As a newly-minted sophomore at Harding University, I walked into the theater-style classroom and stepped halfway down the terraces before sliding into a desk near the very center of the room. In most other classes I would have sought a seat in the back corner, near the exit, knowing that I would be anxious to leave as soon as the professor dismissed. But Bible classes (required for enrollment at HU) were different for me and, as I sat down in the Old Testament Survey class, it was excitement rather than drudgery which I felt.
That excitement was well-placed. Dr. Neale Pryor, then an aging man in his mid-60s, was the professor for the class and everything I had heard about his teaching proved true. He was neither the hardest nor the easiest teacher, his classes would occasionally go off-topic and his other work for the university took him away from the classroom from time to time; but he was kind, knowledgeable and well-spoken, with a natural charisma that pulled you into the material he taught. All of which came through in the first class period as he glided slowly to the front of the room and, in his usual, grinning way, surveyed the new faces in front of him. He welcomed us and then began speaking about what we could expect for the semester. But the dialog was very different from other college courses’ first classes in that we didn’t peruse the syllabus or talk about the structure of the class or his expectations for behavior and attendance.
If memory serves me right (which is a big “if” – I tend not to remember what I had for lunch by 5pm), after telling us a little about himself, he made a statement which proved true in every class after. He said something like, “A large number of you will leave Harding after this year … for various reasons. As a consequence, you won’t get to – or have to [he added with a grin] – attend Bible courses. That’s why, in the time we have together, I will always do my best to bring things around to what is most important. Not what is most important for the next test or quiz, but what is most important for life.”
Dr. Pryor continued speaking about this for a few minutes before he quoted the Lord from Matthew 16:26, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
That verse could have just hung there, suspended in time, never really re-considered after that moment. But Dr. Pryor didn’t let it. His notice that he would always bring our conversations, and the lessons of the Old Testament, around to the most important thing in life proved prescient because he always included that verse, that question, that warning … every single class.
If we were speaking about the laws and regulations in the Torah, he would direct our thoughts to how living in that way was supposed to bring a man into greater understanding of his Creator: “What does it profit a man …?”
If we were talking about the on-again, off-again adultery of the Israelites’ relationship with God, he would ask the question: “What does it profit a man …?”
If we were looking at the life of King David, his victories and failures, the conversation always came back to Dr. Pryor asking: “What does it profit a man …?”
If we were aching with the hearts of the Psalmists or the Prophets or the Hebrew exiles – all of them wanting so badly to see God’s arm of justice revealed amidst the horrible circumstances in which they found themselves – the question became personal by Dr. Pryor asking: “What does it profit a man …?”
If one of the other students in our class won an award, Dr. Pryor would lead us in rejoicing with them, before asking the question: “What does it profit a man …?”
If one of the other students in our class was going through turmoil physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, Dr. Pryor would remind us: “What does it profit a man …?”
You see that the question is a perfect one around which to form a philosophy … a spirituality … a theology … a life. For everything circumstance throws in one’s path … for everything that builds up or tears down … for everything that breeds beauty or sows decay in one’s life, it asks the question that reduces it down to its simplest form: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Dr. Pryor, by constantly quoting Jesus, was trying desperately, in the short amount of time he had us ‘at his mercy’ in a formal setting, to help us see that all conditions have within them either the capacity to bring us closer to, or push us away from, God. The only variable is how we view that condition when we are confronted by it. So you’ve been made a Vice President in your company … great! But it means you will be traveling too often to get involved with your church. So you are now considered the top mind in your field … fantastic! But it means more trial for your faith. So you’ve lost your job in the latest round of lay-offs … that’s horrible! But it was just God’s way to redirect your path. So your life is now shattered by the death of someone whom you love … I’m so sorry! But their end revealed an unrealized way in which their life had blessed and encouraged you.
My mom – a wonderful, beautiful lady with a depth of wisdom that I seem to appreciate more every day – used to ask a question that goes along well with Dr. Pryor’s Jesus quote. She used to ask me (and my sisters), “What spiritual lesson is God trying to teach you from this physical situation?” Is there a better way to ask that ultimate question? If there is, it is only with the words of Christ, “What does it profit a man …?” Why? Because life’s circumstances may raise you up to breathless heights one moment and send you crashing down into depths the next. The only thing worthwhile in the end is that God is willing to save your soul from damnation … and He works through our circumstances to bring us to that salvation.
Sure, one day He will rip apart the sky and reveal His glory and no one will have the choice but to bow the knee and confess that He is Lord. But in the meantime He is working in the still, small voices of everyday, hum-drum, boring-ol’ life and only the heart looking for Him sees the way in which He is working. Indeed, only the heart seeking Him by foregoing all of life’s “profits” can see where He is and stumble forward in our pain, or walk straight-backed in our euphoria, to Him.
This is confirmed throughout scripture. Whether from Solomon, who lamented the meaninglessness of life apart from God in Ecclesiastes, or Habakkuk who praised God while waiting “patiently for the day of calamity” (Hab 3), or especially by Jesus in His Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12), the lesson is consistent across scripture: God’s sovereignty does not exist in a moment and therefore the worth of our lives does not exist there either. He is God … therefore what brings us closer to Him is good and what we allow to pull us away is bad. It is that simple. We cannot judge whether a thing is good or bad in a moment, but only afterward by assessing whether it brought us closer to God or pushed us away. We can only truly see whether our earthly experiences were a “profit” in the next life when we stand before the mercy seat of God on that last day.
Dr. Neale Pryor passed away on 25 September 2011 and now awaits that day … and no doubt he awaits it with joy. Just like all of us, he experienced life’s ups and downs, but he always came back to that question: “What does it profit a man …?” That question leads us to Christ by bringing our attention back to the ultimate meaning of life: This life is only worthwhile if it prepares us for the next one.
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” NOTHING. But what does it profit a man if he loses the whole world and gains his soul? EVERYTHING. That’s what silly, little, sophomoric Doug learned from Dr. Neale Pryor and that’s what I hope to share with my kids, my friends, my family and all of you readers.
Thank You, Lord, for the inconsequentiality of the things of this world!