The Agonizing Art of Unlearning

“Repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self -will that we have been training ourselves into. It means killing part of yourself, under-going a kind of death.”  ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Life is all about learning.

But not everything we learn is good, true or helpful.

Through the years we pick up an assortment of biases, prejudices and false beliefs. Along the way we collect troublesome patterns, habits and coping devices.

As time goes by, if we fail to question, wrestle with or adapt to all we have been taught and believe, any negative thoughts/attitudes/behaviors will likely become even more entrenched within our psyche.

Thus the age-old expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Without unlearning and relearning, we become stuck in our ways, unaware of how we (and others) are negatively impacted.

Sometimes we become limited in our perspectives because we choose to gather our information from narrow, restrictive sources. If we choose to obtain our information from what some might describe as an “echo chamber,” we probably won’t develop the necessary skills of critical thinking and deductive reasoning. In some cases, our preferred tribe may actually discourage any comparative thinking or thoughtful reflection, instead asking (or demanding) us to simply accept the pre-approved mandates and statutes without question or dissent.

But, to be a follower of Jesus means we must always put willing to place ourselves in the position of unlearning in order to relearn.

Unlearning is the challenging process through which we break down the origins of our unhelpful thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

Sometimes we have to unlearn the ways of our former life; the life we lived before Christ took up residence in our lives. Before becoming a Christian, it’s not uncommon for people to have off-course ideas about love, mixed-up thoughts about power, and erroneous attitudes about sin.

Several times in scripture, Paul wrote to believers about “putting off” the ways of the old life and embracing new perspectives and practices that better reflect the teaching of the Bible and an active, abiding relationship with Jesus. In a nutshell, we are called to unlearn the bad and relearn the good.

Imagine what it was like to be one of those people who heard Jesus preach his well-known “Sermon on the Mount.” In fairly short order, Jesus expressed a list new ideas that challenged the status quo! Jesus’ sermon wasn’t designed to be appreciated or enjoyed. He wasn’t looking for applause. No, Jesus’ sermon cut right to the bone when it came to ungodly perspectives and sinful practices. Jesus’ message demanded unlearning in order that the values for living in His kingdom might take root in hearts and minds.

I find one of the most difficult areas to unlearn is in the area of religious training. Unbiblical instruction can run rampant within our churches and from our pulpits. But because such training comes from a place of (supposed) spiritual authority, we may feel compelled to digest the wayward doctrine. After awhile, we may even take what we have learned and move it into the category of orthodox and beyond challenge.

How hard it is to come to a place to realize what we have been taught may not have any biblical standing!

On one occasion, Jesus taught some lessons to a religious Pharisee named Nicodemus that unraveled a lot of what he had been taught before. Here’s how the conversation played out according to John 3:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “Truly I tell you, we speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 1:1-12 CSB)

Nicodemus entered the conversation thinking he was at least a religious peer to Jesus. (My hunch is he thought he was a little higher up the ecclesiastical ladder.) Nicodemus was confident in his education, experience and religious pedigree. But within a matter of sentences, Nicodemus realized he was being schooled by the wisdom and insight of Jesus. The result? Nicodemus had to be willing to set down some of his presuppositions in order to take in the teaching of Jesus. Thankfully, Nicodemus chose to unlearn in order to become a disciple of Jesus.

Unlearning isn’t deconstruction for the sake of deconstruction. It is thoughtfully reflecting on the teachings found in our Bibles and gladly adapting our lives to become more conformed to the precepts of scripture. Unlearning is enrolling ourselves in the school of spiritual transformation. It is a humble approach to how we live our lives. It’s the concession that, at times, our thinking may be foolish or ignorant. It’s a modest willingness to admit we sometimes believe things that aren’t true.

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