“Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered; And being made perfect, He became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him.” (Heb. 5:7-9)
Learning is usually thought of as a kind of getting. We often think an education takes place when a teacher meets in a room with students and a transfer of information ensues: the teacher gives; the students receive information. There are a number of difficulties with this picture, but the primary one is that we must somehow fit the eternal Son of the Father into this scenario. And I’m not sure we can. The Son did not learn in such a way. He was not absent some bit of information that suffering could enlighten Him about.
Our problems with discussing how God learns are tangled up, I believe, in our misconceived notions about what it means to learn. It is the common assumption of modern educators that their magnum opus in the world is something like giving someone a load of firewood to carry inside. “Here’s math, here’s science, here’s history, don’t forget spelling, be careful, don’t drop it.” And the good students dutifully carry their load to the house, and the bad students let the load tumble from their arms leaving a trail of wood behind them. The point being, that we usually think of learning primarily in terms of getting or receiving (or loading, as the case may be). I want to suggest that such a model is antithetical to the pattern we are given in the Scriptures. This sets up the world of education with an incredibly selfish center. Success or failure is measured by what I got instead of what I gave.
By contrast, when we look to Jesus as the example of a perfect student, we see a man whose primary mission is one of giving. Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned by His passion. He offered Himself up to God in prayers and tears and intense sufferings. Our Lord did not come to receive anything from the world. At the most basic level, He didn’t need anything. Rather, God became man in order to give. “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45) Christ’s sufferings were His education. He learned as He gave Himself away. This is not to say that in learning we receive nothing. The Son learned obedience and was given the whole world as His inheritance. Students do receive but only as they give themselves away for others.
As an aside, in Hebrew, verbs change nuance based on what paradigm they are in. The piel paradigm is often used to increase intensity. Thus with the verb ‘kill’ in the qal becomes ‘slaughter’ in the piel. Interestingly, the verb ‘learn’ in the qal becomes ‘teach’ in the piel. Thus, the Greatest Teacher is not merely giving information, he too is in the middle of an intense learning experience. So too with all who would aspire to such greatness. Learning is much more akin to a dance. A successful classroom is one where a harmonious giving and receiving takes place. And in such a harmony we reflect the triune nature of God.
Central to any Christian philosophy of education must be the concern that students are first and foremost givers. Great learners are those people that give themselves away. “And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” (Mk. 10:44) I believe this starting point calls for much reevaluation of ‘traditional’ educational programs. Testing, grading, teaching, and the overall classroom aroma of most modern education must be reformatted with the purpose of giving and serving others front and center.