Writings by Cole Huffman

The Strokes of Teachability

My wife is an artist.  She’s been honing her painting skills since she was a girl.  This usually means I never pick up a paint brush for anything around our home.  But I did once, memorably. 
We were converting a room from an office to a nursery in anticipation of our oldest daughter’s birth.  The new paint was a periwinkle purple, and since my wife was pregnant and didn’t need to breathe in the fumes I took the job.  As I prepped, she gently pointed out the walls needed two coats, but I demurred.  “No way!” I said with a head toss, “This is darker paint than what’s already on the wall.”  I wanted to knock out the task quickly.  She wanted it done right.
Later I emerged from the room proud to announce it was done.  My wife entered to inspect.  There were places where faint yellow streaks (the old wall color) were still visible, and places where my stroke was clearly uneven.  “Okay,” I said, “I’ll just go back over those.”  She persisted that the entire room needed two coats.  I muttered something about the state of her appreciativeness.  Her eyes welled up with tears and it wasn’t due to pregnancy.
There are skills to acquire for most everything that needs doing, even slathering paint on walls.  My wife has painting skills.  I have knowing-how-to-act-like-I-know-what-I’m-doing skills. 
This means I am not naturally teachable.  Becoming teachable can be likened to knowing how to paint a room well.  More than simply choosing a color is involved.  It involves knowing what kind of paint is best on the wall’s texture and in the room’s lighting, and knowing how much paint is needed, and knowing what kinds of rollers and/or brushes to use. 
Teachability is gaining this “knowing.”  It results from willingness to learn, openness to input, carefulness to observe, and persistence to understand and apply what is true and right and good.  Just as painting a room requires painting supplies, so these are the “supplies” required for a person to be considered teachable. 
But painting requires skills too.  The skills to acquire in becoming teachable are namely two: humility and reflectivity.  Humility’s willingness to learn is like applying an even brush stroke instead of proceeding slapdash through life.  The same is true of the carefulness to observe that marks the reflective.  Humility also maintains teachable flexibility by remaining open to input.  Reflectivity preps the heart and mind to understand the difference between what’s wise and foolish so there are no drips or streaks of independent negligence or immature naivety in my life.
Because of my natural bent, acquiring these skills has felt to me at times like learning to throw or write (or paint) with my opposite hand.   I am innately a do-it-yourselfer living by the interchangeable credos “I can do it myself” and “I know what I’m doing.” 
The book of Proverbs confirms and challenges my “old wall color” independent streaks.  Proverbs does this by reversing the conventional creed of do-it-yourselfism: “live and learn.”  Proverbs puts the accent on learning then living: “My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments within you; keep my commandments and live…” (Prov. 7:1-2a). 
The Proverbs address teachability inhibitors like quick-temperedness (Prov. 14:29; 16:32; 29:11), impulsiveness that shunts wise reflection (4:26; 19:2; 20:25), self-assurance (3:7; 18:1; 26:12), defensiveness (1:32; 10:17; 29:1), and naivety (1:22; 9:6; 27:12).  Each of these scream “I can do it myself” and/or “I know what I’m doing” (and maybe one reason why Wisdom is personified in Proverbs 8 as needing to “raise her voice”).  Becoming teachable is not about getting smarter so much as wiser.  The wisdom writers of Proverbs want us to avoid what southern novelist Walker Percy once observed, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” 
I avoid this first by acknowledging I don’t always know what I’m doing.  Knowing-how-to-act-like-I-know-what-I’m-doing is self-assurance posturing as self-confidence.  Even when I know I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t want anyone else thinking or saying this of me.  It’s a kind of narcissism: I want to keep the pool of others’ opinions in which I self-consciously behold my reflection placid, no ripples of doubt about me, stirrings of discontent with me, or muddying of confidence in me.  
Perhaps Peter struggled with this.  In Galatians 2, Paul recounts some “face time” with Peter: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Gal. 2:11).  The reason was Peter preached a gospel of God’s grace to Jew and Gentile alike, but in the company of certain Jews he turned self-consciously kosher. Paul considered this to be more than an ethnic clash with Gentiles: “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’” (Gal. 2:14, emphasis added). 
In other words: “Peter, you don’t know what you’re doing!”  This is said to a man who is presented to us as sometimes impulsive (Mark 9:2-6), sometimes overly sure of himself (Matt. 16:21-23), sometimes self-defensive (John 18:15-18, 25-27).  How would he respond? 
We don’t know Peter’s immediate response to Paul.  But it seems Peter responded humbly and reflectively—teachably—judging from the affectionate respect he evidenced for Paul in 2 Peter 3:15.  For all his recorded impulsiveness and failures, Peter aced this teachability test.  “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” became his signature statement (2 Peter 3:18).  It’s a statement that reflects his own personal growth in the teachable skills of humility and reflectivity, skills he came to personify as well as impart: “humble yourselves” (1 Peter 5:5-6), and “be sober-minded” (1 Peter 5:8).
What does it mean to “humble yourself”?  The Hebrew word for “humble” in Proverbs 11:2—“with the humble is wisdom” (a word found only here and in Micah 6:8)—describes a person who is malleable to God, willing and wanting to obey Him in every circumstance.  This is the heart of teachability.  The humble person is flexible to God, moldable.
But Proverbs 11:2 is contrastive (same as 1 Peter 5:5-6).  The part about humility is the second strophe of the verse: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.”  The word for pride in Proverbs 11:2 (and 16:18) comes from a root word that suggests “boiling up.”   It’s a word used throughout the Old Testament to refer to those who insist on having everything their own way.  This is the common denominator in all those who qualify as proud, biblically considered.  Pride is like a churning and stirring from deep within a person that boils up and spills over: I can do it myself!
Pride is always in contradistinction to humility.  I can do it myself and I know what I’m doing make me rigid and inflexible not just to what others can teach me, but ultimately to God.  In becoming teachable I have to learn how God Himself is always teaching through my interactions with others.
I didn’t begin to learn this until I was forced to resign a church position some years ago.  Someone in that church concluded I didn’t sufficiently know what I was doing in my position.  This chafed my pride, and at the height of my frustration I vented to a pastor-friend who knew the situation well.
His response was that I needed to become “a kingdom player.”  He meant by this that no cause of self-vindication is greater than preserving “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).  The reflex to assert I know what I’m doing would be reflux in the Body.  He was counseling me to grow in humility, to become teachable to God in that circumstance.
God wanted to work in the loss for my gain, to teach me things I would not have learned otherwise if not for that time.  I needed to learn that God wastes nothing.  When defensiveness and assertiveness dominate my response to another I am not just unteachable to them, I am not teachable to God either.
            In A Twentieth Century Testimony, Malcolm Muggeridge affirmed how our most meaningful gains with God can come from our most humbling times with others: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction.  Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”
Humility flexes to accommodate all the ways God teaches, including in and through all kinds of pain.  The humble person accepts that not everything is going to go her way but God will have His way.  When He stretches us it is to keep us pliant, bendable to His way.
Naturally, it is our strengths, competencies, accomplishments, and know-how that we want to assert.  But these reveal only one side of our person, like a profile painting.  Each of us also possesses vulnerabilities: weaknesses and inadequacies and insufficiencies.  God uses these as “instructors” as well.
Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England during a decade of the seventeenth century (also a Puritan) had his portrait painted by the famed Peter Lely.  But Cromwell had surprisingly exacting instructions for Lely: “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will not pay you a farthing for it.”
Humility doesn’t wallow in “all these roughnesses” that are still true of my person even in Christ—who I am “warts and all.”  Rather, humility embraces weakness to gain strength; the strength of being shaped and molded by God’s greater grace.  Peter said, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5; quoting Prov. 3:34).  Becoming teachable is an experience in becoming more appreciative of God’s grace.  He accepts me “warts and all,” loves me, and wants me moldable (humble) so that I am more dependent on Him and more useful to Him.
Humility is not the desire for humiliation or embracing another’s caricature of me.  Humility is adaptive honesty before God and others that there is still much I can and should learn, even when I think I know a lot about something already.  It is pliant willingness to first reflect on another’s input or direction instead of reacting.  It is supple receptivity to another’s correction rather than stiffening in self-defense.
            I can do it myself and I know what I’m doing are postures more reactive than reflective. A reactive posture repels another’s input like a radioactive isotope.  The patron saint of reactivity is Zophar, one of Job’s friends, who comes back at Job with all the subtlety of an atomic explosion: “I hear a rebuke that dishonors me, and my understanding inspires me to reply” (Job 20:3).  At the end of the book, God sternly confronts Zophar that he should have reflected more and reacted less (cf. Job 42:7-9).
If growing in humility means becoming more pliant to God, growing in reflectivity means becoming more attentive to God.  Humility is a process, reflectivity processes.  And processing takes time.  Reflectivity slows us down to think, ponder, observe, consider, heed.  It is being “sober-minded”; to not be so flustered by corrective input that it isn’t considered; to not be in such a hurry to get on with something that I run past what others have learned about it.  Reflectivity notices when I’m in the teachable moment and gets the lesson.
I think back to when I was a brand new father.  My wife and I had read some parenting books and taken a preparation for parenting course in anticipation of our firstborn’s arrival.  As the delivery date drew near, I brimmed with confidence that I knew what I was doing as a dad—I read the right books!
Midway through our stay at the hospital with our newborn, a pediatrician arrived to the room to check on our son and discuss his care with us.  Some of her counsel conflicted with what I’d read in the parenting books and I bristled inside.  When she left the room I stated to my wife, “Well, we’re not doing that!” 
It wasn’t that I thought I knew more about babies than the pediatrician, but that I thought I knew more about a child’s needs—my child’s needs—than I actually did.  My mother-in-law, listening in the corner of the room, quietly advocated for the pediatrician’s viewpoint.  She said I ought to give what the doctor said more serious consideration.  I looked at my wife and repeated what I’d said: “We’re not doing that!”
I’m embarrassed to look back on my reactivity now.  I would have thought of myself as teachable because I’d read parenting books and gone to parenting classes.  But my dismissive reactions to the pediatrician and my mother-in-law—two people with far more experience with children than me—indicated a shallow teachability at best.  During that first year of parenting our new son, my understanding of what parenting required was shown to be as thin as only one coat of paint on a wall.
I failed the teachable moment in the hospital that day because I didn’t notice it.  I know what I’m doing sprang up from boiling pride within and distracted my attention away from learning from the pediatrician, my mother-in-law, even the Lord at that moment.  (I came to realize later I had some pretty rigid, untested ideas about how parenting worked.)  At the very least a reflective response would have pondered the counsels for more than a moment. 
But more than that, reflectivity would also have probed the reasons for my reactivity: Why am I bristling at this doctor’s counsel? I may disagree with her rationale, but why am I getting mad about it!?  Reflectivity slows down to consider whether one of those teachability inhibitors from Proverbs (listed above) might be at work.  What is causing me to want to react?  Is there defensiveness, self-assurance, or quick-temperedness?  Reflectivity is often used by God to prepare the heart for repentance, getting to the root of what’s causing reactivity that stymies growth in teachability.
I defer to my wife any painting that needs doing around our house (she prefers it this way!).  Although I’ve rarely picked up a brush or roller in the years since that day I botched the nursery project, I think I’m a much better painter now—and husband and pastor and father.  Because my knowing-how-to-act-like-I-know-what-I’m-doing skills are fading like old wall colors under new coats of paint.  I don’t miss the old colors.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 6:32 PM
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