Gird Your Minds for Action: Our Theological HeritageNovember 17th, 2023
1 Peter 1:13-25
There are many themes that highlight the identity and mission of Asbury Theological Seminary’s 100-year history. One of these themes is our commitment to theological education.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” highlights what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.” What his research found is that truly excelling in a field, regardless of the field, requires 10,000 hours of dedicated, focused work in the early preparatory stage of your life. 10,000 hours, it seems, serves as a kind of “rule of thumb” if you are committed to exceling. The Beatles spent 10,000 hours playing in small clubs before they were able to launch their successful music career. Bill Gates, it turns out, spent 10,000 hours learning about computers and software before launching Microsoft. Gladwell even noted the medical residency hours and classroom instruction for doctors roughly adds up to 10,000 hours. He discovered that famous violin players and piano players have, as a common background, 10,000 hours of practice. None of the great composers, he argues, created any of their masterpieces until they had spent 10,000 hours in practice and composing. He noted the same thing for chess masters like the current grand champion Magnus Carlsen from Norway, and the list goes on and on. When I read that, I couldn’t help but think that this is true for those of us who follow Jesus as well. The disciples spent 10,000 hours with Jesus, if you count daylight hours over a three-year period. There are critics who have responded and said, “No, it’s 9,000 hours,” or “No, it’s 11,000 hours,” etc. But that misses the point, doesn’t it?
The point is that if you are going to excel in your life and in your ministry, there is no path that bypasses the need to spend thousands of hours in devoted study and learning in the formative stage of your life. That is what seminary is about, both in the classroom and in other ways you are being formed and prepared for ministry. We live in an age that looks for the path that is easy, quick and cheap. But discipleship is always hard, long and costly. We live in a time that loves minimalistic solutions that require the least effort, but what is really needed are maximal solutions that require the most effort. We inhabit a culture that longs for comfortable shortcuts when what is required is a long, arduous journey – what Eugene Peterson aptly called in the title of his book of the Psalms of Ascents: “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” The subtitle of the book is “Discipleship in an Instant Society.” He argues that we want to be tourists rather than pilgrims.
Whether you are here at the Seminary preparing to be a pastor, a counselor, a church planter, a teacher, or a missionary, it requires 10,000 hours of preparation. If you spend your spare time playing video games or looking at the latest TikTok videos or watching Netflix, you will not get to 10,000 and, as Gladwell points out, the 10,000 must happen in the preparatory stage of your life because this is about the foundation you lay, not what you happen to accumulate over a lifetime. In fact, Gladwell says in the book, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
Your commitment to give yourself wholeheartedly to your theological studies is, in fact, one of the ways you demonstrate your love for God. The greatest commandment, recorded in the all the synoptic Gospels, is “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…” Our tradition sometimes leans into the idea that formation is a matter of the heart, and this gets turned into strange kinds of emotive subjectivism, which actually eschews the hard work of formation. In its most virulent form, the mind is viewed as an enemy of the affections, even a detriment to a heartfelt relationship with Christ. Our tradition is very susceptible to this because of a misreading of Wesley’s famous comment, “warm heart, give me thine hand,” which we have taken to mean that if someone has a warm heart, we should embrace whatever bizarre, heretical or heterodox views they have and never think about the theological implications if such views were to be embraced.
What does it mean to love God with your mind? Peter uses this wonderful phrase, “prepare your minds for action” (1 Peter 1:13). This phrase literally says, “gird up the loins of your mind.” The word for loins here is the word “osphoos.” The word “loins” is an important theological word in the Scriptures, but, sadly, it is obscured by the differing ways it is translated in the New Testament in the eight times it appears. In the NRSV, we have four different translations of this word – “waist,” “dress,” “descendants,” and “loins” – and it is completely left out of the NRSV in this text from 1 Peter. This is where a little insight into the biblical languages can really help you, and I encourage you – especially all future pastors – to study koine Greek.
“Osphoos” means “loins,” which is admittedly an odd English word, and translators don’t know what to do with it, leaving us with the NRSV results. The reason I believe that this word is important in New Testament theology and needs recovery is that it is such an important word in the Old Testament, which is the foundation for the New Testament. The Old Testament sets the semantic and revelatory chess pieces, which the New Testament picks up and uses to proclaim the gospel. The word is used over a dozen times in the Old Testament, and the Septuagint translates it “osphoos” – the same word used here in 1 Peter 1:13. But it is very important in the Septuagint. We won’t look at all the texts in the Old Testament, but they fall into four main categories, and all eight times that the word “loins” appears in the New Testament are drawn from these strands in the Septuagint. These strands help us understand what God is calling your mind to in the area of discipleship.
The first of these strands of meaning is “loins” as a symbol of readiness. Exodus 12:11 comes in the midst of the first Passover. The people of God are told to eat the Passover with their loins girded: “This is how you should eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” In the ancient world, when you were relaxing at home, you would ungird your belt, just like we might change clothes at night into something more comfortable. They were told to not do that; to instead eat the Passover with their loins girded, meaning to “be prepared for battle” or “be prepared for action.” It is a symbol of vigilance and readiness.
Jesus draws from this image in Luke 12:35-36 when He speaks to His disciples about being ready and anticipating His return, like a servant waiting for his master to return from a wedding banquet. “Be dressed ready for service…” Be ready to open the door; don’t get distracted or too comfortable. Gird your loins for action.
If you invest 10,000 hours in forming your mind, you will be “girding your mind” with readiness for the myriad of things that will be thrown at you. Praxis training, which just focuses on how to do things, only has a shelf life of about five years because within five years, the church and culture have changed so much that you have to learn new practices. But if you have been theologically trained at a deep level, you have the background to respond to fresh problems that emerge. When I was in seminary over 40 years ago, I had never heard of gender reassignment or gender transitioning, etc. So, I was never given one minute of training about it. But decades later, when it became a theme, I was able to write a book about it because I had the theological skills to think about a new issue – I had my 10,000 hours under my belt.
The second strand of meaning is “loins” as a symbol of the prophetic mantle. Elijah is pictured as a prophet with a belt girded around his waist in 1 Kings 18. Recall that Elijah is looking for the rain to come after the long drought. He sees a cloud the size of man’s hand, and eventually the sky turns dark, and it begins to pour down rain. King Ahab went to Jezreel. Then the Spirit of God came upon Elijah, and 1 Kings 18:46 says, “But the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; he girded up his loins and ran…” He outran Ahab to Jezreel. It became a sign of the prophet.
Then, in the New Testament, when John the Baptist comes on the scene, he is pictured as the new Elijah who has returned to herald the Messiah. John the Baptist has a belt girded around his waist: “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist…” (Matthew 3:4). The word there is “osphoos” – loins. It is intentionally connecting to the Elijah narrative. It is not just telling us something about John’s clothing but about his identification with Elijah and the signs of his prophetic mantle. Jesus even says in Matthew 11:14 that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of the return of Elijah to herald His coming.
The third strand of meaning is “loins” as a symbol of generative power. Solomon was told that the anointed king, David, would come from his loins. The NRSV obscures the word used by saying more simply in 2 Chronicles 6:9, “your son who shall be born to you.” Here we are starting to see something of the symbolic use of the word “loins.” The word is used to describe that generative life, the seed of life, inside our very bodies, which birth to new life. This is the strand picked up on twice in the book of Hebrews when it speaks of Levi being in the loins of Abraham: “…descended from Abraham (from the loins of Abraham)” (Heb. 7:5) and “…for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him” (Heb. 7:10). We know, of course, that it is the loin theology that finally reconciles how Jesus could be both King and Priest, since Jesus came from the kingly line of Judah, yet he was also a priest in the order of Melchizedek. It was because when Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, Levi was in his loins – that is, in his body.
The fourth strand of meaning is “loins” as a symbol of the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah, when speaking of the Messiah, says, “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” This is the text that is not only fulfilled in Christ, but it the symbol of our bearing His messianic authority in the world, which Paul draws on in his exposition of the full armor of God. Recall that the first part of our spiritual armor is the belt of truth. Paul says in Ephesians 6:14, “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist (literally, “having girded the loins of you with truth”) and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”
Peter draws upon this metaphor in our text, 1 Peter 1:13, when he says, “gird the loins of your minds for action.” It is a striking phrase because the clearly symbolic use of “osphoos” manages to draw upon several rich images. For example, your mind must be sharp and poised, ready for battle. The world will dismiss us as buffoons unless we can, as Peter goes on to say in 1 Peter 3:15, “be prepared to make a defense to everyone who asks you about the hope you have.” It is good for people to see your good heart, but we must also show the world that our faith is well-thought-out. It is a beautiful, though nuanced, tapestry of redemption. Can you answer the questions posed to you?
I’ve had the privilege of preaching from the pulpit of Asbury Seminary for many years as the President. When I came to Asbury Seminary, my background was theology and missiology. I had spent 10,000 hours in serious study, which prepared me to pastor, later to teach, and then to serve as President of the Seminary. My heart and my mind both must be fully alive to do what God has called me to do.
I want to give you a little vignette of my academic life. I earned an M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell back in the 1980s and served as a pastor. Later, I earned a Th.M. in Islam from Princeton, and eventually I did my Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. My focus was on the Christian response to Hinduism. My M.Div. program was rigorous – I had to take classical Greek before I was even admitted into Koine Greek. I had to pass an exegetical test in both the Old and the New Testament to graduate. Later on, in my Th.M. degree, I spent hours and hours every day studying the Qur’an because it was necessary for my academic formation. Later on, I enrolled in doctoral studies in Edinburgh. If you enroll in doctoral studies, it is generally required that you learn another academic language, usually German or Latin. Yet in my case, because I was doing Hindu studies, I had to learn Sanskrit. I spent two years of dedicated study learning Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a difficult language because it doesn’t have an alphabet the way we think of an alphabet – with distinct letters. Rather, it is a syllabary where each consonant automatically carries a short “a” sound with it. But, as with most languages, there are times when two consonants come side by side with no intervening short vowel or no vowel at all. So, you have to learn how to insert other vowels, sometimes in creative ways. When there is no vowel, the two consonants must collide with one another and create another symbol, and there are hundreds of possibilities, each of which has to be memorized. Sanskrit doesn’t even have an absolute left to right orientation like English, nor an absolute right to left like Hebrew. Sanskrit letters can move right then left and even move up and down in very challenging ways. All of this took thousands of hours of dedicated study, mostly alone in a carrel in a musty library.
My dissertation was on an Indian convert from Hinduism to Catholicism named Brahmabandhav Upadhyay. (Brahmabandhav is the Sanskrit equivalent to the Greek Theophilus; it means “lover of God.” Upadhyay is a name for a teacher in the Bengali tradition.) One of his main projects was to reconcile the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, the great 13th century Doctor of the Roman Catholic tradition, with the teachings of Adi Sankara of the 8th century, arguably the leading philosophical theologian in the Hindu tradition. I had to spend thousands of hours carefully studying Aquinas’ “Summa Theological” and “Summa Contra Gentiles,” among other works of his. I spent thousands of hours studying Hindu philosophy just so I could understand the writings of Brahambandhav.
The highlight of my research was working with a famous hymn he wrote called “Sacinananda.” It is a reference to the Trinity, and it is a Trinitarian hymn with four verses. Verse 1 is worship to the Triune God, then each successive verse is praise to each of the three persons of the Trinity: verse 2, the Father; verse 3, the Son; and verse 4, the Holy Spirit. It is one of the most important theological contributions in his voluminous writings. But there is a debate about whether he wrote the Sanskrit word “dhanam,” meaning wealth, or “ghanam,” meaning intense bliss. The two words are identical except for a single open or closed line at the top. I had to resolve this problem because the translation of the whole verse largely depended on how this word is translated. I couldn’t find any resolution to this problem. Eventually, I had to fly to Calcutta and go to St. Xavier’s University, a well-known Roman Catholic school, where this hymn was kept in their archives. I flew to India, and, through a challenging process, I was eventually allowed access to this document. The year was 1996, and I held in my hands the original copy of this famous hymn. My hands trembled a bit because this was a very important academic moment in my life. I was tempted to quickly look down at verse 4 and resolve this long-standing academic debate, but I calmed myself and just started reading through the hymn line by line. It had taken me years of preparation just to read this one hymn, and there I was in Calcutta reading the hymn in Sanskrit. My heart quickened as I got to verse 4, the final verse in the hymn, the one to the Holy Spirit. I read to the point that was the reason for my long journey to India. Did Brahambandhav write “dhanam” or “ghanam”? My eyes blinked as I looked at the word. I wiped my eyes to see it more clearly, but there it was. At the very place where that line should be or not be, a tiny book louse, commonly known as a bookworm, had eaten his way through a stack of archives and eaten the manuscript through at that very point. He ate through that spot so precisely that it was impossible to determine if it was “dhanam” or “ghanam.” I had traveled all the way to India, and a tiny book louse, so small you could hardly see it, stood between me and my Ph.D. My point in telling you this story is that it took thousands of hours of preparation to even have that experience. This is the “rule of 10,000.” I am giving an example from my field, but it is just as true if you are learning church history or complex counseling concepts. (By the way, I did resolve the dilemma, making my trip to India fruitful, because Brahabandhav Upadhyay had graciously included some personal footnotes where he explained why he had chosen various terms, and he made a comment about his choice of the word for intense bliss in verse 4, thereby confirming he had written “ghannam,” not “dhannam.”)
The point of this extended illustration is that at the heart of our formation and ministry preparation is the training of the mind and concerted, hard work. When I was a pastor, I didn’t write my sermons on Saturday night. I spent time with the text all week. Our church grew by the grace of God but also because we developed specific strategies to reach our community. It took a lot of hard work and connecting week after week for years with every single person who moved into our community. We were part of a four-point charge, and the lead church was committed to having their own full-time pastor. But our District Superintendent said we could not go full-time until we had a certain level of membership, and the number seemed impossible to our people. But it was the very invitation we needed to get serious about evangelism. We worked and prayed toward this for two years until we met that goal and were able to go full-time on July 1, 1986.
This is not merely a lesson for those who want to be in academics and teach. This is a lesson for all of us. We must gird our minds for action. You have a special window of time afforded you to devote yourself to those 10,000 hours. It doesn’t matter whether your denomination requires the M.Div. or not, or whether some potential counseling center requires a CACREP degree or not. The point is, you require it of yourself because you want to be fully equipped. You want to gird your mind for action. You want to maximize your ministry potential. You want to be able to be used by God in whatever area He calls you to. A sharp sword is better than a dull sword. You may think that some minimalistic path will get you through, but it won’t. Even if the church allows it, or doesn’t have the courage to demand it, you will demand it of yourself. Because this is what will give you the foundation for your entire life of ministry. You can’t help it that you were born in a day when the culture is spiraling down, and all the culture can say is, “Whatever.” No, this is your very invitation to stand out and stand up for your own future ministry. Now is the time to learn theology, church history, pastoral and counseling practice, biblical texts, and biblical languages, that you might be equipped for service to the kingdom. We have one of the greatest faculties ever assembled, representing each of the key fields of study, and they are here to prepare your minds for actions. That’s why you’re here. Settle for nothing less than God’s highest. It takes 10,000 hours to gird your minds for action.
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