Faith Crisis in Seminary

Counsel for Struggling Students

Joe tracked me down one day. With desperation in his voice, he pleaded that I help him resolve a crisis moment. As a seminary student, he was overwrought with thoughts that he didn’t belong in seminary. He ticked off several reasons for his doubt. He went to class, and his mind wandered. He attempted to do course assignments, but he couldn’t care less. He was tired of exegeting biblical passages and developing theological convictions. He felt listless in his relationship with God. And he entertained strong doubts about his sense of call to ministry.

Joe certainly isn’t alone in experiencing such doubts about his ministry aspirations while in seminary. So, how should a student respond if he enrolled in seminary with great expectations and wide-eyed wonder, only to find himself in such a faith crisis sometime during his studies? As a longtime seminary professor, I have counseled students with at least three lessons.

Don’t Be Surprised

A good place to start is the apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 1:29: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” As a seminary student, you are preparing for Christian ministry, and Satan hates Christian ministry. He will attack your faith and try to disturb your hope, derailing you from God’s call and future plans for you. Also, the world — people who are hostile toward God and systems that are ungodly — has you in its sights to entice unbelief and destroy you. And of course, your own sinful nature rears its ugly head and seeks to drag you away from such a calling.

How should you respond to these three enemies? Don’t yield to Satan’s trickery: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). Direct your heart toward God and away from the world: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). Depend on the Holy Spirit: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).

“Ask veteran saints around you about their experience of doubt, and know that you are not alone in the fight.”

What you experience is common to all of us who have been in seminary. Indeed, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13). Ask veteran saints around you about their experience of doubt, and know that you are not alone in the fight.

Don’t Stay for the Wrong Reasons

This kind of experience is also a good opportunity to carefully assess the reason(s) you enrolled in seminary. Are you there because your grandfather and father (who were pastors before you) expect you to become a pastor too? Or maybe you assume that they expect you to become a pastor (though that’s not actually true of them). And if you’re honest with yourself, you’d rather be a dentist or an educator. But if you were to take that other direction, you’d no longer be on “God’s A-team.” You’d be settling for his second best.

Now, if you have a very sensitive conscience, please don’t apply the above discussion to yourself so that you doubt what you know as God’s leading to seminary. Rather, if you’re in seminary to please others (granddad and dad), or if you’re looking for people to admire you because you’re on the elite squad (and that doesn’t include examining braces or educating biologists), please reconsider your plans.

Switching from theology to thermodynamics, if that’s how God has wired and gifted you, may be the right step — not the embarrassing or shameful step — to take. And it may calm any doubts that have arisen from wrongly attending seminary.

Don’t Consider Doubt a Virtue

Lastly, don’t yield to the popular contemporary move to embrace doubt as a proper posture for Christians. Jesus rebuked his disciples as men “of little faith” when they questioned his ability to provide for their basic needs (Matthew 6:30). They feared for their life though he was ready to rescue them (Matthew 8:26). They were in full panic mode when threatened by their surroundings (Matthew 14:31). They disbelieved his vivid examples of provision (Matthew 16:8). They wondered why they failed when they didn’t trust Jesus and his power (Matthew 17:20). Jesus rebuked doubt as misguided.

Oppositely, Jesus healed people in response to their stunning faith. One example is his healing of two blind men: Jesus “touched their eyes, saying, ‘According to your faith be it done to you.’ And their eyes were opened” (Matthew 9:29–30). As a woman with a persistent discharge of blood touched him, “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well” (Matthew 9:22). As for the leper whose skin was made whole, Jesus “said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well’” (Luke 17:19). As these narratives are offered to underscore the necessity of faith, we rightly conclude that these miracles would not have happened if doubt had won the day.

Moreover, Scripture celebrates men and women who, though in dire straits, refused to cave in to doubt but remained steadfastly faithful. Abraham is so extolled:

In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18–21)

Likewise, Scripture applauds Sarah for her persistent trust in the face of an impossibility: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11).

“Don’t give way to the faddish fixation on doubt as a virtue.”

So, don’t give way to the faddish fixation on doubt as a virtue. Faith is a fruit of the Spirit. It is ignited by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). It is directed not inwardly but outwardly toward Christ and his gospel of grace. Even if assailed by doubt and shaken by temptations and trials, faith will prevail when it is riveted on the divine promises of our faithful God.

End of a Faith Crisis

This proved to be Joe’s experience. When he initially approached me with his concerns and fears, my heart went out to him. Though I and others were confident about God’s calling on his life (which I believed included completion of seminary studies in preparation for church ministry), I was grieved that Joe was facing such a test of his faith.

For several weeks, we met together, poring over the biblical passages noted above, examining how to overcome the distractions to his studies, praying for a renewed sense of God’s presence and provision, and envisioning the fruitful ministry that could open up in front of him. By God’s grace and Joe’s persistence, he moved from disabling doubt to robust faith in God’s call on his life.

If you, like Joe, didn’t sign up for a “faith crisis” class in seminary, but find yourself in one nonetheless, I hope and pray the same outcome will be true of you.