Because life is a series of edits

Relearning Diligence

In Education, Humanity, Thought, Westminster on January 7, 2009 at 8:28 pm

Normally a prep period (and a really nice way to end the day), seventh hour in my classroom today played host to one of eleven experiments by our Bible department in which our seniors in Worldviews "taught" our eighth grade Bible students lessons stemming from the Proverbs.

The seniors (about 6 per group) were to create a 7-10 minute documentary-format video illustrating the principles of their assigned proverbial topic. Following the video, each of the seniors was to speak a few minutes from his or her own experience on the topic, and this was to be followed by a 15-minute Q&A time facilitated by the seniors and involving the eighth graders. (Over the course of the next few days, the teachers will process with the seniors while the eighth graders interact in a protected digital environment about what they learned, which will be monitored and "graded" by their teachers.)

As I have neither seniors nor eighth graders, I had little more to do with the initiative than serving as room facilitator and grader. My group had been assigned the topic of diligence to focus and teach on, and despite their tendency toward mouthfuls of imperative legalisms and telling rather than showing their point, they did a decent job with their presentation. Rarely have I seen seniors respect both the task and their younger audience as these students did, and the eighth graders were equally respectful and appreciative of the seniors' attempts to present and interact. It was a nice dynamic.

If there was anything concerning about the experience, it would be my group's seeming replacement of faithfulness with success as diligence's final result. This switcheroo is not unique to our seniors and I'm not meaning to blame them for it here; it is a pathology that plagues so many kids I teach at the freshman, sophomore, and junior levels, probably because it plagues their parents as well. It goes something like this:

diligence = good grades = college of choice = good job = happiness = success

Nearly every senior story followed this flow. The progression wasn't formally charted, but it was certainly assumed and accepted to be true. If I had to sum up what was taught in my classroom seventh hour, it would be that diligence always equals success, and that success will be what you want it to be, so get to work.

In other words, it's what you and I, in our "best" works-based faith, tell ourselves every day of our works-based lives. Who says kids today can't learn?

Granted, the proverbs can certainly be read with a very "name it-claim it" hermeneutic (an unfortunate Christian manifestation of our nation's American Dream religion), but we have to read it within the genre of wisdom literature which tends toward trajectories rather than guarantees. For instance, when we read a verse like Proverbs 10:4 which says, "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich," we have to understand that just because we avoid sloth does not automatically ensure wealth. Sure, one has a better chance at financial success by working rather than vegging, but that trail is a trajectory, not a guarantee.

After all, life happens; so does God, and God's idea of "success" often (though not always) has more to do with faithfulness than finances (see Psalm 73 for more on this). How do we explain when one works hard but doesn't make it into the college of his choice? How does our theology make sense when one is diligent and doesn't succeed at the level he or she expected to?

Generally speaking, diligence in the Scriptures tends to look and feel a lot more like perseverance than success. Indeed, God in his gracious goodness as a Father tends to bless diligence (Proverbs says so), but that doesn't give us the right to demand such blessing or to remind God of His part in our equation. God owes us nothing and is debtor to no man; we would do well to remember and live by this if we are to walk with Him on His terms. We'd be more humble and grateful people in doing so.

So, we as teachers have some work to do – not only in our students but also in our parents, certainly within the Church and, if we're honest, probably within ourselves. Indeed, we should be diligent because the Scriptures tell us to be so, but let's not be surprised by how God might respond, rather than demand He do what we think He should to keep up His end of the deal. Who becomes God then?

(Note: For more on how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids, read The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. Accurate and thought-provoking.)
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  1. I fully agree (not that you need my approval). I had a conversation the other day with a lady in one of the churches I serve. I shared with her that the Proverbs are probabilities, not promises. This was completely new information for her. In our “pop-culture” Christianity, quite the opposite is the norm taught–unfortunately.
    I’d also add to your post’s point that many of our early children’s stories teach folks that diligence equals success–the “Tortiose and the Hare” being one example.
    Great posts and thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

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