I used to laugh at my mom’s answer to the question “What would you do if you won the lottery?”
Her answer? She said she’d quit work and go back to school so that she could learn for the rest of her life.
As a kid, that sort of answer sounded insane. But as I matured and realized how much I loved school, and learning in particular, I realized I’d do the same thing.
Whether it’s school, podcasts,or videos that teach something, I feast on knowledge. I usually go through phases of interest: film, religion, philosophy, politics—these have consumed my brain over the years.
But there’s something dangerous that can come with learning, which God warns us about through the apostle Paul: “knowledge puffs up”. (1 Cor. 8:1).
Does that mean that there’s something wrong with gaining knowledge? Not at all! The bible encourages it, especially in the book of Proverbs. Knowledge is a gift, something to be sought after, especially when coupled with wisdom. The fear of God is the beginning of true knowledge (Prov. 1:7). Paul prays elsewhere that we may be filled with the knowledge of God (Eph. 3:14-19).
And yet, because of our sinful hearts, even a good thing like knowledge can be used for evil. This particular evil Paul is warning us against is pride.
The path to this kind of pride is a familiar one. You learn something, maybe a lot about something, or some topic. You feel confident about it. You realize how little others know about it. But here it comes: you judge them for it. You condescend. You look down on them. Perhaps you even assert yourself over them or shame them in some way when you have a conversation with them. Even worse, you may have done these things without even really knowing it.
Congratulations, you’ve made your victory more important than the truth. And now everyone knows it too.
In our day of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook comments, it’s easy to get into silly arguments (or even meaningful ones) that end up becoming shouting matches or chest-puffing duels. It’s also easy to be arrogantly ignorant. After watching a compelling YouTube video or reading a fiery 240 character tweet, you feel like you know everything about that idea and that everyone else needs to know what you know, too.
But if we’re honest, we’re all puffed up in this information age. We all think we know something. And often times, we do! I heard an interesting fact recently: in our day, a single edition of the New York Times contains more information than someone from the mid-18th century would have ever been exposed to in his or her life. If that’s true, that’s amazing.
So we do know a lot. But that doesn’t mean that we need to always tell everyone everything we know, and it sure doesn’t mean we are correct in all that we know.
As someone who loves to talk about religion and politics with people, I really need to watch myself. I’ve learned a lot, and probably know a lot more than the average person about certain topics. And as a deep thinker, I tend to see the angles that not everyone sees, which makes me prone to being “puffed up.” Here are six ways to make sure you’re pursuing truth and not pride.
1) Resist the comeback. Often there’s a gut-reaction response after someone has said something that triggers you. More often than not, this gut reaction becomes a witty clapback intended to assert dominance in the conversation. But it’s also a quick way to hurt someone, and rarely does it involve first trying to understand the other person.
2) Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It’s a classic moral truth, and so valuable that Stephen R. Covey made it one of his 7 habits of highly effective people. Failing at this locks couples in what Sue Johnston calls “demon dialogues” for years (repeated conversations that spiral into defensiveness and hurt without real resolution). What gets them out? When they stop trying to make themselves heard and really, truly, deeply try to understand their partner and show the empathy and love that they need. Trust me, when you’re on the loved side of this puff-deflating habit, it’s both humbling and pacifying. Furthermore, it’s a good way to obey James’ exhortation to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).
3) Process your thoughts alone or with a friend. Usually arguments surround questions of truth. If you are genuinely seeking truth and valuing people, you don’t need to air out all your unrefined thoughts right away. And if you feel the heat coming in a conversation and are unsure you can take it, that sounds like a perfect time to say, “Hm, interesting… I’m not sure I agree with you, but I might need to think about this some more. Thanks for your thoughts though, I agree with (insert a valid point they made here).” Personally, I like writing to clarify my thoughts and to think through an issue. Often I’ll start to understand the other person’s perspective more while clarifying or growing my own. I also cool down, which means I’m much less likely to sin in anger towards the person(s) with whom I’m speaking. If you’re a verbal processor, find a trusted friend and have a conversation with them about it. Use them as a sounding board to help you come to a sound conclusion.
4) Listen to and learn the best arguments from disagreeing viewpoints. It’s so easy to demolish bad arguments if you’re somewhat articulate and can peel apart logical steps. It’s also easy to end up in an echo chamber of books, YouTube videos, or Twitter, where everyone agrees with you and is constantly bashing the straw-man arguments of alternate viewpoints. But once more, straw-man arguments aren’t the real argument and position of a person. Instead, find and work with the best and most compelling arguments from the views that disagree with you.
5) Learn how to think critically. We hear this all the time, but, ironically, I often find that those who say it don’t know how to think themselves. Having been trained in scientific, critical thinking, I am slow to commit myself to one view and am always looking for ways that any view might be wrong. Some of us are more naturally skeptics in this way. For others, you might need to look more consciously for blind spots, whether your own or those of others.
6) Remind yourself: you’re not that great. We’re not that great. For all of existence we’ve been learning and failing forward. I think there’s a healthy degree of uncertainty or openness in some areas of life that we can hold to. Abdu Murray reminds us that whenever we discuss truth that is close to the heart, we run risks. What if I’m wrong? What if I have to change? If we discuss truth with others but are not open to this meaningful risk ourselves, how can we have a real, authentic discussion among equals?
I’ll never forget the fun banter of two of my professors. As their research progressed, they each had different theories about how exercise truly benefits blood vessel and overall bodily health. They would quip, sometimes directly to each other, about how crazy the other person’s idea was. Clearly, however, they had a deep respect for each other, even while they disagreed.
Though these profs were experts in their field, they did not allow knowledge to puff them up. They both knew they could be wrong, and had no personal agenda to “be the greatest” or “be correct”. They just genuinely wanted the truth, for the benefit of the scientific and larger world!
It can be hard to have this mentality, especially when engaging with life-altering ideas: the reality of the world, our spiritual lives, or how to bring about human flourishing. But we are foolish to misconstrue the ideas of others, or to not seek to understand our fellow man. We do a disservice to ourselves, to others, and to God when we let our disagreements become a pursuit of pride rather than a pursuit of truth. When we recognize ourselves doing this, we must call out that sin in ourselves, and we must repent.
Remind yourself of that the next time you disagree with someone.
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