We’ve been on the topic of lifelong learning and talking about your new book on the topic, Foundations for Lifelong Learning: Education in Serious Joy. In it, you talk about “the excitement of learning” and mention the joy of learning hundreds of times, implying throughout that there’s joy in discovery and a joy-aim in this discipline of lifetime learning. You and I both get fired up when it comes to new discoveries we find in the Bible or in old books by dead guys. We talked about this in our episode before Thanksgiving.
But speak to someone who doesn’t feel this joy of discovery, or people who don’t think of themselves as lifelong learners. Maybe they never liked school. Maybe they didn’t get very good grades in school. They’re not wired to be lifelong students, not naturally. Maybe they’re doers, very practical, and not drawn to read hard books, to the point that even your new book on lifelong learning would be a daunting, hard sell for them. What encouragement would you give to them?
I’m reading this question and thinking, “Whom am I actually going to talk to in trying to answer this question?” They’re probably not listening. There are more than just two kinds of responses to lifelong learning. There are five, ten, twenty, hundreds of ways people respond to things like lifelong learning.
Everyone is on a continuum, from the most academically accomplished scholar on one end to the drug addict or the mentally ill person on the street outside my house that I spoke to yesterday. This person, who cannot make an ordinary conversation, has no concept of (let alone interest in) the foundations of lifelong learning. Everybody is somewhere in between those extremes. I do talk to both sides, the educated and the broken (which, maybe, is just two kinds of brokenness). I care about them. I share the gospel on the street. I pray for them. I pray with them. I try to connect them with sources of help for their mental condition, their economic condition, their housing condition, their physical condition, their spiritual condition.
Probably neither of those ends of the spectrum is listening to this podcast. That’s why I’m thinking, “Whom am I going to talk to when I answer Tony’s question?” Realistically, you haven’t asked a stupid question. I know the kinds of people that you’re talking about.
Averse to Learning
Maybe the most realistic audience is ordinary members of our churches who graduated from high school. They were glad to get out. Maybe they did trade school, professional school, an apprenticeship, or some college. Maybe they even graduated from college because their parents wanted them to, and now they are glad to be done. Maybe some of them are not readers at all. They may be dyslexic.
I know people like that. They function just fine in their jobs. They find a way to make it work. They might have ADD but have learned to live productively with it. They simply do not approach the world as a place you’d want to squeeze meaning out of. Well, that’s the way I feel about the world — squeeze some meaning out of this experience today; dig up discoveries.
Many just don’t think that way. They’re mainly passive in the way the world comes at them. They deal with it when it comes. They do what they have to do. They don’t see problems as a puzzle to solve or as an exciting challenge, wrestling their way to some new solution and greater understanding. When they think of learning, it’s basically just figuring out what the next thing is that needs to be done.
“God may show you a way to grow in knowledge and grace that is totally surprising and totally enjoyable to you.”
They read instructions, or they may go to YouTube instead, to watch someone else do it. Maybe they try a new recipe. That’s what they do to learn: get a new fishing lure or find an apartment. Life is not for learning; it’s for living. I get that. I know some of these folks. I think a person with that kind of disposition can lead a God-honoring, people-loving life.
What would I say to them about lifelong learning? I think what I should try to do is relay what the Bible says about growth in words and terms that are not connected to school, academics, study, or even reading.
Grow in Grace and Knowledge
Let’s assume that you do not resonate with the phrase “the joy of learning.” It may be that when you say, “I don’t find joy in learning,” what you may mean is this: “I don’t find joy in the process of thinking, or the process of intentional study, or the process of reading, or the process of focused observation, or the process of pushing the mind, exerting the mind, in some endeavor.” What feels off-putting is not so much the discovery of something wonderful, but the discipline or process of study and reading and analysis and mental exertion.
If you’re a Christian, I assume there are things about God, Christ, and salvation that are precious to you. You know them, you hold fast to them, and they are a help in daily life. If someone could add another one of those wonderfully precious truths to what you already have, if somebody could add another truth about God or salvation that made you happy because it was such good news, you’d be glad. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, I don’t want any more good news. I don’t want to be happier than I am now.” Nobody says that.
It’s not the happy outcomes of lifelong learning but the process that leaves you cold. Study, reading, thinking, analyzing, mental effort — all these feel so contrary to your personality. It would be a huge thing to recognize that you and I both love many of the outcomes of lifelong learning.
We should linger here for just a minute. When Peter says that we should grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus, it’s a command (2 Peter 3:18). He said that we should grow, though he doesn’t specify how. If a person says to me, “I don’t really want to grow, I don’t want to know more about Jesus, and I don’t want to experience more grace,” then I would say we’re dealing with a problem of disobedience, not a problem of neutral personality issues. That’s a defect of love, not a personality trait.
So, I am assuming that our non-lover of the process of learning would love to know more about Jesus, would love to have wonderful things about Christ feeding his mind that he doesn’t yet understand, would love to taste and enjoy and experience more of God’s grace and goodness in Christ.
These people hear the call to grow, and they hear the prayer of Paul that we should increase in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9–10). They hear Hosea’s warning that people perish for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6). That’s why he says later, “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). They hear all this, and they want this fruit. They want the outcome. They want these results. They realize that not to want them is a lack of love for Jesus.
Pave the Way with Prayer
I would say to them that if study and reading and lifelong learning is not the path, then pray earnestly that God would show you what the path is for you, for your particular personality and your way. You may be surprised how he answers.
For sure he will say this: “Get in a good church, and sit under the preaching of God’s word.” I know he’ll say that. That’s in the Bible. Everybody should do that. Every Christian should be in a good church. If they can, they should be in a small group of believers who pray for each other and share thoughts about what they’ve seen in the Bible.
God may show you a way to grow in knowledge and grace that is totally surprising and totally enjoyable to you. Don’t stop praying until he does. Don’t pray for a week and then say, “Well, nothing happened.” No, pray for a year, two, three. Pray as long as you need to in order to obey the command to grow.
Find your way to grow, to go forward. If you’re not going forward, you’re going to go backward. That’s the way it is. We’re not in a pond; we’re in a river, and it’s flowing the wrong direction. If we don’t swim forward, we’re going backward.
Leave Room for Surprise
Here’s one last thought. I hated to read until I was in the eleventh grade. It was really, really undesirable. I remember in the sixth grade how I had to put a sticker on the board in front of the class to show how many pages I had read. I would look for the books with pictures. Then something happened. After the eleventh grade, I loved it (though I am a very slow reader).
I know a man who barely finished high school. His grades were so bad. Reading was torture. He went into the army, and when he came out two years later, something had changed. He applied to Bible college on his own and put himself all the way through.
“What was once boring can suddenly, and for no apparent reason, become a lifelong passion.”
Here’s the last illustration. I was having breakfast with a friend recently, and he told me about his son who almost dropped out of high school. He finished, but for several years he worked a minimum-wage job. Then he got married to a good woman, and this woman, to use his phrase, “kicked him in the behind.” He applied to design school because she kicked him in the behind, and he finished design school. Today he designs visuals for companies all over the world.
Now, if you would ask me, “What happened? What happened in all those instances, including yours?” I’d say, “I don’t know what happened. God just brought something into our lives. It was time something changed, and things changed.” What was once boring can suddenly, and for no apparent reason, become a lifelong passion. It happened to me. It might happen to you. Don’t be a fatalist. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. You might be surprised.