2. Teaching with Humility

The last chapter explored how the Saviour taught “as one who had authority” (Mark 1: 22); Keller suggests that Jesus teaching with authority was considered unusual:

Rabbis inserted themselves into the tradition. They fortified their statements by calling on the authority of the past. In contrast, Jesus never cites the authority of other rabbis to bolster what he says. Rather, he begins his instructions with an emphatic “I say to you” statement… “Moreover, there are also instances when Jesus goes a step further saying, ‘You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .”’ (Cf. Matt 5:21-22, 27-28; 33-34)… Likewise, Jesus teaches in the imperative mood and not in the participial form that was customary among rabbis (Davies, 1964, 420). Finally, Jesus is more than an interpreter of the law. Whereas rabbis exhausted biblical texts so that their students could interpret them, Jesus saw himself not only as an interpreter of a text but as the very embodiment of it (1998, pp. 23-24).

As such as Christian educators we should have knowledge to teach with enthusiasm and knowledge. If we are teaching the Christian message we also live the message and it is a part of our identity. As Christian educators in a secular world we develop a mastery of what we are to teach.

However, this knowledge and teaching is always coupled with a humility; a recognition of our reliance on God for all that we have and are. We have this knowledge and understanding through the grace of God. The Saviour taught:

But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all sisters and brothers. And on earth you are not to be called Father, for you have one Father who is in heaven. Neither are you to be called instructors, because you have one instructor, Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. And all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt 23: 8-12).

This emulates his own reliance on the Father. 

The Gospels portray Jesus as a man of prayer who regularly withdraws into lonely places to pray (Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 5:16). In fact, Luke shows Jesus communing with God before every major decision (3:21; 6:12; 9: 18, 29; 22:32,34; 23:46). Moreover, he implies that the olive grove of   Gethsemane was his customary refuge of prayer (Luke 22:39). This regular communication with his Father, whom he called Abba, is the fire that kept him focused. Through prayer, he entered a silence and solitude so deep that he could hear the whole world’s speech and feel the whole world’s connections. He touched that transcendent Spirit from whom all things arise and to whom all things return and who makes all things kindred as they go (Palmer, 1983, 124). It was the source of his authority! (Keller, 1998, p. 32).

Humility, and dependence on the Lord, is a characteristic that is emphasised throughout the scriptures. The Sermon on the Mount highlights ‘the meek’, ‘the poor in spirit’, and ‘the pure in heart’. This highlights traits that wouldn’t always seen to be celebrated in the world. Each of these ensures that we have a reliance on Christ. Matthew 6 highlights the need to always put the Lord first:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matthew 6:33).

As we consider the way that we teach, as Christians we should recognise our dependence on Christ and our place in the kingdom of God. This would suggest, as discussed in the last chapter, that the way that we are in the classroom (whatever type of classroom that might be) would be a reflection of our discipleships and our dependence on Christ.

As such if we want to be the best educators we can be we have to have a humility in our knowledge, our relationship with others and most importantly in our relationship with God. We recognise that each aspect of learning is only part of the greater whole; as such we never stop learning or failing to recognise our dependence on him who created, redeems and sustains us. As I reflect on each of these areas I gain a greater understanding of what it is to be a Christlike teacher.


Humility in our relationship with God

The importance of recognising our reliance on God is important in every aspect of our lives. In comparison with Him we are nothing as we are reminded by Moses: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). Similarly, King Benjamin highlights our nothingness when he reminds us of our creation:

And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. (Mosiah 2:25).

We read further in Helaman that we can be seen as less than this:

O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth. For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God (Helaman 12:7).

This nothingness is not an insult but should be a motivator to rely more on Christ in our daily lives and in our teaching. As mentioned earlier, the Lord often communed with His Father. It is not by accident that following his baptism, and prior to the beginning of his moral ministry, that he spent forty days in the wilderness communing with His Father. As we teach, there may be a temptation to rely on ourselves and our own knowledge. I know from my own experiences that this is an easy habit to slip into; we must never forget our reliance on the Lord through the Holy Spirit or we will be unprofitable as we seek to teach:

And they shall contend one with another; and their priests shall contend one with another, and they shall teach with their learning, and deny the Holy Ghost, which giveth utterance (2 Nephi 28:4).

I can see how this applies to my teaching as a parent, in the Church and as a leader; but how does this apply to my teaching in the secular classroom? The Saviour teaches us to:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

In describing the role of John the Baptist, the author of John’s Gospel suggests a way that Christian teachers may live this in their teaching:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:6-9).

Through the way that we live and act we must bear witness of that light. This links again with aspects of the last chapter where we live, but don’t preach our faith in the way that we interact with others. This has guided my classroom practice, I seek to exemplify my discipleship without teaching it. Towards the end of my undergraduate degree I was applying for teaching courses. During one interview I was asked how my faith would affect me in the classroom (they had noticed the mission for my church prior to my undergraduate study). I did not react very well but I did ask for clarification. The interviewer explained, ‘Surely your faith requires you to witness within the classroom?’ 

A brief introduction to my career may be of benefit at this point. In the UK it is nothing extraordinary, but in different countries around the world aspects of it do not exist in the way that I have experienced it. For twelve years I was a Religious Education teacher in secondary schools (11-18) in the North West of England. This would involve me teaching different aspects of world religions, in addition to exploring aspects of philosophical and ethical issues and how religions responded to them. I remember a friend visiting from Arizona, and bringing with her a sixteen year old young woman for an exciting holiday. One of the exciting days was spent in school with me! As this young lady reflected on her day with me she recounted the topics that we had explored: the nature of God within Hinduism; Christian arguments surrounding abortion; arguments for the existence of God; the parable of the Good Samaritan; and the nature of suffering within Buddhism. Her mind was swirling as she commented something to the effect of: “I can’t imagine being able to discuss any of those things in school. Maybe in Social Studies we might touch on abortion laws, but that was not what I expected.” I have articulated the purpose of Religious Education and quote the aims here to help the reader understand that its purpose is not confessional in any way:

  1. To stimulate interest and enjoyment in Religious Education.
  2. To prepare pupils to be informed, respectful members of society who celebrate diversity and strive to understand others.
  3. To encourage students to develop knowledge of the beliefs and practices of religions; and informed opinions and an awareness of the implications of religion for the individual, the community and the environment.
  4. To give all students equal access to Religious Education and provide enjoyment and success.
  5. To develop pupils’ own responses to questions about the meaning and purpose of life (Holt, 2015, p. ??).

After twelve years I left the secondary classroom and moved into University teacher education. In this role I help train the teachers who will be teaching Religious Education in schools with children from the age of 4 to 18. I spend my days teaching and researching pedagogy of Religious Education, along with the lived reality of religion and worldviews for people from all kinds to traditions. 

As my career continued so did the questions from people within and without my Church: ‘How could I, as a Latter-day Saint, teach RE?” For the most part these questions did not come from people I knew, they had been around me long enough to recognise that my faith was not diluted by teaching about other religions, and similarly for those outside my faith they recognised that I was good at my job and did not proselytise. The questions usually came from people who did not know me and thought there might be more suitable jobs for a Latter-day Saint than teaching about other religions- maybe owning a bar!!!

Although my faith as a disciple of Jesus Christ is central to my life and all of my choices and behaviours, I can say that after over twenty years into my career I do not, and never have, shared my personal beliefs with a high school class. I do not believe it is the purpose of Religious Education in English Secondary schools. I live my religion within the classroom but do not answer personal questions about my faith. If you were to ask my pupils what I have explicitly taught them about my faith during lessons they would struggle to know, but they might do better in listing the qualities that they believe a Latter-day Saint Christian has. I remember a group of university students once commenting that they were looking forward to visiting a local chapel because they would find out what Latter-day Saints believed. I was confused, and said that surely they knew what I believed. They said: “No, from you we have learned how Latter-day Saints live their lives, but not what they believe.” As an educator I quite liked this response. 

Religious confessionalism (as a form of nurture in, or conversion to, a particular belief) is not my intent. By acknowledging the influence of my beliefs on my teaching practice I can live a more cohesive life where I don’t have to separate aspects of my personality and identity. I am a teacher but I am also a Christian. This does not mean that I preach my faith in the classroom, just that I live it as best as I can relying on the Lord as I do so.

Although he speaks of leaders it is as applicable to teachers Stephen Owen has suggested:

If I were to ask you, “Who is the greatest leader who ever lived?”—what would you say? The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ. He sets the perfect example of every imaginable leadership quality. But what if I were to ask you, “Who is the greatest follower who ever lived?”—wouldn’t the answer again be Jesus Christ? He is the greatest leader because He is the greatest follower—He follows His Father perfectly, in all things. The world teaches that leaders must be mighty; the Lord teaches that they must be meek. Worldly leaders gain power and influence through their talent, skill, and wealth. Christlike leaders gain power and influence “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” In God’s eyes, the greatest leaders have always been the greatest followers. (Owen, 2016, pp 70 and 75

Allow me to suggest that in order to utilise a Christian pedagogy of education we must first begin with our dependence on the Lord; to develop our relationship with him to enable us to be able to teach with authority, whatever that topic may be. Although I teach secular material my relationships enable me to situate that knowledge and be confident in what I teach. To corrupt a Bible passage I am able to teach because he taught me first.

Humility in knowledge

Above my desk at work I have a plaque that I was once given; it simply states:

            I am still learning.

It is attributed to Michelangelo, but it is a reminder to me that although I may have a number of degrees, and can be seen in ‘worldly’ terms to have attained a high level of knowledge in my chosen field it is impossible to rest on my laurels and feel as though I have arrived, I am always learning in terms of the knowledge needed for my career, but also for my knowledge of the Lord. I have explored this in terms of Latter-day Saint theology and the plan of salvation elsewhere, drawing on Christ’s development, as he “received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace” (D&C 93:12):

Christ’s growth from “grace to grace” to a point of divinity has important implications… It is suggestive of a continuum along which Christ progressed in knowledge and understanding; if Christ progressed in this way, then it is possible that all of humanity go through a similar process (Holt, 2020, p. 47).

We should always be seeking to learn new things in every area of our life. As a teacher this is the recognition that while we may be experts in certain fields, there is always more to learn. Sometimes we may be tempted to curtail our learning as we read some scriptures out of context. Are we “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7)? I have heard an anti-intellectualism or knowledge sometimes expressed in Churches and classrooms:

O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not (2 Nephi 9:28-29).

As suggested before quoting them, these are often taken out of context often being coupled with a truth that we don’t need a PhD in theology to have a testimony of, and a relationship with, Christ. As someone with a PhD in theology I recognise this, my testimony is based on spiritual impressions and revelations from the Lord, it is not built on justifications and evidences that can be found in ‘secular’ learning. But this does not mean that knowledge is wrong, indeed, “to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). Abraham recognised the importance of learning and knowledge:

And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers (Abraham 1:2).

Righteousness and knowledge should go together and not be separated. This ongoing or eternal learning is an important part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and of the relationship between a teacher and their student. Seeing that their teacher recognises that there are many things that they do not know evidences an intellectual and spiritual humility that keeps us grounded, and expands the boundaries of the possible. 

In certain aspects of learning there are definites, but in many areas there are only postulates or sometimes generalisations. I teach a subject that explores the human experience of religion that is naturally diverse, and I often term as ‘messy’. When I teach I use terms such as ‘many’, ‘most’ or ‘some’ to describe religious practices and beliefs. Why? I am recognising the boundaries and insuffiency of my own knowledge. This helps me deal with religious responses that I haven’t come across that others may be aware of- for example if I teach definitely that all Muslims pray five times a day, I miss the Shi’a practice of offering five prayers but three times a day. 

Recognising the limits of our secular knowledge is far more straightforward than exercising a spiritual knowledge in terms of our teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the home or in the Church. It is difficult to admit that our knowledge may not be as vast as assumed by others. Again, for those we serve and teach to recognise that we don’t have all the answers is key to helping others in their discipleship of Christ. So too, is the recognition of the source of our knowledge whether that is the Holy Ghost or the scriptures, or most often, both. As a Bishop I was very conscious when someone came to me with a question or for guidance that we should open the scriptures and prayerfully seek an answer. The hope was that the next time they encountered a question that they could search the scriptures prayerfully in seeking an answer. This isn’t always possible but is an important part of helping others becoming reliant on the Lord for His guidance in their lives.

Learning new Gospel truths, or new ways of reading scripture and accepting that we may have been wrong, or that both interpretations could be correct is an important part of spiritual humility and also maturity. Sometimes we hold on to things too tightly because we are afraid that our house of faith will come tumbling down. If we are built on the sure foundation of Christ (see Helaman 5:12) our faith will be strong enough to survive shifts in our understandings. Let me share one such example, since I joined the Church in my teens I have often heard a scripture from 1 Corinthians used:

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

This is most often used, to refer to our bodies as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and is used in For the Strength of Youth and many Church talks that way. I learned after a number of years that the context in 1 Corinthians 3 suggests that the more immediate meaning is that the Church, or the body of Saints, is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If we read it in this way we can use this understanding to question and consider our lives as members of the Church. Are we focussed on the prestige of Church membership, the status that sometimes we enjoy? Or is the focus of our church membership and our participation in the Gospel focussed on a living of the two great commandments-to love God and to love our neighbour. If we focus on the latter, then our Church meetings and our Church service become much more focussed on our relationship with the Saviour, and that relationship is manifest in the way that we speak to and serve others. We should not be about seeking our own self-interest, or becoming puffed up- rather we should be about developing relationships with all of those people around us. However had I been filled with pride in my knowledge I would have rejected that any further learning could occur and that I had the absolute truth. It is not that my earlier interpretation was wrong, just that my knowledge and understanding could be developed and enhanced if I was open to learning:

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have (2 Nephi 28:30).

Returning to the example of the Saviour and his growth from grace to grace, we recognise that we are on the same journey. It is impossible for us to know everything, and the blessing of a finite mind is that there is always something new to learn.

Humility in our relationship with others

Sometimes the most difficult aspect of humility is in our relationships with others. It is a characteristic that the Saviour taught and showed throughout his life. The most oft repeated example of the Saviour’s humility in his relationship with others is the washing of the disciples’ feet:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me (John 13:4-8).

The recognition that our position or perceived position does not place us above others, but makes it important to recognise our need to serve is an important part of our discipleship. In The Book of Mormon King Benjamin highlights this in the description of his service:

Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labour to serve you, then ought not ye to labour to serve one another? (Mosiah 2:18)

It is not just in the way that we serve others, but also in the way that we allow others to serve and to flourish. Humility is not about self-aggrandisement but it is about allowing others to develop and shine. In this way we allow people to teach, and to recognise the contributions that they make. One example from the Saviour’s resurrection appearance in the Americas highlights this for me:

Verily I say unto you, I commanded my servant Samuel, the Lamanite, that he should testify unto this people, that at the day that the Father should glorify his name in me that there were many saints who should arise from the dead, and should appear unto many, and should minister unto them. And he said unto them: Was it not so? And his disciples answered him and said: Yea, Lord, Samuel did prophesy according to thy words, and they were all fulfilled. And Jesus said unto them: How be it that ye have not written this thing, that many saints did arise and appear unto many and did minister unto them? And it came to pass that Nephi remembered that this thing had not been written. And it came to pass that Jesus commanded that it should be written; therefore it was written according as he commanded (3 Nephi 23:9-13).

The Saviour had noticed that the words of Samuel had not been recorded. That which Samuel had been taught could have been taught again by the Saviour, but he recognised the need to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of Samuel. Maybe I’m over-reaching but I think that this example can show us the importance of recognising that teaching isn’t all about showing what we know, but true teaching is about allowing other people to grow in their knowledge. This will be explored in greater detail as we look at the transformative power of teaching in another chapter.

There is also a humility in tandem with recognising the learning and teaching process as a journey for both the teacher and the student. There are examples of the Saviour allowing people to discover truths for themselves. For example, when Peter shares his confession of faith it is in response to the inspired question “But whom say ye that I am?” (Mark 8:29). The other example may be in his relationship with his mother. At the wedding of Cana Mary is the one to recognise the need, and to also suggest to Jesus the solution:

And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it (John 2:3-5).

The Saviour was willing to be prompted by his mother; perhaps it is an indication of his humility that he was willing to listen to the voice of his mother, and recognise that there are things that he could learn from her. One of the greatest blessings of my service as a teacher in all situations is the learning that I have gained in all of my relationships. This isn’t just in my relationship with my wife whose Christlike compassion and guidance continually prompts me to do better. I have had many opportunities to teach, and by listening to students’ answers I am able t learn more. We all bring our different backgrounds to the lessons we’re learning or to the scriptures that we study. Being open to learning from everyone ensures a rich experience for all involved. Humility in our relationships is key as it enables us to recognise the learning opportunities that are all around us.

Humility is key to learning, but it is also key to teaching. Without a recognition of our reliance on the Lord, on others and also the limits of our knowledge we would stagnate. We would not be open to learning and the teaching experience for all involved would be limited. If the purpose of the learning process is to enable all people to progress and flourish it is only possible for people to do so if all parties are open to do so. The plan of salvation is a plan of progression, and one of those areas in which we are always progressing is in our knowledge. Humility is the key to unlock that progress.