In a conversation I had with a woman in her late 50s who was describing the abusive childhood of a loved one, she repeated a commonly used excuse for the irresponsible behavior of the parents. How often have we heard this phrase: “They did the best they could with the knowledge they had”? That phrase is usually followed or preceded by a horror story of child abuse or some other atrocity. I decided a long time ago that I despise that phrase, that excuse.
I do realize that we often do things out of ignorance and on some level that will always happen and cannot be helped. No one can know everything or understand any situation fully but God. Perhaps that’s why God is infallible? He knows everything and sees each situation from all sides. But I don’t mean to get into a theological discussion of God’s perfection, so moving on… As I was saying, I do understand that each person will make mistakes out of ignorance and this is to be expected. The reason I so despise the phrase mentioned is because it’s often is used to excuse behavior that is reprehensible. When a small child is beaten with a board full of nails for saying a curse word he’s heard his father use a million times before, then forced to “confess” by repeating that curse word and is so frightened he can’t remember it, is then forced to guess what curse word he said then beaten for each incorrect curse word he guessed until he’s nearly dead – that is inexcusable. Don’t tell me the father didn’t know any better. No one is that stupid.
I heard that phrase many times while I was growing up in the form of, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I did the best I could with what I knew to do.” And I decided I hated it. I was not the one beaten with boards, thank God! But in a pastor’s house, you hear horror stories every day. People bring their problems to their pastor and I paid attention. Ignorance was sometimes an excuse, but it struck me as totally unreasonable.
I made a decision somewhere around the age of fourteen that I would not let that be an excuse for bad behavior in my life. If I didn’t know something, I would find out. And I have built my life on that concept. I’m a researcher. It may appear that I make quick decisions and don’t take the time to think them through. I am a decisive person. But what many don’t realize is the number of hours I’ve spent searching for answers to questions I don’t have to answer yet, so that when the day comes that I do have to make a choice, I can choose wisely. I rarely decide anything without much research and forethought. When I do, I usually regret it.
Ever since the day my brother was born when I was nearly eleven years old, I have known that I want to be a mother. I began to research parenting and did all I could to apply the principles I learned to the children around me. When I was in my early twenties, I finally put down the parenting books because I realized I was driving myself crazy with all this theory and no one to practice on. I haven’t picked up another parenting book since then, but I’m a really good babysitter and aunt!
The point is, I didn’t want to make parenting mistakes out of ignorance when the time came. I haven’t picked up any more books since then, but I’ve been a diligent student of my friends with children. I’ve watched how they do things, asked questions, and made mental notes for myself.
In my mid-twenties, a friend challenged me with a unique understanding of Scripture as it relates to the end times and Christ’s return. She walked me through the Scriptures to prove her point of view. As she did this, I realized I disagreed strongly with her, but I couldn’t articulate why. I KNEW she was wrong, but I couldn’t walk her through Scriptures myself to show her why. I became furious and had to walk away from the conversation before I lost my temper. I wasn’t angry with her, but with myself for not knowing more so I could discuss it with her. I’d been a Christian all my life, was a pastor’s daughter, the product of several Christian schools, and had even spent a year in Christian college. Yet I was mute before her argument. That realization drove me nuts.
A few years later I enrolled in seminary. The major paper I did for my last systematic theology class was on this very subject. I was determined to understand it and refute it. When I finished that paper, I felt such a sense of accomplishment! I went back and talked to her about it and was finally able to explain why I disagreed with her. I didn’t change her mind (darn it!), but I was no longer ignorant either.
Proverbs 13:15 says, “Good understanding gains favor, but the way of the unfaithful is hard.”
What good would it have done for me to have yelled and shown my anger toward my friend that day when I didn’t know what to say to her, just knew I disagreed with her? I kept my mouth shut until I had good understanding. She had no idea I had been so worked up by what she said. When I went back to her years later, we had an intelligent conversation about it and she was touched that I cared so much about her ideas that I went and studied the matter out to be able to answer her. We are still great friends to this day and every once in a while have to acknowledge our different opinions on the end times. This is done with no animosity, but respect.
Proverbs chapter four is full of admonitions to get wisdom and to make sure we understand things.
Proverbs 4:5 Get wisdom! Get understanding!
Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
6 Do not forsake her, and she will preserve you;
Love her, and she will keep you.
7 Wisdom is the principal thing;
Therefore get wisdom.
And in all your getting, get understanding.
8 Exalt her, and she will promote you;
She will bring you honor, when you embrace her.
9 She will place on your head an ornament of grace;
A crown of glory she will deliver to you.”
We often do shameful things out of ignorance; things that embarrass us later. We can’t explain why we did them except, “I didn’t know any better.” But Proverbs urges us to seek wisdom and understanding. Instead of shame, it promises that we’ll have an ornament of grace, a crown of glory on our heads.
I try to live my life by the words of Proverbs 4:13, which states, “Take firm hold of instruction, do not let go; keep her, for she is your life.”
What would the world look like if we all sought after wisdom and understanding? If we all tried to understand the best way to do something before we did it? What would the church look like if just the Christians did that?
There’s no way I’ll ever know all the things I’m interested in, curious about, or need to know. I wish I could, but when would I sleep? I realize how little I know, which drives me to learn more and apply myself to getting instruction. Ignorance may be bliss, but knowledge is power.