The Futility of Knowing and the Wonder of Knowing Him
In every husband and wife/mother and father relationship there is a strange and mysterious dynamic at work. I call this the good-cop/bad-cop dynamic. We see evidence of this in the most mundane of occasions. The gas and electric bill comes through the door and we discover that arrears have silently been allowed to build up and we now owe £3 million pounds. The bad-cop in the relationship makes for the phone whereas the good-cop coaches from a distance, ‘don’t forget to breathe, love’ and, ‘please don’t bite so hard on the receiver’.
Those of you who know Doris and me may be surprised to discover that, when it came to the education of our three sons, she took the role of good-cop and I the role of bad-cop with relish and aplomb.
When it came to spelling tests, maths homework, GCSE and then A-Levels, our approach was twofold. I would issue stern instructions with dire consequences for tardiness, ‘finish your homework now, or I will ban you from watching Doctor Who for an entire month’. Or, ‘sort yourself out or you will not be listening to my Creedance Clearwater Revival albums for the rest of this year’.
Strangely (to me at least) this approach did not seem to work.
Doris, playing good-cop, executed the second line of attack. Instead of threats, Doris would promise heady rewards to those who excelled in all things academic, painting a rich portrait of a life in which one need never apply for a job (inevitably they would be headhunted) and any work undertaken would be effortless due to their intellectual prowess, sharpened by the humble spelling test.
And from this humble endeavour would spring forth mighty achievement: the discovery of a cure for malaria, a remedy for world hunger and the establishment of universal peace.
Oh, and all this by the age of 25…
Needless to say, each of our sons passed their spelling tests (just), but the Nobel Prize is still a distant and illusive dream.
There is, however, a serious point to all of this. At the heart of this working class ethic, formal qualifications equal financial security, beats an ideological principle which sustains our twenty-first century working/middle-class aspirations.
We live with a barely challenged conviction that the key to satisfaction, fulfilment and the betterment of our circumstances lie in knowledge, education and scientific discovery.
Consider then, King Solomon’s observation with regards to the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge,
Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14)
Solomon’s point is this; yes, wisdom, knowledge and a sound education are better than folly, ignorance and illiteracy. It is better to understand something of how life works so that we are able to spot danger and take full advantage of the opportunities that come our way. And yes, it is good that we have an appreciation of science, art and literature so that we are able to enjoy the good gifts that God has blessed us with and yet, in all of this, there is still the bitter taste of futility.
Solomon perceives that the same event happens to the wise, the super-intellectual, the uneducated and the fool.
Ultimately our IQ, a degree or even a PhD will not save us from the grave.
The super smart and the super stupid die young. The super smart and the super stupid live long, long lives.
It is important we feel the weight of the futility of intellectual pursuit. It is important that we see through the cracked veneer of intellectual progress. A hope placed in science, progress or knowledge is destined to be frustrated.
Think about this. It is said that Walt Disney had his head cryogenically frozen. I presume he did so in the hope that, one day a scientist would figure out a way of defrosting and reattaching his head to the body of some 18 year old.
My guess is that his head will stay in that fridge for sometime yet to come.
It is the weight of this frustration that leads Solomon to ask, ‘“Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:15).
The pursuit of wisdom as with the pursuit of pleasure (read here) is an exercise in futility and will leave us with little more than a hand full of air. It seems that amidst this fallen creation not even wisdom is immune from the futility we feel all around us… But, we must ask, how can this be and where is God in all of this?
The Apostle Paul, writing hundreds of years later, observes the hand of God at work as he quotes the word of the Lord as declared by the Prophet Isaiah,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ (1 Corinthians 1:19)
And so, what Solomon feels and Paul explains is the activity of our sovereign God at work in the world pushing up against, opposing and thwarting the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning.
Let us now back up to verse 18 and consider how God works this destruction and thwarting of wisdom and discernment,
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
The cross is the stumbling block to those who believe that they know God better than God and foolishness to those who believe that they have the intellectual power and insight to out-reason the Almighty (1 Corinthians 1:23). The cross destroys this way of thinking. The cross strikes the death-knoll to self-reliance. The cross brings an end to all our intellectual superiority and arrogant philosophising.
But, and how I love that ‘but’; but to us who are being saved the cross is the power of God!
And so it seems that the mission of God in the frustration, thwarting and destruction of wisdom and discernment is to elevate grace in the cross and in the salvation of you and I. The cross is, therefore, anti-earthly wisdom but pro-grace. The cross diminishes earthly wisdom and yet, in the same single act, gloriously displays the power of God.
For this same reason God chooses the foolish and weak things of the world that he might shame the wise and the strong. In doing this, earthly wisdom, knowledge and intellectual pursuits are decimated and his glory is elevated above all (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
But more than this, the frustration Solomon feels is a pathway that leads us to a person, the Son of God.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31)
The believer’s pursuit of wisdom and knowledge leads us to Christ Jesus who is the embodiment of the wisdom of God, but, more than this, he becomes our wisdom.
It seems to me that Paul understands that the believer grows in wisdom as we grow in our knowledge of him and as we continue in our walk with him. But the wisdom embodied in the life of the believer is the same wisdom displayed in the cross.
We follow, treasure and adore Christ. This is wisdom. We obey Christ whatever may come. This is wisdom. We live, suffer and die for Christ. This is wisdom. We relinquish our grasp on earthly pleasures and treasures for the sake of Him who is our great Treasure and very Great reward and, although the world counts it as foolishness, we know that this is true wisdom and in it, and in our lives, we pray that the power of God be most gloriously displayed.