Intellectual Modesty

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If you spend much time watching CNN, Fox News or MSNBC, you’ll notice that people seem to regularly depend on their personality, rather than sound reasoning and facts, to give authority to their words.  Proof of their convictions seems secondary to their passion.

If we’re honest, the same thing often takes place in youth ministry.  Sometimes we let our personalities take center stage and give power to our words, rather than allowing the truth of the gospel to demand power in its own right.

On the flip side, if you’ve spent much time in academia, you may have been encouraged to develop an attitude of skepticism or cynicism.  Perhaps you’ve learned to qualify every statement so as to never offend with the firmness of your convictions.  Maybe you’ve tried to play down your personality and only let people see your intellect.  Or perhaps you’ve learned to wield your intellect like a sword to slay your opponents.

But the gospel isn’t a veil that obscures our identity or hides our convictions. Nor is it a weapon with which to bully others. Rather, the gospel is a gift we each have been given to proclaim with our own voice in the lives we lead.  It is a beautiful and life-giving message with the power to redeem and reconcile people to this world, to one another and to God. 

How then do we faithfully proclaim this gospel with boldness while avoiding arrogance?  How do we faithfully use our intellectual abilities as ministers of the gospel with modesty?

First off, modesty is often misunderstood as the art of hiding or downplaying a gift: be it beauty, strength or intellect.  This wrongly turns modesty into a form of deception.  We don’t want to be intellectual deceivers. 

Modesty rightly understood, as Paul writes to the Philippians, is the state of mind which “is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likes of men” (Phil 2:5-7).  

As such, modesty is better understood as a humble desire to use our gifts for the benefit of others in service to God. And since faith isn’t the gift of stupidity that requires us to check our brains at the door, intellectual modesty doesn’t mean willful ignorance.  Our youth need us to use our intellect to minister to theirs.  God gave us our minds for a reason.

Intellectual modesty is the art of using the mind God has given us to discern truth and cultivate wisdom in a way that benefits our youth.  It’s not about making us look smart or others look stupid — intellectual modesty is about faithful exegesis, applying and articulating truth to those we’ve been called to teach so that they can understand and appreciate it.  

Intellectual modesty is about using our intellect to faithfully stir the minds of our youth to better see the beauty and credibility of the gospel of Christ Jesus. Intellectual modesty is about knowing what we can know, being aware of the limits of our knowledge and always seeking to improve our understanding in pursuit of intellectual faithfulness to Jesus.

So do we spend time studying commentaries, reading books and staying up to date on theological trends?  Yes, especially in areas where our knowledge base is weak or where our youth need us to be better informed.  

Does this mean we make sure everyone knows how much reading we’ve done by constantly quoting these commentaries, dropping author names and using theological jargon?  No, not unless we feel it directly benefits the students with whom we’re talking or teaching at the time.

There is a line in the hymn May the Mind of Christ My Savior that beautifully captures the heart of one seeking intellectual modesty: 

May His beauty rest upon me as I seek the lost to win,

and may they forget the channel, seeing only Him.

After all, what our youth need more than our intellect or our abilities is to see Jesus — our job is to point them to Him with the best of our intellect and abilities.

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