Back in High School, I was a competitive swimmer. No, I never broke any records, but was good enough to be on the team and consistent enough that the coach put me in relays and things like that. And so, during those years, I swam seemingly endless laps across the surface of the water of the swimming pool — so much so that often, when I got home from a late practice or meet, that I would fall asleep and dream about swimming more laps.
In college, though, I was introduced to something different by a friend of mine’s father who was a scuba instructor. One evening, while I was at the pool swimming laps, he took me to the side, strapped a tank on my back and taught me how to breathe through the regulator and let me loose. I had been certified with a snorkel and a mask before, so the principle was pretty easy, bu the contrast was profound.
Slowly, I descended to the bottom of the swimming pool in the area used for diving. I saw the other swimmers on the surface making laps and heard some of the commotion, but being 9 feet below them, underwater, it was strangely quiet and peaceful; I found myself largely sitting there, peacefully reflecting on life — contrasting the frantic pace of the busy “surface-swimmers” with the slower, more deliberate movements in the stillness of the deep.
It strikes me that life is reflected in that contrast. How often it is that we are so busy with the frantic pace of life that we are like those people swimming on the surface, completing lap after lap, exhausting themselves with labor, but never going any deeper than a few inches from the surface and how few people, take the time to slowly find the peace that comes with going deep into the waters of life.
It doesn’t matter what your calling in life happens to be, it is worth going deep and the satisfaction you will find in the deep waters will compensate for the “lack of laps” you complete on the surface.
1. While knowledge can be gained at the surface, wisdom is found in the depths. Education in the modern western world is largely about swimming laps. Like it or not, you almost cannot help it. Now, understand, my point is not to “bash the system,” though I do think the system has some serious flaws. My wife and I are both products of the system and she spent the majority of her teaching career in that system. And though I spent the majority of my teaching career in a private Christian school, it is still modeled on the same system (just with a Christian curriculum), so I lived it as well. This was the system that shaped both my college and my seminary education as well. There is so much to cover in a limited period of time — swimming laps is the only way to accomplish this.
Yet, if one is deliberate, one can make the time (at least occasionally) to go deep. For me, that meant guarding my Sundays from school responsibilities so that I could rest and read some things that were not required-reading (and read them at my own pace, meditating on them as I went). In college, I discovered this in debates that took place in the student lounge and in studying philosophy — not so much in the philosophy classroom as what took place when the philosophy professor opened his home so some of us could come and talk about ideas — where we were gathered out of a love for learning and ideas, which, after all, is what “philosophy” is all about anyway… And wisdom is not just knowing things, it is applying those things you know in life.
2. Going Deep takes time and patience. There is no doubt about that reality, the deeper you go, the more time you will spend going down rather than swimming laps. And so, there is a trade-off. If you work on an assembly line, the chances are, this won’t be valued. Sadly, at the Christian School where I served, this was only partly valued — in principle it was commended, but in practical application, we were kept so busy that we did not have time to do so. Even more sadly, this is often not appreciated in the church where all too often, people do not value the need for a pastor, for church leadership, and for others of influence in the church to think, reflect on what is being done, and to contemplate things deeply. All too often, if the pastor or those leading are not present for every church activity, people wonder what is wrong.
3. Not everyone likes going deep. Here’s the thing, when you are swimming laps, progress is easy to measure…lap one, lap two, lap three, etc… Going deep leaves things in a more undefined state. You don’t count laps when you are contemplating from the bottom of the pool. Yes, you can measure depth, but much of that is only done with respect to those who are swimming over top of you on the surface, but the reason you are swimming deep is not to count laps but to contemplate for a season. Scholars, scientists, and others who have mastered their field understand this — there comes a point where they focus more on growing in their understanding than on completing tasks. Tasks, of course, are still completed, but often for different reasons than the surface-swimmers are turning out laps. On the surface, tasks are completed to achieve goals, purposes, and ends which often are meant to enable more lap-swimming. In the deep, tasks are completed because the moment of epiphany is sought out. There is a difference and that difference makes people uncomfortable.
4. You occasionally need to surface. Here’s the thing; the oxygen tank only has so much air in it. Eventually you have to surface if only to gain a new tank. And, like with scuba diving in deeper contexts than a swimming pool, the ascent must be taken slowly as to not harm yourself (I have never had “the bends” or “decompression sickness,” but the way it has been described to me sounds like it can’t be any fun). Also, from the depths of the waters, things on the surface can become distorted if you stay down so long. This, I would argue, is why so many professors are so out of touch with reality — they live in the deep and rarely come up for air.
Working on an advanced degree is teaching me a lot about this. Every article that I read points me to another article or to a book that I need to read and the cycle seems endless. It is an enjoyable cycle for those who like being in the deep, but I have also been counseled that there comes a point when one is “deep enough” that one needs to come to the surface and start writing that dissertation. Otherwise it will never get written.
5. Like your vegetables, going deep is good for your soul even if you prefer swimming laps. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen what was better (Luke 10:42). That does not mean that the things Martha was doing were unimportant. It also did not mean that Mary was unwilling to help her sister after the teaching time was done. It simply meant that at the time and in that situation, Mary chose to go deep, listening to Jesus’ words and allowing the housework to wait. Laps would be swum later; it was good for her to go deep. If you are a Christian, the same wisdom applies, when it comes to Jesus, you need to go deep if you are going to grow wise. Again, this does not diminish the value of the Martha’s in the church (we need them), but even Martha needed to stop her laps and swim deeply on occasion.
As I sit here this morning struggling to wrap my head around the recent school shootings that have taken place, it has me thinking about the violence of our society. True, when students and teachers lose their lives in what is supposed to be a place of learning, not a place of fear, it shakes you up — it has to. Yet, school shootings are not the only thing that is robbing our nation’s families of their future generations. Drugs and drug overdoses have become widespread and are plaguing our communities. Then we can talk about gangs and the crime associated with that, we can talk about how the innocence of so many young people is being robbed through rape and exploitation, and bullying has become an epidemic.
As a Christian, the simple answer, of course, is sin. Mankind is fallen, we have inherited it from our forefathers all of the way back to Adam, and the only solution is the completed work of Jesus Christ. No amount of legislation or government regulation will change this reality or will make our land less violent. Violence goes along with sin and always has — it goes back to Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel.
Yet, I don’t want to stop there because it seems to me that violence, in particularly violence performed by and against our youth, is on the rise. One might say that the rise in violence is simply the end result of there being more people in our country and in our communities, but I think that is too simplistic an answer because while we cannot change human nature, the actions we take and the principles we teach do affect the culture in which we live. And therein lies much of the problem.
While there are probably more contributors (feel free to share your thoughts here), I want to focus on two. The first of these things is that for more than a generation, young men and women have been taught that they evolved from lower life-forms. This is very obviously not consistent with a Christian world-view, but how does this promote violence? The answer is that in an evolutionary model, the main goal of a species is self-preservation and the right to breed. The phrases that most commonly gets used is “the survival of the fittest” or “the strong survive.” If one applies this mindset to humans, the one of central importance becomes the self and everyone around you exists to serve your needs. The moment they cease to benefit you, they get thrown to the side. Virtues like self-sacrifice, mercy, kindness, and chivalry are simply not a part of the “Law of the Jungle,” and thus vanishing from the worldviews of those taught in this way. I have said before, if you teach children that they are nothing more than evolved animals, do not be surprised when they behave like animals.
The second of these matters is that for more than a generation, people have been taught that they are basically good and it is society that corrupts. If this were the case, then why bother teaching moral law? If deep-down, people are good, then they are capable of following their own moral compass. And so, the teaching of absolute morality (like the Ten Commandments) has been replaced by the teaching of situational ethics. Everything is treated as relative (except for the laws of the State…funny how that works).
The problem is that deep down, we are not good, we are sinful. In fact, Question 5 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks whether we can keep the Law of God perfectly. The answer is surprising to most students: “No. By nature, I tend to hate God and my neighbor.” Most of the time people don’t think of themselves as hating God or their neighbor, but what is unprovoked violence if it is not an expression of hatred? And, is not hatred the opposite of love? Jesus said that if we love him, we will be obedient to his commands (John 14:15). Do we obey the commands of God consistently or even conscientiously? Usually not.
What is the solution? The only real and lasting solution is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, apart from the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, we can also change the way we teach. We can teach children that they are made in the image of God and thus have a moral obligation to imitate him and live out his law. We can teach them that deep down they are sinners in need of grace as well as that they are in need of showing grace to others. We can teach them that their moral compass is not within themselves, but is found within the revealed word of God. No, you do not create Christian children by teaching them the Law (that is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit), but you do create more of a moral community by doing so. And that is a community in which both believer and non-believer will thrive…and it is a community in which violence is greatly reduced.
The thing that grieves me the most is that if we do not change the way we live and function as a society, things will get worse and not better.
(the following is excerpted from my essay, “Teaching Image Bearers, not just Warm Bodies,” which is part of the compilation: Docens Coram Deo: Teaching Before the Face of God. This book is written as a festschrift in honor of Bob Grete and Harold Thomas, the founders of Rocky Bayou Christian School, on the school’s 35th anniversary. Copies can be acquired at the above link; I served as the editor of this Festschrift.)
As mentioned before, the naturalistic model sees the human mind as nothing more than a super-computer, capable of processing and retaining a vast array of data which is then manipulated by genetic programming in such a way as to output a result that we commonly describe as thought. Thus, in principle, educating a human is akin to programming a computer. Yet, if humans are altogether different than a computer, what must our approach to education be?
The beginning of the answer to that question is found in the very meaning of the word, “educate.” The English word derives from the Latin verb, educere, which literally means, “to lead out. Thus, the purpose of education is not so much that of putting in, but bringing out. Now one might argue that children are not born with an innate knowledge of history, mathematics, or even of the Bible and thus, “putting in” is an important part of education. And indeed, that is where instruction comes in—instruction coming from the Latin verb, instruere, which literally means, “to pile in.” Yet notice the relationship of these two terms. Instruction is not the end goal—education is. In other words, you instruct towards the end of educating a student—you pile in mathematics, history, science, and Bible not so that a student will be full of ideas (many of which a student may never use again in life), but you instruct so that something will be brought out in them. What needs to be brought out? It is the image of God that they bear which needs to be brought out.
In the fall, the righteous image of God in man has become warped, distorted, mangled, and bent, but not lost (Genesis 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9). We are born in the state of sin (Psalm 51:5), by nature we do not seek righteousness (Romans 3:10-11), we are at enmity with God (James 4:4), our hearts are corrupt (Mark 7:21), we commit sin through both action and inaction, and we sin with our intentions (Matthew 5:21-48) as well as with our activities. In addition, when we break a portion of the Law, we are guilty of breaking it as a whole (James 2:10). There is nothing good in us by nature (Romans 7:18)—we have been corrupted by sin in every aspect of our being. Of course, education is not a substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit in redemption and sanctification, yet it is a tool by which the Holy Spirit can and does use, both in the process of growth in grace and to enable parents to fulfill their God-given mandate to raise up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4; Deuteronomy 4:9; Proverbs 22:6).
Thus, if our teaching reflects only the idea of giving students information, we are not fulfilling our calling. When little Billy asks, “Why do we need to study literature?”, it is not enough to tell him that he needs the knowledge of literature so that he will be able to communicate ideas with others in this world, nor is it enough to tell him that God has called him to take dominion of the world, and that means taking dominion of the literary culture as well as the geography. These statements both may be true, but they are yet insufficient. We must also be telling little Billy that he is made in the image of God and that God loves language and that God loves expressing himself through every form of language; thus, if he is to reflect that image of God faithfully, he needs to nurture within himself that same kind of love for language and the study of literature is designed to help nurture that love and appreciation for the expression of ideas through language. I have applied this to literature, but the same argument can and should be applied to every discipline of study. There is a reason that we expose students to a broad array of academic studies rather than allowing them to concentrate their studies in a particular area of interest, and it is not to make students more “well-rounded,” but it is because God’s character is reflected in each of these disciplines and to reflect the Imago Dei, each of these disciplines must be applied to our character. Thus, if we are to educate and not program, and if education is a tool used by the Holy Spirit in sanctification to bring out the Imago Dei, we must instruct in every academic discipline.
Some initial thoughts as to some Biblical principles that ought to shape the way Christian schools and Christian teachers order their classrooms. These thoughts are not meant as exhaustive, but instead are meant to be a Biblical foundation upon which a philosophy of Christian education can be built.
1. The interaction with students, from instruction to discipline, must be built on the principle that students bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and though that image was twisted and deformed as a result of the fall through the entrance of sin and death (Romans 5:12), the image of God was not lost in the fall (Genesis 9:6). Thus, a large part of the role of Christian education is that of “straightening” the fallen person—helping to restore the person in such a way that they accurately reflect the image of God. As Christ is the perfect reflection of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), it is into the image modeled for us by Christ that we seek to direct the transformation of our students. The life and well-being of the child is seen by scripture in a special way (Psalm 127:3; Matthew 19:14; Mark 9:42). How we handle sin in the classroom as well as education in the classroom must be seen in this context, and teachers are to understand that they are to be held to a higher standard than others (James 3:1).
2. Education is a divinely ordained responsibility of parents, but particularly that of the Father as the covenant head of the household (Ephesians 6:4; Genesis 18:19; Deuteronomy 4:10; 6:7, 20-21; 11:19; 32:46; Psalm 78:5; 2 Timothy 1:5). It is also noted in scripture that the Levitical priests were to come alongside of the parents for the purpose of educating their children (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 33:10; Judges 13:8; 1 Samuel 12:23; Ezekiel 44:23; 2 Chronicles 15:3) as part of the larger covenantal community of believers (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Matthew 2:6; Romans 9:25; 2 Corinthians 6:16). There are also occasions where others within the covenant community who had particular gifts and skills were gifted to teach (Exodus 35:34). While it is recognized that God’s people can learn things from non-believers (1 Kings 5:6; Acts 7:22), the Bible presents teaching as an activity to be undertaken by the covenant community. Though the Levitical Priesthood has fallen away and been replaced by Christ (Hebrews 7), all believers are now priests (1 Peter 2:9; Isaiah 66:20-21) and thus responsible to fulfill the Levitical functions which are not a part of the sacrificial system as that role has been fulfilled by Christ alone (Hebrews 10:10-14). Hence, Christian parents must not only seek to oversee the education of their children, but they also have a Biblical mandate that the education of their children is done by Christians, and not by non-believers. In turn, teachers must be mindful that they are serving as proxies for the student’s parents, not as replacements and are to instruct in such a fashion as to honor the parents for whom they are acting.
3. The teacher must understand that the Biblical end of education is to equip the students to obedience to God’s commands so that their days may be long in the land (Deuteronomy 5:33; 11:9). Hence, children are also commanded to honor their parents (which implies an honoring of their instruction) so that their days may be long in the land (Exodus 20:12). The Biblical idiom of “living long” does not so much refer to long physical life in the land as it refers to the life and essential health of the covenantal community of the faithful in the land which God had given them. This language, though, is later applied to the church (Ephesians 6:3) under the auspices of living faithfully in the world. To accomplish this, teaching is to include the law for righteous living (Exodus 24:12; 2 Kings 17:27) and also instruction in more mundane areas (2 Samuel 1:8; Exodus 35:25; Isaiah 28:23-29). In addition, scripture mandates the teaching of the history of God’s acts (Exodus 12:14; 2 Samuel 1:18; Psalm 66:5). Thus, teaching that is scriptural (and hence mandated to be done within the community of faith) is teaching that covers every discipline of life and is designed so that the believer may walk in reverence and obedience to the commands of God (Deuteronomy 14:22; Micah 4:2; 1 Peter 1:16). The implication of this marks Christian teaching as being something distinct from secular (the Greek model) education. For the heathen, religion and faith have no bearing on one’s thinking, philosophy, or ordinary life; for the Christian, knowledge of God lived out in faith is everything—there is no aspect of life that religion is not meant to touch and inform. Hence, the Christian classroom needs to reflect that principle.
4. Discipline is a God-given tool by which education is furthered (Hebrews 12:5-11; Psalm 50:16-23; Proverbs 12:1; 13:24; Revelation 3:19). It is designed to keep children from vicious teachings and error, to suppress feelings of bitterness of students who have been wronged, to punish wrongdoing, and to show the repulsive nature of sin and the pains that are associated with it. Said discipline should be non-preferential and balanced to suit the infraction. Discipline also should not be designed to break, humiliate, or discourage the child from a pursuit of a God-honoring life. It should be firm, but delivered with a spirit of kindness and not vengeance or anger. Ultimately discipline should build up not only the student being disciplined, but the entire class as well. Finally, once discipline is administered, the student is to be considered as justified as to the law of the classroom and should be reinstated to the covenantal community of the class in question without lingering reminders of said sin.
A few final thoughts about the childhood education that Jesus would have received:
- Synagogue schools were funded by the parents of the children attending. The education of poor students was funded by donations given in the temple or at Sabbath worship.
- Teachers were salaried by the synagogue and were not allowed to accept money from wealthy families lest favoritism be given.
- Teachers were forbidden from losing their patience with students for not understanding concepts, but were expected to be able to make them plain to all.
- Kindness was encouraged and schools used the strap in discipline, not the rod.
- Parents were prohibited from sending their children to schools in other communities for the purpose of eliminating rivalries and to maintain the educational level of the town.
- Leviticus was the first book taught to children (particularly Leviticus 1-8).
- Other passages of scripture that were found in Children’s primers were: the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41); the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 113-118); and The Creation and Flood narratives (Genesis 1-11).
- To the Jew, the study of scripture was of greater importance than any other study they could pursue. The culture considered it profane to even learn a trade apart from a study of the scriptures. The study of trades did not replace scriptural study, but flowed out of scriptural study.
Part of a Traditional Jewish Morning Prayer:
“These are the things of which man eats the fruit of the world, but their possession continues for the next world: to honor the father and mother, pious works, peacemaking between man and man, and the study of the law, which is equivalent to them all.”