Living and Learning

Proverbs 4:7: [7] The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. (ESV)

Why can’t we live and learn?

“Live and learn” is good advice in the proper context. If someone said it to you recently, it means you or someone else failed at something or made a mistake. “Live and learn” means that you should not repeat past mistakes if you can help them. Instead, we try to improve on what we have done before and do better.

For example, if you have a habit of forgetting to finish your assignments and turn them in on time, it is a good idea to learn to keep a calendar and a list of your projects so that you don’t forget. As you live you make mistakes, so you learn from them.

In this sense, there is nothing wrong with the advice to live and learn. It is a piece of advice closely connected in principle to Seneca's famous phrase, "To err is human, but to persist is diabolical." We recognize that we all make mistakes, and rather than crying over spilled milk, it is more useful to learn how to not spill it in the future.

So why do we have to learn to live? Why can’t we live and learn?  You may think you’re smart enough to figure this life out as you go. Or maybe you think you’re too dumb to have a chance.  Neither is correct.

Learning and Living

The Bible says something different. It is a fundamental assumption of the Bible that you need to learn to live. The Proverb above tells us that rather than looking back and doing better, we need to look ahead and prepare.

The huge problem with “live and learn” is the assumption that you are ok -that if you keep going as you are you will be just fine, or you’ll figure it out. Or you could figure it out if you try hard. After all, almost everyone else seems to be doing the same thing. And it’s easier to be like everyone else than to go against the flow.

This proverb is the opposite of the advice to live and learn. It is saying that wisdom is something you get as soon as possible. Wisdom is that goal for which we strive, not something we are content to pick up along the way. We need wisdom to pick our way forward. Without wisdom, how can we know where to go?

This is why wisdom is the first thing we need to get. We cannot rely on the wisdom that comes from experience because too much of our experience is unrepeatable and essential. We only have one life. We have one childhood, one youth, and one adulthood, and not all of us can count even on having these. Childhood is unrepeatable. So is our youth. And so is our adulthood. There are no do-overs.

Not only this, but wisdom recognizes that we live under the watchful eyes of a perfectly just Judge who also happens to be our Creator. He does not expect us to figure it out as we go along. He calls us to figure out the most important things before we ever come to them.

Just consider how ridiculous it would be to "try out" various religions, worshipping various gods in various ways, perhaps potentially landing on some form of orthodox Christianity. Is that wisdom? No. Wisdom is hearing that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life -that no one can come to the Father except through him, and believing it (John 14:6).

The Reality of Judgment

Just consider a passage like Hebrews 9:27:

“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (ESV)

You and I only get one chance to live this life. There are no do-overs. You live this life and then you are judged for it.

Ok, so we’re judged. What’s the big deal? All we have to do is live well and everything will be ok. When the judgment comes, I’ll at least come out better than some. If I am in, say, the 80th percentile range, isn’t that enough?

No. And the reason that’s not enough is that biblical wisdom tells you that you are not judged relative to other people, but you are judged relative to God. And God is perfect, pure, holy, and good. Compare that to what the Bible tells us about ourselves:

Psalm 14:2-3: [2] The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. [3] They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.

Judged relative to God, we are not tracking to end this life as winners. We need to learn to live before it’s too late.

So why do we need to learn to live? Because we’re born not living for God. We are born with the wrong ideas, living in the wrong direction, and unable to change by our power.

But there is hope. And that hope is that we can learn to live. Thanks to God, we are not left hopeless and helpless. We can learn to live by learning from the Author of Life, God Himself.

It is said that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. If we are going to learn to live for God through Christ, then we must recognize the fact that we currently don’t know how. And that will set us up to ask the questions we need to ask to find the answers we so desperately require. It all begins by flipping the phrase from “live and learn” to “learn to live”.

The proverb above gets this. The beginning of wisdom is not to "get out there" and start living so you can learn as you go. Many people seem to think of life as one big practice time for the real thing. And so they are content to let children be children, then teenagers be teenagers, then twenty-somethings be twenty-somethings. Many people don't seem to think it's important to focus on living well until life is nearly halfway done.

The Necessity of the Gospel

But what you discover as you seek to learn to live is that, well, you can't. We are by nature ungodly, unrighteous, selfish, proud, idolaters, unbelievers, rebellious, covetous, and unholy. These are not incidental characteristics like the clothing you happen to be wearing. These are characteristics of our nature. And we can't change our nature. We can't learn to live without first dealing with the fact that it's not learning that we need first, but transformation. In order to live, we need to be made alive (Eph. 2:4-5). Our problem is not first a lack of knowledge but a lack of ability.

The fact is that apart from Christ we could never measure up. We cannot escape God's judgment on our own power and abilities. Apart from Christ, there is no amount of learning and living that would be enough to make us anything other than worthy of condemnation. Learning does nothing to absolve us of sin. It is an inescapable fact that we need forgiveness for our sins (Luke 24:46-47). We cannot learn our way to peace with God. That comes exclusively by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-9).

These crucial realities are the kinds of things we come to understand when we go to Scripture to get wisdom and obtain insight. We learn that we cannot depend on living and learning because, apart from Christ, we are not living at all. And that is insight worth having.

Why We Can't Live and Learn