We all need to be lifelong learners.  As David Mathis reminds us in a recent Desiring God blog post,

Teaching and learning are at the very heart of our faith. To be a “disciple” means to be a “learner.” … 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.

Questions persist

The first step toward being a lifelong learner is to admit that despite our experience and education, there is still so much that we still do not understand about life and ministry.   We don’t know it all. We haven’t figured it all out.  In fact, some of the most important questions are still mysteries to us. Recently, the book of Job brought home this truth to me.

In the midst of his suffering, Job asks many questions about life and the human condition.   Here is a sampling:

  • Job 7:20–21 — If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who sees everything we do? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”
  • Job 13:24 — Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?
  • Job 21:7 — Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?

Despite his own deep contemplation and the long-winded speeches of his friends, Job finds no answers to these questions. The answers his friends give him do not satisfy. No one seems to have any real wisdom to share with him.

In the middle of this confusion and in the middle of the book, we find a poem about wisdom by Job. In the poem, he describes the ingenuity and persistence of man in finding precious minerals.   But human beings cannot find wisdom.   Despite their best efforts, and no matter how much energy and wealth they are willing to expend to get it, true wisdom eludes them.  Only God knows where to find wisdom, and until God speaks, we remain in the dark.

Where then does wisdom come from? Where does understanding dwell?  It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds in the sky.  Destruction and Death say, Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.  God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells.   (Job 28:20–23)

The fear of the Lord

In this context, it is at first somewhat surprising to read the conclusion of the poem:  And he said to the human race, “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”  (Job 28:28).

Job fears God, as the book makes abundantly clear (Job 1:1, 8).  So then why does Job not know the answers to his own questions?

How is wisdom related to the fear of the Lord?  I believe the fear of the Lord is at its heart an expression of our humanity.  Wisdom is recognizing that we are human and expressing our dependency on and submission to the One who knows all things. Job admits that he does not understand what God is doing but firmly believes that God is sovereign.    His friends, on the other hand, unabashedly claim that they know why Job is suffering (Job sinned) and what God is doing (God is punishing Job).  In his admission of his own helplessness and confusion, and yet firm conviction that God is in control and will ultimately do what is right, Job is wiser than his friends. In some ways, life is incomprehensible.   Good people suffer.   People who felt clearly called into cross-cultural service contract cancer or get involved in automobile accidents that at least temporarily prevent them from doing what they believed God was calling them to do. Job seems to be saying that it is foolish to claim to be able to explain all the mysteries of life. For us, the first step toward true wisdom is accepting that we are human and we don’t understand everything.

So humility, not study, is the first step toward wisdom.   If we think that lifelong learning is just all about studying, we fall into the trap of believing that we can figure it out – that we can conquer the problems if we just think hard enough.  But Job tells us that the first step has to be humbly accepting that unless God shows us what is true, we are not going to figure out the really important stuff in life.

Once we have humbly admitted our ignorance, then we study – and we need to study and learn for the rest of our lives.   But no matter how many degrees you have after your name, or how well developed your Individual Growth Plan is, a person is only wise if they recognize that they don’t know everything, that they can’t figure out everything that God does or predict what God is going to do.

Obedience, one step at a time

But Job also says “to shun evil is understanding.”  What we do understand about God’s will, we need to do. We don’t need to figure it out; we just need to trust God, fear Him, and do what we know to be right.

God asks us to walk by faith, not by sight. That is really hard for those of us who like to plan, who like to figure things out.  We don’t start building until we have a blueprint.  We don’t start a trip until we have looked it up on Google maps.  We want to know what awaits us. We want to know what the traffic will be like, and how long it is going to take.

Generally in the journey that God maps out for us, we don’t get a detailed roadmap. We don’t get a blueprint for each floor of the life that He is building for us. God just asks us to step forward in faith, accepting that we don’t yet know all the details.   We learn as we go.

In our Member Orientation Program, we ask each group to put together a puzzle that is spread out on the back table.   But we don’t give them a picture of the finished product and the edge pieces of the puzzle have all been removed.   It is a great learning experience that illustrates that as we move into a cross-cultural environment, generally we don’t know all the dimensions of the culture we are engaging.   We step out and begin exploring, figuring it out as we go.  Much of what God has charted out for us in life and ministry is like that.

Welcome to lifelong learning – in the fear of the Lord!