Author's Note: August 1, 2019 marked my anniversary of service at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College. At our annual faculty workshop, President Jason K. Allen asked me to take a few minutes to offer reflections on my time of service, which I've reproduced here as a brief essay.
To begin my time of reflection on five years as Provost at Midwestern Seminary, I’d like to start with a brief meditation on thankfulness as I think, as one old liturgy states, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” I’ve organized my thoughts on thankfulness around three simple headings.
First, it is God’s will to be thankful, always.
As the Apostle Paul instructs, believers are to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).
Today you may find yourself wrestling with contentedness, discerning God’s will, or your present circumstances. You may be limping into the start of the semester. Or, you may be overjoyed with the blessings of God and so enthused that you cannot wait until Monday.
Regardless of where you find yourself today, it is God’s will to be thankful always.
Second, there is a reason to be thankful, always.
Listen to the 17th century Puritan Thomas Watson from his extended work on Romans 8:28:
“See what cause the saints have to be frequent in the work of thanksgiving. In this Christians are defective; though they are much in supplication, yet little in gratulation. The apostle says, ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess. 5:18). Why so? Because God makes everything work for our good.
“We thank the physician, though he gives us bitter medicine which makes us sick, because it is to make us well; we thank any man that does us a good turn; and shall we not be thankful to God, who makes everything work for good to us? God loves a thankful Christian.
“Job thanked God when He took all away: ‘The Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21). Many will thank God when He gives; Job thanks Him when He takes away, because he knew God would work good out of it.
“We read of saints with harps in their hands (Rev. 14:2), an emblem of praise. We meet many Christians who have tears in their eyes, and complaints in their mouths; but there are few with their harps in their hands, who praise God in affliction. To be thankful in affliction is a work peculiar to a saint.
“Every bird can sing in spring, but some birds will sing in the dead of winter. Everyone, almost, can be thankful in prosperity, but a true saint can be thankful in adversity. A good Christian will bless God, not only at sun-rise, but at sun-set.”
Because God is good and he does not change, there is a reason to be thankful, to God, for God, always.
Third, thankfulness is key to walking in the Spirit and defeating the evil one, always.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Tolkien shares how the names of weapons the heroes used were so named because they described how they defeated evil. Bilbo Baggins names his sword “Sting” after defeating the spiders in Mirkwood. Thorin Oakenshield’s sword is named Orchrist, meaning Goblin-cleaver, and Gandalf’s sword is named Glamdring, meaning Foe-Hammer.
God has given us a similar weapon named Thankfulness that functions with the armor of God to extinguish the flames of the evil one and aids us in putting sin to death.
For example, Paul ends his beautiful teaching of what the believer should “put off” and “put on” in Colossians 3, with the phrase “and be thankful.” He then concludes in verse 17 with the summary admonition, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Therefore, when facing temptation, the believer should go on the offensive and “Set your minds on things that are above” and be thankful. When blessings come, the believer should “give thanks to God” rather than think highly of himself. Or, as is my task today, when thinking back on 5 years, we should start with thankfulness.
My Reflections of Thankfulness
Therefore, it is good and right to give thanks, always. And when thinking about serving five years as Provost, I have a few reflections. But this is more than mere nostalgia. It is a time of intentional thanksgiving and “setting our minds on things above” for offensive warfare against the one that would steal our joy or cloud our minds or distract our hearts. Giving thanks today is a way of taking captive thoughts at the start of the school year for good and God’s glory.
Thus, for five years, I have five general categories for which I am thankful. And as I work through these categories, I invite you to think through the last year or five years or 20 years and think of things for which you are thankful as well. For, in one major sense, I am merely a representative of all of us who have the privilege of serving here at this great school.
1. People – I am thankful for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the people who make up those churches. I am thankful for our President, Jason K. Allen, from whom I have learned much in five years. I am thankful for our faculty, colleagues, students, and staff. On the horizontal plane of service here on earth, people are more important than anything. I like systems, I like improvements, I like winning, but none of those are made in the image of God. None of those are eternal beings. None of those can love and be loved. I am thankful most for the people I have encountered over the last five years.
2. Progress – I am thankful for the revitalization, growth, advancement, and goal achievement we have seen here. Those who care to read of the history of institutions will enjoy reading about God’s work at this school in recent years. But more important than that is what the progress represents in terms of Kingdom advancement. I am thankful for the progress and enjoy celebrating wins with the people.
3. Provision / Providence – I am thankful that through the challenges that have come, God has been faithful to work all things for good. God gives and takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
4. Protection – I am thankful that God has protected us from catastrophic errors, from foolishness, from sin, from conflict, from the unseen and unknown. Midwestern Seminary is a happy place. It is a human place, to be sure, but I am thankful for how God has protected us.
5. Pointing – C. S. Lewis said, “The poet is not a man who asks me to look at him; he is a man who says ‘look at that’ and points; the more I follow the pointing of his finger the less I can possibly see of him.” I am thankful that Midwestern Seminary and Spurgeon College are places that point for the church and for the kingdom. How refreshing and joyful it is to serve at a place that does not ask the world to “look at us” but rather is consistently saying, “look at that” and the more people follow our pointing the more they love the gospel, love the church, love the kingdom, love the nations and most of all, love God.
Thankfulness always is the way out.
In one of my favorite television shows, an older character tells a younger character, who has been struggling and stumbling, this story to encourage him and remind him he is not alone. He says:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.
“A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
“Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole.
Our guy says, ‘Are you crazy? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”
Or to summarize in another way from 1 Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
When in doubt or whatever your circumstances, pursue thankfulness, for thankfulness is always God’s will, there is always a reason to be thankful, and it is an effective weapon against the schemes of the evil one. Whether you’ve served here for 5 years, 1 year, 20 years, or one day, remember this:
You can always trust Him and give thanks to Him, for he’s been down here before and He knows the way out.