Sunday, December 11, 2005

Humble Talents

This week's study is going to be a bit different from the usual. Typically, I'm heavily exegetical - trying to listen to exactly what scripture is saying and drawing out what is implied by the exact words. Today, I'm heading in an atypically experiential direction - starting from my own experience, and moving to scripture from there. I'm not entirely sure how to keep it from sounding self-centered and boastful, but here goes.

Way back at the beginning of college, during a period of transition, looking at the discipline required for college, and the state of my mind at the time, I uttered the prayer, "Oh, Lord, You're going to have to teach me to think". Now, understand, it's not like I was intellectually lacking. Though not per se the studious and academic type, I was somewhat noted for my intelligence. I managed to pull things like snagging 2nd place (and first place the next year) in the school in the National Math Test while pulling C's in Algebra. When called upon for answers for homework that I hadn't done in Algebra, I'll look at the question, do the quadratic equation in my head, and give the (typically correct) answer. I drove my math teachers crazy.

In looking back over the years since I uttered that prayer, it's like God said to himself: "I don't get that request from intellectual types very often. Usually the intellectual types are far too convinced that they need no help or additional learning in thinking. I'm going to answer that prayer."


Now it's not like God dropped a text entitled "The Divine Method of Thinking" on me, which I could learn and then propound to others: "This is the way you're supposed to think!" He took the particular talents He had given me and moulded them even further. He plopped me for several years into a group of people who, while not unintelligent, weren't intellectually inclined, so I could learn that the Intellectual's heart for truth won't ever be entirely satisfied unless he's willing to listen to those he considers unintellectual. He took disparate elements like my reading of C. S. Lewis, my computer programming training, even my interest in SF/Fantasy books, and shaped my thinking with them. The result isn't that I'm better than anyone else, but that I'm more fitted to the work to which God has called me.

In looking back over this, I can't help but wonder if I've accidently (well, not really. Nothing in God's Kingdom is just accidental) stumbled across something easily passed by - the value of humbling your self before God in letting Him teach you the use of the talents He's given you. We grow up as Christians hearing the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30, Lu 19:12-27), and though it covers more than what in English we call talents, we rightly learn from the parable the need to use our talents for the Kingdom of God. What we may erroneously assume, though, is that just because we have been given talents, we automatically know how to use them best. Some amount of expertise comes with being given talents, but it doesn't mean it can't be improved.

I once heard a college professor comment: "I don't need God to tell me how to teach." It wasn't until a bit later that I realized that the answer to that is "You mean God Himself couldn't make any improvements in your teaching technique?" I don't think it's a matter of not using your talents until God has taught you, it's a matter of countering the innate pride that easily comes to us about our abilities and acknowledging that He always knows more than we do. "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you" (Jas 4:10) applies here. It is, essentially, the surrender of lordship over our own talents, and letting Him be Lord over them.

3 comments:

Whyte Stonne said...

Hi Oloryn,

I'm an intellectual, too. Growing up in a fundamentalist church, I was tarred with an anti-intellectual brush but good.

I learned from Richard Hofstadter's "Anti-Intellectualism in American History" that it is common for intellectuals to be anti-intellectual, especially in egalitarian America.

You wrote, "He plopped me for several years into a group of people who, while not unintelligent, weren't intellectually inclined, so I could learn that the Intellectual's heart for truth won't ever be entirely satisfied unless he's willing to listen to those he considers unintellectual."

I felt from the time I was in elementary school that God had given me an intelligent mind to help others, not to use it for my own success. My school was a low-performing school, my sister was mentally retarded, my parents were social activists among the poor where we lived. It all came together.

Jesus is like your description of yourself. He was demonstrably upset at times in the Scripture with our obtuseness. The Son of God did not "endure" the Incarnation in order to make "like-minded" friends.

He came to minister to people lower than himself. He became one of us to really understand what it was to be a limited human being.

He did not come to find a comfortable place among like-minded people.

I don't always embrace that as I should. I isolate far too much. But I work on it--on and off.

Oloryn said...

Coming to terms with being an intellectual type and a Christian without giving in to the pride that usually accompanies intellectualism was something of a struggle. For me this was largely helped by going through the following train of thought:

First, I define an 'intellectual', not in terms of how smart you are, but in terms of having a heart that delights in understanding (later in this train of thought, I at times find myself talking about the 'insights that I value most', and realized that 'a heart that values insight' comes pretty close to defining what I mean by an intellectual).

Second, as an intellectual, you learn that getting that understanding or insight typically requires finding the correct perspective on an issue.

But, being an intellectual gives you a particular perspective.....and there's no guarantee that that is always going to be the correct perspective for the insight your heart desires.

As a matter of fact, in light of scripture (No part of the body of Christ can say to another "I have no need of you"), you can pretty well guarantee that there will be areas where taking a non-intellectual perspective will be required. I do know that some of the insights I value most have started from comments or viewpoints of people I wouldn't consider intellectual.

That means that ultimately, intellectual pride is self-defeating. Refusing to listen to the viewpoints of 'non-intellectuals' will rob you of some of the insights that your heart desires.


I suspect something similar applies to anyone who has a God-given gift or talent that affects their heart's desires - e.g. musicians, artists, and surely many more. God gives gifts in such a way that neither their full effectiveness, nor their full enjoyment, will come with a prideful or selfish approach.

Whyte Stonne said...

Hi Oloryn,

You wrote that "being an intellectual gives you a particular perspective.....and there's no guarantee that that is always going to be the correct perspective for the insight your heart desires."

As an intellectual in reaction against fundamentalism, two things happened to me. First, I naturally began to gravitate toward the Scriptures which did not fit into normal categories like salvation, prayer, sanctification, etc. This made me a dissenting thinker.

Second, as you describe, I learned that my "knowledge" did not equip me to know and love other Christians. It didn't enable me to edify others, even though I held mutual edification as a high Biblical value.

For the Christian intellectual, there is a legitimate and unavoidable dichotomy here, the sort of "compartmentalization" that was so deplored decades ago. What I need as a Christian is not necessarily the same as what other Christians need.

In leading groups, I've compared it to teaching mathematics. I may be into calculus or quantum mechanics, but the people I'm with are still in algebra.

For me, that's why I find it better to lead a discussion "by the seat of my pants." It's too easy to shoot over people's heads.

Our desire for understanding and insight eventually has to leave the realm of ideas (Bible truth). It has to move to the realm of problem solving with the people of God, where they actually live.

We have to learn how to implement the koinonia, edification and ministry priorities of Scripture, making them a reality, instead of just things we teach about.