Speak strong words to a wise man, and he will love you. Give teaching to a wise man and he will be even wiser. Teach a man who is right and good, and he will grow in learning.
Proverbs 9:9 (NLT)
We are never done learning.
But in certain cases, it’s possible that we never really started.
Two consistent characteristics are shared by the most mature Christians that I know. I’m sure you have these types of people in your life. They are the people that you want to hear from before fully forming your own opinion about something. That's how much you respect them.
Those people in my life share two commonalities across the board: They are very humble, and they are lifelong learners. And that’s important, because to be a disciple is to be a learner. Literally.
The Greek word for disciple is mathetes, which means a pupil or an apprentice. When Jesus is inviting disciples to come follow him in the gospels, he is literally asking them to become learners. And what we find as we read more about these slow learners (Mark is particularly hard on them), is that learning is a time-consuming and painful process. It takes years years. In the gospels, the disciples’ opinions are constantly formed, challenged, stretched, and reformed as the they keep learning about the world through Jesus’ eyes.
There is a real risk in the life of a Christian when they feel like they have learned all they need to know about God, people, and God’s world. When one becomes that certain of everything, they cease to be disciples.
I see that happen sometimes, because learning is a journey, and a hard one.
When I was doing missional community and discipleship training with a movement of Christians that originated out of Sheffield, England, we used a tool to talk about discipleship. It was a square, with each side representing a stage in the learning process that the disciples went through.
The first stage of the learner was simple: You don’t know what you don’t know. We often called it "Unconscious Incompetence." There is a lack of knowledge, but you don’t acknowledge it. You are clueless because you’re either naive, inexperienced, or prideful. But at some point in the learning process you walk off a metaphorical cliff and land in a pit. That’s stage 2: You now know what you don’t know. You begin to realize that you have a long way to go, and that things are not what (or as easy as) you assumed. Now you are "Consciously Incompetent". This is a deeply discouraging phase, and many people give up at this point. Learning a new skill or a new way of being (whether spiritually or otherwise) is often a huge task, and it’s easier to just ignore it and move back to the first phase, where we enthusiastically dwell in the comfort of our unwillingness to be a deeper learner. The third phase is where we work hard to understand and live out new concepts, still failing sometimes but making progress (Conscious Competence). And then the fourth stage is when we have truly learned something new and it is a natural part of our thought/behavior process (Unconscious Competence).
Those first stages have been particularly relevant to me lately as they relate to racial injustice.
We are disciples of Jesus, which means that the posture of a learner must be a part of our identity.
For myself and some others in our community (that are specifically majority culture people), there is a growing sense of realization: There is much that we don’t know or understand about the daily experiences of our brothers and sisters of color.
This is a deeply spiritual issue, because the central tenets of Christian discipleship are love for God and love for our neighbors. People are hurting really badly right now. They have been for a long time. And we can no longer ignore it.
So here’s the choice I'm facing: Will I chose to start to acknowledging that I don’t know what I don’t know? Will I move into the learning process of realizing how much I have yet to understand and learn in order to promote love, care, and justice for one another? Or will I take a few steps backward, thinking that I know enough to not really need to press further into the issue at hand?
For white Christians to move toward neighbor loving in this area will require massive amounts of humility. For many, I'm afraid the humbling journey will be too much. They will choose not to be learners in areas of racial equity because it’s easier not to hear things that make them uncomfortable.
I’m taking the week to admit how much I don’t know. I’m reading about people’s stories. I’m ordering books that use words that I don’t want to talk about- like whiteness. I’m reading history that wasn’t written by dominant culture voices. I’m listening to black preachers preach about the heart of Jesus in beautifully different ways than how I often think about it. I’m learning why it’s so important that I publicly agree that black lives matter. I’m certainly somewhere between stage one and two, but I’m going to keep moving forward and not back. I may not have the courage to do it on my own, but I might if everybody joins me. And I know that Jesus will be there to teach me.
Jesus, give me the humility to learn something new today about someone else’s experience, so that I might love my neighbor.
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