When you are young, you think that becoming an adult is going to be a series of learning how to do important things, and getting better and better at doing those things. You probably realise it’s not all going to be fun and games, and you may also have some idea about finally learning how to have some discipline, and getting serious about life and making yourself do the things you know you’re supposed to do. This is how I imagined adulthood when I was young.
I wasn’t wrong. But what I didn’t anticipate was the next step: Where you have to unlearn it. There are so many examples. When I first got married, I was a complete and entire slob. I never put one single thing away, and then suddenly I was in charge of a household, and soon I was home with a baby while my husband worked, so if I didn’t put something away, it didn’t get put away. This quickly got out of control, so I had some fast catching up to do. Clean up, everything, every day. Put things away, sweep the floor, do the dishes, sort the mail, fold your laundry. Do it, or it doesn’t get done.
Ah, but I had a baby, and then before long, I had two babies. I had just barely gotten the message about how important it was to clean up, when I had to learn something new: Sometimes, there is something more important than cleaning. Sometimes you have to ignore the mess, and focus on the baby. Sometimes you have to let it go so you can sit and rest. Cleaning is important, and you do have to do it, but it’s not always going to be on the top of the list every time, and you have to learn how to be okay with that. You have to know it’s important to do and also be okay with not doing it right now. A tall order!
Something similar happened when my kids got old enough for school. We lived in a town with no good schools, so homeschooling was the best choice—and that meant I had to get my act together. Make a plan, gather materials, do the work, get the kids to do their work, follow through, follow up, stick to a schedule, and so on, every day. This went against my grain, and I really struggled with every part of it, but each year I got a little bit better at committing to what was required of me to get those kids a decent education.
And then things changed, and our situation changed, and our family changed, and it became apparent that homeschooling no longer made sense for us. So I had to take all that commitment, and all that discipline, and all that fervor, and all that attention, and… let it go. Just when I started to get good at it, I had to let someone else do it. Be just as convinced that my kids’ education was extremely important, but also understand that someone else might be better suited, right now, to be the front man for it all.
The strange thing is, I think the second part, the unlearning, couldn’t happen as well or as well if it didn’t come second. You can’t just not learn something; you have to learn it first, and then unlearn it. I’m picturing some kind of biological process where a plant puts out a stem which grows to a certain point and then hardens and dries at the end, which is what makes it strong enough to support the fruit that eventually grows. The second part is the point, but you can’t really do without the first part; but the first part does have to come to die off.
These aren’t just personal anecdotes. They aren’t even just extremely common. They’re universal, by which I mean they are how God works in the universe.
Behold, if you will, the way God deals with the chosen people in the Old Testament. When we read Exodus, we may be taken aback, alarmed, even repulsed by some of the things God seems to allow or even encourage. Exodus is full of things we rightly don’t accept today: Slavery, the treatment of women and children as property, the conquering of innocent populations, and endless laws about seeming minutiae with outsized punishments for infractions.
Why is God okay with this? Why doesn’t God set them on a better, more enlightened path, and give them higher ideals? Why doesn’t He tell them that all slavery is wrong, that all races are equal in God’s eyes, that women have equal dignity with men, and you can’t just go around slaughtering people just because you want their land, and so on?
The answer is: Because first they have to learn the first thing, before they can learn the next. That is how people do it. What God commanded of the Israelites in the desert seems backward and barbaric to us today, but it was so much more restrained and enlightened and just than what they were used to, and what other, surrounding cultures at the time were accustomed to. It really was several steps up. It was a lot to ask. It was a whole new lesson, something they had to learn. It wasn’t the absolute best, but it was better.
This is how it goes. You really can’t just skip ahead. If you vault over the intermediary lessons, you won’t have the necessary internal substructure built up to support what comes next. It is true in individual lives, and it’s true for God’s chosen people over the course of millennia. That is how people are. All people.
It’s still happening, by the way. Please do not fall for the naive little vanity that we’ve reached some kind of summit of morality today in the 21st century. There are some things we grasp better than people did two thousand years ago, but there are things that we, as a people, take for granted now, that people in a thousand years will look at in horror and revulsion, and will wonder how we could possibly have gone around acting like that and still thinking of ourselves as Christian. They will, perhaps, wonder why God allowed us to stumble along in such a childish, impoverished understanding of what he wants from us.
And the answer will be, as it has always been: This is what people are like. We’re not leapers and bounders. We’re step-by-steppers, and God stays patiently with us, step by step. God works with who we are at the time. He teaches us the lesson we need right now, not the one we will eventually need to learn someday, long after we’ve thoroughly learned and then unlearned this one. If we want to follow God, we have to expect to be always learning, and always unlearning, because there is always going to be more to learn. In this world, it is a process that is often baffling and unpleasant. In the next, I believe it will be a pure joy.