You Almost Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

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Bob Provo suggested after our evening service on July 26 that when Jesus said, “No one who drinks old wine desires the new, because he says the old is good” (Luke 5:39), what he meant was, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I think he is probably right. The point was: Jesus and his teaching were the new wine coming into the world, but the scribes and Pharisees could not bring themselves to even try the new, let alone enjoy it.

There are some very natural reasons why you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I think if we understand some of these reasons we can change “can’t” to “almost can’t.” My car has a clutch, but the Stellers’ car is automatic. Whenever I borrow their car I still push the clutch even though it’s not there. I’m already an “old dog” at 35. The explanation is simple: Repeated combinations of activity establish associations in our brain which then tend to occur together. So there is nothing very odd about being an “old dog” no matter how old you are.

But there is more to it when our religious convictions are involved. Suppose you have held a doctrinal conviction for 50 years and have taught it in many Sunday School classes and have rejoiced in it in your private meditations. And suppose you are wrong. (This has to be possible because there are many 65-year-old people who hold contradictory doctrinal convictions. Somebody is wrong.) Now suppose somebody comes along and offers the new wine of a contrary doctrinal view and has totally compelling biblical support. Can the “old dog” learn the “new trick”? It is not very likely. The hindrances in this case are a good deal harder to overcome than the associations of reflexes in the brain.

First, in order to change my conviction at 65 I must admit that I have thought and believed wrongly for decades. This is devastating to my pride. How could I have overlooked the true evidence so long? How could I have been illogical all this time? Or have I just willfully shut my eyes, indifferent to truth? Our human nature rebels against making these admissions that we can almost always find excuses not to accept the “new trick” no matter how compelling the biblical support.

Second, all these years I have channeled my relation to God through a misconception. I have delighted in a view that is not true. I have seen God through this lens and now I find it is distorted. This is not only offensive to my pride, but threatens to make my relation to God look artificial and unreal. It takes some mighty deep spiritual foundations to sustain such a blow. Most will simply dodge the issue.

Third, if I am wrong on this point, then I have been misleading people all these years. I have taught my children wrong and my Sunday School classes. The psychological disposition to reject such an indictment is so strong that our subconsciousness engages in an all out smear campaign to discredit the “new wine.”

Is it any wonder, then, that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? But I believe in spiritual miracles. I believe in the power of Holy Spirit humility. Therefore I only say, “You almost can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”