I suspect that many of us grew up hearing, from an exasperated parent or teacher, “Just how many times do I have to tell you?” Always spoken with an air of impatience, the idea was that since we’ve heard something we should know it. They told us something, and so we should be different. I remember saying it to my own children and now regret it.
The reality of learning is that coming to know something, in the sense of being able to both state it and integrate it into our lives, is a process. It takes time. The more important the topic or issue the longer it may take. More is at stake, and more may have to be unlearned before we are ready to fully adopt the new knowledge. Even if the moment of hearing seems like an epiphany, a delightfully sudden revelation, it may still take time to work out the details, reflect on various implications, process the new information, and figure out how to translate what we now know into how we live.
John Newton, former slave ship captain and author of Amazing Grace, knew this truth well enough to exercise admirable patience as a pastor. “I have been thirty years forming my own views,” Newton wrote in his memoirs, “and, in the course of this time, some of my hills have sunk, and some of my valleys have risen: but, how unreasonable within me to expect all this should take place in another person; and that, in a year of two.”
I confess a lack of patience with slow learners. They’ve heard it, they should know it. Since the truth has been explained clearly to them, since their questions have been addressed, since it all makes so much sense, since they can not propose a viable alternative, what’s the problem?
The problem is my impatience.
Read the biblical Gospels again and notice how long it took the disciples to catch on to things. Jesus was a master teacher, but that didn’t ensure that when his disciples heard something from him they knew it. During his public ministry, for example, Jesus taught his disciples that personal defilement is not a matter of eating certain foods: “He declared,” Mark records, “all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Peter heard that, but didn’t learn it until years later, after his apostolic ministry had begun, and his learning required a vision from God (Acts 10: 1-48).
Hearing is not knowing. Moving from hearing to knowing is a process that takes time. A very simple fact that I often forget. If I love someone, my concern will be not simply to tell them what they need to learn, but to walk alongside them as they process it. Loving them enough to give them the gift of unhurried time. Being willing to find honest answers to honest questions. It’s taken me thirty years to learn this, and I’m glad to have this chance to pass it on to you.
I’ll check back in a month or so to see if you’ve gotten it.