by Joe Wilson
I have never been a great student. Some time ago, my mother gave me a few of my old report cards from my elementary school days. I reviewed them with great enthusiasm, which quickly faded by the third one. It was then that I realized it: I was quite an unremarkable child.
On drawing this conclusion, I wondered if my parents were disappointed with me while I was growing up. I had my share of childhood behavioral missteps—but I never thought about my slow-developing academic career from their perspective. Were they upset? Did they have sleepless nights? They never showed it if they did—or perhaps I was too dense to notice it. My two older sisters are both brilliant, and it’s possible my parents thought, “They can’t all be winners.” On the other hand, maybe they just loved me no matter what. I think that was it.
I was quite
an unremarkable child.
Nevertheless, it’s a disappointing moment when you realize your own unexceptional past. For me, it was driven home after seeing so many Needs Improvement initials on my early report cards. On one Progress Report, my teacher used this phrase twice: “Joey is a slow worker.” Self-interpreted: Joey is a slow learner.
I always sensed it, I guess. It seems to take me a little longer to process things than most of my smarty-pants friends. But I am not bitter. No, my normal self-defense when in the presence of quick-learning friends usually includes a self-deprecating remark like, “I was told that math would not be required.”
Please don’t misunderstand—I don’t think I’m dumb. No need to call a crisis counselor for me. In fact, I have some not-so-healthy pride issues to face down. It’s just that I feel like I’m always a half beat behind others in the learning department. That is probably not so bad when it comes to math, but if I believe that God is a great teacher and that He has lessons for me to learn, I want to make sure I do not carry my academic learning style into my spiritual development.
When it comes to being a disciple,
I need all the time with Jesus I can get.
In my current job with Pioneer Bible Translators, our formation department meets regularly to encourage and sharpen each other. One of the questions that is often used to facilitate our conversation is, “What is God teaching you?” Of course, there is a presumption in that question. That question assumes that God is active in the lives of his people and that He is active in their spiritual development. We would wholeheartedly say that is true. When the Apostle Peter urges us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), we take it to mean that this behavior is expected for every believer.
When I think of growing spiritually in terms of my learning speed—in some ways it is not so bad to be a slow learner. There is at least one advantage. We all know that the teacher spends a little more time with you. So if you like the teacher, extra time is nice. And when it comes to being a disciple, I need all the time with Jesus I can get. I have learned that He is good like that. He is happy to give you His undivided attention.
However, spiritual lessons do not come as easy to me as ’70s rock lyrics and pop trivia. I seem to be in the remedial group all over again. So when I think about what God is teaching me most recently, I wish I could say that it is the first time He is teaching me these lessons. (Though I fear my slow learning has kicked in again.)
Still, these are the lessons He has been driving home to me most recently:
Lesson 1: Prayer = Dependence
In the past few months, God has been reminding me that prayer is an act of humility that acknowledges my dependence on God. Acts 1:14 says that the disciples “continued constantly in prayer.” In those early days of the church, we understand that they probably prayed because they were acutely aware of their shortcomings in advancing the Kingdom of Christ. They needed the presence and power of God to move past square one. But even as the book of Acts progresses and more victories had been won, we still see their consistent posture of prayer.
God has been reminding me that when I pray, I am admitting my need for Him in every aspect of my life. Conversely, when I go long periods without praying, it probably means that either I have forgotten the magnitude of the tasks around me or I have foolishly fallen back into thinking that I am in control of my world. Either would be a grievous mistake.
I am much better off admitting my dependence on God on a regular basis. I would rather be connected to Him daily, admitting my inability to govern the world, than have it proven repeatedly to my own disappointment. Add this to the other things I know about prayer—it reveals God’s heart to my heart, and it unleashes the power of God to His people, reminding me to continue constantly in prayer.
Lesson 2: Humility > Self Promotion
I once heard a comedian point out that husbands often announce everything they are doing around the house in hopes of getting credit, even when it pales in comparison to their mate’s contributions. “Honey, I want you to know that I picked up that sock that was on the basement floor.” We promote our acts of service, meager contributions that they are, hoping to get some credits in the plus column of the marriage books. All the while, our wives are thinking, Thank you for emptying the dishwasher one night out of seven—how heroic.
Of course that may be a silly illustration, but the truth seems to be that many of us are drawn to giving our resumé and expecting acknowledgment for achievement. Instead, the words of Jesus echo in my mind that when invited to dinner, sit in the back corner of the booth and do not take the best seat. Instead, if acknowledgment is to come your way, let it come from someone else (Luke 14). Self-promotion usually ends in people thinking less, not more of us.
Humility is an elusive character trait for people born with selfishness. We will always long for people to see the world from our point of view and to bestow upon us what we believe to be our just compensation. However, James says that we are to humble ourselves before God to avoid becoming judgmental and egotistical people (James 4).
Lesson 3: Me ÷ Others = A Fuller, Healthier Me
Most recently I have been reminded by God that the more I allow others access to my life, the fuller my own life becomes. Conversely, the more I pour only into myself, the less satisfied I am. In other words, when I take time to mentor others, disciple others, and share my gifts with others, God fills me back up with more than I had to begin with.
In February I was asked by two people to enter into some mentoring conversations that would last about four months. They are both working on a graduate project and needed someone with my background with whom they could spend time. There was no good reason to say yes. No good reason—except that God’s Spirit seemed to be nudging me toward it. Now I see why. After beginning the relationship, it is clear to me that God has decided to pour as much into me as I am pouring into others. Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6).
If the generosity of God is somehow affected by the generosity of my spirit, then I have every incentive to give of myself as fully as possible to others. In this way, God pours out even more to me than was divided in my giving. I am healthier when I have been giving myself away than when I chase my self-interests.
There really is no doubt: I am a slow learner. But—I am a learner. God’s lessons, though oft repeated, pour a fresh wind into my spirit when I have the posture of learning. And while I still have many areas marked Needs Improvement, I am happy to continue my lessons. The real question is what is God teaching you?
posted on April 10, 2018
Meet the Author:
Joe Wilson became a pastor after it became clear he would never play third base for the Baltimore Orioles. After 25 years in local church ministry, Joe now works as a Training Coach with Pioneer Bible Translators (pioneerbible.org), helping missionaries prepare for their work abroad. Joe lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife, Bonnie, and their dog, Eddie. He has three grown children and one grandson. In addition to his work with Pioneer Bible Translators, Joe serves as the Executive Director of the Eastern Christian Conference (gotoecc.com).