I turned 40 a few months ago and have started experiencing some of the things associated with growing older that I have heard about for most of my life. For example, I have noticed that my physical health is something that I have to stay on top of. If I don’t actively work at getting in better shape, I go backward quickly. I can’t rely on all the miles I ran in my early 30’s. I have to be working now.
In the same way, we often shift into neutral when it comes to learning as we get older. We know what we need to know to get through our day and don’t bother ourselves with knowing anything else. This is an unhelpful practice for us in general because it means that we are not cultivating the life of the mind that helps us to grow as citizens, neighbors, spouses, parents, and friends. When it comes to our spiritual lives, this kind of apathy towards continuing to learn the Scriptures shifts our walk with the Lord in neutral, or worse, When we are not being transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will be conformed to the course of this fallen world.
If you have found yourself putting the breaks on your intellectual growth, here are some practices that you need to reintroduce into your life.
Fan the Flames of Your Curiosity
Simply put, most of us don’t know what we don’t know. By that, I mean that we don’t take enough time to reflect on where we have gaps in our knowledge and experience. When we aren’t aware of the gaps in our own knowledge, we overestimate how much we know about a subject and start saying things that aren’t true or that we cannot back up.
I’ll get into some of these issues later, but we need to put down our phones, go outside for a walk, talk to a flesh and blood person, or read a book. It’s in these times of living real life that we discover things we need to keep learning. Then, instead of thinking what you didn’t know about is unimportant, start learning. Ask questions, read books, research, or find the people that you know who are in the know.
Read Your Bible Every Day
For Christians, lifelong learning begins with a commitment to continue reading Scripture faithfully. One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is a never-ending fountain of truth. Because it is so vast and so deep, there are always old truths that I need to relearn and new stones that I need to turn as I read.
The best way to keep learning the Bible is to make sure that we are reading it every day. Just as no one would eat one meal a week and expect to function for the next seven days, a Christian cannot keep growing if we only have limited exposure to God’s word. Daily Bible reading shapes our lives by pouring the truth into our hearts little by little. We may not feel how it is changing and teaching us each day, but the growth shows itself over the course of months and years.
To read the Bible faithfully, you need to have a plan for reading. This does not have to be a plan printed out on paper to read the Bible through in a year. You can read the same book each day for a month or read through a particular section in the Bible until you know it really well. You can alternate reading longer sections and shorter sections. The plan is not the point, but staying hungry for the word is.
Read Good Books
In addition to the Bible, we must keep reading good books to feed our minds and hearts. The best reading advice I have heard for reading comes from Albert Mohler. He argues that we should read across different disciplines. He uses the headings of theology, biblical studies, literature, history, cultural studies, and church life. You can add, subtract, or change out headings however you need to, but make sure that you keep reading.
Reading encourages us to encounter ideas with which we may agree, learn something new, and to more deeply understand the things that we already know to be true. Reading helps us to break through our soundbite culture and to think deeply about one issue for an extended period of time. Reading forces us to slow down, seek to understand, and reflect on what we are reading. This process challenges our minds and helps us to grow in ways that we don’t from scrolling through our Twitter feeds.
In particular, I think that reading good literature sharpens our sword as lifelong learners in this culture. So much of what we take in now is visual that it is good to sit back with a good book and use our imaginations to picture what is taking place. We don’t use this part of our brain as often as we used to, so reading good novels and short stories help us to exercise those muscles.
Listen Patiently to Ideas You Disagree With
Everything about our current culture encourages us to reflexively agree with the people who seem to be on our team and reject the ideas of the people who are on the other team without even hearing what they are saying. Let’s take the debate around CBMW’s Nashville Statement, which they released Tuesday. I have only read one response that did not seem predictable to me. With that one exception, every response came from the person’s already determined position on the issue.
We have stopped listening to each other and simply shout at each other. No one grows, no one learns, and no one changes. Instead of reflexively wanting to argue with someone when they espouse a position you disagree with, take some time and try to understand why they think what they do. Ask questions about their position and how they came to their conclusions. This does not mean that you have to agree with where they stand, but seek to understand it so that you can better articulate the issue and have greater compassion for those with whom you disagree.
Minimize Your Time on Social Media
I realize that this may sound reactionary, but I’m convinced that social media does very little to enhance our quality of life and much to destroy it. For example, there’s a heated conversation going on about the Nashville Statement taking place on Twitter today. The Nashville Statement is a nuanced document with fourteen articles about marriage, gender, and sexuality. How on earth can we have a clear and compelling discussion about this document 140 characters at a time? In addition, you spend less time thinking about what you are going to say on social media or how it will affect the person to whom you say it. You are also facing a minuscule chance of adding light or understanding in a discussion on Twitter. I cannot think of one time I have ever seen someone on Twitter say, “I’ve never thought about it that way before. I was wrong and need to study this more deeply.”
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport shows how social media destroys our attention span, rewires our brains, and minimizes our capacity for deep thinking. He argues that we should kill our social media use completely. I won’t go that far, but we most definitely need to cut back the amount of time that we spend on it. (Two other books have come out recently showing the detrimental effects of constant connectivity. Irresistible by Adam Alter looks at the rise of addictive technologies and how they are reshaping our world. Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You chronicles the effects we are seeing in our personal and spiritual lives from being constantly glued to our smartphones.)
Try this exercise the next time that you have a short wait for something– say in the line at the grocery store or the DMV– do not pull out your phone. Look at your surroundings. Talk to the people around you. Think about something for five minutes or completely give your mind a rest. You may meet someone you have never met, think of a new problem to be solved, or come to a conclusion on something you have been thinking about for months.
Be Willing to Ask Questions about Unfamiliar Subjects
Let’s best honest, we have all nodded our heads in agreement with someone who was talking and we had no clue what they were talking about. Sometimes we just want them to stop talking, but other times we don’t want to appear ignorant. Instead of asking questions and learning, we simply nod while our eyes glaze over.
What if someone was talking to us about an unfamiliar subject and we started asking them questions instead of acting like we knew what they were saying? “Can you explain what you mean by that?” “How did you get interested in this?” “I’ve got to confess that I don’t know much about this, could you give me a little more background on it?”
Asking questions in a conversation accomplishes two purposes. First, we get the opportunity to humble ourselves and learn about something new. Also, we establish trust with the other person. They see that we are genuinely interested in what they are saying and feel freer to talk because they have been asked to share further.
Keep a Commonplace Book
I once heard John Piper say that he owed every helpful insight he had ever had to thirty volumes of journals he had written over the years. Piper describes here what many have called a “commonplace book.” This is simply a journal for copying quotes or writing out ideas.
We take in so much information now that there is little chance of processing it all, so we need to have a mechanism like this for taking a moment to stop and think. When you write out a good quote that you have read, you engage other parts of your mind in remembering it. When you run across a difficult question, a commonplace book provides a place where you can think through the issue and write out possible solutions.
Reading with a pen in your hand and an open notebook encourages active reading. It forces you to think that you are reading to learn and interact. It also gives us a chance to look back at what we wrote 5, 10, or 15 years ago to see how our thinking has changed. One thing I also like about old journals is that I get to see how much I enjoyed the thrill of discovery and it starts to whet my appetite to experience it again.
This list is not exhaustive by any means. What practices have you committed to so that you can keep learning?
“4 Bible Reading Strategies for Reading Plan Quitters“
For Further Reading:
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
The Curious Christian by Barnabas Piper