Is Experience the Best Teacher?
“EXPERIENCE is the best teacher,” declares a popular slogan of the day. Because of their repetition and general acceptance, slogans such as this are often believed without being submitted to any careful scrutiny or examination. Everyone knows that experience is a teacher, and so the majority of persons allow that little but important word best to slide through unchallenged. However, it should not be allowed to pass, for it makes the slogan false.
Some have tried to argue for experience as a teacher by quoting Romans 5:3, 4: “We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope.” More accurate modern translation removes the word experience from this text, rendering it: “Let us exult while in tribulations, since we know that tribulation produces endurance; endurance, in turn, an approved condition; the approved condition, in turn, hope.”—NW.
Nor does Hebrews 5:8 establish experience as the best teacher when it says concerning Jesus: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” Jesus was never disobedient; he did not suffer to learn to change from disobedience to obedience. He started out his ministry in obedience under test, and his devotion to obedience was only strengthened by subsequent tests of integrity. This undefiled one never stooped to sinning to learn the sinfulness of sin.—Matt. 4:1-11; Heb. 7:26.
Hebrews 2:17, 18 has been quoted to argue that Jesus experienced fleshly weaknesses as a man in order that he might fully understand them and be merciful toward sinful men: “He was obliged to become like his ‘brothers’ in all respects, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, in order to offer propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the people. For in that he himself has suffered when being put to the test, he is able to come to the aid of those who are being put to the test.” (NW) However, the test Jesus was put to was not one concerning fleshly weaknesses due to inherited sin, for he was perfect in the flesh and sinless. His was not a battle against inherited sin within his body. The test he experienced and successfully met was the test of integrity, the trial of enduring in the flesh the assaults against his flesh brought upon him by Satan and his representatives for the purpose of turning him away from God. He appreciates the difficulties of the test, and can aid his followers in their similar trials. The very fact that he succeeded in the flesh is itself an encouraging example that aids his followers to meet the test.
However, it cannot be said that such a test must be experienced to be understood. If so, then Jesus would be wiser in this regard than Jehovah God, for God did not experience it. Yet God understands flesh-and-blood creatures better than they understand themselves: “Like the compassion of a father for his children is the compassion of Yahweh for them who revere him; for he knoweth how we are formed, he is mindful that dust we are.” (Ps. 103:13, 14, Ro) He understood this issue of integrity so well that at the very beginning of it when Satan raised the challenge Jehovah was able to infallibly say that some men would be able to pass the test. Not only Jehovah God, but also Christ understood man’s abilities in this regard, for had he not been used to make man from the dust? (Col. 1:16) Had he not observed how Job and others successfully passed the test of integrity? This wise spirit creature did not need to be taught by experience on this matter. But his becoming flesh and enduring the test himself is the foremost example of integrity toward God, and is a model for his followers.
WHERE EXPERIENCE FAILED TO TEACH GOOD
A divine rule is, “Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” (Matt. 23:12) But Satan had to find this out by experience, seeking to exalt his throne above the stars of God, only to end up in a humiliating fall. (Isa. 14:12-15) Apparently, he learned nothing by experiencing a fall from heaven after 1914, for since then he continues and even steps up his warfare against Jehovah’s theocratic organization, to his final doom.—Rev. 12:9, 13, 17; 20:1-3, 10.
After his initial rebellion, Satan by sly deception induced the first human pair to try to exalt themselves as gods, but the result they experienced was a fall into sin and death, and with them in their plunge into delinquency they took the entire human race. Yet none of the hard experiences they endured as a result of their disobedience, from the time of their ouster from Eden onward, taught them the need to repent and admit their wrong.
In the degradation that followed, human creatures did not learn of their errors in humility, did not learn from the hard knocks of experience, but took more and more bruising falls in the wake of pride and self-exaltation. To this very twentieth century experiences of their own or of others have failed to teach them to avoid the snare of pride; on the contrary, the heady and high-minded among men increase in these last days. (2 Tim. 3:1, 4) Why, some arrogant few even match Satan’s folly by exalting themselves above Jehovah, pretending that they daily order God from his heavenly throne down to earth to be sacrificed by them on a religious altar!
Men of years with all their accumulated experience are not necessarily the ones who are wise. The young and comparatively inexperienced Elihu waited in vain to hear wisdom from Job’s three aged “friends”, and finally in indignation spoke out bluntly against them: “I am of few days, while you are aged; therefore I feared and was afraid to show you my knowledge. I thought days should speak, and many years should teach wisdom. However, it is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty, that makes them intelligent; it is not the old that are wise, nor the elders who understand justice.” (Job 32:6-9, AT) Whether Elihu thought “years should teach wisdom” because of the experience they made possible, or whether he thought passing years would mean wisdom because they would allow time for much study, is not made clear by the account. What is clear is that Elihu discerned the need more vital than either of these, when he said, “Yet surely there is a spirit in men, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” (Ro) He realized that neither experience nor years of study would bring true wisdom, unless accompanied by Jehovah’s spirit.
King Solomon was granted wisdom because of a request he made of Jehovah God for “an understanding heart to judge thy people”. (1 Ki. 3:9) But Solomon also sought to broaden his wisdom by experience: “Said I to myself, ‘Come, try pleasure and enjoy yourself.’ But this too was in vain. Mirth is madness, I reflected, and what is the good of pleasure? I searched my mind how to pamper my body with wine (keeping control of myself wisely all the time), how to come by folly, till I could see how best the sons of men might fare under the sun during the few days of their life.” (Eccl. 2:1-3, Mo) However, it is neither necessary nor wise to seek to experience all things so that you might determine their value. And certainly it is the height of folly to indulge in sin in order to learn about it firsthand.
Solomon may have learned helpful things by experience, but he also learned by experience that marriages with heathen women led him into the folly of demon worship and out of Jehovah’s true worship and favor. The gaining of that knowledge by experience cost him his opportunity of life in the new world. How much better for him had he learned this lesson, not by experience, but from God’s written Word: “You must not intermarry with them, neither giving your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor receiving their daughters for your sons; for they would turn your sons from following me to serving alien gods, and then the anger of the LORD would blaze against you, and he would quickly destroy you.”—Deut. 7:3, 4, AT; 1 Ki. 11:1-11.
LEARNING OF “THINGS NOT SEEN AS YET”
To Noah Jehovah God said: “I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.” (Gen. 7:4) Noah preached this message, but scoffers jeered at his warning of a global flood. What if someone today would tell you that it was going to rain up? You would think that person unbalanced. We know that it rains down, not up. Well, in Noah’s day when he preached that it was going to rain down the people thought him crazy. They were used to moisture coming up from the ground and watering the vegetation, not to rain showering down from the sky. Of that preflood earth Genesis 2:5, 6 states: “The LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth . . . but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” Nevertheless, in God’s due time it did rain down, and that original world was drowned in a watery grave.
The point of instruction in this is: Noah was willing to learn from God that it could rain down, but the scoffers were willing to learn only by experience. The people then were used to water going up from the ground, and because they had never experienced a downpour they concluded such a thing impossible. They conceitedly thought that they knew it all; they would have to be shown to believe differently. They were shown, at the cost of their lives. In that instance, experience was the worst teacher.
We can learn from that original world’s experience with the global flood, for Jesus warned, “Just as the days of Noah were, so the presence of the Son of man will be.” (Matt. 24:37, NW) That populace of Noah’s time were caught unawares, engrossed in their own selfish pursuits, indifferent or derisive toward a warning of something they thought impossible. Just as Noah was “warned of God of things not seen as yet”, so Jehovah’s witnesses today discern by Bible study God’s warning of a “great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again”. (Heb. 11:7; Matt. 24:21, NW; Rev. 16:13-16) That means the tribulation of Armageddon will surpass the Flood in destructiveness, and will be a completely new experience for “this present evil world”. (Gal. 1:4) Jehovah will fight Armageddon by miraculous means, as in days of old when he fought for Israel by casting huge chunks of ice on the enemy, when his death angel smote 185,000 in one night, when he caused the Red sea to swallow Egypt’s armies. (Josh. 10:11; Isa. 37:36; Ex. 14:27, 28) Armageddon will dwarf such ancient displays of divine wrath.
But when attention is called to the approach and destructiveness of Armageddon, the majority of men scoff and ridicule and say it is impossible, just because they have never seen such miraculous works before. Like the scoffers in Noah’s day, these moderns insist upon being taught about Armageddon by experience. However, a minority of persons of good will toward God wisely heed the divine warning concerning Armageddon, just as Noah and his family learned about the flood from God and acted upon His instructions. By choosing Jehovah instead of experience as their Teacher, they will pass the course of instruction Armageddon gives as to God’s almighty power and supremacy.
JEHOVAH GOD THE BEST TEACHER
Jehovah God did not gain his limitless wisdom from experience. He knows “the end from the beginning”, before any experience could accumulate. (Isa. 46:10) He does not recommend experience as the best teacher for Christians. “They will all be taught by Jehovah.” (John 6:45, NW; Isa. 54:13) It is not knowledge gained by experience that leads to everlasting life, but “their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ”. (John 17:3, NW) Nor is experience the need of the inexperienced; rather, inspired proverbs are given “that men may gain wisdom and instruction, may understand words of intelligence; that they may receive instruction in wise conduct, in rectitude, justice, and honesty; that sense may be imparted to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the inexperienced”. (Prov. 1:1-4, AT) A wise reproof is more instructive than hard experience, and the wise person will learn more by it than a fool will absorb from trying experience: “A reproof entereth more into a wise man than an hundred stripes into a fool.”—Prov. 17:10.
Repeatedly Israel ignored divine reproof and foolishly exposed herself to the lashing assaults and oppressions of her enemies, all because she would not submit to teaching from God. “They forsook the LORD God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the LORD to anger. And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about, so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies. And when the LORD raised them up judges, then the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the LORD because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn way.”—Judg. 2:12, 14, 18, 19.
Apparently the nation of Israel learned little from these hard experiences, for under both judges and kings she repeatedly committed the same blunders that brought such trying times upon her, and finally her stubborn way led to her overthrow as a typical theocratic nation. (Ezek. 21:24-27) Jehovah God did not bring these difficult experiences upon Israel. Israel brought them upon herself by disobeying God’s commands. Jehovah God brought chastening reproof upon Israel to return her to the right way, but because of Israel’s folly and stubbornness the good effects of such reproof did not last long. Christians today make mistakes, and thereby bring upon themselves unpleasant experiences, but if they are meek and wise they will profit by loving correction from Jehovah. “My son, do not belittle the discipline from Jehovah, neither give out when you are corrected by him; for whom Jehovah loves he disciplines.” “To those who have been trained by it it yields peaceable fruit, namely, righteousness.” (Heb. 12:5, 6, 11, NW) Not difficult experiences we bring upon ourselves, but Jehovah’s discipline and correction teach us and train us toward righteousness.
This present world is like Israel of old. The world may boast that experience is the best teacher, but if that is so then the world is a very dull student. Its inhabitants have not learned to avoid sin by experiencing it for the past thousands of years. Their experience in immorality and blasphemy has only made them more adept at it, more entrenched in the bad habits, till today it reaches the debased state foretold for the last days. Again and again this old world goes through cycle after cycle of bloody war and hateful crime, as her sordid history repeats itself upon each generation; but from all this experience she learns nothing, even this generation fighting two fruitless world wars and now girding herself for a third one. Like a sow returning to her wallow, like a dog going back to its vomit, the world learns nothing from experience, though it says experience is the best teacher. At Armageddon that “best teacher” will be the world’s worst experience, her last experience, for then she will graduate from this school of hard knocks a dead thing that will never be resurrected.—2 Pet. 3:7.
However, persons of good will toward God do not believe they need to deliberately experience sin to appreciate morality, or suffer death to learn the value of life, or feel Jehovah’s power against them at Armageddon to be convinced that he possesses it. They look to Jehovah God and Christ Jesus as the best Teachers. Under present conditions a man’s life is short and his experience meager, whereas Satan has had thousands of years’ experience in deceiving and trapping men. We cannot pit our short experience against his, and hope to win. We must combat Satan’s long experience by drawing upon Jehovah’s limitless wisdom. We need the best of teachers to instruct us in side-stepping Satan’s snares. In God and Christ we have such Teachers. In the Bible we have their priceless instruction.—Prov. 2:1-12; 3:13-18.