What characterizes a wise person? The Proverbs tell us that the one who is growing in wisdom will be known increasingly by their wholesome speech (10:11), self-control (16:32) diligence (13:4), and generosity (14:21). They will have well-managed homes (14:1; 31:22-27) and well-managed finances (13:11). They will have bridle on their temper (12:16; 14:29; 16:32) and their tongues (13:3; 18:2; 20:19). Their work will be honest (11:1; 20:11) and their conduct in the market place will be fair (20:14).
But these qualities are the fruit of a deeper root. Indeed, the virtues listed above cannot be cultivated or maintained without attention to a prior concern, which is why Solomon opens the Proverbs with these words: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Before one can gain wisdom, one must be willing to receive wisdom. And one can only receive wisdom if they fear the Lord.
The Beginning of Knowledge
In Solomon’s time, to fear the Lord would have meant that one had yielded their heart and mind to Yahweh, the one true God who had revealed himself to Israel. Today, to fear the Lord means a person has yielded his heart and mind to the one true God revealed who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. True wisdom begins by bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus in repentance and faith in the gospel. Without the root of faith in Christ, the heart will remain obstinate to godly wisdom.
But when someone yields to Jesus, their minds are opened anew to receive divine truth, godly wisdom, and sound advice. This teachability, then, becomes the conduit through which the believer receives useful instruction and the means by which they will grow in every other Christian virtue. Consider how a wise person is characterized by their teachability:
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a wise man, and he will increase in learning.Proverbs 9:9
The wise in heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin.Proverbs 10:8
The way of the fool is wise in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.Proverbs 12:15
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.Proverbs 13:18
Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.Proverbs 19:20
Strike of scoffer, and the simple will learn prudence; reprove a man of understanding, and he will gain knowledge.Proverbs 19:25
So the exhortation of the Scripture is to be teachable. At the risk of overstatement, I am inclined to say that a teachable heart is the key to spiritual growth. How can I make such a comprehensive statement? Because a teachable spirit is a mark of genuine humility, and God only gives grace to the humble while he simultaneously opposes the proud (James 4:6).
But even more to the point: If we are unteachble, we close ourselves off from the instruction that informs and feeds godly character. As Christians, knowing the eternal and temporal benefits of wisdom, we should happily admit to ourselves and others that we are in desperate need of godly instruction and advice.
But a teachable heart is not demonstrated primarily in somber head nods, a contemplative countenance, or even statements of agreement. No, true teachability is found when a person, after being instructed from God’s Word or with advice that accords with it, acts on that counsel by correcting an errant belief or turning from sinful or otherwise foolish conduct.
“A fool despises his father’s instruction,” Solomon reminds us, “but whoever heeds reproof is prudent” (Prov 15:5). Here we note that the opposite of despising wisdom isn’t agreeing with or even appreciating wisdom. The opposite of despising instruction is heeding it. The reverse is also true: If you don’t heed wisdom, you indicate that you actually despise it, regardless of your claim to love it.
But just because you are teachable today doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be teachable tomorrow. The Christian must, by the power of the Spirit, constantly cultivate a heart that is ready to receive godly counsel and sound advice. The Proverbs warn us, “Cease to hear instruction, my son, and you will stray from words of knowledge” (Prov 19:27). And not only will an unteachable spirit endanger your own spiritual life; it will endanger those with whom you come in contact. “Whoever heeds instruction is on the path of life, but he who rejects reproof leads others astray” (Prov 10:17). For our spiritual health and the welfare of others, we must ever maintain a posture of student.
But we must be careful that we don’t mistake gullibility for a teachable heart. When we talk about godly teachability, we are talking about a capacity to receive counsel that, as we’ve already noted, comes directly from God’s Word or accords with it. To remain “open-minded” to teaching or counsel that contradicts or undermines Scripture is not humble; it is proud and foolish.
Indeed, there is a kind of “teachability” that the Bible condemns; namely, a kind of openness that is “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7). To maintain a teachable spirit doesn’t mean that you never form convictions of what is right and wrong, good and bad, true and false, biblical and unbiblical. Rather, genuine teachability consists of (1) the firm conviction that Scripture is God’s Word; (2) an acknowledgement that you are a finite creature in need of instruction; and (3) a willingness to yield to biblical teaching when it is plainly discovered through personal study or instruction from others.
Teachability enables us to receive truth into our souls and to taste of its pleasant fruits (Prov 2:10). The Psalmist tells us that “God leads the humble in what is right” (Ps 25:9). A teachable heart is a heart that is easily lead by God. How do we remain on the path of wisdom? Solomon tells us: (1) Treasure wisdom (Prov 2:1-2) and (2) cry out in desperation for it (Prov 2:3-8). “Then,” Solomon tells us, “you will understand righteousness and justice and equity and every good path” (Prov 2:9).