“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will cease; as for tongues, they will be stilled; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
– 1 Corinthians 13:8-10,12
Never do I feel more ignorant than when I browse the walls of a library. When I actually come close and look at the titles of each of these books, I feel overwhelmed with this sense of hopelessness; I am surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, whose riches seem so valuable, but far too expansive to ever attain.
These are not books about nothing. When you read the outside covers of them, and choose to consider the information they contain, you can appreciate the effort someone went to in acquiring and expressing it. And, even though just about every book in my university library is of an incredibly specific topic, to my surprise almost every one of them that I take the time to read the back of actually seems pretty interesting. And as I put it back on the shelf, I so often wish I had the time to read it, and learn what it has to teach me.
There is so much to learn about the world, but just not enough time.
Knowledge isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but personally, I love it. And I know many other people out there do too. And the more you love knowledge, the more painful it is to stand among so much wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, stored knowledge, knowing that most of it will escape you for the rest of your life. There are so many things I would love to learn. I would love to be able to grasp Einstein’s theory of relativity. I would love to understand the history of the English language. I would love to understand the influence of Aristotle on the writings of David Hume. And I’d love to know how to fix a car. The problem is learning all of these things requires time and energy, both of which I only have a finite amount of.
But here’s the thing. Paul says here in 1 Corinthians 13, that all this knowledge will pass away. Everything that’s been written in all these books, all the understanding we’ve accumulated over history, in the end it will all pass, and it will be superseded by something perfect, something eternal. Now this could mean a couple of things. It might mean when we die, we’ll forget everything we’ve ever known. I hope it doesn’t mean that. And luckily I think it really means that when we die, we will be brought into full knowledge of everything we need to know, maybe even everything there is to know. But either way, I know it means that when we die, all this knowledge we’ve gained with our lives will cease to be of any significance. Because our earthly knowledge is partial; it will disappear when the perfect comes. Its purpose will end with our earthly lives.
As I said, I love knowledge, so I’m certainly not dissing on it. What I am saying is that we should have an eternal mindset in the way we go about learning. I’m saying I don’t want to waste my precious time learning something that isn’t going to serve me well in this life, if I am not going to need it when eternity arrives. As much as I love knowledge, I would hate to get to Heaven, and realise that I wasted time and energy pursuing an area of knowledge that had nothing to do with the journey God called me to.
I intend to exercise wisdom in what I choose to learn. I want to pursue the particular pieces of knowledge that I need in order to run my race. And I really do think this will involve sacrificing areas of knowledge that I would love to understand, in favour of having enough time to do all the things God asks of me, and do them with excellence. It may mean that I won’t be able to impress people at parties with my comprehensive recollection of the poetry of T.S. Elliot, or my vast absorption of Tolkien’s histories of Middle Earth. More painfully, it will probably mean that for my whole life I won’t understand what it was that Einstein, apparently so brilliantly, discovered; and I won’t understand what Karl Marx’s manifesto was really saying, and precisely how it has influenced contemporary society.
I would so love to know these things. But I know that when the present life ends, I will gain a knowledge better than anything I could ever find down here. I will see my God face to face; I will have perfect knowledge of him. And whether or not he teaches me all the mysteries of his universe, and all the histories of his children, I know that to know him will be a knowledge more fascinating, more vast, and more satisfying than any other.