Saturday, June 04, 2005

Secondhand Knowledge

Working at an outdoor flea market is an interesting experience. There are usually two things which the sellers discuss among themselves: the number of shoppers at the market and the weather. Everyone can see how crowded the market is each day, but the unknowable factor is the weather. Meteorologists never seem to get the forecast right, or at least not often enough. And in a place where a heavy shower can mean the end of a business day, many people keep one eye on the forecast and the other eye on the approaching clouds.

As in all communities of people, there are some who are pessimists. In an outdoor market, these folks are sure the rain is coming, and it could be any minute now. They are quick to believe any report of possible precipitation and spread the word to anyone who will listen. These people almost seem to relish in hardship; enjoying the opportunity to complain about their misfortune. There are also people who are gullible. If someone tells them a thunderstorm is five minutes away, they'll believe it even though there isn't a cloud in the sky. This makes for an interesting phenomenon. The original weather information, often exaggerated, is passed from dealer to dealer in an adult game of "Telephone" until you hear that all kinds of meteorologic mayhem is about to blow you into the parking lot and dump an entire lake on your head. I've learned never to take weather information seriously when it is passed around because secondhand information is often distorted from the original.

Biblically speaking, when we hear that Brother Bill is engaged in a certain sinful practice, we aren't to simply believe the secondhand information. We are to confront Brother Bill. We may find that the story has been distorted by someone who didn't understand or wasn't listening properly. We may even find that the story is intentionally changed by someone who isn't especially fond of Brother Bill. Clearly secondhand information can be dangerous. It can give us wrong or distorted information and it can give us false confidence that we know something when in fact we remain misinformed and ingnorant.

In J. I. Packer's, Knowing God, the author points out that it is possible to learn about Christianity secondhand, but that this isn't the same as experiencing Christianity firsthand. How true that is! I can read blog after blog, article after article, opinion after opinion and have a pretty good idea about what Christians believe. I can accumulate knowledge from textbooks and biographies. I can pour over theological treatises and memorize facts of all kinds. However this is only secondhand knowledge. And secondhand knowledge can be dangerous. It may be wrong and it may give us false confidence that we know the truth when in fact we don't.

So am I saying Christians shouldn't read or study what others have written? Of course not! But what I am saying is that knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. And often the difference lies in our motives for obtaining the knowledge. It is quite a temptation to let knowledge "puff me up", to paraphrase Paul. I enjoy studying and arguing theology. I like knowing the answers. But unless I live them out, my "book knowledge" does me no good. In other words, talking the talk is nice, but walking the walk is necessary. I can accumulate knowledge for knowledge's sake (or usually for my own prideful self-esteem) or I can seek knowledge because it helps me to experience God's love and grace in a personal way. That's a key difference, as God looks upon the heart.

This also doesn't mean that experience should be placed above the authority of Scripture. Experience is a pitiful way to determine truth. Without the Bible as the final authoritative word, any ridiculous happening can be twisted to fit Christian beliefs. But experience is an incredible way to live out the truth. Walking the walk brings it home to us -- it makes it all real. My confidence is not in myself, but in the assurance that what I believe is correct. I greatly admire the fine scholars of our faith who teach doctrine and defend the Gospel to those engaged in secularism and worldliness. I'd love to have the mind of a J. I. Packer, a G. K. Chesterton, an N. T. Wright or a Millard Erickson. But even more, I'd love to have the heart of God.

Lord, continue to pull me to You. Impress upon me the burning desire to know about You so that I can know You better. Help me to seek you so that I can experience Your presence and know Your love and Your grace firsthand.

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