How Failing Greek Can Help You Love God
Earlier this year I started lecturing New Testament Greek, and on Mondays I teach a double class. Before we delve into Jeremy Duff’s Elements of New Testament Greek, I deliver a short exhortation. For the most part, these words of encouragement have developed a theme I considered at length last year: Christian character trumps theological acumen. In that series I identified some of the perils that beset theological students. With an actual class in front of me, I’ve continued to sound these warnings, while also demonstrating the value of theological studies for Christian formation—even Greek.
Throughout my exhortations and aforementioned articles, I’ve challenged the assumption that digesting vast amounts of sound theology or biblical truth will result in the fruits of the Spirit. For clarity, my point isn’t simply that theology still needs to be applied, though that is of course true. Rather, I hope to persuade my small class and even smaller readership that how we go about theology is critical. That godliness and character is crucial, but not necessarily entailed. Yes, we must apply and contextualise our theology. Relevance is important. Only more important than all of that are questions like: who am I becoming? What kind of character am I developing? Are my habits healthy? Do I love God more now than when I started?
Concerning the last of those questions, with the help of Simone Weil I previously argued that disciplining our attentions and focus trains us for prayer, to love God—if we repurpose it accordingly. Thus learning Greek can be a spiritual exercise and discipline. As she writes, “The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” In the same essay, Weil makes another point well worth hearing: struggling or even failing in your studies is an opportunity to grow in Christian formation and virtue.
Failure Isn’t a Virtue, but an Opportunity to Learn
Two hurried qualifications are in order before we get to the thrust of Weil’s argument.
Firstly, failure isn’t good in and of itself. As Bluey’s dad, Bandit, would say: “That’s loser talk.” So Weil’s point shouldn’t be understood to vindicate doing badly in your studies, especially if that’s due to laziness, indifference, or some kind of self-righteous anti-intellectualism. Those attitudes don’t glorify God. Rather failure presents us with an opportunity, which can be squandered in the same way success is ruined by pride. This brings us to another qualification, which Weil makes explicit.
Secondly, when we fail we must avoid the temptation “to give a sideways glance at the corrected exercise if it is bad, and to hide it forthwith.” In the same vein, don’t blame your failure on someone else—especially not your lecturer. Instead, when you receive a test, an exam, or a paper back that’s soaked through with red ink, “take great pains to examine squarely and to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which [you] have failed… without seeking any excuse.” Understand where you went wrong, “get down to the origin of each fault.” To do well in your studies you must learn from your mistakes.
So, failure isn’t virtuous. No, it presents the learner with an opportunity to do better and work harder, learning from her mistakes and pursuing greater understanding. However, Weil doesn’t suggest that this is the most important outcome of doing badly or even failing in your studies and learning.
What Might Failure Teach Us? Humility
Weil identifies the potential to unearth a “far more precious treasure than all academic progress,” presented to us when we fail: “The virtue of humility.” Wrestling with disappointment and our own ineptitude is an opportunity to cultivate a virtue expressly celebrated by God (James 4:6-7). This isn’t limited to learning Greek. Instead, struggling at—even falling short in—some or other difficult task can help us unlearn pride. For Weil rightly identifies failure as a chance to acquire the virtue of humility, which is incomparably more valuable than academic success.
When I shared this with my class they were a little taken aback. So I turned up 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says that we might “speak in the tongues of men and of angels…have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge.” Sure you may attain so great a “faith, so as to remove mountains.” Yet, as the chorus of that passage goes, apart from love these mean nothing. Say it again: nothing. Previously I’ve used Nietzsche to argue that love is the opposite of power and pride. Paul makes a similar point, tying love to humility earlier in the epistle (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Failure that results in humility is much more to be desired than success that ends up in pride. Of course, as I’ve already said, neither failure nor success are virtues in and of themselves. The question Weil would ask us is this: if we had to choose one, which would it be? Would you take proud achievement or the acquirement of virtue? Jesus would have us pick the latter, ten times out of ten. For, as Weil writes: “No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls we shall be well established on the right foundation.”
Theological Studies Must Be Used to Train Our Hearts
There is a dangerous assumption among theologians and students that stuffing our heads with truth will inevitably shape our hearts. It’s not true. The channel from your head to your heart is much more complicated than that. Learning doesn’t guarantee loving. In many cases, the opposite is true, with learning leading to pride. Don’t master your discipline but fail at being a disciple of Christ. Failure that bears the fruit of humility is a far greater treasure than any academic award, degree, or recognition from your peers.