Refuge in the overwhelm

Mike Thompson, Director of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Christian Thought and History

To the onlooker, theological education might look like a season of sitting still, reading books, and long lunches – a time of relative ease. Beneath the surface though, deep and seismic changes are often afoot. This can also be a time of rapid growth, with all the joy and the pain that rapid growth entails.

Recently I was asked to address students on the challenges of theological study. Here I was coming into teaching theology, but with a fairly recent experience of being on the receiving end as a student too! In that talk, I mentioned one of my favourite books, German theological educator and preacher, Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. The short book, a series of frank and fearless remarks aimed to ground and humble incoming students, contains some excellent and memorable imagery describing the way rapid growth can lead to a kind of overconfidence. When students undergo an intellectual development that outstrips their lived spiritual experience they become like “a country boy with breeches that are too big.” In the period of rapid growth that constitutes theological education, we can appear to be growing in ungainly proportions. It’s possible, says Thielicke, to be in “something like theological puberty.”

In my experience, this rapid growth that occurs in theological education can lead to us not only being overconfident, but sometimes overwhelmed. In fact, it’s possible to find one’s self tending both directions at the same time.

Bible College can be full of experiences that can cause overwhelm alongside overconfidence. You might be overwhelmed at times by:

  • Cognitive overload (too much to cram into your head at once) and spiritual indigestion.
  • There might be challenges to old certainties you took to be central to faith (“If scholars argue over who wrote Genesis or Hebrews, is it really God’s word to me?”)
  • You might be stretched personally by what you’re learning, and those around you that you’re learning with. It was this factor that made a colleague of mine, who was a former policeman, say that bible college was “way harder” than being a cop.
  • Then there’s the way God seems to use suffering as a cauldron for our deeper growth and formation. It might be relational strain, unexpected shock or grief, family or personal illness or challenges to our identity. Life is full of these large and small earthquakes. And we know from scripture (particularly, for example, Paul’s account of his own sufferings in 2 Corinthians) that this is a means by which God will comfort us with comfort we can then use to comfort others.

All in all, it’s not uncommon at college—when you add all the newness too—to have a subtle sense of the ground shifting beneath your feet while you’re standing on it. As a mentor of mine at my Sydney college said, “You go to college to do business for God, and he does business on you.” I found that to be as true as it is memorable.

How do we respond? Well in both overconfidence and overwhelm, I’d say the answer is the same, we turn to God, and to God as he really is toward us in the gospel.

You might think this is trite, and too obvious to warrant saying.  But it’s not as obvious as it first sounds. For we can very easily — even in the midst of serving God—fall into a mode of relating to the gospel that is unshaped by the gospel itself.  We can treat the gospel, even Jesus, as an idea, an enterprise, a job, or a thing that I am working for, defending, or promoting.

The gospel is not first of all an idea (although it is communicated in ideas). Nor is it a good cause (although it is God’s cause in Christ). And nor is it an object—an ”it”—that we protect and champion (although we do guard it and pass it on.)

Rather, principally, the gospel is a personal summons from a personal God to be reconciled to him through Christ. And in that gospel he reveals himself as one to be related to, and trusted upon as three distinct persons:  as Father (“who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things” Rom 8:32),  as Son (“who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” Rom 8:34), as Holy Spirit (“who testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” Rom 8:16).

Far from being an academic exercise, this gospel of God the three-in-one is the most encouraging and nourishing news I could receive. If God, who has mobilised the full resources of the triune godhead to establish a relationship of loving fellowship with me is for me, who can stand against me?

It turns out he is what we need in times of both overconfidence and overwhelm. He, as person, not concept or cause, is the one to turn to, to take refuge in, to seek rest in, during the very overwhelm that he has allowed to come about. And what a one to take refuge in! There are literally countless facets of his three-in-one personhood that we can delight in and take rest in.

But here are some. In your overwhelm, turn to the Father as your Rock: loving, unchanging, and eternal. Turn to God the Son, as your high priest, your leader who is not unable to sympathize compassionately yet effectively with your weaknesses, your elder brother who is not ashamed to call you “brother” or “sister.” (All that is in Hebrews 2 alone!). He is your confidence, your cleansing, your intercessor. And turn to the Spirit, who is your teacher, your illuminator, your guide, your strengthener, your comforter (see John 14-16, just for example).

The God of the gospel is not far off waiting for you to tidy up your act and then approach clean and polished. He is not a critical taskmaster counting how many runs you have on the board “for the gospel.” He is not tutting at your weaknesses like your own internal critic might be.  He is not there simply demanding you try harder, or be stronger “for” him (as if that were possible).

No he has already come near, stooped lower than you can grasp, in initiating love.

I’ve been encouraged recently by this old hymn from John Newton, Approach My Soul the Mercy Seat (1779). In it, Newton addresses himself and Jesus in alternating voices. “Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat, Where Jesus answers prayer; There humbly fall before his feet, For none can perish there,” he says in verse 1.

Then, addressing Jesus, and appealing to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 11 to “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” he speaks of drawing near:

Thy promise is my only plea,

With this I venture nigh;

Thou callest burdened souls to thee,

And such, O Lord, am I.


Bowed down beneath a load of sin,

By Satan sorely pressed,

By wars without, and fears within,

I come to thee for rest.

In verse 6, Newton pictures hearing Jesus speak back to him these words:  “Poor tempest-tossed soul be still, My promised grace receive;”

And then he speaks again to his own soul, affirming his faith by which he draws near: ‘Tis Jesus speaks, I must, I will, I can, I do believe.”