“What are you learning?” is one of my favorite conversation starters. The response I get often tells me a lot about my conversation partner.
I love to learn. There is so much to discover, big and small things, about others, about life, and even about myself. My love of learning translates to a lifestyle of listening to others, reading, being curious, and, when I am at my best, being humble.
In fact, humility is the foundation of a learner’s spirit, and it is essential to anyone who strives to follow Jesus and wear the badge of “disciple.” A disciple is a learner, and it is impossible to be a disciple without the recognition that I have something to learn. I need the humility to see my shortcomings, inexperience, biases, pride, defensiveness, misunderstandings, and more.
Biblically, there are many ways to learn: from history (Romans 15:4), from making mistakes (Proverbs 26:11-12), from discipline and correction (Proverbs 12:1), from others (Proverbs 12:15), and through effort/intentionality (Proverbs 4:5). Proverbs has a lot to say about humility and learning; in fact, the language of Proverbs chapters one to seven is that of a parent teaching a child. God wants us to be the children and to learn from Wisdom. Jesus further emphasizes the illustration in Matthew 18:1-4 (all quotations are from the NRSV):
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Learning From History
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
There is an oft quoted saying by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill memorialized and modified it in writing as, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
This is applicable to the importance of reading the Old Testament well, but also in understanding both world history and church history. There are many dark chapters in church history, but during most of those dark chapters the church did not see the darkness. Crusades, indulgences, corrupt power structures, defending slavery, racism, sexism, and humanism have all plagued the church at different times, and some of these are still issues today.
What is difficult during each era is the defensive confidence that the status quo is enlightened; we have learned what there is to learn from the past, and those who question today’s norms are to be condemned and ostracized, or at a minimum, marginalized. It takes humility and a learner’s spirit to consider that we may have more to learn, and that the status quo may be off the mark.
Learning from Making Mistakes
Like a dog that returns to its vomit
is a fool who reverts to his folly.
12 Do you see people wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for fools than for them. Proverbs 26:11-12
Many of us are experiential learners. We only learn when we try or do and mess up. We touch the hot stove and learn. The continual challenge then is to take responsibility for what happened and reflect. There is an increasingly influential way of thinking that if things do not work out favorably for me it is because someone else did something wrong. In other words, if something does not work out it is because I am a victim. We blame circumstances, leaders, friends, and family members. And God. It is a lot of work to take responsibility for our mistakes and many of us do not want to put the time and energy into both owning them and working to address them.
Learning from Discipline and Correction
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid. Proverbs 12:1
Sometimes, this is just learning from life. This year I decided to talk to a Christian counselor about my life and persistent character challenges. We had many sessions to talk about my premature birth, early childhood lack of attachment to my mother, my upbringing, alcoholism in the family, the early death of my mother and my failure to mourn, and my struggle with being emotionally rigid, easily aggravated, and excessively ordering my environment. As we were working through the early issues, I was beginning to believe that my struggles were all explainable: look at what happened to me!
But there came a point when talking about relationships in my immediate family that the counselor changed his tone and became a bit more direct. He said, “Jim, the problem is you value control and your own comfortability more than the relationship.” His words, though stunning, immediately rang true. Sure, my family history lent itself to my struggle, but it is not an excuse, and I am responsible for who I am today and will be tomorrow. Discipline and correction are uncomfortable, and I even find the process of change disorienting. While giving up on my control strategies I have begun to lose things and forget things, but hopefully I am more present in the moment, and I sense the quality of my relationships improving.
Learning from Others
Fools think their own way is right,
but the wise listen to advice. Proverbs 12:15
Whom I am willing to learn from is a significant indicator of my humility and learner’s spirit. I see a trainer twice a week who is 28 years old. He teaches me about fitness, and both encourages and challenges me. I have a tennis coach who is 20 years younger than me. He knows more about doubles tennis strategy and develops drills to help me improve; when he gives me an encouragement or correction, I take it seriously. My wife is an overcomer and a natural leader, with strong qualities that I lack; I watch and learn every day. My adult children are all in their thirty’s; the three boys are professionals and leaders, with experience and perspective that I do not have, and I learn from them continually. I am frequently amazed and inspired by women leaders who have emotional maturity and a gift at connecting with others; I want to be more like them.
One of the challenges some of us have is that we are quite selective about who we are willing to learn from, and what we are willing to question, consider, or reflect upon. We may have a hierarchal view of learning, have sacred self-interests, or a discomfort with anything that is not highly certain. Think of the challenges others had in changing their minds about the shape of the planet, slavery, the rights of women to vote, and basic civil rights for people of color.
The big challenge Jesus had with the religious ruling class of his day was that they were not willing to learn from him, and there was so much to learn! They had the defensive confidence that the status quo of their time was enlightened. Jesus was disruptive, a troublemaker, someone to be marginalized. They couldn’t discredit him, or kick him out of their circle, so they killed him. God knew this to be the case and worked his redemptive plan out of the cross, but let me ask a question: is it possible that I am more like the religious ruling class of Jesus’ day than I care to admit? If Jesus came into my church today, would I see him as disruptive if he had something to say about the way I am living, leading, and treating others?
Learning from Effort and Intentionality
Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget nor turn away
from the words of my mouth. Proverbs 4:5
Are you a learner? If so, what have you changed your mind about recently? I heard Gordon Ferguson speak after bouncing back from almost dying from cancer and its treatment protocol. It was remarkable to hear him talk (just before turning 80) about how his view of God has shifted, and how he is learning how to trust and be ready for his transition when it does finally come. What a significant change of thinking about perhaps the most important topic on the planet: how we view God. His recent experience was the trigger, but he also took that experience and reflected and studied and came to some new conclusions. That is humility and learning. It takes effort and intentionality.
I have had to do quite a bit of work the last few years to learn how to better read the Bible, become more aware of my cultural biases, to be more open to feedback and correction, and to tackle my persistent character flaws and sins. I am also beginning to grapple with the concept of retirement (or evolving!) and what that might look like. It takes significant thought, effort, and energy, and I am committed to it.
The default, however, is to be lazy and defend the status quo, to have a defensive confidence that is inflexible and unwilling to learn and change. I contest that you cannot call yourself a disciple if you are living in this default state.
What are you learning? How are you growing? Are you willing to change your mind if you get added information or a new perspective?
I love Psalm 25. David was in distress; he had a pervasive confidence, but it was in God, not himself. Look at the language of learning and humility and trust in this psalm and be inspired to imitate this heart. Below are verses 1-9, but I encourage you to meditate on the entire psalm.
Prayer for Guidance and for Deliverance
1 To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
5 Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord!
8 Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9 He leads the humble in what is right
and teaches the humble his way.