Priority of Understanding

I was talking to a friend, when we were renovating a trailer. He asked me my opinion of education, since I had home schooled my children, and he was completing his last year of high school. I said, “Understanding is more important than knowledge.”

As a senior citizen, I might forget what I ate for lunch yesterday, and he could conceivably forget his smartphone on the seat of the car. But, the understanding of what was important, in particular, who God is, becomes a part of us. I think Solomon through inspiration was trying to say something like that. “Knowledge is easy unto him that understandeth” (Proverbs 14:6 KJV). I used to think Solomon’s statement made as much sense as you’re pretty because you’re beautiful. What kind of sense does that make? Knowledge can make us an educated fool or a clever devil. Nearly forty years ago, my wife put on flashcards simple concepts like “God is love” (1John 4:8), and our kids would faithfully repeat that fact before they could recite their street address. However, not until that knowledge is internalized in the heart and mind, is it actually understood. Knowledge is power, but understanding is better. To understand God, makes it easier to know what He would do. Who do we claim to be, but followers of God? CNBC reported that Elon Musk asks every candidate he interviews for a job, “Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.” He can spot a liar because the “people who really solved the problem know exactly how they solved it,” he said. “They know and can describe the little details.” I think that is consistent with Solomon’s premise that the facts, knowledge, and details will come easily to someone who actually understood the problem. I’d like to address this article to the priority of understanding, or as Proverbs puts it, “Knowledge is easy unto him that understandeth” (Proverbs 14:6 KJV).

The difference between knowledge and understanding may seem slight, but the history of both calls for examination. From the beginning of our interaction with the Creator, His ability to sensibly communicate with us implied a relationship of trust. When He said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28 NIV), we implicitly trusted Him, consequently understood Him, and were more than happy to comply. While the LORD’s warning was still fresh in their memory, where He said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (2:16-17 NIV), Satan’s technique with our First Parents was much the same as with us, “for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2Corinthians 2:11 KJV). No easily rebuffed frontal assault, but a multiplicity of rapid fire, carefully interwoven attacks, where if one ploy failed, the other may quickly succeed. “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Peter 5:8 NIV). Waiting for his opportunity. Questioning God’s trustworthiness. Agitating to forget God’s warnings. Minimizing or negating the severity or danger of God’s punishments. Attacking the most sensitive link. Out and out lying. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7 NIV). And, it would hardly be surprising, if we should eventually discover how faithful our First Parents were before they originally sinned. Kind of like a sniper positioning himself, a Matthew Quigley single shot taking out two, that Old Serpent dangled the bait. Eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5 NIV).

Understanding about the knowledge of good and evil for Adam and Eve was basically a matter of trusting a Faithful Creator, then obeying Him. I remember, in my youth, hearing newly professed Christians giving profound testimonies of sin from which they’d turned, which gave me the feeling, how could I magnify God in repentance without similarly experiencing the length and breadth of evil, as intimately as they had? I was wrong. It is Satan’s lie that you must experience evil to truly have knowledge of good and evil. He inasmuch said, You simply can’t take God’s word on it. “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5 NIV). Satan’s crafty epistemology is eat then know. Do exactly opposite of what God commands, then you will know good and evil. In fact, you will become like God. On the other hand, God’s epistemology is since your trust in Me causes you to know, then don’t eat. He seeks our trust, because He knows He is worthy of our confidence, only then will we understand or have knowledge of the truth. “Who art the confidence of all the ends of the earth” (Psalm 65:5 KJV). Only God can interrupt our stream of consciousness sufficiently for us to know the truth. “Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45 NIV). Another way of viewing it, God wants our trust based on the evidence of His character, actions, and word, while our adversary effectively discounts God, weighing only perceived benefits for our circumstances. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6 NIV).

The Book of Proverbs has much to say about  knowledge and understanding, as they relate to wisdom; and, I think it speaks volumes when she identifies herself, “Counsel is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength” (Proverbs 8:14 KJV). Three times prior to this in the same chapter does Scripture identify wisdom with the feminine pronoun “her” or “she” in verses one through three (NIV). This is intriguing, since the NT clearly labels Jesus, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Corinthians 1:24 NIV), which indicates gender does not have the same significance in heaven. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30 NIV). But, more importantly, God identifies Himself as “understanding” (Proverbs 8:14 KJV). Whenever we truly understand, it is the voice of God within us, “O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart” (8:5 KJV). Proverbs represents wisdom as a moral choice, a choice concerning knowledge as a truthful fact, and understanding as a condition of both mind and heart. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding” (9:10 KJV). A key specimen of wisdom is the understanding of the knowledge that God directs those who trust Him. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight” (3:5-6 NIV). As if to further emphasize the significance of understanding, Proverbs reiterates, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (4:7 NIV). Again, it is of significance that Christ would be identified as the “pearl of great price” ( Matthew 13:46 KJV), “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3 NIV), who alone is worthy of costing all you have. Christ and understanding. Priceless.

The priority of understanding emphasizes the condition of comprehending factual knowledge, which is characterized as wisdom. With the passage of time, we may forget lessons learned and repeat our errors. We sigh, repent, and beg God to remind us of what we already understood. But, we need assurance that we are gaining more than we are losing. God obliges us with “His very great and precious promises” (2Peter 1:4 NIV). Growth in grace comes at different rates and in different quantities for us all. Can you picture suffering Job being counseled, “All things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Romans 8:28 NIV)? It may not have set well with him, until he came to terms with the sovereignty of God to dispose with us as is best for His kingdom and righteousness. But, the growth arc is set by God’s insistence that we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Peter 3:18 NIV). He made that demand of us, and He will not contradict it by setting us back without the opportunity of making more gain than we apparently lost. Just so with Job. “The Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10 NIV). His understanding of God increased, since Job finally realized that God sovereignly has the ability to “do all things” (42:2 NIV), and no purpose of God “can be thwarted” (42:2). The difference between acknowledging that fact of God’s sovereignty and understanding the reality of it was the contents of an entire book of the Bible. Surely you may say Job understood God’s sovereignty, power, and purpose before, but evidently God saw fit to polish his understanding. Job said it succinctly,  “My ears had heard of You but now my eyes have seen You” (42:5 NIV). If blameless and upright Job, the finest example of God’s servants, could rightly and innocently suffer as he had to increase his understanding of God, who do we think we are to be treated differently? If that thought only makes us shudder, then do we only serve God for what we will get in return, or to preserve our own skin? May God give us disciples with Job’s understanding!

Conscience necessitates obedience once truth is understood. Truth is the heart, essence, and point of knowledge, while instruction imparts that knowledge. “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23 KJV). Elihu, youngest of the four commiserators with Job, correctly assessed, “It is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding” (Job 32:8 NIV). Especially in our NT context, we can appreciate that the “spirit in a person” and “breathe of the Almighty” is none other than the Spirit of God. All true understanding comes from God, and it alone will stand the test of eternity. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2Corinthians 5:10 NIV). Our actions, which are produced by our understanding, will be weighed by Christ. Our fidelity to our understanding, then, is key. Only God is capable of determining our motive based upon our understanding. Man judges us based upon our appearance. Christ will judge us based upon the truth. “Before the LORD: for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth” (Psalm 96:13 KJV).

Before departing this discussion of the priority of understanding over the mere accumulation of factual knowledge, consider that this may answer the question, “Why can I not learn this particular skill set [e.g., learning a particular foreign language, designing a house, etc.]?” Our failure in education is our mistake in identifying an accumulation of factual knowledge with the body of understanding it represents. “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established” (Proverbs 24:3 NIV). “I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions” (Proverbs 8:12 KJV). We may seemingly acquire mastery of a skill after 10,000 hours (as seen in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”), “but knowledge is easy unto him that understandeth” (Proverbs 14:6 KJV). This is not to say that we won’t join Thomas Edison in finding a myriad of ways a light bulb won’t work before ours stays lit. Or, we could just trip over a goose egg sized nugget of gold. Understanding is not simply an artificial intelligence outgaming the grandmasters with a difficult to imagine plethora of facts, but the gentle evidence of the Spirit of God. “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9 NIV).

In conclusion, Spirit produced understanding is eternally valuable, not simply for the highest purposes of God in eternity, but for the most common pursuits of man on earth. Knowledge is essential, but understanding is better. Understanding is available to all who thirst for God. As with Solomon, may God give us “understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore” (1Kings 4:29 NIV). May we, as with Zerubbabel, more fully appreciate our dependence upon His Spirit to understand Him and His universe. “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6 NIV). And above all, may our understanding redound to the glory of God. Amen and amen.