“What do I paint?” asks every budding artist. The pros say, “Use your eyes, what is around you? Paint what you know.”
“What do I write about?” asks the beginning storyteller. The published author replies, “What are your experiences? Write what you know.”
Art school and writers conferences both stress the same thing — do what you know. If a prairie artist tries to paint Paris street scenes, or if a city author pens poetry of cornfields, neither will have credibility. Other prairie people may not be able to spot an imaginary Arc de Triomphe, other city folk may not know their corn, but bring in someone from Paris or Kansas, and what one considers to be a masterpiece, the other exposes as a poor imitation.
Christian teachers fall into the same category. I recently prepared a Sunday School lesson on the topic of loving the unlovely. God brought to my mind a person I find difficult to tolerate, let alone love. As I thought on the lesson and how I could motivate my students to show love to the unlovable people in their life, the Holy Spirit asked me, “How are YOU going to show love to this person? Be authentic, Elsie.”
Paul set the example when he wrote to the quarreling Corinthians. They were doing a lot of talking about their spirituality but looked down on one another. He said to them, “I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending Timothy... who... will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-17 NIV)
Paul may not have been an artist or a writer of fiction, but he did what he knew. God gave his deep insights and he taught them to others, but he did more than simply pass on his insight. He said, “I have applied these things to myself...for your benefit, so that you may learn from us”
The key to effective teaching is teach what you know — and know it because you have first applied it and proven it in your own life. Such a high standard, no wonder the Bible also says “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.” (James 3:1)
God so guards this principle that Christian teachers and preachers in the midst of preparing a lesson or sermon, often find themselves put to the test on the very truths they intend to teach. I’ve sometimes braced myself against that testing but now I see it as necessary. Should I tell others spiritual truth but am not living it myself, I will be spotted as a poor imitation, lacking authenticity and having negative effect on my students. Obviously it is better to be quiet than pretend to be an expert.
So, do I skip the lesson on loving because I have sometimes failed to obey it myself? Not so. ALL of God’s truth must be taught. The answer is not skipping the lesson, or faking it, but admitting my failure as a sin of omission (see James 4:17), then making a trip to “Paris or Kansas,” whatever the case may be, and experiencing the reality of that lesson. Make my teaching and my life match.
So my students heard my confession. They also saw me make a commitment to change my attitude. I can’t love perfectly but God supplies: “His love is shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5)
Paul’s example is humbling. Authenticity in painting or poetry might matter a great deal to some, but delivering God’s truth with credibility must have top priority with His teachers.