Writings by Cole Huffman

Adaptive Honesty: The Art of Teachability

“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom”—Proverbs 11:2

Being married to an artist means I usually never pick up a paintbrush for anything around our house. I did once, memorably. 

We were converting a room from an office to a nursery. Since Lynn was pregnant at the time and didn’t need to breathe in paint fumes, I took the job. She pointed out that the walls would need two coats of paint. I wanted to knock the task out quickly. Basketball games to watch. She wanted it done right.

I emerged from the room a couple hours later, proud to announce it was done. Lynn entered to inspect. Streaks of the old wall color were still visible in places, evidence of an uneven stroke. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll just go back over those.” She again observed that the walls really needed two coats of paint. I muttered something about the state of her appreciativeness. Her eyes welled up with tears. It wasn’t due to pregnancy.

There are skills to acquire for most everything that needs doing in life, even slathering paint on walls. My wife has painting skills. I have knowing-how-to-act-like-I-know-what-I’m-doing skills. 

The book of Proverbs imparts skills for living by addressing teachability inhibitors like quick-temperedness (Prov. 14:29; 16:32; 29:11), impulsiveness (4:26; 19:2; 20:25), self-assurance (3:7; 18:1; 26:12), defensiveness (1:32; 10:17; 29:1), and naivety (1:22; 9:6; 27:12). The wisdom writers of Proverbs want us to avoid what Southern novelist Walker Percy once observed: “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.” 

Read Proverbs 11:2 again. Look at the words pride and humble. Pride comes from a word that pictures “boiling up.” It’s a word used throughout the Old Testament to refer to those who insist on having everything their own way: the common denominator in all who qualify as unteachable.

In his memoir, A Twentieth Century Testimony, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that our most meaningful gains with God come from our most humbling times with people: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

The humble person accepts that not everything is going to go his way. If God stretches us in teaching us, it is to keep us pliable to His way. Naturally, it is our strengths, competencies, accomplishments, and know-how that we want to assert. But these reveal only one side of our person. We all possess vulnerabilities, weaknesses, inadequacies, and insufficiencies too. God uses these as our personal instructors as well.

Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of England during a decade of the seventeenth century. He had his portrait painted by the famed Peter Lely. Cromwell had exacting instructions: “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me, otherwise I will not pay you a farthing for it.”

It’s not that teachability, a function of humility, wallows in who we are “warts and all.” Teachability is adaptive honesty before God and others that there is still much I can and should learn, even when I think I know a lot about something already. It is a cultivated willingness to reflect on another’s input instead of reacting. It is receptivity to another’s correction rather than stiffening in self-defense.

It takes a while for us to learn this. It’s not automatic for most. I think back to when I was a new father. My wife and I read some parenting books and took a parenting course in anticipation of our firstborn’s arrival. As the delivery date drew near, I brimmed with confidence because I read the right books.

Midway through our stay at the hospital, a pediatrician arrived to check on our son and discuss his care. Because some of her counsel conflicted with what I’d read in the parenting books, I bristled. When she left the room I announced to Lynn, “Well, we’re not doing that!” 

My mother-in-law, listening in the corner of the room, quietly advocated for the pediatrician’s viewpoint. She said I ought to at least give what the doctor said more consideration. I doubled down: “We’re not doing that!”

I’m embarrassed to look back on that now. I considered myself teachable because I’d read parenting books and gone to parenting classes. But my dismissiveness to the pediatrician and my mother-in-law—two people with far more experience with children than me—indicated my teachability was shallow. During that first year of parenting, my understanding of what it required was shown to be as thin as the one coat of paint I’d tried to make suffice on the nursery wall.

I now defer any painting that needs doing around our house to Lynn. She prefers it that way. I’m a much better painter now—and husband and father—because my knowing-how-to-act-like-I-know-what-I’m-doing skills have been painted over. With two coats. I don’t miss my old colors.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 4:10 PM
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