It is sad to observe someone who has at least one half of his life remaining who feels he has no more to learn. Occasionally we will be confronted with this problem — an individual who does not demonstrate the characteristic (usually not ability) of being teachable. This is certainly not an inherited condition as far as learning is concerned. It is, rather, something that is learned…something that is environmental or experiential…that can account for this trait in an individual. Such a person will have difficulty being discipled.
One of the true characteristics of a disciple is that of being a “disciplined learner” who is teachable. This brief paper is for the purpose of speaking to such an attitude and looking at the dynamics that are involved.
What are the Unteachable Like?
Pride rather than humility. It is not difficult to see this condition in the experience of one who is having difficulty with being teachable. It is usually not that this person has decided that he need no longer learn. Rather, he considers himself the primary source of learning and knowledge and would rather simply pursue on his own any quest for additional growth. Pride is normally involved in such a condition.
Humility is an absolute essential if one is to be a growing learner. Scripture speaks of the need for humility. Colossians 3:12 says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Consider what it means to be “clothed with humility”! Again in 1 Peter 5:6,7 we read, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” And yet again in James 4:6, “But He gives us more grace.” That is why Scripture says:
“God opposes the proud But gives grace to the humble.”
Humility is not the derogation of ourselves as persons, but a reasonable attitude toward ourselves that sees and understands with relative clarity how and what we truly are. Therefore, there is a need to learn. Pride tends to see no need to learn from anyone else…that admission assumes that another may have more wisdom than myself.
Dogmatism rather than openness. In academic circles as well as those that are church-oriented, it is pretty well established that the more dogmatic an individual is, the less able he is to learn. Being “unteachable” usually is a demonstration of relatively heavy dogmatism in one’s life. A definition of dogmatism would help. Let’s describe it in this way. “I am dogmatic to the extent that I am unable to process information that is contradictory to my own perceptions without distorting it by my own set of beliefs.”
This means that I will not openly look at other points of view without calling up my own beliefs and contaminate the nature of what I may be investigating. The more dogmatic an individual is, the more he will seek to protect himself from contradictory constructs that intrude into his own belief system. In many respects, we are all somewhat dogmatic. But one who is heavily dogmatic will be unteachable. By the same token, one who is unteachable usually possesses a high degree of dogmatism.
A reactionary spirit rather than a submissive heart. Years ago a popular bumper sticker read, “Question Authority!” That was, of course, the battle cry of the generation of youth that had to deal with Viet Nam. Many picked up on that cry and to this day are reactionaries. They are simply unwilling to submit to authority. To learn from another requires submission in some very real sense.
Not that all the learning goes just one way. In every discipling situation, both the discipler and the disciple are learning. Every session together can be a time of sharpening for each person. But for this to be a reality requires one to have a submissive heart. Indeed, this should be one of the leading characteristics of the child of God–submission one to another, Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It seems that those who maintain a reactionary spirit will never be able to be disciplers in the true sense of the Word. They are truly unteachable.
Insecurity rather than self-acceptance and contentment. It may seem strange to bring up the matter of insecurity at this point. Surely one who wraps the protective cloak of dogmatism around himself will not feel insecure. But this problem strikes deeply into the heart of one who is unteachable. For what other reason might such a person be unwilling to let his barriers down and expose himself to something new? And, of course, change is threatening in all cases. The person who is unteachable is often anxiety-ridden and resistant to change because of personal threat and insecurity. As I think of these things, I cannot but think of some lines I learned from English literature so many years ago:
“A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not Perean spring.
There, shallow drafts intoxicate the brain,
But drinking largely sobers it again.”
Relative anger as opposed to tranquility. It is hard to imagine those possessing this quality as not being somewhat angry people. A dogmatic stance towards learning something new usually includes a considerable amount of anger. So the problems of being unteachable can spill over into psychological aspects of one’s being as well as other areas.
Results of Being Unteachable
When we look carefully at the individual who demonstrates this attribute, the following descriptive characteristics are likely to be present.
It is obvious that such a person will be one who does not grow with any vigor (if indeed there is growth at all). Such an individual deprives himself of opportunities to garner benefit from the growth and experience of others. He refuses to be ministered to and to receive the benefits of the spiritual gifts Christ has given to His body — the gifts of pastor-teacher, and the gift of teaching.
Another characteristic would probably be isolation from the Christian community. This is because Christian fellowship includes learning from one another, and one who becomes unteachable will not wish to interact with others, except in order to overpower them with “superior wisdom.” This, of course, does not lend itself to good fellowship and the individual becomes isolated.
Finally, there will be ultimate lack of productivity in service. To be unteachable is to develop a gnarled approach to life and the world. To be out of touch with humanity and the mainstream of life is to lose one’s cutting edge as far as service is concerned. It puts one in the same position as the Pharisees. Such an one can only expect to surround himself with similar insecure and impotent believers who have dealt themselves out of touch with the realities of the true issues in the world.
What is Being “Teachable”?
There are happy results for those who are teachable. Let me summarize a few of these.
1. Openness to other people. This has all kinds of practical benefits as far as Christian service is concerned.
2. Self-acceptance and a desire to grow personally and spiritually, and to do this in relationships with other people.
3. An inquisitive mind that can sort, process, and integrate.
4. An appreciation of the nature of Scripture and God’s wisdom, Romans 11:33.
5. An uncloistered life that builds relationships.
6. An understanding of growth processes.
7. A willingness to pursue a goal of value and a desire to change.
In this, and any discipleship ministry, it is necessary to remain teachable. We can learn from the very young as well as those who are mature. May each of us always remain teachable! Let’s summarize…
In those who are unteachable, these things are true…
There is pride rather than humility
There is dogmatism rather than openness
There is reaction rather than submission
There is insecurity rather than peace
There is anger rather than tranquility
In review– in those who are teachable we find…
Openness to others
Self-acceptance and desire to grow
An inquisitive integrative mind
An appreciation of wisdom and the mind of God
An uncloistered life that builds relationships
An understanding of growth process
A willingness to pursue a goal of value and a desire to change
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