Wisdom does not come automatically with age (Job 32:8–9). You’ll find plenty of foolish old fogies out there.
For many aged saints, gray hair and a good head go hand in hand. But for others, far too many others, length of life only entrenches stubbornness, irritability, and careless ways of thinking and living. Life experience may increase inevitably with age, but without some long-term pattern of receptivity and intentionality, multiplied experiences will only create more confusion than clarity.
For Christians in particular, the stakes are even higher for cultivating holy curiosity and the mindset of a lifelong learner. Teaching and learning are at the very heart of our faith. To be a “disciple” means to be a “learner.” Our Master is the consummate teacher, and the central task of his undershepherds in the local church is teaching (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Hebrews 13:7; Matthew 28:20). God designed the church to be a community of lifelong learners under the earthly guidance of leaders who are teachers at heart.
The Christian faith is not a finite course of study for the front-end of adulthood. Our mindset shouldn’t be to first do our learning and then spend the rest of our lives drawing from that original deposit of knowledge. Rather, ongoing health in the Christian life is inextricably linked to ongoing learning.
Learning Till the Day of Christ — And Beyond
Many of us have felt the comfort of Philippians 1:6, that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion . . .” — but the statement doesn’t end there. Yes, we have the great promise of completion, but then follows a sobering disclosure about the timing: “. . . at the day of Christ.” The loop of learning doesn’t close today or tomorrow, but as Jesus tarries, a lifetime lies ahead.
And even in heaven, and then in the new creation, we shouldn’t expect that our learning will be done. In our Beloved, we have a bounty of blessings such that “in the coming ages [God will] show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We’re not given it all at once, but forever we have new mercies to discover, fresh revelations to receive, new things to learn about our Lord. We are not just given a promise of increase that is lifelong, but eternal.
And so we are lifelong learners. Two important questions then lie before us: a simple what and a simple how. One, what is the framework for our lifelong learning? Is there a grid or focus or organizing principle as we continue to learn and grow? And two, how might we go about practicing such learning for a lifetime?
Center on the Word
There is indeed something we frontload for the Christian life, and then spend the rest of our days exploring and going deeper in: it is the “word” or “message” about Jesus, God’s incarnate Word. Simply put, the focal point and center of our lifelong learning is the person and work of Christ. All things are in him, through him, and for him (Colossians 1:17).
When we say “learners,” we don’t mean of mere facts, information, and head knowledge. We mean all that and more. We don’t just learn facts, but we learn a Face. We’re not just learners of principles, but of a Person. We are lifelong learners in relationship with Jesus as we hear his voice in his word and have his ear in prayer, and share in community with his body, all through the power of his Spirit.
And one of the chief ways we know his person more is by learning more about his work for us. Not only are we “rooted and grounded” in Christ’s love for us at Calvary, but we press on “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17–19).
The heart of lifelong learning that is explicitly Christian is not merely digging deeper in the seemingly bottomless store of information there is to learn about the world and humanity and history, but plunging into the infinite flood of Christ’s love, and how it all comes back to this, in its boundless breath and length and height and depth, and seeing everything else in its light. The center of lifelong learning for the Christian is knowing God himself in Christ through the gospel word and the written word of the Scriptures — in the hearing and reading and study and meditation and memorization of the Bible.
Five Principles for Lifelong Learning
The what, then, is “the Word” — incarnate, spoken, and written — at the center, casting its shadow on all other learning. But now, how? The short answer is that the list of particular practices for lifelong learning can be diverse as creativity will allow, and here are five big-picture suggestions to get you going.
1. Diversify Your Sources and Seasons
Learn from personal conversations, read books, take classes, watch educational videos, and (perhaps most underrated) listen to recorded audio. Diversify your sources of teaching.
- Personal conversations with experienced and knowledgeable people are tops on the list, as you can dialogue and ask questions and hear words tailored just for you, as they’re aware of your situation and needs.
- Books have the amazing value of being accessible anytime and anywhere; you can go at your speed, in your time and place, and re-read as needed.
- Classes provide the advantage of learning in context with others, benefiting from their questions, and being forced to focus on the material at some set time for some particular season.
- Educational videos provide the flexibility of watching at a time most convenient to you and benefiting from visuals (diagrams, charts, body language).
- Listening to recordings gives the flexibility for multitasking (learning while driving or exercising or cleaning) and engages the mind in ways different than video instruction by leaning on the imagination to picture the teacher and setting.
Also, consider how the sources will change in your various seasons of life. College and seminary are concentrated seasons for classroom instruction, educational dialogue, and extended reading. If you have a long commute, or the kind of manual labor job that permits it, you can take advantage of audio books and courses and lectures and sermons. Evaluate the particulars of your season of life, and choose the media and venues most conducive to your ongoing learning about God, the world, and yourself.
2. Create Space and Redeem Spare Time
If you work a fulltime job and have a young family, it may be difficult to make room for the homework and weekly commitment of attending an evening class or even taking a course online. But what you can do, in this tight season or any other, is create little windows for learning.
It may only be five or ten minutes of reading as you go to bed at night, or a few extra minutes of lingering over the Scriptures in the morning, or listening to a short podcast like Ask Pastor John or Theology Refresh as you brush your teeth, commute, or run errands. Or maybe just set the goal to read an article or two each day online at a substantive site like The Gospel Coalition.
3. Mind Your Mindless Moments
There’s a place for mental rest and recreation, for ballgames and television and pop tunes and motion pictures, but a lifelong learner will want to take care that most of life’s spare moments are not cannibalized by mere mindless entertainment. There is a way to watch (some) sports and television with intentionality for learning. Checking on the news is one. The History Channel or some good documentary are among others.
Lifelong learning, over time, will mean developing the resistance to simply veg out whenever you feel the impulse, and turn some of these moments, if not many, into opportunities to grow instead. It may not feel like much on any given day, but the payoff in the long haul is extraordinary.
4. Adapt to New Media
A large personal library, with tattered and penciled pages, was once the mark of a lifelong learner. Then shelves of books were accompanied by newspaper and magazine clippings, then stacks of 8-track tapes, then stashes of cassettes, then piles of CDs. Today a veritable library can be stored on an e-reader or laptop, and mp3s once hoarded on hard drives are available online through near ubiquitous wifi.
“Ongoing health in the Christian life goes hand in hand with ongoing learning.”
Podcasts have become a favorite channel of the endlessly curious, and tomorrow the technology will be new and even better. Already free video and online education courses are accessible like never before. And there is social media — and what teachers or entertainers or athletes or friends you let fill your feed may say a lot about how eager you are to simply kill a few moments or bring them to life with learning.
5. Embrace the Identity of Learner
Finally, whether it appears among your top five in StrengthFinders or not, declare yourself a “Learner.” Claim it was your sixth strength. Fight against the tide that takes learning to be something quarantined to school days and essential to childhood and adolescence but something beneath adulthood. Resist the urge to squander spare time on mindless entertainment. Embrace your finitude and the glorious infinity of God, and brace yourself to never stop learning, not as a burden, but a great joy. Own the truth that in a sense we creatures never “arrive,” not even in the new creation.
Resolve to be a lifelong learner.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.