Reflecting and Doing
‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’ – it’s one of those phrases that we can misunderstand if we take it out of context. It’s not saying that learning is bad, but that, like anything, it can be used badly.
We can illustrate this with a great visual. We’ll use a balloon to lift a car to the top of a hill and show that they way we use what we have makes all the difference. One way, the ‘puffing up’ causes disaster, while the other way it helps, and builds up.
You will need:
- A range of wooden building blocks and a small vehicle
- A long strip of fabric or paper for a road
- A balloon, straw and sticky tape
- Several large books (unused hymnbooks are ideal)
- Double-sided sticky pads
We are going to make a road up a hill, using books and blocks, and a balloon to help us up the last bit. Connect the balloon to the straw with sticky tape so that you can inflate it by blowing through the straw.
Put a pile of books at one end of the table for the hill and anchor one end of a long paper or fabric ‘road’ at the top. This road is far too steep, so use some building bricks to make a slope up, but first, place the balloon flat at the foot of the pile of books, and build the bricks on top of it. Make sure that the pile of bricks is not quite tall enough. Leave an obvious gap that the car cannot go up.
Now start the car from the table end, drive it up the slope towards the books. Oh no! The bricks are not high enough. We need some help. We can use the balloon.
Have a volunteer blow up the balloon using the straw and watch as your carefully built pile of bricks tumbles all over the place. Well, that was not a lot of help, was it?
Try again, but this time put the balloon on top of the pile of bricks (either under or over the road). Drive the car up the slope, onto the balloon (optionally secure it with a sticky pad) and now blow the balloon up. The car should smoothly rise to the level of the books and drive happily away.
The problem was not the balloon itself, but the way it was used. If I use my knowledge just to puff myself up, that is no use. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when I use it rightly, to help people and build them up. (1 Thess 5:11)
You wanna know how to handle the latest hot potato in the church? What shall we choose? ‘Can bishops be …’ (fill in gay/celibate/women/whatever)? How about hugely divisive ‘should Christians support Trump?’ Even the mammoth ‘same-sex marriage’ debate. Whatever the current big issue, the wisdom for handling it is right here.
There’s nothing new under the sun. The headlining topic for the Corinthian Christians was whether they could eat ordinary meat, or should have special ’Christian’ meat, like Kosher food today. In their Roman culture, a lot of the market-place meat came from temples, having been sacrificed to a god. Some thought that eating such meat was like worshipping that god, others said meat was just meat. So who was right?
Actually, that’s not the point.
The whole point of this passage is that ‘who is right’ is not the point.
It’s not about being right. It’s about doing right.
This passage is really pertinent to me. No, not the eating food sacrificed to idols bit – as far as I know my local supermarket doesn’t have a ‘Taste the Deities’ range yet. I mean the first bit. ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’
You see, I’m an educator: I teach Maths and Physics for a living. And English. And Chemistry. I’m also a graduate theology student, busy delving into ‘the original Hebrew term implies …’.
My world kind of revolves around knowledge. I’m paid to know stuff – a lot of stuff. So I’m a bit worried by a passage that says knowledge is a bad thing. But hold your horses, this is not anti-intellectualism – it’s about how that knowledge is used.
It’s like the oft-misquoted ‘money is the root of all evil’. Nope ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ Money itself is neither good nor bad. Same with knowledge. Both can be used for good or ill. The Corinthians were using their knowledge badly, standing on their rights without thinking how it harmed the reputation of the church and led their fellow-believers astray.
There is a world of difference between knowing and knowing. In French they have two words for it: savoir if I know a fact, but connaître if I am talking about an experience – really knowing a place because I’ve been there, knowing someone as a friend rather than simply knowing of them. This is knowledge linked to my real life, rather than simple head knowledge.
Knowledge of facts is useful – it helps me get on the right bus to town and spell my name correctly – but it only becomes wisdom when it is used right. As they say, ‘knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting in the fruit basket.’
Some of the Corinthians had head knowledge – it’s OK to eat meat from the market – but they were applying it without love, and hurting their fellow Christians. Paul is not saying here that learning is unimportant. It’s good to learn about this faith we share, to dig deeply into the Bible and to discover its treasures. But we need to make sure we incorporate this knowledge into our lives so that it becomes the wisdom that the writer of Proverbs keeps banging on about, not just Bible trivia. we need to be ‘doers of the word, and not hearers only.’ (Jas 1:22)
If we are serious about our faith we will want to grow and mature – the Bible calls us athletes in a race – but we don’t win by pushing others behind. That’s what Paul is getting at in this passage. Some of the Corinthian Christians were OK with eating the meat from the market and didn’t give a fig whether it had come from a temple. And they didn’t give a fig about anyone else. If others were confused by their actions, thinking that it was OK for Christians to worship the Roman gods, well, so what? That’s their problem.
No it isn’t. It’s everyone’s problem. If one part of the body hurts, we all hurt. It was a very big issue for the early church. It split fellowships, it ruined friendships. If social media had been around then, there would have been Twitter storms and Facebook unfriend-ing. There really is nothing new.
So who was right then? Paul says it’s not important.
The whole point is that ‘who is right’ is not the point.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.