to others, such as the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Matthew records that “after he had dismissed the crowds, [Jesus] went up to the mountains by himself to pray” (Matt 14:23; cf. also Mark 1:35, 6:46; Luke 5:16). Most significant is Jesus’s preparation for his crucifixion, in which he fervently prayed to the Father alone in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42).
Jesus sought the Father in times of solitude, and he taught his disciples to do the same (Matt 17:1–9; Mark 6:31). From his example, we learn that spending focused times in prayer is a vital component of the spiritual life, and that prayer is especially necessary when seeking to attend to the needs of others in ministry.
In both the lives and teachings of Paul and Jesus, we learn a few important lessons for Bible (and other) teachers.
First, if even the greatest teachers of divine truth, indeed the Divine Teacher himself, openly reflected their dependence upon God, how much more should we?
Second, such dependence is best exercised through private and communal prayer. It is one thing to understand cognitively the biblical teaching on faith. It is entirely another thing to live in a state of true and humble reliance upon God. It might be easy to exercise dependence on certain occasions, but living out of that state consistently is the goal. After all, a branch does not sometimes detach itself and then reattach when it begins to feel parched. No—drawing from the well of living waters is a lifelong calling. Of course, this begins in the private chambers of one’s prayer room, whatever that may look like for each individual. But praying and declaring one’s need for God in community matters too. I want my students to witness my need for God as I seek to minister to them. If good comes from our learning experiences, it will be as Paul so often declared, “Yet not I, but Christ in me” (2 Cor 3:5; Gal 2:20). And when I fumble and falter, they will remember that I am a human vessel living out of the grace and mercy of God.
We learn also to boast not in what we might believe our strengths are, but to boast in the Lord who has given to us life and joy and everything. We learn also to openly confess our weaknesses. This keeps us humble and renews focus for us and our students, to the glory and lordship of Christ.
So what are the things that you are not proud of in your teaching ministry? What are those things that do not elevate you in the eyes of those you are shepherding? What are the things that humble you and remind you of your need for the Savior every day—in every breath, in every word you speak? Are you willing to admit those weaknesses and even, like Paul, boast in them in such a way that God receives all the glory?
Fellow teachers, when we remember our humble start and our divine and enriching source, we find ourselves in a continuing state of grateful dependence on the one who called us to the ministry of teaching. There is no room for self-reliance in an ever-growing understanding of our dependence on God. Moreover, gratitude and joy simultaneously fill the heart of one who walks in submission to the Lord. So perhaps as we advance in our teaching ministry, we ought to be spending even more time in prayer. After all, that is what Jesus did. And if he needed those extended times prostrate before his Father, how much more do we?
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- D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 517.
- Carson notes that the debates about the nature of this fruit (whether obedience, new converts, love, or Christians character) are reductionistic. The idea of bearing much fruit most likely “represents everything that is the product of effective prayer in Jesus’ name, including obedience to Jesus’ commands (v. 10), experience of Jesus’ joy (v. 11–as earlier his peace, 14:27), love for one another (v. 12), and witness to the world (vv. 16, 27).” Carson, Gospel according to John, 517.
- Matthew indicates that time was for fasting, but fasting was typically for the purpose of serious periods of prayer. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 73.