Interview with Todd Bolen, Part 3: Students and Life

This is Part 3 of my interview with Todd Bolen.  I posted Part 1 and Part 2 earlier this week, both focused on teaching and the Bible.  Part 3 focuses on students and life.

Why do you want to teach college students?

They don’t know everything.  By that I mean that I might have something to say to them whereas others would be bored.  But it also means that they are ready to learn.  Most of them do not have their minds made up.  This is true both doctrinally as well as vocationally.  I would love to influence them to make lifetime choices that honor God.  Of course I reject the notion that there is any job where one cannot honor God.  But I suspect that some who are called to particular work in missions or ministry may be tempted to resist that calling.  Others may be called as they understand the Bible better.

Another reason I like college is that it is not so highly specialized, and therefore I can teach a much broader range of courses.  And students can take them, not being locked into an inflexible schedule of mandatory courses.  My heart is in understanding the big picture of the Bible, whereas seminary tends to focus on bits and pieces (language and theology).

What are the biggest mistakes college students make?

They are short-sighted.  This is not a problem with youth itself, but with immaturity.  A governor recently committed adultery; that was a short-sighted sin that he will pay for the rest of his life.  College students often don’t realize that one poor decision now can hurt them for a long time.  That might be more obvious with adultery than it is with pornography, but a mature individual will consider the long-term in all of his decisions.

College students are often in a hurry; they can’t wait to take this job, date this person, or act on this situation.  Most of the time, haste is not required, and often when decisions are made quickly, they are the wrong ones.  One obvious reason for this is that haste doesn’t provide time for seeking counsel.  Another aspect of youth is the unwillingness to listen to the advice of another.  By listen, I don’t mean “hear,” I mean “heed.”

So I would say, don’t rush, think long-term, sit and read the Bible for a while, talk to a wise person.  If this was the way we lived, many mistakes would never be made.

Outside of God-given ability, what characterizes the best students?  What have been some of your own goals and priorities as you’ve become a student again after being a full-time teacher?

In line with the previous question, wise students think ahead.  They realize that the class they are in is not (usually) worthless and something to be checked off the list.  Instead, they consider the class an investment in their future.  In this analogy, the student is like the bank and the teacher is handing out cash.  If the student puts the cash in the bank, he will reap dividends for a lifetime.  If the student doesn’t listen real well, chooses to take minimal notes, and has a “get by” attitude, the bank will be as empty as when he began and a high interest rate on an empty bank account pays nothing.  An irony here, of course, is that the student is actually emptying his financial bank to take the course, and he who graduates with both “accounts” empty is a real fool.

Yes, I’m a full-time student again after teaching for many years.  But in some ways I never stopped being a student, and so the transition is not that hard.  A primary commitment that I have made is to take good notes.  I failed to do this in college, and I have really regretted that.  But since then, I write down everything in class.  I have doctoral seminars now, sometimes with 10 other students who themselves are preparing to teach, and oftentimes I’m the only one taking notes.  Maybe they have good memories (I do not!), but so many times I have been thankful that I have it all written down.

Students are always making decisions, often massive ones with long-term implications.  Could you give us some brief words of direction about making decisions as young people?

I talked about this a little before with regard to short-sightedness, but perhaps I can address the marriage decision in particular.  I’ve only been married now for 17 years, but I really want to stress to college students that marriage lasts a long time.  (That could be wrongly taken as indicative of a poor marriage; in fact, I have a very good marriage.)  This is so important when making decisions about dating and engagement and marriage.  All of that, however long it takes most people, is but a snap of the fingers compared with the decades of marriage.  Do not be in such a hurry.  Six extra months of dating will be forgotten after you’ve been married 5 years; conversely, marrying the wrong person because you didn’t want to follow wise counsel which suggested that you really were still cross-eyed and needed more time to get to know each other can result in a lifetime of heartache.  If you’re not dating, you can prepare yourself now by developing a teachable and submissive heart (I don’t mean submissive to your boyfriend, I mean submissive to God and wise people!).  Being in love is something like sticking earplugs in, so the more sensitive you are to noise now, the more you’ll hear when the plugs go in.

Marriage is more about life than lovers usually expect.  Dating is often built around easy life — social functions, adventures, relaxation.  Most people’s marriages are very different; schedules are very busy and difficult circumstances abound.  To someone dating, I would suggest: Think about what life would be like with this person when he gets diagnosed with a disease which requires a radical diet change for life.  When you have a child who is not normal and requires a huge amount of your energy.  When you lose your job and you have to live like paupers for an unknown amount of time.

Young people do not seek out counsel nearly enough.  They don’t think they need it.  Ironically, most of the people who ask me for advice are the ones who need it the least.

Generally speaking, what do you hope your students go out and do?  What kind of former student would make you die happy?

My prayer is that they will live all out for Jesus.  If they’re selling houses, I hope they are doing it for Jesus.  If they are starting a business, I hope that’s always secondary to their first love.  Because I’ve seen whole towns and cities where people have never even heard Jesus’ name, I’m excited when a student chooses to go overseas.  Here’s a radical vision, but this would make me die happy: I have 1000 former students.  500 are serving Christ overseas, and the other 500 are fully supporting them.  We might have to abolish some missions boards that want single missionaries to raise $4,000 a month to serve in India (where you can live for less than $500 a month), but that’s a separate subject.  Right now we need 1000 people, all of whom are radically committed to laying down their lives for their (future) brothers.

What would be your top three practical tips to students at any level of academic training (college and above)?

  1. Figure out who the best teachers are and take their classes.
  2. Take good notes.  I said it above, but I can’t omit it here.  By the way, if for no other reason, this is all you need to motivate you to learn how to type fast.  Learning to be a fast typer is a very wise investment of your time.  (My 11 and 9 year old boys type about 35wpm; they do lessons on the computer about 4x/week.)
  3. Go to IBEX.  If you can’t spend a whole semester in Israel, figure out the next best thing and do it.

In the midst of a busy schedule, how do you plan for and guard time with your family?

When I was in seminary and before we had kids, an older seminary student I knew mentioned that he blocked off 5-8 every evening to be with his kids.  I thought that he was crazy.  I needed every single minute that I could get to just survive my classes.  This guy was not the most academic, didn’t get the best grades, and so I could have dismissed and forgotten it.  But I never did.  And that has been a goal of mine as the kids have gotten older.  I’ve not always succeeded, and we do variations on it, but the principle that he shared has become a conviction of mine.  It’s certainly much easier while I’m in school than it was while I was living at IBEX, but I’m already thinking and planning for how things are going to look when I return to teaching.

Defining success is vital in any given pursuit.  Could you expand on some of the shallow or ungodly definitions of academic success that you’ve seen in students throughout the years?  How would you describe biblical success when it comes to our years of academic preparation?

I didn’t remember this so much at Master’s, but I see it some at DTS.  You get some guys who exult in their rebellion, who think they are cool because they can “see beyond” what I call “biblical truth.”  They realize that those who really believe the Bible are living on a narrow road, and the broad pastures outside are so fertile and inviting.  You’ll never be cool in academia if you believe certain things (like inerrancy, like God’s unchanging promises to Israel, like surrender of freedoms for the sake of the brothers).  So as you rise in academia, you realize that the more work you do, the more outside you’ll be.  The temptation is to quit altogether or to join the crowd.  I understand the temptation to want to be liked.  I write a niche blog which is read by (a small amount) of religious scholars of all stripes.  I have to daily decide against “coolness.”

Another issue concerns grades.  There is no doubt that some students who get the A dishonor God more than others who get the B.  God is honored by the totality of your decisions.  If you walk by the man dying on the Jericho road because you have a paper to finish, you have failed to obey the second commandment.  On the other hand, it’s foolish to spend $15,000 for a semester of classes and then cheat your study time by making bad decisions and having wrong priorities.

You’ve taught at The Master’s College for a number of years, mostly overseas in our Israel Bible Extension.  How would you encourage and exhort TMC students and alumni in particular?

Think of yourself as a steward.  None of “your” money belongs to you.  None of “your” time belongs to you.  If you think this way, you’ll probably be less willing to spend God’s money on personal pleasures.  And less tempted to spend God’s time on things that don’t matter.  A short little book that helpfully addresses the concept of stewardship is The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn.

Thanks, Todd, for taking time out of your full schedule to share your heart and insight with us.  And thank you for your example to all of us who have studied under you.  You’ve been so much more than a professor to us.

6 thoughts on “Interview with Todd Bolen, Part 3: Students and Life

  1. WOW. Loved this Gunner! Thank you. I never got to have Todd Bolen as a TMC prof but everybody I knew who did totally loves & respects him. No wonder. The Lord has given him great insight!
    I really appreciate you posting this.

  2. my life was enough of a mess after having discovered my brother’s dead body at age 4. it then moved into parental manipulation, theft, deceit and other crimes. that translated into addictions by age 13 and by age 19 had made a bet that resulted in pregnancy and marriage. we need to understand that we own all of our decisions and that we should make them carefully. the book is also available at barnes & noble, books & co, books-a-million and


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