Experience Is Not the Best Teacher | Tomorrow’s World — May/June 2024

Experience Is Not the Best Teacher

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Learning from our mistakes is painful—and not necessarily the way God wanted humanity to grow. Is there a way to build an ideal world that God had planned from the very beginning?

It is a common perspective that experience is the best teacher. And there is certainly value in experience. From the time we are born, the things that happen around us and to us establish our sense of reality. Experience becomes our teacher—and it’s a very powerful teacher. Along with our environment and our genetic makeup, our experiences form the lens through which we see our world. But if we can only learn from experience, we are destined to live a painful life.

We see this reflected in Scripture, as well. Joshua gathered the children of Israel to Shechem shortly before he died, and he reminded their leaders of what they had experienced as God brought them out of bondage in Egypt. He said, “I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. So they cried out to the Lord; and He put darkness between you and the Egyptians, brought the sea upon them, and covered them. And your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. Then you dwelt in the wilderness a long time” (Joshua 24:6–7).

The faithfulness of Joshua’s generation can be ascribed at least in part to what they saw and heard after departing from Egypt. They had seen God’s hand as He broke the pride of Egypt with plagues. They had walked dry-shod through the Red Sea as God dammed the waters to their right and left. And they had seen water spouting from a rock, as God sustained their thirst in a dry land. But their parents’ experience also included resistance to God’s instructions, rebellion against Him, and even rampant idolatry. The consequence of those experiences for their parents was death in the desert—never setting foot in the land that God had wanted to give them.

What was God’s desire for the Israelites? Did He want them to reap the bitter fruit of their experiences? Here’s what He expressed to Moses: “Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever” (Deuteronomy 5:29).

Did God intend for them to learn through making every possible mistake? Not at all. He continued, “Therefore you shall be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left” (v. 32).

Back to the Beginning

God gave the first man, Adam, the ability to learn from His experiences. But God also expected Adam to learn from instruction. “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:15–17).

Human beings can also learn from the experience of disobeying God’s instruction, as we see when Satan tempted and deceived Eve, saying, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5). And what was her experience, at first? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6).

According to their experience, the fruit was good—even though God had commanded them not to eat it. According to their experience thus far, God was not to be trusted. Yet, when the full weight of their decision was revealed, Adam and Eve clearly learned that God’s instructions were accurate.

So, is experience the best teacher? No. Should experience be part of how we and our children learn? Yes—we should learn from what we experience, and from what others experience. But what is also vitally important is how we receive instruction. As the book of Proverbs begins, we read the following:

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion—a wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel, to understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:1–7).

In the Bible, we read a consistent theme: Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding come through instruction. And the foundation of accurate knowledge is a fear of God and a deference to His revelation. If we are wise, we will view the things we experience through the framework of God’s instructions.

Instruction Plus Experience

How does this apply to our mandate to teach and train our children?

After God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, He commanded them to memorialize the events they had just witnessed and experienced. And He paired their experience with instructions—in this case, instructions they were supposed to pass to their children. He said, “And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt.’ It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8–9).

The children of Israel were taught the meaning of what they and their ancestors had experienced. This is a pattern that we should follow. Parents, take the time to talk with your children about what they have experienced each day. Highlight the good things and explain why the bad things are bad. In addition, giving our children instruction ahead of time helps them avoid painful experiences that can scar them for life.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we read that God commanded the Israelites to teach their children about His ways:

For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day? Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren (Deuteronomy 4:7–9).

From the days of Adam, mankind has insisted on learning through trial and error, through experience apart from God’s instruction. But you and I should learn that we need more than just experience. We need God’s instructions to live a successful life. And we can work with our children in the same way, adding godly instruction to what they experience.

Experience is not the best teacher. But when reinforced by God’s word, it can be a very effective one.


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