We cannot know what is unknowable

by Kyle
published December 7, 2013


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One of my favorite things continues to be epistemology.

If you’re not familiar with the study, you’re in for a treat. Epistemology examines how we gain knowledge and information and with what certainty we state that it’s true.

In short, epistemology studies how we know what we know and how we know we know what we know.

This might seem high-minded and impractical at first, but consider one young pastor’s phenomenal failure to consider what he considered he knew.

I am part of the teaching rotation for the Sunday church service Angelo Bible Church organizes at a local nursing home. The service is simple. We sing some of the most fantastic hymns ever written accompanied by piano, then someone brings a message. For the songs, we pass out binders with words printed in large font to each of the hymns we might sing.

I’m convinced those dear people really go for the music and only just tolerate me cutting my preaching chops in front of them. They love the music and they love the song books.

One Sunday, one of the women I had gotten used to seeing and had grown rather fond of refused to give her song book to one of the folks helping with the service when it was over. When I asked her why she wouldn’t give it back, she said it was because she loved the songs so dearly and because they gave her so much hope. I quickly and brashly responded, saying that we would have a service with the same song books next week. Her response is burned into my memory:

“I don’t think I’ll be around next week.”

I quickly took one of the books we had already collected and asked the charge nurse if I could make a copy. I stapled it together and gave it to her to keep. Praise God I had at least that much sense. The next month when I preached, she wasn’t there.

I had made the cavalier assumption that because last week happened for her, next week would, too. More than that, I was prepared to act based on what erroneously seemed so apparent to me. I nearly robbed a sister of the delight of music in her final days.

Be careful of acting because you think you know unknowable things.

This is exactly what James — my new favorite epistemologist — warns in the last half of Chapter 4 of his epistle in the Bible. James applies this warning specifically to two unknowable areas of life: the motives of other people (specifically believers) in verses 11-12 and the events of the future in verses 13-16.

Motives are notoriously tricky things. For the same action, there are plenty of different motives. Is she taking the pain pills because she’s an addict or because her physical pain is unbearable? Did he cut you off in traffic because he’s a hyper-aggressive jerk, or because he was trying to avoid the cyclist you didn’t see? Are they helping the poor because it’s right, or because it makes them look good?

In psychology, there’s a term for how we judge the motives and resulting actions of others. It’s called the “fundamental attribution error.” In short, we tend to perceive our own motives through rose-colored glasses while we look at why other people do things through, well, what’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses? We see only the best in ourselves and, more often than not, the worst in others.

In case you missed it there, psychology strongly implies that we’re not even good at judging our own motives. Paul even gave up on trying. In 1 Corinthians 4:3-4, he said, “I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

Paul knows that if he judges himself or someone else, he would be using his own standard and his own limited knowledge instead of God’s perfect standard and perfect knowledge.

This is exactly why James compared “speak[ing] against one another” to judging the law. We not only condemn our brothers and sisters when we are ungracious to their faces or behind their backs, we condemn God’s law itself. Yes, God’s law does condemn each and every one of us, but God’s law also says that we are forgiven through His perfect sacrifice. When we judge and condemn our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cheapen the power of the cross, all based on motives we can’t possibly know. Let’s leave judging motives and actions up to God who does know.

Please note here that there is a difference between sharing your perception that a brother or sister might be in the wrong, and condemning him or her.

James’ second caution is regarding how freely we talk about the future.

I think the danger there is evident from my own mistakes, but I don’t think James’ warning is limited to the way we make definite plans. Statements like “I’ll never ...” or “I’ll always ...” should be attended with the same caution. Really any prognostication about the way the future will be independent of how God orders it is to claim God’s omniscience as your own.

This isn’t a case of legalistically banning the use of future-tense verbs, but really a case of categorizing things only God can know properly. It’s a case of not only accepting the things you can’t know, but trusting God with them.

James moves from the idea of judging the motives and actions of other people to that of acting like we know what tomorrow brings because they are really the same error. We not only speculate about things we cannot possibly know, but we go even further to act with certain on that very “knowledge.”

It seems like a lot of hurt could be avoided if we together thought about how certain we are that we know what we think we know.

What do you think?

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