Humility Alone Will Do: A Call for Teachable Teachers

By William Blankschaen
September 01, 2003

The wounded general crumpled to his knees on the muddied field, clutching his bloodied side. Slowly he turned, straining to straighten, to face his ferocious foe towering above him. As a painful breath wracked his throbbing ribs, he squinted through the sweat and blood to peer up at the massive warrior striding confidently toward him.

“You miserable worm,” the fierce warrior thundered as if from on high, “I told you I have the superior army, technology, and strategy, and still you foolishly thought you could defeat me!” He stopped with a grin to enjoy the triumphant moment and the pained expression on his fallen foe’s face.

Click. The smile slipped away. As the brute’s face stiffened in surprise, the wounded general’s face cracked into a smile barely visible through the pall of fog hovering over the muddy field.

“Yes,” the battered lips lisped in response, “yes, you were superior, but,” a bloodied cough shook his failing frame, “but, my friend, you’re the one who just stepped on the land mine.”

The Threat of Superior Knowledge

Knowledge puffs up. And in the world of education, such puffing can be hazardous to a teacher’s spiritual health. Like the overconfident warrior above who thought he had, and in fact did have, the superior strategy, weaponry, and army, educators are often tempted to trust in their superior knowledge to their own destruction. It is an easy trap to miss. An educator knows that he teaches precisely because his knowledge is greater than that of the student. An educator knows that his strategy in handling the truth must be greater than the student’s, or the teacher is unnecessary. Likewise, an educator’s understanding of the untruth must be superior for the teacher to expose the works of darkness. Thus it is that the educator finds himself in a relationship that is, by tautology, defined by his own superiority. Right about then — click.

Know the truth; know the untruth.1 Such should be the mantra of everyone who desires to teach. But in acquiring that knowledge, there is a two-fold danger. First, the teacher will be tempted to trust in that knowledge. St. Augustine correctly diagnosed his own malady as a teacher when he noted, “For without you what am I to myself but the leader of my own destruction.”2 Second, the educator may be tempted to arrogantly stray too near the fires of Mordor and find himself enchanted by the powers of the dark lord. “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the enemy.”3 Hence, knowledge alone is not enough to qualify one as an able teacher.

Would it bring anyone comfort to know that the person with the most thorough understanding of nuclear devices was an egotistical, self-centered, macho-man with long ambitions and a short fuse? Certainly not! But if knowledge is power, my friends, should it bring us any comfort to know that an educator who possesses an unfathomable knowledge of his field is unwilling to admit errors or appear imperfect before his students? Or what of the teacher who, with the best of intentions, studies the untruths of the works of darkness yet seems to think only of his own interests and not of the well-being of his students? Are not both of these educators headed for the same ill-fated landmine? Pride does go before a fall for a reason. It is the blind spot concealing the selfish motivations of any and every teacher.

That’s right, every teacher. So many teachers strive to seem perfect when seeking to educate like Christ when, in fact, what the student most needs to see is the difference between Christ and the fallen-though-sanctified teacher. For example, Paul often contrasted himself to Christ, acknowledging that there was a difference between himself and the Master Teacher. Yes, he was earnestly attempting to imitate Christ, but, no, he had not and would never completely attain that goal. Perhaps embracing this paradox is the most fundamental of qualifications for teaching — the teacher must ever be a humble pupil willing to admit his own insatiable and eternal need to learn.4

Before being made an apostle, Paul was a prime example of a teacher set ablaze by selfish ambition. By his own admission, no other educator could claim to have surpassed his extensive knowledge of Scripture, philosophy, and any other topic a critic might name. But this knowledge led only to his being consumed with destroying the people of God. Why? The truth had not transformed him. For it is not enough to know the truth; we must be transformed by the truth for the process to be complete. Consequently, it was not until the Spirit of Truth transformed Paul on the road to Damascus and humbled him through blindness that Paul could truly begin becoming one of the greatest teachers ever to September 2003 – Chalcedon Report 19 walk this world. The lesson Paul learned, and the lesson every successful educator must grasp, is that one cannot teach unless he is first willing to be taught.

Learning How to Think

A teacher must first be willing to be taught how to think. One cannot think until his mind has been renewed by the ultimate Thinker. Here is where it all begins — in our minds. “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Pr. 23:7). And “out of the abundance of the heart, a man speaks” (Mt.12:34). Scripture is clear that it all starts in our minds, our souls, our hearts, or wherever our thinking takes place. Wherever and whatever your mind is, it must be renewed, gutted, stripped and refashioned to reflect the mind of Christ.5 For some, that means leaving behind the humanistic methods and doctrines of an atheistic educational system. For others, it means discarding the preconceived naïvetés of educating in a fallen world. For still others, it means admitting that they do not have it all figured out. As educators, we must check our thoughts at the door and put on the mind of Christ before we dare step into a classroom.

What does that mind look like? The mind of Christ is a mind marked by humility. It is a mind that “made itself of no reputation” when it had every right to do so (Phil. 2). It is a mind marked by servitude, “despised and rejected” by men (Is. 53). Perhaps most importantly and most willingly forgotten, it is a mind marked by “sorrows, and acquainted with grief ” (Is. 53:3). Furthermore, because it is a mind truly committed to humility, no place is made for any “high thing that exalts itself against a knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5).

Because every thought has been brought into captivity, there are no rogue thoughts calling for a revolution of self-interests. But to keep a sinplagued mind in submission, the educator must study God’s laws of logic and learn how God’s mind works so that he may continue to think God’s thoughts after Him. As Calvin and others have so accurately observed, we may only think because God has already thought. J.R.R. Tolkien wisely noted that we are but sub-creators, essential to the process, but only able to be creative because God first created all things then taught us how to be creative in His image.6 Thus as teachers, we are but storytellers committed to uncovering His story and not to telling our own. Consequently, the moment you think that you are worth hearing, you stop teaching and start proselytizing to the Cult of Me.

Finally, because this mind of Christ recognizes the frail and sinful human condition and its own natural tendencies toward weakness, there is constant attention given to training to wield the weapons of warfare so essential to classroom success. The educator immerses himself in Scripture each day and invests additional time in focused studies, never content with where he is, never disillusioned by where he is not. The teacher marks out and courageously protects daily time in prayer for he knows he dare not attempt to think on his own and “prayer is the hand that moves the hand of God.”7 Because he has been humbled by God, he knows he lacks wisdom and therefore asks daily, if not moment by moment, for wisdom from above to direct his feeble thoughts in a manner pleasing to the Creator. “My voice you shall hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning I will direct it to you, and I will look up” (Ps. 5:3).

Learning How to Speak

A teacher must be willing to be taught how to speak. One cannot speak effectively until he has been silenced by the voice of God. Isaiah is one educator who learned this lesson well. He was indeed an educator, attempting to inform the Israelites of God’s impending judgment and urging them to use that knowledge to change their culture. But he had a problem. God desired not Isaiah’s words but rather His own. One prophetic glimpse of God’s holiness and two scorched lips later, Isaiah emerged a man dumb to his own thoughts but an eloquent orator for the message of God (Is. 6).

Augustine again complained of his own inability to hear and speak the words of God as one of the reasons for his adolescent sinfulness:

Do I dare say that you, my God, remained silent when I departed still farther from you? Did you in truth remain silent to me at that time? Yet none of [your words] sank deep into my heart, so that I would fulfill them. 8

One reason teachers struggle to hear the voice of God is that they are too busy talking themselves. Scripture diagnoses this linguistic addiction to hearing oneself speak and prescribes the following antidote: “Let everyone be swift to hear and slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19). Perhaps this biblical injunction may be summed up as follows: Shut up. Sit down. Let God speak.

One other crucial reason too many teachers struggle to hear the voice of God is that there is something missing from their daily routine — the sound of silence. In our hectic culture, the educator must constantly carve out daily sessions of silence to collect his thoughts and be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Waiting on God is an art neglected by any teacher at his own peril.9 Every teacher must take time to “be still, and know that [He is] God” (Ps. 46:10). We must become as Nathaniel, of whom it has been said that “he was a man much addicted to habits of devotion.”10 Failure to do so will result in a frustrated teacher frenetically failing to accomplish a divine task never intended for frail and finite fingers.

Learning How to Act

A teacher must be willing to be taught how to act. One cannot act effectively until he has been set in motion by the hand of God. It simply will 20 Chalcedon Report – September 2003 not do, not if we are serious about transforming culture for Christ, to teach one thing and live another. I will never forget the sage bowling advice received from a helpful uncle who, after explaining the correct bowling technique, promptly added, “But make sure you do as I say, not as I do!” Such hypocrisy we already have; it’s sincere actions our students seek to see.

After all, any educator must recall that while we are preparing our students for eternity, we ourselves are being prepared for the same destination. Jonathan Edwards put it well when he stated:

The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saint.… [T]hat which they shall enjoy in the angels, or in each other, or in anything else whatsoever that will yield them delight or happiness, will be what shall be seen of God in them. 11

What exactly is seen in you? Any motion other than what reflects God in us is superfluous and downright dangerous for it obscures the true purpose of any education — communication of the knowledge of God. Self-illuminations simply distract from the eternal shore and cause the student instead to fixate on the lighthouse. Thus Pharos itself becomes an idolatrous threat to the spiritual safety of the student.12

To teach a student it takes a teacher and one degree.
One teacher and a degree
And humility.
The humility alone will do
If degrees are few.

1 See my article “Teaching Apologetically: Getting Down and Dirty for Christ” Chalcedon Report October, 2002 for a more thorough treatment of this concept.
2 St. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 93 (Book IV, Chapter 1).
3 The Elvish lord Elrond’s explanation of why the once wise Saruman turned to evil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
4 It may be wise to note here that a paradox is an apparent and not an actual contradiction. Furthermore, our task of learning is an eternal one that will engage us throughout eternity. Scripture does not teach, as many Christians seem to think, that when we arrive in Heaven we will be like God, knowing all things.
5 Clearly implied in this statement from Romans 12:2 is the truth that one cannot truly know and, therefore, cannot truly teach anything if his mind has not been renewed by the Holy Spirit. This truth has staggering implications for an atheistic educational system. 6 Bradley J. Birzer, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth Wilmington: ISI Books, 2002). See especially Chapter 2 entitled “Myth and Subcreation.”
7 Often attributed to E.M. Bounds in one of his landmark works on prayer, although I am quite certain several authors have expressed this same sentiment.
8 Augustine, 68 (Book II, Chapter 3).
9 To aid in acquiring this silent art, may I suggest a brief but classic booklet by Andrew Murray simply entitled Waiting on God? If you can find it, grab it. It’s a good one.
10 A. B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve: Timeless Principles for Leadership Development (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1988), 7.
11 Jonathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Knowing Christ (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 42. 12The lighthouse at Pharos near the mouth of the Nile River was one the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Legend says that on a clear night it could nearly be seen all the way across the Mediterranean Sea.
13 Paraphrase of an Emily Dickinson poem entitled “To Make a Prairie.” 

Topics: Culture , Education, Theology

William Blankschaen

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