‘Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.’ That advice of Henry Ford given some hundred years ago has been scientifically verified in the last few decades. Studies show that people who stay cognitively active and curious about the world around them are less likely to develop dementia than those who allow their minds to lie fallow. That truth alone should be enough to motivate us to be ‘lifelong learners’ but as Christian people we have even greater motivation.
The apostle Paul was probably around sixty years old when he wrote to the church in Philippi from prison in Rome. He’s a veteran missionary and has been a devoted follower of Jesus for almost thirty years and yet he writes of his continual desire to grow in his knowledge of Christ. There is no complacency with Paul, ‘I want to know Christ – not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on.’
Age is not the issue
Paul was committed to lifelong learning and maintained a teachable attitude. Age is not the issue. Sadly, I’ve met young Christians who are not teachable. They are so sure of their theology and practice that they think they have nothing new to learn. Their dogmatism and closed attitude is often divisive and censorious. But remaining teachable is especially challenging for us as we grow older. Sadly, I have also met older Christians who have become cynical and jaded because ‘they’ve seen it all before’ and ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’
It is sometimes said, ‘Knowledge is proud because it knows so much but wisdom is humble because it knows so little.’ Humility and teachability go hand in hand and should be the constant characteristic of the Christian disciple. A disciple is, after all, a learner and the more we learn as we follow Jesus the more humbled and ready to change we should be. This is not to say that knowledge is unimportant – Bible truth is vital – but if that knowledge does not translate into wisdom which transforms our living then it is knowledge which, as Paul reminds us, simply ‘puffs up.’
The lack of teachability is probably the single greatest hindrance to our growth in grace and it’s a form of pride. It’s when we think we know best because our constituency or our tradition is the best! And although we would never admit it, we secretly struggle with the famous saying of the puritan pastor John Robinson who instructed his people to be open to fresh revelations from God as they were leaving for America on the Mayflower, ‘for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.’
Maintain a pilgrim spirit
John Robinson understood that the voyage they were taking to America required not only physical courage and adaptability but also the attitude of a ‘pilgrim spirit,’ eager to learn through new experiences of God and a fresh understanding of his Word on their journey to a new life. How sad is the Christian who is stuck and satisfied! The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we can become. If you do not have a teachable spirit you will never fulfill your God-given capabilities, or discover the full life that Jesus came to bring.
And yet almost everybody thinks that they are teachable. It is very rare to encounter someone who would label themselves as ‘un-teachable’. So maybe a little honest self-examination is in order. How teachable are you? When did you last decide to read a book that challenged your assured perspective on an issue? When did you last accept advice from someone younger than you? Do you tend only to respect people who agree with you? Do you ask questions or do you share your opinions? Do you get defensive when other Christians speak into areas of your life like your marriage, your parenting, your priorities, or your walk with God? And if your answer to the last question is, ‘It depends who does it,’ then maybe you are not as teachable as you thought you were!
Experience based learning
In his providence, God often allows different circumstances and situations in our lives that challenge our complacency and keep us teachable, deepening our understanding of his truth. It’s now forty years ago that I was a member of a University Christian Union! But I still thank God for those years of fellowship and gospel witness with Christians from different church backgrounds. Serving in mission in southern Africa, in a context that challenges many of our western assumptions about faith was enriching and today, seeking to minister in an international congregation in Greece requires learning to be open to God’s patient shaping of our lives. We are all works in progress!
But maintaining a teachable spirit is the only way to enjoy the life God has given us however long or short that might be. Proverbs 14:12 tells us ‘Whoever heeds instruction is on the path to life, but the one who rejects reproof leads others astray’. So, what are some biblical characteristics of the teachable person? You may well have a longer list but let me suggest at least five traits common to teachable people.
Traits of teachable people
Teachable people have an attitude to life that not only wants to learn but is willing to be taught (Prov. 4:13).
Teachable people take long hard looks in the mirror (Luke 6:41).
Teachable people encourage others to speak into their lives (Prov. 5:12-13).
Teachable people have a ‘beginner’ mindset: they appreciate something new every day (Ps. 143:8).
When we lived in Namibia we learned many African proverbs. One wise saying was that God has made us with two ears but only one mouth! Teachable people are characterized by a willingness to listen rather than an eagerness to speak (Jas.1:19).
The Christian life is a journey; it’s a pilgrim’s progress. Above all it is progress in a living, growing relationship with Jesus. I like Tim Keller’s Nine questions for sleepy Christians. One of the questions he asks is, ‘Are you conscious of a growing sense of evil in your heart, and in response a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?’ Another is, ‘Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you ever have in the past?’ That’s a wonderful learning curve that will lead us to eternal life. In the meantime, ask God to give you a teachable spirit. If you don’t, you will come to the end of your potential long before you come to the end of your life.