Monday, November 18, 2013

Expertise and the fear of saying "I don't know"

John 9:10-11  " 'How then were your eyes opened?' they demanded.  He replied, 'The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes.  He told me to go to Siloam and wash.  So I went and washed, and then I could see.' "

The verses above are the Pharisees questioning a man who had been blind from birth, but whose sight was restored by Jesus.  Without knowing anything else about the encounter between the man and Jesus, you instinctively know that what the man describes above is not all that went on in order to restore his sight.  The miraculous healing power of Jesus is what restored the man's sight, not magic mud or healing waters.  He knew this, too.  Yet how he conducts himself here has an important lesson for us regarding expertise and wisdom.

We, as a society, have become enamored with expertise.  So-called experts have emerged in virtually any field or subject you can imagine.  Turn on the TV or listen to the radio, and news programs are now dominated by interviews with experts (or those who claim to be an expert).  There are many benefits to this trend.  All other things being equal, I would prefer to hear from someone who is knowledgeable about a particular subject and who has studied that subject in some depth.  The credibility of what knowledge is being shared goes up if we are dealing with a true expert.

The sub-conscious result for the rest of us, though, is a tendency to rely too heavily on others' expertise (or what is portrayed as being expertise).  We don't conduct our own investigations or research anymore.  When we do, it usually involves a cursory Google search and reading of one or two articles.  The sources of such articles are not scrutinized - we simply read the first one or ones that pop up on the search screen and look relevant.  Most of time, what we are reading in our searches is not reporting of news or some other factual description of the topic.  What normally comes up, and what we pay most attention to, are editorials or other opinions from "experts".  Therefore, we are not researching a topic as a means of forming our own opinion.  We are simply looking for the account of an expert that we can regurgitate as our own opinion.  The experts we gravitate toward are those that support whatever pre-conceived notion we started the search with.  Once we find an "expert" that supports our own pre-conceived idea of the truth, but expresses it in a more eloquent manner than we can, our search is over and our opinion is set.  Rarely do we take the time to read something that takes the other side of an issue, despite the fact that the author or speaker might hold an equal claim as being an "expert".  We don't want to pollute our minds with what we believe to be biased propaganda from the "other side".

The blind man being questioned by the Pharisees did not have the benefit (or curse, as the case may be) of being able to pull out his iPhone and do a Google search to answer hard questions posed to him.  What he did have available to him was his own experience and the facts of what had actually happened to him.  Again, he knew that mud and water is not what restored his eyesight.  He knew it was a supernatural occurrence that allowed him to see.  He also knew that he had no basis from which to understand what the supernatural occurrence was or how it might have happened.  He could not engage in such a discussion with the Pharisees.  Therefore, he stuck to what he knew.  Later in this chapter, the Pharisees try to pin the blind man down into agreeing with their assertion that Jesus was a sinner.  His response was, "whether he is a sinner or not, I do not know.  One thing I do know: I was blind but now I see." 

There is great wisdom in knowing what we know, and knowing what we don't know.  Stretching our own expertise beyond its limits can quickly get us into troublesome territory and cause us to form unfounded opinions on the fly for the sake of keeping up with the debate we find ourselves in.  Interestingly, we have little fear of stretching beyond our knowledge limits when debating political issues, for example.  Most people are willing to engage in political debate with or without the benefit of knowing anything about the issue under discussion. 

Faith, though, is a different matter.  We stop short of engaging someone in discussion about our faith and about following Jesus Christ because of fear.  We fear being asked hard questions for which we don't have a good answer.  We reason that it would be better for all involved to not engage in a discussion where we might be asked a question for which we don't have a good answer.  We fear doing more damage than good in such a conversation.  (Imagine if we all felt that way about political discussions!)  Oftentimes, we try to direct someone to an "expert" for a deep discussion of faith.

What if we took the same approach as the blind man?  What if we chose to engage in the discussion, but with a clear sense of humility regarding what we know and what we don't know?  What if we just answered questions as best we could based on our own experiences and the facts surrounding those experiences?  What if we were not afraid of being stumped by a question and having to answer, "I don't know"?  Wouldn't we do more eternal benefit than harm even if we can't answer every question that might be raised? Someone's eternal salvation does not rise and fall based on our personal level of expertise and ability to "sell" the concepts to them.  The Holy Spirit is more than adequate in providing people with the truth.  But the Spirit uses us as tools in providing truth.  We take ourselves out of the toolbox when we shrink back and feel like we aren't equipped to talk to someone about our faith. 

Know what you know, continue to expand what you know, and allow God to use it. 


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