The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.”
This is the principle behind much, if not all, of what we learn to do. We make attempts at what we wish to do, and learn from the mistakes we make. We try to put ourselves in learning situations in which the results of our mistakes will be minimized, such as when a new driver learns to drive by actually driving in an empty parking lot. But, what we wish to do we practice, for “practice makes perfect.” If it at first, we don’t succeed, we try, try, again. That is how we learn to do.
This principle actually operates upon and relies upon human imperfection, which makes some sense, because “everyone makes mistakes.” But notice, our faults and failings are given permission, even power, to bring about learning, as successive errors lead to gradual increases in knowledge and ability.
The “learn by doing” principle does produce results. It’s how some long-time bachelors who live alone become pretty good cooks. It’s how some folks who were not planning to become parents actually get pretty good at it. It’s how all of the plumbing fixtures in my house have been installed by the owner– three or four times each.
For those who want to do things that are pleasing to God, a completely opposite principle must operate. There has to be something else. If we try to learn how to please God by “trial and error” or “learning from our mistakes,” errors and mistakes are just going to to result in a tragic multiplication of failure. Mistakes and failures in efforts to please God are simply called “sin.” The result of the “learn by doing” approach to holiness is not a gradual increase in our knowledge or ability to please Him, but an inexorable increase in sin and a greater accumulation of His wrath.
God replaced the human principle of “learn by doing” when He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world.
First, by perfectly doing everything that was required for a God-pleasing life, Jesus initiated the new principle by making no mistakes from which He had to learn.
Then, by dying on the cross for the faults, failings, and sins of us imperfect humans who err and fail to please God, Jesus took the wrath for human imperfection and failing upon Himself, giving sin and human imperfection no more power.
Finally, He fully implemented the new principle by which sinful and mistake-prone believers in Him might come to do what is pleasing to God as He did.
What is that new principle? It is that by knowing Him, we might learn to please God not by a series of errors and corrections, but by God Himself filling us with the wisdom and understanding required to please Him.
In Colossians 1:9-10, the Apostle Paul elaborates the new principle at work in those who know Jesus and are operating under the new principle:
And so, from the day we heard [of your faith], we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (ESV)
Paul says that he is praying to God, asking Him to fill his readers, as believers in Jesus Christ, with the knowledge of His will.
He knows that the knowledge of God’s will is not something that is “learned by doing,” but is instead imparted and implanted by the work of God. This knowledge is not partial or incremental. It does not come in gradual trial and error, as human wisdom and knowledge come. Rather, Paul says that they come from a filling by God.
Paul says that the wisdom and understanding needed is “spiritual,” which makes them different from other learning.
He knows that such spiritual wisdom and understanding come only when the God teaches (see John 6:45), and when the Holy Spirit fills those who trust Christ, guiding them into the truth (see John 16:13).
Paul says that such wisdom and knowledge will enable those who are filled to “walk in a manner worthy of of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him.”
He knows that spiritual wisdom and understanding produce practical ability and actual “walking.” They cause “doing.” What is more, they do not produce mistakes or errors, but produce deeds and actions that are “fully pleasing to Him,” just as the deeds and actions of Jesus were.
Paul says that such wisdom and knowledge will cause us to produce “fruit in every good work.”
He knows that every kind or sort of good action or behavior that might be done will be done as a result of this spiritual wisdom and understanding. Whether the “good work” is expressing genuine faith, exhibiting selfless love, resisting temptation to sin, helping the needy, encouraging the weak, or some other good work we might consider, that act is the fruit of this wisdom and knowledge. Only this wisdom and knowledge can produce such actions or “works.”
Paul says that such wisdom and knowledge will multiply and will increase.
He knows that the wisdom and knowledge of God grow, by the continual increased filling of the Holy Spirit of God. There is no need for stagnation. The wisdom and knowledge that start as a small seed will grow, expand, develop and mature.
Learning holiness is not like learning to drive. The ability to please God is not something we can learn by trial and error. In holiness, practicing over and over what we are able to do on our own will not make us perfect. We cannot teach ourselves how to please God.
In holiness, we must desire and pray for the filling of God that alone will give us spiritual wisdom and knowledge. Then, and only then can we hope to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him.”
We will not be completely filled in one second. Paul says that the knowledge of God will increase, which means it is not instantaneously complete. But, we must not lose sight of the truth that God and God alone is the source of the knowledge of God needed to please Him.
To be holy, we must learn from God. Only then, and only by that kind of learning, we can do those things pleasing to God. We cannot “learn by doing,” but must “do by (first) learning” …from God.