It seems to me that we spend half our lives learning and the other unlearning. Not that it’s a sequential thing. Rather, at any one point, there’s stuff we’re learning and other (already learned) stuff that we’re unlearning.
Some of the stuff we learn is solid yet, along the way, it turns ugly. Perhaps it loses its saltiness, but some of our behaviours and ways of thinking turn rancid. It may be experiences and circumstances that re-frame some past learning for us, or perhaps it’s a lack of fresh water running through our souls but, sooner or later, we discover that we’re holding on to ways of thinking that need to be unpacked.
Jesus knew all about unlearning. He took a whole worldview and turned it upside down. Typically, His unlearning statements began with: You have heard it said.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth…But I tell you: do not resist an evil person…
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy…But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
We learn in so many ways: our families, our schools, our churches, our experiences, our economic realities, the people we know, the books we read, the movies we watch, the papers we read, the blogs we consume, the prayers we pray, the degrees we acquire…they’re all pathways to learning.
But unlearning is tricky. Discovering that the capital of Libya is Tripoli rather than Kabul is no biggie: I had misinformation, now I know better. Unpacking bad doctrine formed over many years: that’s probably going to take a little longer. Grace over legalism; that’s going to take a bit of unlearning. Growing up in a family that made you feel worthless and belittled you in front of your brothers and sisters: that’s a self-identity that’s going to take a lot of unlearning. And, depending on the nature of the unlearning, it may even feel like you’re selling yourself a lie to be thinking something different.
Our fears, misinformation and assumptions determine many of our actions. And, if we’re going to restore (or create) wholeness, they need to be dealt with.
Our spiritual growth is learning and unlearning too. Like any other kind of learning, we lay railway tracks in our minds — neural pathways fortressed by learned, then practiced behaviour. Unlearning isn’t simply pulling up old track, it’s laying new track as well. The exchange of a bigger story for our flawed one. With no new direction to travel, our minds will simply go back to where it came again—track or no track. The challenge is not just removing the bad thinking, but discovering correct thinking and laying the track that goes there.
Only an alternate, intentional track will be sufficient to supplant the well-worn, removed one. Even then, it’s tough. After all, wherever you’ve travelled with your dodgy thinking, you have to travel back again before you can start heading in the right direction. Sometimes that requires a skilled counsellor, mentor or spiritual director. In my experience, it invariably requires a team effort with the Holy Spirit.
William Blake said: The man who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind. Writing centuries earlier, the Apostle Paul said ‘daily transform yourselves by the renewing of your mind’. He knew that without daily transformation of our minds, stagnancy comes along. Luke-warmness comes along. Tepid thinking comes along. Self-destruction comes along. Cynicism and criticism comes along. After all, we’re only left to work with what we’re feeding ourselves from the inside and where we choose to lay our eyes.
Ultimately, it is our failure to unlearn irrational fears and misconceptions that keeps us from becoming who God wants us to be. In truth, we’ll never see ourselves as He sees us in this passage of eternity (ie. the part of eternity where we still see through a dim fog). I gain clarity though, when I drag my fears into the light and let him illuminate what was dark. God’s reality shining on mine is speed-unlearning. A lifetime of flawed thinking can be corrected in the light of his glory and grace. That too, is a lifetime’s work.
Making my path to His cross and His throne a well-worn one is the best track I can ever lay. As I walk that track, rusted track is obliterated. If it’s well-worn, it is still capable of re-appearing in my neglect of holy track, but by cultivating my holy track, the old self, the old track, doesn’t really stand a chance.
Thanks be to God!
Learning can take a moment. Unlearning can last a lifetime.
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.