‘Always Learning but Never Arriving’ — Is That Me?
Today is 9/11, a sober day in America. Today’s question is not about 9/11. Today we actually have a question about a haunting text in the Pastoral Epistles. The question comes in from a podcast listener named Amy. “Hello, Pastor John. My struggle is deep and personal: I’m not maturing much in the faith. I forget just about everything I learn as soon as I learn it. Sermons pass in and out of my ears, and I take away from them just about nothing — or so it seems. I fear I’m the one mentioned in Scripture as ‘always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth’ (2 Timothy 3:7). Can you explain this verse to me? And what does it here mean to ‘arrive’ at a knowledge of the truth? What would that look like?”
Well, I’m very glad that Amy is even open to considering the possibility she might be like one of the women described in 2 Timothy 3:6–7. That in itself is a mark of spiritual life, it seems, because very few women who, in fact, are the kind of women described in these verses would have any humility to admit that they were the kind of woman who’s in these verses.
Dangerous Men, Weak Women
So, here’s what it says. Let’s get the verses in front of us. Paul is writing to Timothy about a certain kind of man who does certain things with women, and they are a certain kind of woman. And let’s read now what the man is doing and what kind of woman is vulnerable to what this man is doing. Here’s what he says in 2 Timothy 3:6–7:
For among them [that is, dangerous men] are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened [or heaped up] with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.
“Some people never arrive at the truth because they are being led not by truth but by desires, passions.”
Now, Amy wonders if her difficulty in not maturing as much as she would like in the Christian faith and in forgetting so much of what she hears in sermons means that she’s one of these women who can never come to a knowledge of the truth. Now, I don’t know Amy. I don’t know the extent of what she thinks her weaknesses are. I don’t know the quality of teaching she’s receiving. I don’t know her own battles with sin. So, I’m in no position to pronounce about whether she could be in the category of these women in 2 Timothy.
What I can do is describe the situation here in these verses with a little more attention, so that she then can measure whether or not her particular difficulties that she’s described put her in this category. My own sense, right now, given what I see, is that she’s not in this category, and you’ll see why as we unpack these two verses.
Led Astray to Sin
First, the women are described as weak women, so we must ask, What’s the nature of their weakness? And Paul leads us along the way toward the answer with the next phrase — namely, they are “heaped up with sins.” It’s a dramatic word. It’s the same word Paul uses in Romans 12:20 for heaping coals of fire on people’s heads. There are piles and piles of sins that these women are committing.
So, we should ask, What’s the nature of the weakness that results in these women committing sin after sin, such that they pile up? And the next thing Paul says goes a long way to answering that: he says they are being led by various desires or passions. Now we’re at the heart of the matter. They are always learning and cannot come to the truth; they never arrive because they are being led not by truth but are being led, controlled, by desires, passions, instead of being led by the truth.
Let’s read backward now: they can’t arrive at the truth because they are controlled and led by all kinds of various desires, rather than discerning and submitting to the truth. And being led by those desires, they are led into sin after sin, which creates a huge heap upon them. And that, Paul says, makes them weak and, thus, vulnerable to these rascals who are coming in with their false teaching, and maybe even more abusive behavior than false teaching.
These women are not like Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and absorbed so much truth (Luke 10:38–42). They’re not like Priscilla, who understood the way of truth better than Apollos did (Acts 18:24–28). They’re weak — meaning, when desires come, they don’t stand strong against them and govern them with the truth; they give way. That’s what it means to be weak here: they give way to sinful desires, and so they are led like there’s a ring in their nose. They’re led by passions — not truth. So, they arrive at sin after sin, not ever deepening their knowledge of the truth.
Weak Memory, Weak Morality?
Now, what can we say about this text that might help Amy get her bearings?
First, Amy describes her main problem — as far as she can see it — as a problem of a weak memory, not a weak morality. The problem in this text is not that these women have weak memories; the problem is that they have no power to stand over against their desires, and deny them, and be led by truth against them. That’s the problem. Now, Amy will have to decide — I don’t know Amy — if that’s her struggle, but it’s not what she mentions.
All of us have very different capacities for remembering things. I consider my own memory, my capacities to remember, to be weak — and getting weaker, by the way — and I mean always. I can remember in college, taking history classes and working my tail off until two in the morning, memorizing dates, trying to figure out acronyms to remember places. I had to work so much harder, it seemed, than everybody else just to get a B in this history class. It’s the same thing with sermon preparation: to give a sermon or to give a talk where you just use notes instead of a manuscript is an enormous amount of work.
“Ultimately arriving at a knowledge of the truth is a gift of God.”
So, God has made life harder for me in this regard, and I do not doubt that was his will and that it is good for me to have to work harder on memorizing Scripture than others do. And I would suggest to Amy that there may be simple strategies — instead of rolling over and playing victim — of repetition and notetaking and journal-keeping and so on that could supplement a weaker memory. That’s the first thing.
The second thing I would say is that the knowledge of truth referred to in 2 Timothy 3:7 is probably not truth in general, but in fact the core message of the gospel. Now, I say that because the way that term is used — the exact term in Greek, “knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Timothy 2:25; Titus 1:1). You can look all those up and test to see if you agree with what I’m saying.
The point, I’m saying, is that these women are called weak not because they didn’t have a systematic theology; that’s not the issue. Coming to a knowledge of the truth doesn’t mean coming to a knowledge of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. The point is that in their desire-controlled hearts, they were so resistant to seeing the gospel as beautiful and desirable above all things that they could not understand it in any depth, and therefore they could not hold onto it as the treasure of their lives, and therefore they were led about by lesser desires.
And the question I would ask Amy is, Does she have a firm grasp of the gospel — of what God did in Jesus Christ for her in history — and what he has done in her heart? Does she grasp that central, core truth that is so stabilizing against being jerked around by our desires?
What God Grants
The last thing I would say is that, just a few verses earlier, Paul had given the divine solution to the problem of not coming to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). Here’s what he says: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.”
That’s the very same phrase. In other words, ultimately arriving at a knowledge of the truth is a gift of God. “God may perhaps grant them . . . knowledge of the truth.” The bondage of our desires, the bondage of Satan, the blindness of our hearts is hopeless — a hopeless condition — without divine intervention. So, the remedy is to pray for God’s mighty grace to break in and give us the victory over bondage to sinful passions, so that we arrive at a saving knowledge of the truth.