A friend asked me this morning how I arranged to pay for my seminary studies. I am grateful for this question because it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the steadfast faithfulness of the Lord. The truth is that I didn’t arrange anything, but God did. I moved to Dallas in August of 1996 to attend Dallas Theological Seminary, trusting that God would bring me through, and he did just that. Perhaps I was young and naïve, but God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness are bigger than the foolishness of those who trust him. The Lord provided, and he provided through people like my friend who asked me the question this morning—that friend bought me my first computer and printer when I started at at DTS.
The only money I had when I went to Dallas was what I had earned working at Kanakuk that summer. I think it was about $1600, but I was single and had no debts. I also had no job, but the Lord soon opened a door for me as a youth intern at Northwest Bible Church.
I assumed that my job at Northwest would carry me through, but in early Octobor of 1996, I sat down and calculated expenses and income and saw that I was going to be about $1600 short at the beginning of the spring. That night I went to Northwest and mentioned the financial crisis to the youth staff before we prayed. Kent Lawrence prayed, "Lord, I pray someone will just give Jim the money."
A week later I wasn't given the money, but a guy named Darin approached me and said he was eloping and needed someone to move into his apartment. I told him I was already short on funds and there was no way I could pay rent. He then responded, "There is no rent!" He lived in a backhouse behind the home of a 91 year old lady, Zelva Laird, who liked to have a seminary student live behind her and give her a call every day. That's it. No rent, no work, just a phone call to make sure she was okay.
I contacted the school to see if they would refund the money that I had already paid to live in the dorm. When they refunded the balance of what I had paid for the dorm that fall it was $1660, exactly what I thought the shortfall would be.
Every semester I would fill out a scholarship request form that had two columns. One column was for expenditures and the other column was for income. Every semester my expenditures amounted to more than my income, but I never went into debt (and I never went without some scholarship help from the school!). There were times when it looked bad. I remember going to the financial aid office one day and picking up a loan application. I started for the door, but then I stopped and took it back to the desk. I handed it back to the lady working there and said, "I’m just going to wait and see what God does."
Late in the semester at DTS the bill for the next semester would arrive. The school's policy was that you either paid the amount in full or paid extra to be on a payment plan. That first fall of 1996 I paid what I owed when I got the bill. A few days later, I went to my box and found a note. The note said that an anonymous donor had called and expressed a desire to pay my tuition. Since I had already paid what I owed after scholarship, the donor had requested that the $750 I had paid be refunded to me.
That very week I had taken my car in because the clutch wasn't working. I needed a new clutch, a new battery, 4 new tires, and a realignment of those tires. The bill on my car came to $715, and the Lord had provided through an anonymous donor. To this day I have no idea who that person was, but I am grateful for them and I praise God for the way he orchestrated my car bill to be less than my tuition!
I hope I never forget how mystified I felt when I got that note in my box. I could not figure out why it had happened. Had God had blessed me in that way because I had done something right? Why did God cause a donor to give to me and not to some DTS student who was more deserving than me? Why didn’t the donor give to some student who was worse off than me financially? Why had God shown such kindness to me? What had I done to deserve this?
Looking back, I did not have a theological category for God's mercy. I had heard the word, and I thought I knew what it meant. But when it happened to me I didn't know what it was. A few years later, when I beheld the free mercy of God as I studied Romans 9 and was helped to understand it by John Piper's book The Justification of God, I realized that the anonymous donor, like so many other things in my life (loving parents, living in a land that has the Bible, growing up hearing the Gospel, etc.) were expressions of God's sovereign, free, almighty mercy and love and grace and goodness to me. I did not deserve them. God shows compassion to whom he wills as an expression of his love. He is not obligated to love all people in the same way all the time, and in his sovereign freedom he has chosen to show special love to me. Only God knows why he chose to be kind to me, and I owe him thanks and praise. I am responsible for my actions and deserve only hell, but he freely gives life and joy and peace in the knowledge of himself. Mercy. Hallelujah!
In late November of that fall of 1996 I got an opportunity to go to England for 6 days with two other DTS students. I was given an almost free plane ticked because one of the guys worked for the airline and was able to get "buddy passes" for us. My parents were going to help with some of the costs as well, but then as I was driving home from DTS one day I stopped behind a truck at a stop sign. The truck pulled forward, I eased up on the brake and moved slightly forward, then the truck suddenly backed up again, denting the front of my hood. When the insurance adjuster came to look at my car, she gave me a check for $950. I asked her if I was obligated to use the money to have the car fixed, and she replied that her client had done that amount of damage to my property and I was entitled to that much in compensation. I could do what I pleased with it. I lived on it!
In my second fall at DTS, the fall of 1997, I met my sweet wife, Jill (September 17, praise God for that day!). I could tell very early that I wanted to give my life to this woman. I went to her home for Christmas that year, and on Christmas morning, while she slept, over coffee with her parents, I asked her father for his blessing. He replied, "You already have it!" That January Jill's mother came to Dallas and we visited a jeweler together and bought a ring. Jill's parents gave me a no-interest loan to buy the ring.
That spring of 1998 I only took 10 hours at DTS. I was working two jobs to pay for school and the ring and then marriage! By God's grace I was able to pay the ring off by our wedding day, July 25, 1998.
After we got married, God's provision came in the form of the generosity of Jill's parents. They had purchased a condominium in a neighborhood near DTS for Jill to live in while she was in school, and after we got married they allowed us to live there rent-free. They also graciously continued to pay for Jill's tuition and books at DTS, and even continued to give her an allowance until we graduated together on April 29, 2000. I praise God that he put it into the hearts of Jill's parents to be so supportive of us.
We moved to Louisville from Dallas in May of 2000, and the Lord continued to bless us and provide for us through my Ph.D. program. We had no kids yet, and sweet Jill graciously worked to put me through school. Jill's parents had given her a car for graduation, and they had allowed me to keep the car Jill had previously. My parents let me keep the money for the sale of my car–even though they had paid for it.
During our time at SBTS, the Lord continued to surprise us in the way that he provided. My sister and brother in law expressed a desire to buy my books while I was doing the Ph.D., so every semester I got a check from Dayna and Clint. Various friends and family members blessed with cash gifts, SBTS once paid me $600 for a study I did for one of the Vice Presidents, and somehow the Lord (and sweet Jill's frugality) kept us afloat and debt free.
God is worthy of trust, and his mercies are new every morning. To him be the glory forever and ever, Amen!