When do we stop learning? I vaguely remember my first days of kindergarten, a little guy walking down cavernous hallways to the classroom where a lot of unfamiliar faces greeted me. ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I probably wondered, being the shy, quiet sort that I was.
But as I recall, “K” was a very pleasant time. The launch of my lifetime of learning. My teacher, Mrs. Ashenbach – I think that’s how her name was spelled – was kind, and I made many friendships. A couple of those connections continue to this day, amazingly enough, via the marvels of social media.
But I digress. Thinking about when we stop learning, the best answer is, hopefully never. If we’re truly teachable, there shouldn’t come a time when we conclude, “Well, I’ve got it. I’m done. Nothing more for me to learn.” Even the smartest person can’t begin to absorb everything there is to be learned, even in his or her own areas of interest. So the greater question becomes, are we willing to remain teachable even as we get older?
Before anyone asks the question, ‘What do we mean by ‘teachable’?’ I’ll offer a very simple, down-to-earth definition I heard recently: Teachability is having the humility to admit, “I don’t know everything.”
Why does this require humility? In case you haven’t noticed, there seem to be a whole bunch of people who have anointed themselves as know-it-alls, whether it’s about politics, science, social issues, even matters of religion and spirituality. Sadly, many of these folks seem to live by the motto, “My mind’s made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts (or truth).”
Teachability is a trait the Scriptures insist upon for leaders. Consider:
“Which of you is a wise and well-instructed man? Let him prove it by a right life with conduct guided by a wisely teachable spirit” (James 3:13, Weymouth New Testament).
“Therefore, an elder must be blameless, the husband of one wife, stable, sensible, respectable, hospitable to strangers, and teachable" (1 Timothy 3:2, International Standard Version).
“A servant of the Lord must not argue. Instead, he must be kind to everyone, teachable, willing to suffer wrong” (2 Timothy 2:4, International Standard).
Many translations of the Bible state “able to teach” or “apt to teach,” rather than teachable, but I think a teachable person has far greater impact than one who believes he or she has everything figured out.
In his writings, the apostle Paul also put a high premium on teachability, trusting those he ministered to would learn and apply what he had taught them, and in turn, teach the truths to others:
“Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice…” (Philippians 4:9).
“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).
Growing up, my father would sometimes speak of people that were “educated beyond their intelligence.” In other words, knowledge is not always the equivalent of wisdom, or even common sense. For instance, Paul wrote about people that were “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).
The greatest teacher of all time – Jesus Christ – also communicated the importance of humility in learning. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Earlier I referred to my memories of kindergarten, when the vistas of learning were just opening up. Have you ever noticed the eagerness, the wonder of children when it comes to learning? Jesus loved being around children, in part because of their simplicity, lack of guile, and inquisitiveness.
On more than one occasion, He commended their receptivity. Contrasting them with the stubborn, self-satisfied people He would encounter everywhere He went, Jesus declared, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25).
Most children are humble, wide-eyed, sponge-like in learning about everything they encounter. Perhaps we need to shift back into that mode at times, restoring our teachability by becoming like a child and humbly admitting, “I don’t know everything.”