Teaching With Fear and Trembling
A topic I’ve revisited a number of times arises again. How do we balance the need to inspire and motivate students with the need to critique and even rebuke them at times? Christ doesn’t call us to be ‘nice,’ but loving. They are quite different.
But then I run into a verse in church like Galatians 6:1.
The RSV states “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
This isn’t too terribly hard to accept. But if you read it in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message,” he gives it a much different spin:
“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day's out.”
The Message is very much a paraphrase, an attempt to put Scripture in today’s vernacular, and I haven’t studied it at all to offer comment on its veracity to the original. For sake of this discussion, therefore, let’s assume Peterson has it right.
The verse challenges the believer to humbly nudge other believers out of sin and into repentance, realizing that any of us could be in the same boat at any time. This is true advice.
As educators, our very job is training, correcting, teaching, rebuking, the whole lot. I compare it to being a football coach getting the players ready for the game. Often coaches in practice are anything but humble, and certainly free with their critical comments.
There are key differences, of course, between believers correcting each other, your average teacher and your average football coach. However, as Christians who vocationally function as teachers, we are to represent Christ in everything we do like all believers. But as teachers we have a responsibility to change behaviour, performance, and so on. Furthermore, we are usually given a limited time to accomplish specific goals in our students’ lives.
I suspect this is much of what the Scripture has in mind when it warns that not many should seek to be teachers, for they are judged by a higher standard than others. (James 3:1) Again, this is talking primarily of those seeking to teach spiritual things (pastors, for example). However, it seems to me that it also applies to all who seek to direct other humans. Christ Himself taught that students tend to become like their teachers, and therefore, we must be careful what lessons we are providing for them. (Luke 6:39-40)
Thus, while teachers have more responsibility than other believers, does that free them to be more critical? I think it does, which is why it demands maturity and certainty of a calling and mastery of the lessons to be taught. It is not for the faint of heart or the flippant.
I do take comfort in two things as I wrestle with this balance. Of course, the first is God’s marvelous grace that will transform me and also redeem the errors I propagate in my students. Secondly, and more viscerally, I take comfort in the fact that Christ lost patience at times with His students. “How long must I bear with you?” is refreshing for me as the greatest of all teachers felt like he beat his head against a rock from time to time. (petros pun intended) He still gave them what was needed, and like me, His urgency increased proportionally as the time for lessons drew closer to an end.
Nonetheless, it is healthy and critical to periodically examine myself, my methods, and most importantly, my attitudes against all of the commands of Scripture. Although I am a teacher, the Galatians passage goes on to warn,
“If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor. Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”