You can learn so many interesting things from dead people. For instance, in September 2016, The New York Times ran an obituary titled “Joseph B. Keller, Mathematician With Whimsical Curiosity, Dies at 93.” Dr. Keller, a distinguished math professor at NYU and Stanford, studied how shock waves spread from atomic explosions, what makes a jogger’s ponytail swing from side to side rather than bob up and down (Fig. 1), why teapots dribble (Fig. 2), and how earthworms (but not snakes) wriggle on glass—among other fascinating topics.
Personally, I’m not that interested in joggers’ ponytails or dribbling teapots, but I was intrigued by the obit’s portrayal of Keller’s “whimsical” and even “restless” curiosity. Keller was what modern educators would call a “lifelong learner,” a perpetual student and quester of more knowledge. At least in this sense, he serves as a model for every Christian. After all, there’s a reason why followers of Jesus are called disciples. Disciple simply means “a learner.” Following Jesus is the ultimate learning adventure, a quest that should provide us with endless curiosity and spiritual growth throughout this life and all eternity.
Of course, there is something unique about the Christian’s quest. It centers on a relationship with the personal and living God. As church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote, “The goal of human life is not to know something about God, but to know God and be known by God, to delight in the face of God.” As the Bible warns, mere learning or knowledge for its own sake “puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1 NKJV). In contrast, an encounter with Jesus Christ leads to a growing and life-giving love for God and others (Matt. 22:35-40).
The Delight That Leads to More Delight
As Christ-focused lifelong learners, we can first and foremost make new discoveries about the character and mystery of God. During my first pastorate, in a tiny town of 460 people in northern Minnesota, I once dropped in to visit 82-year-old retired dairy farmer Howard Ballou. Asleep in his favorite chair, Ballou had the Bible, open to Leviticus chapter 17, on his lap. When he awoke, I asked about his Bible reading habits. Ballou chuckled and said, “Yeah, you betcha I know the story. I’ve read it straight through more times than I can count. But I keep reading it because every time I find something new and exciting about God.”
Apparently the 6th-century Christian thinker Gregory the Great knew about a Ballou-like God-driven curiosity. When we meet God, Gregory said, we never “cease yearning for more.” And it gets better. He also noted, “Every delight in God becomes kindling for a still more ardent desire.”
Over the past year I had a simple experience of this unceasing “yearning for more.” I was reading a short, accessible book titled Delighting in the Trinity, by Michael Reeves. For me, the Trinity had been a theoretical concept on par with my car’s engine block. Certainly, I believe it exists and is important, but it’s also clunky, complicated, and unrelated to my daily life. Yet while I read the book, the mystery and aliveness of the Trinity snuck up on me and pierced my heart. In Reeves’ words, “The triune God is the love behind all love, the life behind all life, the music behind all music, the beauty behind all beauty, and the joy behind all joy. In other words, the triune God is a God we can heartily enjoy.” At one point I put the book down, cupped my head in my hands and told God, “Even after trusting Jesus over 40 years ago, I am just beginning to know You.”
It was a sober and humbling moment. I felt like a beginner—a spiritual baby, even. But then another thought hit me: I also have the rest of my life and all of eternity to learn more about this God of love behind all love and joy behind all joy. No wonder the apostle Paul could proclaim his driving passion—“that I may know Him”—and his humble confession—“not that I have already obtained it … but I press on”—in a single breath (Phil. 3:10, Phil. 3:12). That should be a model prayer for every Christian.
The Glory of Beetles and Hummingbirds
Lifelong learners also emulate Solomon, who not only prayed for a discerning heart but also studied “plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls” as well as “animals and birds, reptiles and fish” (1 Kings 4:33 NIV). Like Solomon, we can begin an unending quest to know more about God through creation.
Consider this, for instance: Our planet is home to almost 10 million living species. There are 30,000 species of orchids (Fig. 3), over 60 species of eagles, and approximately 350,000 kinds of beetles—a fact that inspired scientist J. B. S. Haldane to dryly note that God must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
Or learn from tiny hummingbirds. Their little wings beat about 60 times per second as they hover, dart backward, or even fly upside down. These miniature God-marvels can dive at 385 body lengths per second—which beats the space shuttle’s impressive dive of 207 body lengths per second. Watching hummingbirds led Sy Montgomery, a naturalist, to declare that each is an “infinite mystery” that gives us a “connection to something great and mysterious” (like God, maybe?).
Moving from tiny to vast, astrophysics claims that dark energy and dark matter, the stuff in the universe that we can’t quite pin down, compose about 96 percent of the universe. What this means is that only 4 percent of the universe is visible, while the remaining 96 percent is hidden from us. Thus everything we call “scientific knowledge” is really based on a trifle of what there is to know. And yet the Bible says that “by [Christ] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16). The 4 percent we can see and the 96 percent beyond our understanding—all of it belongs to Jesus Christ.
As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins observed, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” And despite our efforts to deface and degrade God’s good creation, we can still learn about His “power and divine nature … through what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). I would imagine I still have over 9 million more species to explore, not to mention forests, stars, mountain ranges, oceans, and the beetles and sugar maples in my backyard—all of which declare something about the glory of God.
Lessons From the True Image Bearers
When it comes to lifelong learning, it’s appropriate to start with the God revealed in Scripture and in His own creation, but let’s not skip over the summit of His creative genius—a human being made in His image.
Each person before you this day or the next day—your spouse, your best friend, that strange guy at church with tears in his eyes who practically bowls you over to get out the door, the woman who cuts your deli meat behind the glass counter, the Muslim refugee family who just arrived from Somalia, the friend who harbors hostility against what she calls our “sky daddy” Christian God—each one is fearfully and wonderfully made. And because they are unique image bearers of the living God, every person you meet will have something to teach you about creativity and goodness, but also sin, brokenness, and our longing for (or perhaps thwarting of) God’s grace in Jesus.
This thought hit me as my friend George shared his journey to Christ. We were sitting with a few other men in a dingy church basement, listening to George’s sordid descent into sin and its wreckage. After countless escapades in immorality, he hit bottom. His life unraveled, he lost his job, his family disowned him, and now his wife was leaving him. But then like the Prodigal Son, George finally had a “come to his senses” moment. As a newcomer in the Father’s house, George had good news to tell. With hands shaking, he unrolled a scrap of paper and asked if he could teach us a “new poem.” “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read,” George said. “I just discovered it. It goes like this: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’” As tears of joy streamed down his face, I realized that the familiar story of God’s grace had become stale and dull to me. It was no longer new and “amazing.” On that day, baby Christian George became my mentor in the theology of grace.
And so it is for any follower of Jesus. If we stay open and humble and expectant, almost any ragged image bearer of the living God can be our teacher and professor in the lifelong learning classroom.
The Child or the Fool
It really comes down to this: Will I approach life as a fool or a child? Biblically, the fool does not have low intelligence; he has just stopped learning. You can’t really teach him anything, because he’s convinced that at some point in the distant past, he graduated from growing in Jesus, he completed the course, and he’s got his spiritual Ph.D. to prove it. He might need a refresher class—nah, actually, he’s moved past that as well.
The child knows better. Scholars debate exactly what Jesus meant when He said we should become like little children (Matt. 18:2-3), but there’s one thing we all know about children: They aren’t grownups. They are becoming grownups but aren’t there yet—and they know it. Every day, life is an exciting learning lab. Like the apostle Paul, the child keeps saying, “Not that I have already obtained it … but I press on” (Phil. 3:12). And similar to the psalmist’s description of the righteous, children are like palm trees planted in the house of the Lord, that keep flourishing even into old age, bearing fruit as they stay fresh and green and open and teachable.
I’m intrigued by the psalmist’s constant-growth approach to life because I will turn 60 in a few years—not exactly “old age” but getting there. So I’m starting to wonder about this question: How will my children and grandchildren describe me when they write my obituary? Although they won’t mention studies about ponytails and teapots, I hope that, like Dr. Keller’s, my obit will allude to something about my whimsical, restless, or lifelong curiosity—not just about random ideas, but about the marvels of God and people made in His image. “You know,” I hope they’ll say, “In one sense he was like a kid: He just never stopped learning.”
Ten Ways to Keep Learning With Christ
1. Study one subject that you know nothing about—the history of denim, the short stories of Anton Chekov, professional paintball, monarch butterflies, the Soviet Gulags.
2. There are over 10,000 distinct people groups in the world and 195 countries. Study one of them. See what God is doing to reach one of them.
3. Listen to people talk about their profession. What do they do? What do they like about it?
4. Listen to people talk about their hobby. What do they do? What do they like about it?
5. Get outside. Notice God’s good creation. Walk in it. Breathe it in. Study it. Be amazed.
6. If your kids are studying a particular subject, study it with them. That’s how I learned about the Underground Railroad, hip-hop music, metal manufacturing in Shanghai, and medical missions in Papua New Guinea.
7. Listen to people’s spiritual journeys—even if they don’t believe in Christ. What’s the story behind what they believe?
8. Read one good book on Christian theology or Christian history.
9. Study one book of the Bible.
10. To make all of this possible, set times to turn off your TV, computer, and cellphone.