This week as we continued in our series, Being Useful, we talked about the next quality on Peter’s list that will make us more useful to Jesus. Having faith and pursuing virtue are good, but they require something else of us to get them right. In this part we talk about with this other thing is.
What Do You Know?
Do you know where the annual U.S. sailboat show takes place? Any takers? Do you know who else didn’t know the answer to that question? James Holzhauer. Name ring a bell? He was the most recent super candidate on the long-running game show Jeopardy. He dazzled the country for just over a month as he went on a 32-game winning streak. Now, a streak like that would be impressive enough by itself, but that’s not what so captured the nation’s attention. Back in 2004, Ken Jennings went on a winning streak of 74 games and sits in second place for all-time Jeopardy earnings with just over $3.5 million. Yes, that’s only second place. No, what made Holzhauer such a fascinating contestant was his gutsy wagering. I’ve seen winning contestants on Jeopardy walk away with a few hundred dollars as their prize. Holzhauer’s biggest prize was a shade over $131,000. All for…knowing stuff.
Knowing stuff can be a lucrative thing. Indeed, had Holzhauer known where the annual U.S. sailboat show takes place (Annapolis, MD in case you’re curious), the odds are pretty good that he would have gone on to win a whole lot more money. As it stands, he nearly eclipsed Jennings’ winning streak prize total in less than half as many games as he needed to do it. Had Holzhauer matched his total, he would have likely won upwards of $5 million. It kind of makes you want to buy a Trivial Pursuit game just to start memorizing some facts.
There’s a reason, though, that kind of knowledge is called “trivial.” In the big picture, it really doesn’t matter very much. The only reason anybody would need to know that the annual U.S. sailboat show is in Annapolis, MD—beyond winning a few more millions of dollars on Jeopardy, that is—is because they have an interest in sailboats and plan to attend someday. Beyond that, it really doesn’t matter. It is trivial.
That being said, if we are going to make it successfully through life, there are some things we have to know. In fact, in any undertaking we set out to achieve there is a basic set of stuff we need to know. The exact collection is going to depend on the particular venture we have started, but everything has a learning curve. When I worked in the print department at OfficeMax, I had to sit in the back office for a full week doing nothing but watching training videos for 8-hours a day. It was really boring, but I couldn’t have done the job well without it. Along the way, I learned even more facts relevant to the position and became better at it than I was when I started. The more I knew, the better I was. The same has been true for you. In whatever hobby or profession you’ve been in, the more things you knew about it, the better you were at doing it. Knowing stuff matters.
Do you know where else this general rule applies? Our relationship with Jesus. If we are going to get our relationship with Jesus right—if we are going to be useful to Him—there is some stuff we need to know. And, the more we know, the more useful we can be.
Well, this morning finds us in the fourth part of our teaching series, Being Useful. The big idea for this journey is that all of us have a desire inside of us to do something of significance with our lives. Exactly what that means and looks like is going to vary from person to person, but the fact of the matter holds all the same. We want to do something to gain ourselves some kind of acclaim. We want to be useful. And, just like we want to be useful in our careers or our families or our church, if you have a relationship with Jesus, you want to be useful in that too. In fact, given the significance of our relationship with Jesus, our desire to be useful in that runs just a bit stronger sometimes than it does in other places.
But, just because we want to be useful, doesn’t mean we know how to actually achieve that mark. Many times we just lean into what the world tells us. As far as the world is concerned, significance comes from having power and influence. It comes from wealth and notoriety. The church isn’t necessarily a place where you are going to find wealth—unless you take the embezzlement route…which actually happens way more often than you’d think—but power and influence are available to spare. Folks who have let the world dictate their thinking about being useful to Jesus, they do things like getting put on key committees so they can wield power. They build a network of followers who are supportive of the things they support because they support them. They amass a kind of personality cult that gives them the ability to call the shots regardless of what the governing documents happen to say. Or perhaps they just put themselves in a place to be a gatekeeper, stiff-arming anyone who doesn’t meet with their approval. This all happens with discouraging frequency. But, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, with Jesus, significance comes from character, not achievement.
We learned this from something the apostle Peter wrote, and which is serving as our guiding foundation point for this whole series of conversations. Reflecting back on his time with Jesus and wanting to offer some opening advice to believers scattered about modern-day Turkey, Peter told them two really important things. The first is what we spent the whole last week unpacking at Vacation Bible School, namely that God’s “divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” A little while later, in 2 Peter 1:8, he said this: “For if you possess these qualities [that God’s divine power has made available to you in Christ] in increasing measure, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words: If we have and grow in “these qualities,” that is how we can be useful in our relationship with Jesus.
As for what “these qualities” are, that’s what this series is all about. So far we’ve talked about two of them: faith and virtue. Faith is all about placing so much stock in who God is that we are willing to make life-adjustments—sometimes significant life-adjustments—in light of that. Just like someone doing that for you makes you feel really good, it does for God too (besides the whole being a proper reflection of reality thing). Making God happy starts with trusting Him. But, this trusting Him has to go beyond simply being an emotion we feel. It’s something we do. That’s where virtue comes into play. When we have faith in God, we make life-adjustments that enable us to better reflect His virtuous character. This growth in virtue goes hand-in-hand with our faith. But, such virtuous living doesn’t come out of nowhere. Behavior always follows belief. Thus, if we are going to behave virtuously, we are going to have to believe virtuous things. Or, as we put it last week, living virtuously starts with thinking virtuously.
As I said at the very end of our conversation last week, though, analyzing ideas in order to keep our minds clean requires thinking. It requires careful thinking. It requires careful thinking that can’t start from nowhere. It has to start with some resources. The resources can be raw, but they at least have to exist. And the raw resource of careful thinking is knowledge. In other words and again, if we are going to be useful followers of Jesus, we need to know some things. If we are going to follow Jesus well, we need to know some other stuff too.
This is why the next quality on Peter’s list is knowledge. Now, hearing that, if you think back to our guiding verse for this whole series, the very thing we are working to not be useless and unfruitful in is our knowledge of Jesus. If we’re trying to not be useless in our knowledge, why is knowledge an item on the list of things we need? Why is not the whole list?
Well, to understand that, we need to dip our toes a bit into the wonderful world of linguistic translation and specifically from ancient, Koine Greek to modern English. Sounds a bit like an obscure, humanities department Ph.D. thesis, doesn’t it? It’s not. Here’s the gist: When you translate something from one language to another, you often lose a bit of the original in the process. This is because most languages have words that have developed over time in such a way that there is not a precise word in the target language that captures the whole idea of the original. This is often where one language simply gives up on translating and transliterates instead, that is, they just borrow the word and pronounce it with their own unique accent. It’s like the French not bothering to translate the word hamburger. They just call it a hamburger…but with a French accent.
One of the other challenges of translation—and this is especially true when going from ancient Greek to English—is that sometimes the original language has several different words that all express slightly differently nuanced versions of what the target language only has one word to capture. That’s what we find here. In Greek there are several different words that are all translated by the English word “knowledge.” Now, in context, when we use the word “knowledge” we generally know what we mean. The Greeks didn’t have to rely quite as much on context, though, because they had different words. There are different words, for instance, for knowing stuff and knowing a person. What makes it a bit more complicated, though, is that thanks to regional language variations, one author may not have used the same words in the same way as another. Or, they may have just swapped them around for the sake of linguistic variety. Fun times, right? Makes you want to go into the field, doesn’t it? Thankfully, some guys get all hyped up on this kind of stuff so we don’t have to.
Here’s the point: The word Peter used for knowledge in v. 8 isn’t the same as the word he uses in v. 6 in his list of qualities. In v. 8 he’s talking about knowing Jesus in the context of a relationship. Here in v. 6, he’s talking more about knowing stuff. In other words, if we are going to follow Jesus well, we need to know some other stuff too.
But, if we’re going to get this right, it’s got to go beyond mere trivia. It’s got to go beyond mere trivia, because the tool God has given us to hold and process this knowledge—the human mind—is utterly unlike any other out there. For instance, your mind produces somewhere between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. Your brain can hold as much information as a 4-terabyte hard drive. While a computer can perform basic functions—math problems, for instance—at a rate you and I can’t even begin to touch, the human mind can process information that requires precise mental and physical responses at a rate that no computer will ever manage. It should be physically impossible, for instance, to hit a major league fastball. No computer or robot will ever be able to do that. And yet the MLB is on pace to break the total single-season home run record this year. We can assess patterns and complex series of data and draw conclusions based on those patterns in truly remarkable ways. In short: the mind is amazing.
Because God has given us such an incredible tool, if we are going to follow Him effectively, we’ve got to use it effectively. This actually falls right in line with something Jesus Himself said. In the final week before His death on the cross, Jesus was in the temple area teaching and interacting with people. In particular, a series of Jewish religious leaders came and peppered him with questions designed to trip Him up and discredit Him in the eyes of the people. They came at Him from the angle of law, then politics, then theology. Finally, they let their powers combine and tried to whammy Him. You can find this in Matthew 22:34: “When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: ‘Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?’”
Now, they thought, they had a question He wouldn’t be able to weasel out of. Theologians and lawyers (which were often the same people) had been debating this question for centuries and were still debating it because there were so many different opinions and arguments. Jesus would have to take a side and they would use that to finally nail Him. As you might be able to guess, He didn’t play ball. Again. Verse 37: “He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.’” Mic drop.
What Jesus said here has been analyzed endlessly. The first analysis actually came from the man who asked Him the question. Mark reports that the Pharisee and scribe essentially said—and much to the chagrin of his peers, no doubt—“Yeah…you hit that nail right exactly on the head. Good answer.” Nobody asked Jesus any more questions after that. I want to focus in really tightly with you, though, on what Jesus said at the end of the first and greatest commandment. We talk a lot about loving the Lord with all our heart and soul. We’re to really feel it and show it. But that last part often gets left out because we don’t know what to do with it. In addition to heart and soul, we are to love the Lord our God with all of our mind. We are to take that incredible tool God has designed and put in our heads and use it to its fullest capacity to love Him. But how? How do we do that? How do we love God with our mind? How can our mind help us be more useful to Jesus?
Well, if we are going to follow Jesus well, we need to know some other stuff too. Let’s think where we’ve been so far to get to this point. We started with faith—with trusting God so much that we are willing to make adjustments to our lives in light of who He is and what He’s said. Those adjustments primarily work themselves out through our embrace of virtue. Indeed, as we adjust ourselves more and more in light of God’s plans, we will better and better reflect who He is, which is the substance of virtue. Virtuous living comes out of virtuous thinking which is where we have spent our time today. This virtuous thinking requires that we draw on a well of knowledge that is primed to lead us in this direction instead of any other. This means that a big part of our growing in knowledge is going to be accumulating the base of ideas that will help us grow in virtue. In other words: Knowing stuff.
But what do we need to know? Well, we can start with what we believe ourselves. If we are going to be useful in our knowledge of Jesus, we should have some basic knowledge about the Christian worldview. Who is God? What is He like? What is good? How do we know that? What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Why should we give it any place of authority in our lives? If we claim it is “God’s word” what does that even mean? What kind of lifestyle is the most honoring of God and why that one? These are the kinds of questions whose answers will create the knowledge base that will allow for the kind of right thinking that leads to virtue can flourish.
Is that it, though? We just need to know about our own worldview and we’re good? Not quite. Understanding what we believe is really important to be sure. We’re still in the early parts of a teaching series at the Gathering Place in which we are working our way through that very thing (which means it is a great opportunity to grow in your knowledge on that very front, by the way). But, if all we know is what we believe, how are we going to be able to meaningfully engage with people who believe differently than we do? The short answer is: We’re not. And in a culture that is increasingly diverse in terms of the worldviews we have the possibility of encountering on a daily basis, having at least a rudimentary understanding of some of the other worldview options on the table is a bit of knowledge we really can’t do without.
Which other worldviews do we need to know about, though? I mean, the options are pretty wide-ranging. Well, wide-ranging though they may be, most are really only off-shoots of some main idea trunks. If we know a bit about the main options, we’ll be able to be at least conversant with most of the ones we’re going to encounter. And I should add this: Most people don’t know what worldview they hold to themselves. If we know enough about a few major worldviews to be able to recognize their worldview, we’ll have the upper hand in gently helping them to see that the ideas to which they’ve committed themselves don’t lead them where they probably expect they are going. Again, then, there are several worldviews to choose from, but Islam, Eastern spirituality (which includes New Age religions generally), secularism, and postmodernism are a pretty good place to start. Now, I’m not saying we need to be experts in these by any stretch. Postmodernism and Eastern spirituality in particular are rabbit holes we can fall into and never find our way out again there are so many bizarre and confusing concepts the deeper into them we go. But, understanding the basics doesn’t require a degree in philosophy. It just requires a little bit of reading and research.
But, we don’t often have the opportunity to sit down and have an undistracted conversation with someone else about the differences between our worldview and theirs. Those kinds of interactions happen over the course of daily life and in the context of our culture. What that means is we need to be aware of what’s happening in our culture. We need to know what the various major cultural trends are at any given time. What’s more, we should be able to filter these through the lens of the Christian worldview so we can recognize if they are ones we should embrace or reject and why. This doesn’t necessarily mean seeing every movie or listening to every song or watching every tv show that is currently getting a buzz. No one has time for all of that unless they’re being paid for it. But it does mean taking a few minutes to at least know what they are about and why they are generating that buzz. That doesn’t take nearly as much time. It also means being willing to think about what these various media are proclaiming so that our reaction can go beyond merely accepting or rejecting. The fact is, all the stories we tell are echoes of the grand story of which we are apart. Now, some echoes are pretty twisted, it’s true, but they’re there. And if we learn to see them, then suddenly we have the opportunity to be able to engage with people affected by them and through that engagement, point them to where those echoes originated. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like being a useful follower of Jesus to me. If we are going to know Jesus well, we’ve got to know some other stuff too.
As much as we need to be engaged with our culture, we need to be engaged with our society too. Followers of Jesus need to be good citizens in whatever place we happen to be living. Being good citizens means, in part, knowing what’s going on in our various areas of civic responsibility. That means knowing the names and positions of the major local, state, and national leaders. It means knowing the basic platform positions of the major parties and how those intersect—or don’t—with the Christian worldview. It means having at least a basic awareness of what the major legislative efforts are in any given term and how we should think about those as followers of Jesus. For some folks, it may mean getting even more involved by running for an office. And lest anyone today try and tell you otherwise, having Christians in public office is a very good thing. The simplest reason for this is that when the Christian worldview has been embraced in any kind of official capacity anywhere in the world, it always leads to the most freedom for the most people. Always. A bit of historical knowledge will bear out the truthfulness of that claim…which is just another area where we are wise to build some knowledge; to know some stuff. If we are going to know Jesus well, we’ve got to know some other stuff too.
Should we keep going? I suspect you see where I’m going with all of this. Let me add this, though, and this is really important so hear this well. This next thing I’m going to say is for the folks who may be bristling a bit at some of this. Hear me well: The goal of all these efforts is not simply to be “smart” or smarter than the people around us. That’s not what counts. That doesn’t even matter. The goal is to grow our well of Christ-filtered knowledge, so that our thinking easily lends itself to the faith-proving virtue that will make God happy. The goal is to be well-informed about our world so we can bring our relationship with Jesus to bear in whatever situation we are in. Imagine if you were able to effectively proclaim the Gospel no matter the situation you were in or the person you were with because you had a knowledge well from which you could draw whatever you needed; and even if exactly what you needed wasn’t there, you could apply what you did have to this new situation. Imagine how energizing that would be. If we are going to know Jesus well, we’ve got to know some other stuff too. And the more we know, the more we grow. The more useful we’ll become. If we are going to do this well, though, it’s going to require something else of us…that we’ll talk about next week. Don’t miss it.