by Brian G. Bettes
I have often heard it said that the most difficult thing about learning something new is unlearning what we already know in the first place. The willingness to jettison long-held ideas and beliefs, even when confronted with clear evidence to the contrary, is indeed difficult. Why is that?
In the Bible is a story of a man who, though incontrovertible truth of God as the only true and living God was presented to him, his unwillingness to unlearn what he believed to be truth destroyed an entire nation. Though history is unable to identify this ruler clearly (there are at least nine possible candidates), we know him simply by the name of Pharaoh. God presented him with 10 different opportunities to acknowledge Him as the God of heaven and earth who controls all things, yet Pharaoh refused to accept that information. As each plague worsened the socio-economic status of Egypt as a nation, Pharaoh should have gotten the picture, but he didn’t.
Much is made of the God’s words where He stated that He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, as if He made Pharaoh into an unwilling pawn for His purposes (Exodus 4:21). However, when we consider the history of Egypt and its Pharaohs, we see a man who is was already proud, stubborn, and very self-willed long before the plagues began. I do not deny that God did indeed do as He said and “hardened his heart.” But we must also realize that God was only working with what was already there. Pharaoh was not a humble man, and God did not make him into something different.
Studying the account about Israel in Egypt shows that Pharaoh already had a “chip on his shoulder” about the Hebrew people who were overtaking his land (Exodus 1:8-10). Yet the more he punished the children of Israel, the more they multiplied (Exodus 1:11). By the time God, who claimed them as His people, showed up demanding their freedom, Pharaoh had become so exasperated that he had already ordered all male children to be killed at birth (Exodus 1:15-16)! He was already struggling with “the Hebrew problem” and what to do with them. However, letting go of his slave labor base was not an option he appeared to be pondering. There is no way Pharaoh was ready to just hand them over. Once God claimed them as His possession, the stage had already been set for a “showdown” of power and control between this man and God. As God so often does, He simply used an existing situation as an opportunity to show His greatness, His power, and for His glory (Exodus 9:14, 16).
When Pharaoh was presented with irrefutable proof that God was indeed who He said He was (by destroying every single god of Egypt one-by-one), and that Israel was indeed His possession, his unwillingness to unlearn what he knew and humbly accept the evidence in front of him became his downfall. The nation of Egypt literally collapsed under the weight of the undeniable evidence that was presented to Pharaoh.
The reason for Pharaoh’s inability to unlearn his world? Romans 8:7 says that the carnal mind is hostile against God, and doesn’t want to accept or obey Him. Read through Romans 1:18-25 slowly and carefully sometime. These verses explain how mankind is blinded because of his unwillingness to unlearn what he knows to be error by forcibly pushing the truth of God out.
There is another king who, many years later, took a part of this nation into captivity due to their disobedience to God. Interestingly, God chose to show His greatness and power to this man as well. Even more fascinating is that, after severe trial and losing everything for a time, this king showed a willingness to unlearn his world, and accept the evidence presented to him by God.
In 597 BC, king Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem by siege, hauling a large part of the residents of the city to Babylon as captives. A young man named Daniel was among them. Through this young man, God would work with this king to reveal Himself to him. What is astounding, and rather impressive, is though Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man in the world in his day, and a very proud man indeed, unlike Pharaoh, he was able to accept the irrefutable proof of God’s presence, and His power as ruler over all the exists.
This did not happen without some hard humbling, as seen in Daniel chapter four. It required seven years of his life, living like a beast out in the field, for him to “get it.” But listen to the beautiful humility in some of the words he spoke after his humbling:
“…I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted up my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored Him who lives forever: for His dominion is an everlasting dominion…He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth…Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to abase” (Daniel 4:34-35, 37).
We see a very different man coming out of the humbling from the one that went into it. We see a man who was able to unlearn a world that, not only did he grow up in, learning many wrong concepts and beliefs, but being the great king that he was, he actually helped create some of that world. Yet, when God presented him with evidence contrary to what he had learned, he was able to unlearn the world around him.
What about us? How willing are we to unlearn the world that is pressing down upon us every day? We are told to unlearn the world, and to relearn God’s perspective (Romans 12:2). Do we love the world around us and want to drink in more of its ways—be more like the world we live in? Do we want to get so close to and act so similar to the world that there is no recognizable difference between how we live and how it lives? Do we try to fit God’s way into this world, or are we working to unlearn the world and live God’s way instead? Are we stubborn like the kings that God dealt with, or do we just not want to “get it,” hanging on to our worldly ideas, and rejecting God like Pharaoh? Are we so proud and bull-headed that God has to put us through severe trials like He did Nebuchadnezzar before we “get it”? God says for us to not be like the world (1 John 2:15; Revelation 18:4)!
Once we are called, converted, and given God’s Holy Spirit, we are to be humble, teachable, and to readily unlearn the world by accepting God’s truth as given in His Word (James 1:21). Yet sadly, when the truth of the Bible was being challenged from within the church, I saw many people who suddenly wanted to unlearn the truth and run to learn or relearn what the world teaches. They swallowed deception like cold water on a hot day! God and His truth were nowhere to be found.
How steadfast are we to unlearn the falsehood that is everywhere around us in this world? How hard do we work at driving wrong ideas and beliefs away from us? How much do we want to learn the truth of God so it can be our compass that guides us through this life and into the next? How much are we willing to separate ourselves from and unlearn the world?