Knowledge and Wisdom: Or, Five Gut-Check Questions For Christian Intellectuals

The tagline of my blog makes my interests pretty clear.

Christianity.  Scholarship.  Service.  I have always loved learning and analyzing and gathering knowledge.  And participating in the intellectual life defines a lot of who I am.  It is not only my passion, but also my profession; I’m a professor who considers herself, simultaneously, a lifelong student.

I’ve been fortunate as I’ve grown up to find lots of role models in the Christian community that have helped me figure out what it means to be a Christian intellectual, or an intellectual Christian.  I’ve also grieved at the deep pockets of anti-learning and anti-intellectualism that have popped up in our modern time, as though it is anathema to be both a Christian and a learned person at one time.

With all that being said, I’ll admit it’s easy as a believer to conflate knowledge with wisdom.  They’re not the same thing!  Additionally, a love of learning and knowledge can also lead to particular pitfalls, temptations, and problems. In light of that, there are five questions I try to constantly ask myself as a professor and as a scholar, to keep my path straight and my focus on God.  Whether you consider yourself an intellectual or not, you might find it interesting to examine yourself through this lens, too.

1) Am I keeping my knowledge/learning in its proper context?

The Bible makes a point of drawing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Wisdom is “from above” and is “full of mercy and good fruits” (James 3:17).  Wisdom must be learned from God, and not books (with the exception of the Word); knowledge, on the other hand, can be gleaned from books, and need not always involve God.  Knowledge can supplement wisdom, and wisdom can supplement knowledge, but as believers we must not mistake one for the other.

A man can be wise without ever having read a book.  But woe to the believer who thinks that reading books means one is wise.  Be careful to keep your knowledge in context, and to pray for wisdom to accompany it.

2. Am I avoiding the temptation of arrogance, smugness, superiority, or self-righteousness?

Whenever you’re very good at something – whether that something is writing, or sewing, or playing basketball, or reading, or learning – you begin to develop a confidence in it.  If you’re not careful, that confidence can turn to arrogance.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen both Christian and non-Christian scholars up in arms during a debate or discussion because they are experts in a particular field, and they are correct, and they need everyone to know they are experts who are correct.  While there’s nothing wrong with being right or sharing knowledge, the moment you assume your knowledge makes you better than anyone else, the moment you use it to insult anyone, or the moment you become bloated with arrogance, you’ve sinned in your learning.  And at that point it doesn’t matter how right you are.

3. Is learning my idol?

It is good to learn.  I am a big fan of learning about everything, from the useless to the useful.  Sometimes what I learn turns out to be helpful to me down the road; it illuminates a spiritual truth or helps in a blog post.  Sometimes what I learn is just plain fun or interesting and serves no purpose at all.  I believe God gave us brains and minds and curiosity so that we could learn, and I believe that learning – even just for the sake of learning – is no sin.

However, like anything else that is good, learning can become an idol.  And if our devotion to knowledge keeps us from serving, keeps us from growing spiritually, or becomes more important than God, we are in trouble.  As always, keep Christ’s words in mind: the greatest commandment always is to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:36-40).  Learning can help with that.  But it must not hinder it.

4. Am I open to rebuke, correction, and debate?

Scholars love ideas.  Scholars love their ideas.  And they are sometimes loathe to let go of them, examine them, or defend them against critique.  Even if you’re right, what the Bible tells us is that we must always be humble when we’re on the receiving end of correction, debate, or rebuke.  Listen to others.  Even if they rebuke your ideas, don’t respond with snarling anger or disdain.  Be gentle.  Hear them out.  Maybe they’re wrong.  Maybe you’re wrong.  But your attitude – and your willingness to behave as though there is always more to learn, and as though other people ought always be treated with respect and love – will make all the difference in the world.

5. Do I understand that intellect is no more important than any other godly tool?

I grew up in a home where education was highly valued.  My parents’ greatest hope for me, I think – second to their hope I would be a committed follower of Christ – was that I would graduate college.  For that reason, and because I value learning, I did graduate.  First with a bachelor’s, then with a master’s, and after that with a doctoral degree.

For that reason, education has always been one of my “pride points.”  I value my degree and what I’ve learned.  I consider it important.  It is one of the tools God has given me to use for ministry.  And I have benefited from the writers and thinkers who, over the years, have used their intellects to help me sharpen, refine, and challenge my own spiritual life.

But it is not any more important than anything else, and it is arrogance to believe otherwise.

It’s been a realization many years coming, but the ministry that I achieve in my own home for my own family by making a bed, or by making dinner, is just as valuable as anything I could learn or contribute to the world with my mind.  The call I make to a widow who is lonely is just as important as the truth I’ve learned and want to share.  The Bible verse I send to a friend is as significant as any book I will ever write.

So believers, if you’re of the intellectual bent, be encouraged.  God has so much for you to do and so many ways for you to serve – and your love of learning and your mind are absolutely a part of that.  Just be always on guard for the pitfalls that exist around you, and do your best to remember exactly who you are in Christ and what He values most.  Your ministry hinges on so much more than your ability to learn and to know.


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