In John chapter five, Jesus asks one of the most remarkable questions in all the gospels: Do you want to be healed? A paralyzed man, who had been so for thirty-eight years, was by the pool of Bethesda near the sheep gate in Jerusalem waiting for the pool to be stirred by an angel so that he might be the first person to enter and be made well. For a man so devoted and desperate, it is a startling thing for Jesus to ask, “Do you want to be healed?” What a dumb question, unless Jesus is not merely asking if he wants to be physically restored. Hidden within the question Jesus is asking is a much more pointed question: Do you really want to interact with me, as I AM? The man did not; he only wanted healing. He quickly forgets Jesus’ name and shows little concern for following him. The man shows his chief concern is with physical well-being, while Jesus isn’t concerned chiefly with what the resurrection can resolve. Jesus is concerned with the prerequisite for resurrection: holiness, healing of the soul. Jesus loves this man as the man ought to love himself. Jesus is no gnostic; he heals his paralyzed body. But Jesus is also no materialist; he demands repentance. After the crowd is stirred up by the healing, Jesus returns to the man and commands him to “go and sin no more that nothing worse may happen to you,” ominous last words from the Christ.
This entire passage in John has made deep inroads into my soul. It has drawn-out sharp questions. Do I really want repentance? Do I love Jesus only for what he materially provides? Is my soul shallow like this paralyzed man? Am I willing to “sin no more” that nothing worse may happen to me? Questions of this depth take time to contemplate. As I have done so, I have also repeatedly asked the question: What does this scene and particularly Jesus’ question have to do with the classroom? No question, since the start of the school year, has been more important. Do my students want to be healed? As their teacher, do I want to be healed, and what exactly does healing look like in the context of a classical Christian school?
Let me begin by saying that the healing that comes from studying in a classical Christian classroom is often rejected by students and teachers because we have too high an estimation of ourselves. The problem is too strong a sense of our own worth and too little a sense of God’s worth. If we overestimate ourselves, our pride and free will prevent the true, deep healing possible, including what is possible in the classroom. Like the man at the pool of Bethesda, we will forget Jesus’ name in favor of our own.
Being humbled is the first step toward godliness and virtue, and it should be a teacher’s goal to labor alongside God in this endeavor. Healing comes first through humility. I once saw a senior, in a senior chapel just weeks away from graduation, compliment a teacher by saying that the teacher had helped the soon-to-be-graduate thoroughly realize that they were not a good person. The student was not ashamed to admit their sinfulness in front of their peers and teachers. More importantly, the senior was blessed by that self-awareness. A deep knowledge of their wickedness was a blessing, because the senior could begin afresh pursuing wisdom and virtue with humility. More broadly, classical Christian schools should put that as one of their desired graduation outcomes: the student will deeply recognize their own wickedness, and it will bless them.
No one can be spiritually healed without humility or without admitting their need for healing. The teacher’s task, then, becomes harsh at first, but “after the first shock,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “humility, is a cheerful virtue.” Before teaching other virtues and wisdom, teachers must first insist on intellectual humility, displaying its beauty and significance. Teachers must, as St. Augustine wrote, “Smite [the] heart without wounding” it. That wounding brings joy. It pairs down the weeds of vice and begins to provide soil in which virtue can grow. To reference St. Augustine again, “humility is the foundation of all the virtues hence, in the soul in which these virtues do not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.” Yet, how often have I considered humility a lesser virtue and not the essential virtue for all other virtues? If teachers begin to scatter virtue amongst the weeds, then the cares of life will likely choke out the seedlings of virtue that begin to grow there. Teachers must begin with humility, so that their students can answer Jesus more honestly: yes, I want healing, but first I need humility.
For students to want humility, it must be modeled by teachers in pursuit of virtue. For teachers to want humility, they must confess and repent of their sins daily. The art of teaching becomes a practice in repentance, and the classroom becomes a place where the measure for true, full admission is humility. Robert Munger said, “The church is the only institution in the world where the one requirement for membership is the unworthiness of the candidate.” A similar thing should be said of the classroom. Virtue does not open its door to the proud, except in name only. For God, writes David, “teaches [only] the humble his way.” So, seek first humility—both teachers and students—and all these things will be added to us.