To Learn Is to Suffer

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You know that kid in your school who would ask for extra homework, remind the teacher you were supposed to have a test that day, and spent free time reading and studying? That was me. As a type-A, perfectionist and a bookworm who has always loved learning, I have always prided myself in knowing at least a little about a whole lot of things. I have always had a large vocabulary, and my mom likes to remind me of a time when I was talking with another child my age who looked at me with wide eyes and said, “I have no idea idea what you’re talking about.”

I have also always dealt with insecurity. As a nerdy introvert, I often kept to myself at school. I was always afraid that people wouldn’t like me. But the one thing I always thought I had going for me was my grades. Getting a good grade on a paper made me feel validated. I derived a large portion of my feelings of self-worth and self-confidence from my academic success. This unhealthy focus on academic achievement also had consequences. A lower grade on a paper made me feel worthless. When my freshman composition professor berated my writing, I felt like a loser. When my clarinet performance instructor told me that I would never be able to do as well as the other clarinet students, I felt like a failure.

The truth is, a person’s self-worth has to come from somewhere other than from succeeding at certain things. It has to come from a place of inherent worth. It has to come from the understanding that even if you failed at everything you tried, you are still worth it as a human being. As Christians, we would say that no matter what we still belong to God, and we are created in God’s image.

But, beyond this, there is another reason not to hang our hats on our academic abilities, our propensity to challenge others with our amazing vocabularies, that desire to outwit those who think differently from us.

My first year of seminary, I came across this quote while reading a book by Luke Timothy Johnson: “Learning demands suffering because it is painful to open the mind and the heart to new truth.” [1] When we learn something, we are unlearning something else. When we learn something, we realize that we may have had it wrong in the past. Learning means opening yourself up to change, and although change can be a wonderful thing, change also accompanies loss.

When I first read this quote, I thought of how new learning can shatter old habits, and I thought about how painful that can be. But, in the years since I first read that quote, I have discovered another kind of suffering that accompanies learning.

The more we learn, the greater the responsibility we have. Or as James puts it, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes” (James 3:1-2a, NRSV). In other words, teachers have to be careful because sometimes you will get it wrong. And when you get it wrong as a teacher, you may lead a whole lot of people down the wrong path with you. Being educated isn’t a cause for a celebration; it is a cause for prayer. Having a lot of degrees and the ability to throw around big words and concepts isn’t a benchmark of success; it should bring us to our knees in prayer.

Thomas a Kempis summed this up well when he wrote, “Do not boast about the  learning and skills that are yours; rather, be cautious since you do possess such knowledge.” [2] Learning can be exciting. It can open us up to new truths. It can connect us to authors, theologians, and scholars through history. And, it can help us love God with our minds. But, it can also make us feel higher, separated from, and over other people who do not have the same level of education. It can lead us to worship the mind rather than the One who created it. Though it can be tempting for me to rely on my own knowledge, I echo this sentiment, “I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” [2]

Some of the most educated and intelligent theologians and preachers throughout history wrote their sermons at an 8th grade level (or even lower) as far as vocabulary. They knew that if they could not communicate the truths of the Gospel to the everyday person sitting in the pew, they had failed. They could’ve railed on and on using large words and loaded concepts, but they knew that the message of Jesus was one of embodiment and incarnation. The Word became flesh for us so that we could understand and experience God’s goodness. The transcendent splendor of God has to be balanced with the radical nearness of God. Without God’s nearness and realness, there is no good news for the world.

For the scholar and lifelong learner, the temptation to hang our hopes on our learning will be a lifelong struggle. As Oscar Wilde so neatly described it:

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able  to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or lute! Was there anything so real as words?” [3]

Let’s keep on loving God with our minds, but at the end of the day “I prefer to abandon all I know, choosing rather to love him who I cannot know.” [4]

——————–

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus

[2] Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

[3] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

[4] The Cloud of Unknowing

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