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What Do We Know?


Romans 7:18                                              2nd Timothy 1:12                                          Philippians 4:12 -13


Few people annoy us more than the know-it-all. As soon as we mention anything to him – anything, whether cars or cameras – he starts yammering as if he were the world’s expert. We’re especially irked when it becomes evident that the know-it-all knows nothing, nothing whatever about cars or cameras.

Annoying as the know-it-all always is, he’s most annoying, downright obnoxious, when he’s a religious know-it-all.

Nevertheless, while we’re certainly offended by the person who “knows it all”, we’re never going to be helped by the person who knows nothing. We’d never choose as our lawyer or physician, dentist or mechanic, someone who boasted of her ignorance. In other words, while know-it-all people offend us, people who know nothing can’t help us.

Many times in his letters the apostle Paul says “I know.” He isn’t bragging: “I know more than you.” Neither is he claiming superiority: “I know more than everyone else.” He’s simply expressing an unshakable confidence rooted so very deep in him that he could no more deny it than he could deny his own name. His “I know” is related to a profound assurance of what’s real, his place in it and its consequences for him. He’s aware that while there are situations in life where it’s properly wise and appropriately humble to say “I’m not sure”, so far as life as a whole is concerned it isn’t wise or humble to say “Who knows?”. Where life as a whole is concerned it’s distressing to be found saying “It’s anybody’s guess.” It’s distressing for us and it’s unhelpful for others. When our child comes to us jarred by what she’s heard “out there” inasmuch as what she’s heard “out there” contradicts everything she’s learned at home, it doesn’t help our child to hear us say “I’m not sure.”

When Paul soberly, humbly, yet confidently says “I know” he means “I’ve been seized by the truth; I’ve been seized by him who is the truth; I stand persuaded.” He isn’t parading himself as a know-it-all. But neither does he come to us as a know-nothing who can’t help us. He knows. And because he knows he can help us to know too.

I: — Precisely what does he know, and what should we? First of all, “I know that nothing good dwells within me.” He means “I know that nothing godly dwells within me.”

“What morbid pessimism!” someone objects. But hold on a minute. Before we label anyone pessimistic we should find out if he’s realistic. Isn’t it realistic to admit that there’s a deep-seated self-contradiction in all of us, a deep-seated perverseness in all of us of which we can’t root out of ourselves? If we think not, we should ask ourselves one or two more questions. Don’t all Christians thank God that a Saviour has been given to us. If we need saving yet are unable to save ourselves; if the saviour we need as we need nothing else has to be given to us, then there must be a twistedness deep inside us that we can’t straighten out ourselves.

And didn’t our foreparents at the Reformation describe humankind as “totally depraved”? When they did they didn’t mean that we are all wantonly immoral. They weren’t stupid; they knew that virtually everyone is vastly more moral than immoral. They did mean, however, that however good we might be morally, we aren’t godly; they meant that the human heart is in se curvatus, bent in on itself. All the depraved human heart can will is its self-perpetuating depravity. No one can will himself out of his sinnership. No one can will herself out of her unrighteousness and into the righteousness of Christ. No one can “right” his capsized relationship with God. No one can undo the warp in the human heart that wrecks even our best efforts at curing ourselves.

It’s right here – “I know that nothing good dwells in me” – that the Christian understanding of what’s wrong ultimately differs from that of the Marxist, for instance. The Marxist argues that what appears to be spiritual perverseness, incomprehensible self-contradiction, in fact is perfectly comprehensible, since human self-contradiction and self-frustration are entirely a consequence of economic disadvantage. The Marxist says there is no ingrained twistedness in us; what appears to be such is merely the product of our economic situation. All human iniquities (so-called) can be reduced without remainder to economic inequities, the Marxist says. Human beings aren’t iniquitous, sinful. They are victims of inequities, victims of economic disparities. If we get rid of the disparities we’ll thereby get rid of “sin”, so-called.

At the same time, from a different angle, the Marxist says too that all economic inequities are iniquities. Christians, however, deny that all economic inequities are iniquities. The fact that the Bronfman brothers are richer than I am isn’t iniquitous and I had better not blame my innermost depravity on it. At the same time sensitive Christians are quick to admit that economic wretchedness – grinding poverty – is a terrible thing with terrible consequences. Sensitive Christians will admit too that to be culturally deprived is to be deprived of something worthwhile. But just as surely Christians insist that regardless of our economic and cultural position or privilege there is a deep-seated deformity that has nothing to do with wealth or culture. Christians are aware that there’s a difference between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation has to do with how we are shaped by education, culture and wealth. The human condition, deeper than the human situation; the human condition has to do with our innermost rebellion against God, contempt for his claim upon us, disregard of his mercy and disdain for his truth. He wants to be lord of all life? We insist on being on our own lord. He has made us in his image? We resent the intrusion and attempt to make him henceforth in our image. He presses himself on us as friend and guide? We tell him we prefer to be independent, self-made men and women.

“I know that nothing good dwells within me.” By “good” Paul means the ultimate good, godliness. It’s this that we can’t fashion for ourselves. He never denies that people are capable of lesser goods. He admires the ethical conduct that morally serious people display. That is certainly a good we are capable of. He admires the learning of learned people. That is a good we ought to treasure. He acknowledges the helpfulness of Roman government and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of this good. Still, he denies that we fallen men and women are capable of the good, that godliness which consists of adoring surrender to God and the godly conduct that arises from it.

Speaking of government; however good it is, the odour of scandal, of self-serving corruption, always hovers around it. Speaking of moral conduct; however good it is, our innermost perversity invariably twists it into self-righteousness. And self-righteousness always has two spin-offs: contempt towards other people and defiance towards God. For other people are now beneath us and God is now superfluous to us.

When the apostle says he knows that nothing good dwells within us he means that our innermost deformity corrupts even our best. Because we concur in his realistic assessment of the human condition we insist he isn’t pessimistic. And because we concur in his realistic assessment we shall regard as unrealistically optimistic, naively optimistic, the utopian cure-alls that popular psychology and popular education promise even as they produce so very little.

“I know that nothing good dwells within me.”


II: — Yet the apostle insists just as strongly that the good is closer to us than we imagine, available to us right now, for the good is to be found in someone else: “I know the One in whom I have put my trust” – he reminds Timothy, a younger man on whom the older man’s experience and wisdom won’t be lost. If Paul’s realism stopped with his assessment of human perversity, the human condition would be hopeless. But he doesn’t stop there. He’s certain of the one who can remedy it: “I know the One in whom I have put my trust.”

According to the Hebrew mind to know something isn’t to have information about it. According to the Hebrew mind to know hunger isn’t to possess information about malnutrition. Rather, it’s to have first-hand acquaintance with hunger, to have intimate experience of hunger, and to have been altered by the intimacy. To know one’s spouse is to have first-hand acquaintance with her, intimate experience of her, and therein to be forever different oneself. When Paul exclaims “I know the One in whom I have put my trust” he’s telling us he lives in the sphere of intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ – the result of which is that his life has been altered and now remains different.

The apostle isn’t bragging like the religious know-it-all. But neither is he an unhelpful know-nothing who can only say, “God? Faith? Whatever? Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Then why doesn’t he say more about his experience of Jesus Christ” someone queries; “Why doesn’t he spell it out in greater detail?” The reason he doesn’t is simple: one, if he tried to spell it out in greater detail he could never do justice to it; he’d appear silly and sentimental; he’d resemble the person who has come upon overwhelming beauty yet says nothing, or virtually nothing, since no language is adequate to such beauty. Two, he’s aware that if he attempts to say more about his intimacy with his Lord, what he says will only appear to cheapen something so very precious that it ought never to be cheapened. The most intimate aspects of marriage we don’t publicize in detail. We refrain from publicizing marital intimacies not because we’re ashamed of them, but rather because no language can do justice to the intimacy; and besides, speaking publicly of marital intimacies merely cheapens them. Nevertheless, when we come upon other people fruitfully married we’re aware that the intimacy we cherish they cherish too.

For the same reason, when Paul says simply, quietly, profoundly, “I know the One in whom I have put my trust”, he feels he’s said enough; whereupon he waits for us who share his experience to nod knowingly with him.

While he says little more, in this respect, than “I know the One in whom I have put my trust”, he does say something more. He says, “God who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.”(Phil. 1:6) The good work mentioned here is the good work, God’s redemptive work; that is, God’s work of reaching us in our innermost twistedness and straightening out our innermost deformity and remedying a human condition that is otherwise irremediable.

I don’t get to hear much preaching. But whenever I do (chiefly on my holidays) I ask myself two questions: (i) Does the speaker know the One in whom she has put her trust? Does she ooze intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ? Or is she merely stringing together religious clichés, however cleverly? (ii) Does she glow with the realistic optimism that here, in this encounter, there is pledged to us the profoundest human transformation? I don’t care whether the preacher is eloquent or clever or smooth. I care only whether she breathes out a credible conviction that she “has tasted and seen that the Lord is good” and can therefore encourage others to know for themselves that in our Lord Jesus Christ there has been given to us the healer of our deepest deformity.

The author of a poem or novel is someone whose mind and heart have been set on fire and who describes her vision so as to draw us readers into her vision and thereby find our lives changed by it as our hearts are ignited too. An author does this. An editor, on the other hand, is someone who tides up spelling and corrects punctuation and ensures that the book is attractively packaged. An editor discusses someone else’s experience and testimony. But an author has “been there” herself; she writes – and can write – only what she knows.

When Paul exclaims “I know the One in whom I have put my trust” he’s telling us he isn’t an editor bringing forward someone else’s experience and testimony. He’s met someone whose acquaintance has made his life forever different. He wants only for us to “know” this One ourselves.


III: — We must never think that Paul’s experience of his Lord floats above the nitty-grittiness of life. He isn’t a religious hobbyist whose “religion” parallels the experience of the short-wave radio hobbyist who picks up a voice from a South Sea island. No doubt it’s thrilling to pick up the voice of a fellow ham-radio operator from a South Sea island, but it has nothing at all to do with what we have to face tomorrow morning. More profoundly, Paul writes “I know how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous….I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.”

We’re all aware that life has ups and downs. We don’t need the little man from Tarsus to remind us. Or do we? When my daughters were children they liked to watch “Wonder Woman” on TV. Whenever Wonder Woman wanted to she could leave behind the frustrations of this world. She could rocket straight up, travel at supersonic speed, deflect bullets with her wonder-bracelets. Children are captivated by someone who can leave all frustrations behind. But the day comes when either the child remains a child forever (even though she’s thirty-five), or the child grows up and learns that frustrations can’t be left behind: they have to be endured.

When I say “frustrations” I don’t mean petty annoyances, irritations. I mean reversals. One afternoon my mother was diligently at work at her desk when her boss lurched around the secretaries’ work-area like a beaten prize-fighter staggering from corner to corner. He kept mumbling, with dazed expression, “I’ve fired; I’ve just lost my job; I’ve been fired.” He wasn’t saying this because we wanted to inform the secretaries; he was babbling; he was punch-drunk.

I have been concussed four times. Each time I have regained consciousness feeling exceedingly confused and disoriented. As the confusion and disorientation have subsided, pain has set in. The upsets we sustain in life are much like concussion. First there is confusion and disorientation; as these recede the pain of the blow settles upon us. Wonder Woman may be able to fly above it all but we can’t.

I’d never want to suggest that life is always and everywhere jar and jolt. To be sure there are days, many days, when the sky is blue and the sun is shining and we feel so good we couldn’t imagine ourselves feeing better. There are even days when we feel we own the world, so exhilarated are we.

And then there are other days, days when we’ve been assaulted, or fear we’re going to be. On these days even the prospect of getting out of bed is daunting. There are days when our children are such a delight we wonder why we didn’t have ten. And there are days when our children are the occasion of more anxiety than we ever thought possible. We understand Paul when he writes, “I know what it is to be up and what it is to be down. I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me.”

We Presbyterians are rooted in what’s called “The Reformed Tradition.” The Reformed Tradition moved from the Sixteenth Century Reformers to the Seventeenth Century Puritans. Our Puritan ancestors used to speak quaintly of “the perseverance of the saints.” By this expression they didn’t mean that God’s people were mysteriously rendered superhuman. By “the perseverance of the saints” they meant “God’s perseverance in his saints.” They knew whereof they spoke. While life is never easy, it was even more difficult in the 1600s. Our Puritan ancestors were always aware that life moves from mountain-top exhilaration to abysmal misery and back again as life surges and abates. Yet they were aware too that at life’s end they had been brought through it all, storm-tossed to be sure, yet without bitterness, without rancour or resentment; and above all, with faith intact. It was the Lord whom they knew who did this for them and in them.

Conclusion: — Then what is it you and I know today?

[1] We know that nothing good, nothing godly, dwells within us, of ourselves.

[2] But we also know something grander, deeper than this: we know the One in whom we have put our trust, and we are confident as to the outcome of our knowing him: he who has begun a good work in us is going to complete it.

[3] And we know that amidst life’s abundances and life’s scarcities alike, we know how to live – for we know that he who is in us is greater than anything that is in the world.


                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                         

April 2005