The Lost Art of Teachability

“Actions always have consequences.”
Joel and Ethan Cohen, A Serious Man

In late February Coach Nick Saban helmed a presser in which he discussed the recent arrests and subsequent dismissal of four freshman from the Alabama Crimson Tide football team.  When pressed by a reporter as to his reasoning for their dismissal, Saban told him plainly:

Some people learn by words.
Some people can learn by consequences.
Some people can’t learn.

I found that particular statement to be a fascinating data point in the current of 21st century American culture.  Although everybody has an aversion to negative consequences, it seems like many of us will do anything but learn from these consequences, as Saban has suggested.  Consider these pressing issues.

The Debt Crisis

The average American owes better than $40,000 in consumer debt, with a standard credit card limit of somewhere around $5,000 per card or $19,000 spread across multiple cards.  Put those figures into perspective.  This means that many American consumers spend more than they make, receive a bill telling them of the consequence of their overspending, and then decide to continue the pattern of over spending.  Or as Wimpy from Popeye would say, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” By spreading consumer debt across multiple credit cards consumers hope to avoid or delay consequences.

Individually Customized Religion 

Have you heard about the latest trend in religious beliefs?  Starting in 2011 George Barna’s book Futurecast revealed some interesting trends.  Americans want to pick and choose their own religious identity and no longer feel compelled to adhere to received systems of religious thought. Perhaps you have been in an argument with a close friend who on the surface appears to be Christian, but who behaves in a way that is far from Biblical.  Perhaps you might have even found this person to be “slippery” in conversation — opting to change the rules of argument rather than engage with you in a consistent manner.

This type of customizable approach to religion was made famous in Rob Bell’s 2011 work Love Wins (see my full review here) wherein, Mr. Bell attempted to open up fresh dialogue about whether Christians should continue teaching that hell is a place that is real or whether the Bible definitively says that non-believers will go there if they die apart from Jesus’ saving grace.

His argument takes on the following logic:

  • I like the idea of Jesus being loving.
  • I like the idea of people who believe in Jesus while on Earth going to heaven.
  • I don’t like the idea of people who hate, dismiss, or deny Jesus on earth going to hell.
    ———————————–
  • Therefore, I am going to remove the possibility of hell from my theology.  This way, I get all the good stuff of Jesus and love and heaven and none of the consequence of hell.

Part of the appeal of the choose your own religion attitude is that it permits adherents to deny consequences.

Colorado Pot Laws

Along with Washington state, Colorado recently legalized what had become common practice among adults – recreational pot consumption.  As with the decision to end prohibition, early proponents have legalized pot with some sense of trepidation, knowing that more longitudinal research is needed to confirm whether this was a good idea. And on cue, the San Jose Mercury News is reporting that cases of accidental child ingestion of pot have dramatically increased since 2009, a direct consequence of Colorado’s lenient culture of pot consumption.  The response by Colorado doctors and public policy shapers has been to manage or regulate the consequences of lenient statewide pot use.  There is a pending process for access for adults and doctors are pushing for tamper proof packaging for children, get this, because doctors still classify pot as poisonous for children.  It should be noted that this is the same logic used for parents who consume alcohol with children in the house.  But I would ask, “How has that approach worked out for us?” It has been a failure says recent studies.  Not that I have all the answers — I just want to point out that managing consequences may not be the best approach.

Steve Martin penned a wonderful autobiography entitled Born Standing Up, in which he describes his generation’s approach to denying, delaying, and managing the consequences of the 1960s.  While he lamented the moment when women got wise to men’s true intentions with intercourse, I found his comments about drug use to be a redemptive twist in the story.  After one particular night of smoking pot and going to a movie theater, Martin had an anxiety attack that frightened him and left him thinking he was going to have a heart attack and die.  Upon sobering up, Martin reflected on the event  (p. 107):

After a few weeks a list of triggers developed.  I couldn’t go back into a movie theater, and I didn’t for at least ten years. I never smoked pot again, or got involved with the era’s preoccupation with illicit substances (I’m sure this event helped me avoid the scourge of cocaine).

Martin’s testimony is that consequences can be helpful boundaries that guide us away from dangerous behavior and ideas.  I think the church would be wise to take Nick Saban’s advice and learn from the words of others.  The best place to begin is by learning from the Word of God.  A good place to start might be to memorize the words of Proverbs 22:3, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”

And yet, as Christians we are still mired by the Fall and will not be perfect until heaven.  Thus, in this Christian life we will make mistakes and there will still be consequences.  But, consequences for mistakes don’t have to derail our walk.  They can be good things that help us to stay on the straight and narrow.  Once we become aware of our consequences we would be wise, again, to follow the advice of Nick Saban and learn from our consequences.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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