Something Better Than Smart
Fairly often, while speaking at a conference, I encounter other presenters who are renowned for their academic acumen and theological expertise. Their scholarly achievements are admirable. In some cases, these notables have reached celebrity status and attract large crowds of eager learners at a variety of events.
Behind the scenes, I find that these accomplished intellectuals sometimes project a less than gracious persona. They can seem puffed up and downright condescending toward others with whom they interact. Reflecting on this, I have contemplated the value of learning versus the danger of intellectual pomposity. I feel drawn to unpack a biblical perspective that might be encouraging to the average Christian whose IQ may not be above 140 and who cannot vaunt a long list of academic degrees behind their name.
The Value of Learning
Certainly there is no premium on ignorance. The Bible encourages learning and affirms the value of the mind. Proverbs 1:22 tells us that fools hate knowledge. The wise store up knowledge (Proverbs 10:14). Every parent knows the importance of quality schooling and the Lord uses highly educated Christians in many fields, including science, engineering, law, and medicine.
Wisdom is most simply defined as the application of knowledge. A person cannot apply what they have not learned. Ignorance truncates wisdom. But one certainly can learn far more than they apply, which eventually produces an educated fool.
Luke 10:27 tells us that we should love the Lord with all our mind. In 1 Peter 3:15 we are to be ready to give a “reason” for the hope that is within us. Romans 12:1-2 speaks of the priority of renewing the mind. These are not commands to get a formal education but instead emphasize the importance of the mind and reasoning, renewed and shaped by the power of the Scriptures.
The Danger of Learning
Solomon’s learning was as measureless as the sand on the seashore. He was skilled not only in government and rhetoric, but also in botany and zoology (1 Kings 4:29-33). Yet, Solomon’s pursuit of knowledge apart from satisfaction in God and obedience to His truth led to a foolish life of sexual sin and empty self-sufficiency. This can happen to anyone who places education over obedience.
Solomon’s pursuit of knowledge apart from satisfaction in God and obedience to His truth led to a foolish life of sexual sin and empty self-sufficiency. This can happen to anyone who places education over obedience.
In Ecclesiastes 1:12–18 he described his passion for learning as an “unhappy business” of “vanity and a striving after wind.” He lamented that his great learning led to “much vexation” and declared, “He who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” His conclusion about all of his pursuits of meaning apart from God was clear: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
The Apostle Paul wrote of his potential to “put confidence in the flesh” based on his pre-Christian learning and accomplishments (Philippians 3:4-6). Then he declared, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7-8). Paul’s heart passion was transformed from pursuing religious learning to the longing to “know Christ” (3:10).
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that mere knowledge can “puff up” while “love builds up.” Clearly, knowledge and education that is not ruled by love and rooted in humility can lead to a proud, self-reliant, and graceless persona.
Knowledge and education that is not ruled by love and rooted in humility can lead to a proud, self-reliant, and graceless persona.
The Tragedy of False Reliance
Back in Philippians chapter three, where Paul was speaking of the potential of arrogance of learning and religious superiority, he contrasted that reputation with the heart of true Christ-followers “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Read that statement again. Perhaps you find your heart drawn toward and longing for these realities — as you should. This is the passion of a true disciple, whether they have advanced academic degrees or a simple GED from their high school years.
Self-reliance comes in many forms and can be interwoven with achievements, scholastic degrees, polished appearance, or wealth. These are often rooted in insecurities that have never been identified and surrendered to the cross. All of this is a form of pride, and we must embrace the truth that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
Self-reliance comes in many forms and can be interwoven with achievements, scholastic degrees, polished appearance, or wealth. These are often rooted in insecurities that have never been identified and surrendered to the cross.
The Surpassing Issue of Spiritual Impact
It seems to me that our goal should never be to impress people with our degrees or intellectual acumen. Rather, the fruit of our influence should be rooted in the sufficiency of the gospel, the surpassing power of grace poured into a humble heart, and the supreme greatness of Jesus Christ living through simple “jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The fruit of our influence should be rooted in the sufficiency of the gospel, the surpassing power of grace poured into a humble heart, and the supreme greatness of Jesus Christ living through simple “jars of clay.”
The apostles chosen by Jesus may not have been “the sharpest knives in the drawer” but they discovered and demonstrated a supernatural life in the truth of Jesus and the mighty indwelling of His ever-wise, always-sufficient Spirit. Peter and John, whom God used powerfully to transform the world, were “uneducated, common men” but their impact astonished the religious elite of the day because “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Paul made this the goal of his influence, regardless of his intellectual superiority. He wrote,
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Education is a great tool and I highly encourage anyone to pursue it as they are able. Yet, tools without power are only objects to be observed or simply admired on the shelf of a garage. A chainsaw has potential to accomplish a gargantuan job of felling trees. But without the skilled hand of an owner and the fuel to make it run, it is a mere relic. May our lives (educated or not) be surrendered daily to our owner and king, Jesus Christ. May the fuel of His Spirit in us make us fruitful for His glory. And may a humble and godly wisdom radiate from our humble and obedient lives.
Copyright © 2021 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.