No Royal Road to Wisdom
If we want to be lifelong learners, we must first of all learn to be humble.
by Paul Thigpen
© 1984 by Paul Thigpen
"God's Little Workshop" was the name of George Washington Carver's busy lab, where the famous scientist pursued his quest for learning. According to his own account, it was there that he asked in prayer to discover the uses of what was then a lowly, unesteemed crop: the peanut.
"Dear Mr. Creator," the humble man began, "please tell me what the universe was made for?"
"Ask for something more in keeping with that little mind of yours," God answered. So Mr. Carver tried again.
"Dear Mr. Creator, what was man made for?"
Again the Lord replied, "Little man, you ask too much. Cut down the extent of your request and improve the intent." So the scientist tried once more.
"Then Mr. Creator, will you tell me why the peanut was made?"
"That's better," the Lord said, and beginning that day Carver discovered over three hundred uses for the lowly peanut.
Carver's experience gently illustrates a principle King Solomon had expressed many centuries before: "With humility comes wisdom" (Proverbs 11:2). Because this remarkable scientist was able to admit the limits of his understanding, God was able to open the doors of discovery to him. In fact, such a humble approach to learning was so typical of Carver that his humility was as famous throughout America as his brilliance. To the benefit of us all, that wise humility served throughout his life to open his mind in awe to the marvels of "Mr. Creator."
If we desire to be lifelong learners, we must learn first of all, as he did, to be humble. The Bible illustrates at least five areas of our experience that provide common "classrooms" of wisdom, and in each one, humility serves as the best teacher. A look at these opportunities for growth will help assure that we make the most of our lessons — and could save us the trouble of having to repeat them.
Humility in Conversation
"Let the wise listen and add to their learning" (Proverbs 1:5).
Everyday conversations are perhaps the most common classroom we have for learning. The clearest evidence of humility in this setting is a willingness to listen, because it's a sign that the listener realizes he has something to be taught. The habit of listening is indispensable for the lifelong learner, especially in those situations when he may think he has the least to gain from the speaker.
One major stumbling block for the Pharisees in Jesus' day was their conviction that "sinners" had nothing to teach them. When, for example, the man Jesus healed of blindness told them the miracle was a demonstration of God's authority, they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" (John 9:34). Sadly enough, if they had only listened to that "sinner," they could have found eternal life.
Children are one particular class of speakers often ignored as sources of wisdom; yet, as Jesus said, they can teach us much about the kingdom of heaven. A young father I know who was struggling with a poor self-image was once presented by his five-year-old daughter with a picture she'd drawn of a little girl. Instead of commenting, "That's nice," and returning to his newspaper, he decided to listen to the child's description of the figure.
"She's smiling," said the youngster.
"Why is that?" the father asked.
"Because she knows I made her, and I love her," the child replied.
To her father, the spiritual parallels were immediately clear, and for him the conversation was the beginning of a new self-image. Because he was willing to humble himself and "welcome a little child" as Jesus instructed (Matthew 18:2-5), he received that day the word of the Lord as well.
The principle of learning through listening applies equally to reading — which is simply an indirect conversation with an author. We often fall into the trap of reading only those writers or publications who fit our own theological or political mold. If we're willing to "listen," however, to those whose view differs from our own, we may find we have the most to learn from those we might otherwise have disregarded.
"Personally," admitted Winston Churchill, "I'm always ready to learn, though I don't always like being taught." Most of us would probably agree. But if we can assume with humility the posture of a student, allowing others the role of teacher, we'll find that everyone has some gift of wisdom to give us.
Humility in Correction
"He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise" (Proverbs 15:31).
Correction rarely comes to us as adults in the clear-cut words we heard in childhood. Instead the "rebuke" we receive may be couched as a spouse's complaint or an employer's negative comment on a job evaluation. More often, an offended neighbor simply stops coming by or a relative grows silent.
It's no wonder, of course, that we shy away from giving or receiving correction — it's just not pleasant. "The trouble with most of us," observed Norman Vincent Peale, "is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." Our pride tries to justify or excuse our actions rather than take to heart the wisdom that would change us for the better.
Even so, words of correction are priceless occasions for the lifelong learner who can receive them with humility. Our challenge will often be to interpret the rebuke hidden behind the complaint or silence, and to respond gratefully with a desire to grow.
Humility Before God's Word
"This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2).
The Pharisees who knew Jesus were diligent students of the Scriptures, yet most of them apparently failed to realize He was the Messiah promised by the prophets. If we examine their comments about Jesus, we find that He didn't quite fit the Messianic picture they had drawn from their reading. "Look into it," they insisted, "and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee" (John 7:52).
They were wrong, of course — they didn't realize that Jesus was born, not in Galilee, but in Bethlehem, fulfilling the very prophecy they used as a proof text against Him. Their knowledge was incomplete. At the same time, their understanding of Scripture itself was in error. Isaiah had prophesied that the light of David's eternal Successor would appear in "Galilee of the Gentiles" (Isaiah 9).
We can sympathize with the Pharisees' confusion: the book of Isaiah was probably as obscure to them as the book of Revelation is to us. But the problem was not so much their lack of understanding as it was their lack of humility that made them unable to learn from others. When the people marveled at Jesus' wisdom, their arrogant response was, "Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law — there is a curse on them" (John 7:48-49).
"As the heavens are higher than the earth," declares the Lord, "so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9). The lifelong learner of God's ways must begin by humbly confessing the limits of his theology. Ideas we've taken for granted all our lives may bind or blind us, so that our best education becomes, in G.K. Chesterton's words, "not to learn things but to unlearn things."
Sometimes we're like the little boy who proudly announced he was drawing a picture of God. "But no one knows what God looks like," said his mother. "They will," he asserted confidently, "when I get finished!" We fail to remember that "we see through a glass darkly," and that God will eventually destroy any box in which we try to confine Him. If instead we approach His Word humbly and with "trembling," as Isaiah said, God will enlarge our under standing of His ways.
Humility in the Mundane
"I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw" (Proverbs 24:32).
The common circumstances of everyday life often slip by us as insignificant, unworthy of our attention. Yet for the one who is humble enough to learn from them, mundane situations can become a perpetual parable.
Jesus' teaching was graced with a humility that could perceive divine lessons in everyday objects. "Consider the lilies of the field … behold the birds of the air … learn a lesson from the fig tree. … " His discerning eyes noticed the widow quietly giving her last coins; the banquet guests vying for the place of honor; the short tax collector up a tree — and He drew profound lessons from each situation.
"Teach us," prayed the psalmist, "to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). The Hebrew word translated here "to number" means literally "to weigh." If we can learn to give that proper "weight" to the meaning of our days, we too can gain a heart of wisdom that learns God's lessons in common affairs.
Humility in Adversity
"Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8).
Tough times provide perhaps the most significant lessons for the lifelong learner. Here again, humility is the key to wisdom. Humility has been defined as "a right estimate of one's self," and we're able to make the most accurate estimates of who we truly are when God scratches our paint to reveal the fiber underneath. In fact, one Hebrew word for "humility" used throughout the Old Testament also means "affliction." If the wisdom we seek comes from humility, then we must not disregard the adverse circumstances God uses to humble us.
Job's experience is the classic biblical lesson in learning through affliction. As long as he proudly protested his innocence and dared to call God to account for His behavior, Job failed to find the wisdom to deal with his circumstances. But when God appeared, asking, "Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?" (Job 38:4). Job was humbled, and thus gained God's perspective.
When trouble overwhelms us, the natural response is to ask God, "What have I done to deserve this?" But those are words of pride, for they presume that we have earned God's kindness in the first place. The words of the humble assume instead God's gracious purposes, and seek wisdom with the question, "What would you have me learn through this?" Even Jesus learned through the things He suffered.
No Royal Road
According to ancient historians, the great Greek mathematician Euclid wrote a formidable thirteen-volume text for the study of geometry. But Ptolemy I, King of Egypt, wished to learn the subject without laboring through so many books. As a king, he was accustomed to having his way made easy by his servants, so he asked if there was a shortcut to mastering geometry. Euclid's reply to the throne was terse: "There is no royal road to learning."
His words should always remain with us. There are no easy avenues, no gold-paved streets, to wisdom; humility, not royalty, is the way. Given that path, we must never forget that the words "humble" and "humus" come from the same root, meaning "soil" or "ground" — for just as soil is lowly, so must be the learner, and the road to learning is strewn with the humbling dust of correction, trials, and mundane circumstances.
Nevertheless, if we're willing to get our hands dirty, then like George Washington Carver we'll learn to appreciate the lowly "peanuts" of our experience, dug up from the soil of our lives. In "God's Little Workshop" we will discover, as he did, a hundred treasures of wisdom — the priceless reward of the humble learner.
+ + +