Thursday, February 5, 2009

Whaddya Know?

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

                        1 Corinthians 2.2


We’ve all met brainiacs, people whose heads are crammed with knowledge they’re ever so eager to dispense. While their learnedness is admirable, by and large they’re too smart for anyone’s good. It’s hard to get straight answers from know-it-alls. Either they get sidetracked—lost in the weeds—or we regret ever asking the question, because we realize we’ve merely set them up to show off. For brainiacs, knowledge is less about personal enrichment than proving they’re the smartest kids in class. That’s plenty annoying in fifth grade. By adulthood, it’s downright exasperating.

Now take the biggest know-it-all you’ve ever met, clone him/her into dozens of hundreds, and you’ll get a good idea of what Corinth was like. Far and away, it boasted the best-educated, most philosophically advanced society of its time. The Corinthians loved nothing better than a convoluted debate. This raised the art of persuasion to impossibly high standards because, like all brainiacs, the Corinthians had to have the last word if only to show they knew more and understood things better than anyone else. Thus, very early in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul puts all his cards on the table. “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2.1-2)

Proof in Power

Now, Paul was no dummy. Intellectually, he certainly could hold his own against Corinth’s brightest minds; by the end of the letter, he displays his depth of knowledge and wisdom with unquestionable skill. Yet initiating his conversation by disavowing any intention to show off how smart he is attests to his savvy. After all, the epistle isn’t about him. It’s about Christ. Placing Jesus front and center from the start achieves two objectives. First and foremost, it fixes the focus where it belongs. But second, it establishes the nature of the engagement. “This is not a debate” is what he’s saying. “This is truth.” By reminding the Corinthians how he approached them in person, he offsets possibilities they’ll dispute the fine points of his letter and miss its overarching messages.

Paul recalls, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2.4-5) From a distance, we read this with casual objectivity. But it serves us well to pause and absorb the full impact of this statement. Paul’s sole priority centers on anchoring the Corinthians’ faith, getting them to believe in a God Whose love and mercy surpass human comprehension. In a similar passage in Romans 11.33, he exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” The proof is too inexplicable to convey in words. Faith in God can only be proven in power.

Show, Don’t Tell

Our Christian testimony perplexes many people, believers and doubters. A lot of them know as much or more than we (or think they do) and are more than happy to test us in a battle of wits. Confidence in our faith naturally spurs us to try to persuade them of our authenticity and convince them to follow Christ with us. Yet arguing belief with know-it-alls seldom ends to either side’s satisfaction. Indeed, conversations like these can escalate quickly into argument and lead to revealing our weaknesses instead of displaying God’s power. Before entering exchanges of this kind, it’s always best to follow Paul’s lead and establish what we know—Jesus’s unconditional love and acceptance, which we claim through power of the crucifixion. Beyond that, nothing else matters. Since His love transcends all human knowledge and understanding, words are of little use. When someone challenges us, asking, “Whaddya know?” the best response is demonstrating God’s power through changes in our lives. Forget trying to explain it. Show, don’t tell.

This is all we need to know.

(Tomorrow: A Child’s Eyes)

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