I was Mrs. Ward’s third grade class spelling bee champion. So, it was no surprise when I was chosen to represent the class in the school-wide spelling bee. It was a big deal—broadcasted into every classroom from the school library. My mom bought me special clothes for the occasion. I showed up ready to dominate. I was confident, even cocky. I knew I could spell.
The first word disappointed me in its degree of difficulty: “whole.” After hearing a sentence distinguishing it from its identical twin, “hole,” I successfully spelled the word. So, imagine my surprise when the judges concluded afterwards that I had been eliminated from the competition. I was devasted and humiliated—the victim of injustice. I cried. What happened?
The administration later took me to the library to show me the video of what happened. Have you ever tried to pronounce the letter “L” without the benefit of being able to reach your front teeth with your tongue? You see, in the third grade, I had enormous buck teeth that protruded from my mouth. When I tried to say “L,” the judges heard “O” and eliminated me.
The Bible teaches that “pride comes before a fall.” I didn’t yet know that verse, but I certainly experienced its truth. It is my earliest memory of the intoxicating power of knowledge. I was a good speller, and I believed my knowledge of how words were spelled separated me from the common mass of third graders. If we’re not careful, we can easily allow superior knowledge to make us feel superior. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul warns, “but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). My pride blinded me to the reality that something else less boastful also separated me from my peers—my enormous buck teeth!
In Corinth, members of the church took a great deal of pride in their knowledge. In fact, they believed their knowledge of theological truth raised them above others who weren’t quite on their level. They would use their knowledge to justify behavior that others in the church found offensive. They made knowledge the highest ideal—the measure of authentic maturity. Paul writes to correct them. The problem, he says, isn’t knowledge. The problem is that you are using knowledge wrongly. Knowledge, Paul reminds, must always result in love. Love, not knowledge, is the measure of Christian maturity.
Paul writes that the most important thing about a person isn’t how much he or she knows, but that he or she is known by God (v. 3). Why does he say this here? I believe Paul is getting to the heart of the issue. Human beings boast in knowledge because we are trying to make a name for ourselves. We cling to our superior knowledge because we feel like we need to prove ourselves. We want to rise in the world, and our fellow human beings are impediments to that goal. Knowledge allows us to separate and rise above the others.
But, for Paul, the person who is known by God no longer needs to rise. If we are known by God, we can rest because we have nothing left to prove. Our identity and status are secured in Christ. We no longer need to impress anyone. We don’t need to care anymore what others think. We don’t have to make a name for ourselves because Christ has given us his name.
Tim Keller once wrote, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything else.”
When we are secure in God’s love and God’s knowledge, we no longer have to see people as competition. It’s only when we are convinced that God fully knows and fully loves us that we are free to love other people. Being known by God is the key to relational success with human beings. Once God has rendered his judgment, the only opinion that matters is settled. What is God’s judgment? If you are in Christ, he is completely pleased with you. You are absolutely loved and accepted.
Do you live in the liberation of being known by God? The best way to answer that question is to ask yourself how you’re doing relationally with other human beings. Do you see others as competition? Are you devasted by criticism? Do you obsess over what others think? Do you tend to avoid other people? You don’t have to be that way. You can be fully known and fully loved by God in Christ. Then, you can be liberated to love.