I used to believe that the best way to learn was by acquiring more information. It seemed like a waste of time to try to figure something out for myself if someone had already written about it, and getting more knowledge seemed like a good way to avoid making needless mistakes.
But now I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong. I still believe that fact-finding has it’s place. I’m just not convinced it’s on top.
Because there’s a deeper level of learning, and it comes through experience. Experience moves you from merely “renting” truths to actually owning them. Once you’ve experienced a truth, it’s no longer someone else’s property – it’s yours.
It’s the difference between knowing a movie is great because you’ve read the reviews, and knowing a movie is great because you’ve sat in the theater for two hours. If you’ve done the former, you can converse about it intelligently with others, but you can’t laugh with them about that scene, or feel moved when you think about the struggles of that character.
The truth is that experience changes us in ways which mere facts do not. When we experience God, he goes from being a belief system to becoming an actual person. When we experience love, it goes from being an ideal to an actual reality. You don’t need to experience something for it to be true, but you may need to experience something for it to become more fully true to you.
This also applies to our mistakes. I’m not saying you need to go murder someone, get drunk, or gamble your life away in order to know that such behavior is wrong. But many of the greatest life lessons and most profound character transformations tend to come through our experiences of failure, not our study of success.
We can get this idea that learning the “hard way” (that is, through experience) is learning the dumb way. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s the best, and really, the only way to learn.
We are flesh and blood, after all. Mistakes go with the territory. When you look at the all-stars of the Bible, many of them had some pretty big mess-ups, and those who didn’t certainly weren’t perfect. Yet God still used them to change the world, and he wants to do the same through us.
Our mistakes are not without consequence, but they don’t disqualify us from discipleship. Instead, they can bring us back to the origin point of grace and lead us into greater gratitude and dependence on the one who called us to follow in the first place.
In his goodness, God works redemptively in and through the experience of failure to form us more fully in his image; helping us arrive on the other side more fully aligned with his will.
Again, I’m not advocated deliberate sin or saying head knowledge is unimportant. I’m simply stating what most of us already know but can easily forget: sometimes, experience really is the best teacher.