A few weeks ago I was reading a wonderful book on teaching. The told a story that summarized the one essential attitude needed to be a successful teacher.
He was talking about his favorite teacher. He could listen to this man talk for hours. He signed up for every class or seminar this man taught. It just so happened that his route to school took him past this man’s house, and it never failed; every time he passed by, the light in this teacher’s study was on.
Finally, Mr. Hendricks had to ask him why. So he said, “Sir, you now more than all the teachers here together. You are more interesting on your worst day than they are on their best. You lap them without trying. So I have got to ask you, ‘Why are you up studying so early every day?’” His answer was classic. He said, “Hendricks, I would rather my students drink from a flowing stream than a stagnant pond.”
When I read the words, my mind was transported to a field behind my parent’s house. It is where the neighborhood boys would gather to catch frogs in the pond that sat on the middle of the property. I remembered how that pond looked on hot summer days when we had gone a few weeks without rain. Stuff—green, gross stuff—would grow on top of the water. It looked so nasty that we did not want to get near it. And we sure did not want to drink out of it.
Yet, that happens every day in classrooms all over America. The teacher who was once a flowing stream of fresh insight and captivating information have gotten bored. Consequently, the lessons are stale and the stream becomes a pond.
The principle he pointed out, in a wonderfully picturesque way, was we must grow or die. I have noticed this truth in countless ways over the years. I noticed it in Mark Harrod who never tires of improving his teaching. He reads. He adjusts. He grows. I have seen it in John Hammett who wrote every lecture out in manuscript form. Yet, at the end of every semester, after student evaluations would come in, he would adjust his lectures to make them more effective. As a matter of fact, every great teacher I know longs to get better, to continue to be a flowing stream and not a stagnant pond.
This is crucial in any teaching ministry, but it is especially true for a discipleship based ministry. I love how Paul says it in Colossians 1. After spending time extolling the supremacy of Christ over all of life, he explains his mission. He writes, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom (v. 27).” Make no mistake about it. We proclaim Christ. We proclaim him in English and Latin. We lift him up in math and science. We teach history as History, a demonstration of his providence at work among men. To say it another way, we teach the comprehensive Lordship of Christ over all of life.
Paul specifically says here that he teaches.
This idea includes the orderly presentation not only of what they need to know but also what they must do to grow. It takes time, thought, and creativity. The teacher in Ecclesiastes is a good model for us when he writes, “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Ecc. 12:9). What a powerful description of the work of teaching! You teach people knowledge by weighing (evaluating), studying, and arranging many things!”
But he does not stop there. He continues, “The preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Ecc. 12:10). That is, he sought to be creative as he taught. Ordinary words would not do; rather, he needed delightful words that were meant to function “like goads, and like nails firmly fixed (v. 11).”
That begs the question. Why do we work so hard? In other words, what is the goal? What is he after? He says it in the next verse. He proclaims Christ “so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” He wants them to grow. He wants them to mature. He wants to see them walk in truth. No doubt he has the end time in view, which gives us an indication to how long he is willing to continue the struggle. He begins with the end in mind, but it is the end that energizes the work.
This, too, is our goal. It is not a “win” to see kids get really smart and win arguments. If their character does not grow with them, we lose. So we aim him; we aim for maturity in Christ.
That being said, the most germane thing for our topic today is found in verse 28. Such a lofty goal requires hard work. You cannot teach or work for character growth without some good old-fashioned sweat. So he says, “For this I toil, struggling . . .” The word “toil” here is a strong word. It means to labor to the point of exhaustion. Likewise, the word “struggle” carries the idea of intense effort. This word was often used of athletes who painfully pursued glory through athletics.
It boggles my mind when I watch people compete in a triathlon. Any one part of the competition is exhausting, but put all three together, you go to a whole new level. Have you seen these athletes as they cross the finish line? They are spent; every muscle has been used; all their energy has gone into the pursuit of the prize.
That is the image Paul uses here to describe the ministry of teaching. The stakes are so high that it takes our full effort.
But before you get too discouraged and before you feel ready to just go home and take a nap, notice the encouragement given here. He does work to the point of exhaustion. He does struggle like an athlete in training. Yet, he does all of this in a posture of dependence. He says that he struggles “with all his energy, which he works so powerfully in me” (v. 29). In other words, Christ supplies both the calling and the empowerment for the calling. Thus, we trust Him to supply the energy for the work that we may accomplish the goal.