Most Christians either desire—or at least delude themselves into thinking they desire—to pursue an ever-growing knowledge and understanding of spiritual things in general and God’s word in particular. In order to do that, however, we need to understand how spiritual truth is perceived and learned and how this process differs from perceiving and learning earthly realities.
There are three basic ways of learning: empirical, rational and spiritual. The first two relate primarily to gaining knowledge and understanding of things related to life here on planet earth; however, they are employed also as a part of the third.
Let’s define and examine empirical learning. It is the gaining of knowledge through the use of our five senses. Empirical learning is a very real and legitimate way of acquiring knowledge, but it is also very limited.
The classic example of empirical learning is the child who touches the hot stove. He immediately learns the stove is hot and that touching it hurts, but that is all he learns. He still doesn’t know much about stoves. He doesn’t know that there are times when it’s hot and times when it’s not, nor does he understand how to turn it on and off, much less how to build one. The knowledge gained is real and important, but it’s very incomplete.
The empirical means of learning is a valid avenue to an area of truth, but in order to make that truth cogent, we must employ another method.
Rational learning is coming to knowledge of truth by employing the analytical and reasoning processes of the mind. This brings us into deeper and more useful understanding than does empirical learning.
Continuing with our example of the stove, as the child grows older, he can apply his mental processes to learn more about it. He learns that it’s only hot when someone has turned it on. He also learns to turn the dials or press the buttons to turn it on, to raise or lower the level of the heat and maybe how to cook on it.
Starting off with the empirical knowledge he gained from touching the stove when it was hot, this child has now, by adding analysis and reasoning, come to a pretty good understanding of what the stove is for and how to use it without hurting himself. It is by application of this rational learning that men and women have emerged from the cave and come to live twenty-first century lives—driving cars, building computers, using cell phones and iPads and all the other things we take for granted in today’s world.
The third way of learning involves moral and spiritual values and a person’s relationship with God. We can use the first two in the growth of our spiritual knowledge, but they are not in themselves enough.
Most Christians can think back to some specific experience or chain of experiences (empirical learning) which brought us to the foot of the throne ready to accept Jesus as our Savior. Those experiences were a very real and important part of the process of beginning to develop our spiritual lives, but they will not lead us to grow much in our relationships with God.
We use our rational processes to read the Bible and listen to teaching and preaching as part of the process of expanding and deepening our spiritual knowledge. We relate to other Christians and share our testimony and/or understanding of truth with them. All of these things help in our spiritual growth, but they are not enough.
We’ve all had the experience of talking to a fellow Christian when we came to realize that he or she was only interested in supporting his or her own preconceived beliefs, rather than honestly searching for new truth. In fact, I’d dare say most of us have been that person at one time or another. When we do that, we cannot grow in spiritual understanding, because our own narrow mind cuts off any new truth that may try to seep in.
The spiritual method of learning demands a willingness to be transformed by the truths learned. I must be willing to give up my beliefs and my understanding when necessary, in order for God to be able to show me new and deeper meaning. And as I progress in my spiritual life, this willingness becomes a soul-deep desire to be changed. Allowing myself to be changed by God’s revelation of true meaning must become so important to me that proving the rightness of my own positions becomes of no value to me at all.
The salvation experience itself shows the absolute necessity of giving up what we think is of most importance and allowing God to impose His values and His truth. When we were lost we could read the Bible ten hours a day. We could attend church every time the doors open. We could have our bodies immersed in water every week. But we’d still be lost.
It was only when we came to the end of ourselves and submited ourselves to Jesus that we were saved. If we must give up our own value system, our own beliefs, our reliance upon ourselves in order to be saved, how can we not be willing to give up our need to be right all the time in order for God to lead us in spiritual growth?
Ø Have you had the experience of trying to talk to someone only to realize that person was just waiting for the chance to state or defend his beliefs? What do you think either of you learned from the experience?
Ø When you listen to a sermon or a Sunday School lesson or other Bible teaching, do you honestly and humbly submit yourself to God and ask Him to wipe away any preconceived notions that may keep you from learning? How does that affect your learning?