Rev. Jonathan Mahtani, pastor of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan
The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself. The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness: and the end of his talk is mischievous madness. A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him? The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city. Ecclesiastes 10:12-15
As the warm summer season quickly ends and the first semester of school has begun, the Christian school teacher can already hear his sighing students ask, “Why should I learn this if it will never help me in life?” The question may take a different form or be etched conspicuously on the bored face of a young person. Nonetheless, it can be the discouragement of a teacher. Therefore, in love for both our teachers and students, I respond to this foolish question. Contrary to popular opinion, there is such a thing as a foolish question.
The question is more of a challenge than an honest inquiry. It is at heart an accusation: “My teacher is forcing me to learn useless material that will never help me in life.” A foolish question with a foolish charge. Yet, I answer it because it presents an opportunity to instruct the youth, “lest he be wise in his own conceit” (Prov. 26:5b). I have seven answers with seven key words, each beginning with the letter “p.” In my first three answers, I will point out why this is a poor question. In my last four answers, I will patiently respond to the question itself.
Why should I learn this if it will never help me in life? First, I answer the question with a question: Are you a prophet? When did you get the ability to predict the future? Did you have a dream last night in which it was revealed to you that what you would learn today would be unnecessary tomorrow? Perhaps you have a crystal ball at home, in which you can see everything you will need to know for the future. Wise Solomon explains that a fool is someone who speaks as though he knows the future. “A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?” (Eccl. 10:14). Why should I learn this if it will never help me in life? The question is a foolish one because it includes the false premise that the student has the prophetic gift of foresight.
Second, the questioner has forgotten God’s providence. God’s providence is God’s absolute control of all things for our good. God promises to His covenant son or daughter that every lesson taught, every test taken, every fact memorized, He works for our good. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Why should I learn this if it will never help me in life? The question includes a lie, “…it will never help me in life.” Contrary to that, God promises that all we learn must work for our good.
Third, at the heart of the question is pride. It is haughty to speak as though you can predict the future. It is conceited to insist that you know better than your teachers (and parents) regarding what you need to learn. It is irreverent arrogance to contradict God’s promise that all things work for your good. You really do not know better than everyone else. Beloved student, when this foolish question arises in your heart, repent of your pride before the cross of Jesus Christ. Trust His gracious forgiveness, and humbly submit to the God who says regarding what you are learning, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9). Why should I learn this if it will never help me in my life? This is a question of foolish pride.
The first three answers point out that this truly is a foolish question. Below are four more answers that patiently respond to the question itself.
Fourth, you should learn these things because it is God’s precept. God commands in the fifth commandment, which Colossians 3:20 phrases this way, “Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.” Why memorize this date in history? Why understand this grammatical point and its exceptions? Why learn to solve this complex equation? Because God says, “Obey your parents.” And they have required of you to come to this school and learn from these teachers. To be lazy, to refuse, to murmur, would simply be disobedience to God’s command.
The simple fact that God commands us to learn exposes another false premise in the foolish question. Implied is that the only reason to learn the material is if it will help me in life (or if I know how it will help me). The first reason for learning this material does not actually have anything to do with whether or not it will help you in life! The main reason is thankful obedience to God’s precepts. Even if the student cannot see how something is useful, his mind should be on Jesus Christ and His glorious work of salvation for us. Out of gratitude, obey His precept and learn the material that He requires you to learn.
Fifth, you must increase in perseverance. Perseverance or endurance is the ability to press on even when the going gets tough. It is the strength to keep trying even when it is difficult. It is the stamina to move forward even if it is unenjoyable. The Christian school is not only a training ground for your brain but also for your soul, that you might be “strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness” (Col. 1:11).
Young people, life is not easy. Only God knows the future trials you will face, the difficult job you may have, the sickness you will bear, further controversy in the church, and persecution in the world. Perseverance is a critical virtue that God is increasing within you as He leads you through the rigors of Christian education.
Sixth, you are part of a community. Oh, young student! Listen to the selfishness of that question: Why should I have to learn this if it will never help me in my life? Have you thought about how the material learned in your class might be useful to someone else even if you yourself do not ever use it? Maybe you are thinking, “When I grow up, I am not going to have a job that has anything to do with grammar.” Have you thought about how a fellow student might have a job that has everything to do with grammar? Have you thought about how someday you might be sitting down with your own children to help them with their schoolwork? Have you thought about how your knowledge of these concepts may indeed benefit others as you serve on a committee in the church or at school? “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:4). Christian education is not just about you. You are part of a covenant community in which you join and aid others in their mental, spiritual, and social development.
Seventh, the aim of all you learn is the praise of God in all His works. The goal of Christian education is summed up in Psalm 145:4: “One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.” In every subject, children in our Christian schools are not merely learning ‘stuff.’ The young student has the privilege of learning God’s wondrous works—from a Reformed perspective, no less! Such truth is not merely for brain development but for the purpose of awe and praise toward God. Why learn anything? Young person, the goal is not that you might receive praise, get a good grade, and get a good job. Rather, it is so that one generation may praise God’s works to another.
Why should I learn this if it will never help me in life? This is a poor question because you are not a prophet who can predict the future, you are forgetting God’s providence, and it comes from a proud heart. Positively, the answer to this question is so that you walk in obedience to God’s precept, so that you might grow in perseverance, because you are part of a community, and for the praise of God in all His works. May God give both students and teachers wisdom to respond rightly to foolish questions such as this.