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Behind the Mask


Things aren’t always what they seem. I may have a run-in with a colleague who has been irresponsible in accomplishing her part of our shared assignment.  I find myself grumpy with her and irritated that, once again, I have been left holding the bag.  Later, I find out her marriage is collapsing and her oldest child has been diagnosed with a frightening disorder.  This information changes the picture for me and I view her actions with a different perspective.

Proverbs warns us against thinking we know what is going on based on surface evidence (Prov. 27:5, 6).  This is true whether we are talking about God’s will, the ideas and motivations of our friends, or how the world works.  There are depths we will never plumb. There is also information that we can know, but only much later.  Humility is both hard work and required of us, according to Proverbs.

The hard work of humility.  As an academic, I am familiar with the paradox of feeling more and more unwise as I become more and more of an “expert” on something.  Getting a graduate degree is all about learning more and more about less and less.  However, as an “expert”, my job is to assess my students’ knowledge.  This puts me in the position of being the arbiter of what is considered “wisdom”, at least for the particular course I am teaching.  I can all too easily confuse this with being wise myself, and having a mastery of some set of knowledge.  I can become arrogant and even a legend in my own mind (Prov 26: 11, 12).

Jesus calls me to continue to search after truth, but to remember that I may find it in unexpected places (1 Cor 1:20, 21).  I must be ready to be taught by the foolish of this world.  And I can’t rest on the information and skills I’ve had in the past, the laziness of feeling that I’ve done the hard work of learning and now I’ve got it all together (Prov 26:13).  For me, this means putting myself in uncomfortable positions now and again.

I need to read authors who I disagree with, from time to time.  I need to hear from cultural groups who I am usually isolated from.  We know that we are increasingly polarized politically in the USA, and, in fact, all over the world political alliances keep people apart from each other.  When I give in to this sort of isolationism, surrounding myself only with people who agree with me, or who make me comfortable all the time, I am in danger of being wise in my own eyes.  I cut myself off from learning from unexpected sources.

Most of all, God warns us against de-valuing the people who the world sees as less-than.  We want to be next to kings (Prov. 25:6) and to impress them.  In my own life, I have become convicted that because I usually spend most of my time with thinkers and intellectuals, I need to create space to learn from children.  So I teach a children’s Sabbath school regularly.  And I visit a 5th grade classroom several times a month to talk about “real life” grown up issues.

Last month, those fifth graders, who are in one of the poorest and lowest-performing elementary schools in our county, taught me a great deal about life.  When I asked them what being a grown up looked like to them, they said things like paying bills, having their own house, and being able to drive.  Things that I might expect to hear from many US 5th graders.  But they also quickly said “boyfriend problems”, “paying child support”, “going to court”, “getting fired because you’re late because you had to take your kids to school.”  I learned a great deal about their lives and what they could expect down the line.

This was a humbling experience for me because I realized all my great advice I had come prepared to give them about how to get jobs and conduct relationships was completely irrelevant.  I learned that what adulthood looks like for some people is very different than what it looked like for me as a ten year old.  In the course of that conversation, I learned that having supportive and loving family relationships might be more important for some people than having lucrative jobs or lots of fancy material possessions.  I was humbled by the wisdom of those considered foolish and marginal in our society.

And then I immediately left that context, going back to my workplace, and felt much wiser and more savvy than my white collar colleagues who hadn’t had the same experience with the disenfranchised that I had had.


Yes, this lifelong commitment to humility, to listening for the wisdom of God in the least likely places, to putting aside my tendency to rest on my laurels, my fear of the unknown—this is never ending.  I am glad that the Bible’s books of Wisdom continually remind me that I have more to learn, untapped depths of the character of God to see, so much to discover about my fellow humans and how the world works.  This is both hard work and deeply satisfying.  When and how have you learned something about God and the world from unexpected sources? What has God taught you through the foolish things of this world?

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