Imagine standing on the precipice of something brand new. A promised land and future, the one your grandfather’s grandfather had been telling stories about. And you, among all the generations, are among the generation that actually gets to see it. That gets to go in. Excitement? Anticipation? Expectation? Curiosity? All these emotions and more are running through your mind. But even as they are, the Lord tempered the excitement of His people with an extreme series of warnings.
In Leviticus 18-19, we find this series of warnings about what they will find in this new land. With every new experience, there will come a new temptation. A new temptation to intermarry, to adopt new practices, to take on the culture of the lands and peoples they are inhabiting… to forget where they came from. It was vitally important, then, that the people not only possess the land, but they also remember. That in the midst of all these new experiences, new encounters, new exposures, that they do not forget the old. The Lord reminded them, over and over again, that He is the Lord, the One who brought them out of Egypt.
It’s a common temptation, isn’t it? That as our experiences and knowledge grow, we move past the old and into the new. We think ourselves too mature, too intelligent, too experienced to cling to the old ways of thinking. We, with all our education and knowledge, move past these myths and legends that once governed us into a more sophisticated way of thinking.
We should be aware of this temptation because day by day our knowledge of the world grows. We live in a day and time of unparallelled discoveries. We know more now than we ever have before, and that knowledge is growing at an incredible rate. This is our reality. The question for us in so many areas of life, because of our advancement into new territories, is no longer CAN we do something, but SHOULD we.
In other words, our ability has outpaced our morality.
At this point, we can turn back to the days of the people of God as they too were entering new territory. As we do, we see there are two choices when you come to this point. Either your new knowledge and experience can lead to arrogance, or it can lead to humility.
In the former, you can look at what you used to think and used to believe with an air of superiority. You remember the old days like the college student who has moved from the country to the city. There is a certain fondness with which you reflect on the old days, but it’s more of a sense of nostalgia than any real value. You’ve moved passed that point, and while it might be nice to be the simple-minded person you once were, those days are gone. You can’t go back. So you shake your head at what you used to be with a wry smile, and you turn to look at the unbounded future of discovery.
And this doesn’t just apply to areas of science. It applies to spiritual knowledge as well.
I remember as a college student myself studying the Bible for myself for the first time. I remember reading not only the Scripture but also Christian authors and theologians, and then taking those ideas back to my old environments with such a degree of spiritual arrogance that it’s amazing that any relationships I had from that time still remain. I was the walking epitome of what Paul talked about in 1 Corinthians 8 as the knowledge that puffs up. If knowledge puffs up, I was the stay-puffed marshmallow man of theology. New ideas, new knowledge, new experiences can and will lead to arrogance.
Or you can, as you move into that new territory of intellectual discovery, do so in an attitude of humility. Either knowledge leads to arrogance, or knowledge leads to humility. A few years later, after my ego had been sufficiently popped by a few good friends who loved me enough to tell me the truth, I sat in a seminary class with a man who has forgotten more things than I will ever know. And as we neared graduation, he passed onto us some of the best council I’ve ever received. In the midst of a classroom of budding young pastors and theologians, he advised us with this:
“Theological education is the process of passing from unconscious to conscious ignorance.”
He helped me see that as you grow in intellect, one of the primary ways that’s rightly understood is that you now know, with each passing moment, how much you don’t know. That’s the kind of humility that makes us not forget that the Lord is the Lord whether you’re in Egypt or whether you’re in the promised land. So as we continue to grow, both in our knowledge and experiences, let’s remember that the knowledge of God is a vast ocean that even in eternity cannot be explored.
And let us be cautioned against the kind of knowledge that puffs us up rather than pushes us low.