Deuteronomy 18:15-22, I Corinthians 8:1-9
February 1, 2009
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s the phrase I want us to focus on today. Maybe I should have made a bulletin insert with those words that you could have put on our refrigerators with a magnet! “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s a great thought for the Church.
In this passage, Paul is dealing with a very controversial subject. It’s one that comes up a number of times in the New Testament. And he often had to write about it. The controversy was this. In the market place, there was food for sale. And in that culture, meat often came from the animal sacrifice which was the practice in those times.
Now that’s not as bad as it seems. When they ate meat, it came from animals just like it does for us. And the animals had to be slaughtered, just like for us. The difference is that in their culture, that part of their lives was intertwined with their religious lives. When an animal was slaughtered for food, it was offered as a “sacrifice” in a religious ceremony. That was what the “burnt offerings” of the Jewish people was about. It was part of their food system. When they offered an animal for sacrifice to God, they kept the edible parts for their tables. I know the words “animal sacrifice” sound cruel, but in a way, it was more humane (and even spiritual!) than our methods of meat processing. Their animals were offered first to God in a spirit of thanksgiving and dedication.
The thing is, the Jewish people weren’t the only ones who did that. Other religions and cultures in the region had that same system of food production. So there were animal sacrifices being offered to other deities and other gods. And like the Jewish people, that meat became food for their tables and produce for their market places. So, when people went to the market to buy food, they may well have found themselves buying meat that had come from the sacrifice offered to other gods.
That was a problem. This was a real spiritual issue surrounding that practice, and it was argued vehemently. Some thought that God’s people had no business eating meat that came from a sacrifice given to another god. After all, they would say, the very first commandment was “Thou shalt have no other God’s before me.” And they thought eating the meat was honoring the god. So, there was much debate over this issue.
Paul’s stance on this – and he made this quite clear – was that this was not a problem for believers. It was just food, and it didn’t corrupt the soul. But – and this is the important part – he was very concerned as to how a person’s belief on this issue impacted other people. And this is where this becomes very important to us. Because I’m sure the meat we eat, and who it may have been sacrificed to, is pretty much a non-issue. But Paul said, that something we do should not be a “stumbling block” to somebody else. In other words, if someone else has a problem with what we’re doing, and we do it in front of them, then we have a problem.
A good example for us might be drinking alcohol. That’s a big issue in some churches. (Not this church, apparently!) Personally, you might not have an issue with drinking. But, what if you were to drink in front of an alcoholic? Would that not be a problem? And what if you were to drink in front of a person who believed very strongly that it’s wrong to do so? The question here becomes, do you care enough about that other person to consider your actions in their presence?
Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.” And He wasn’t saying knowledge was bad. He was talking about the kind of knowledge that says you know more about an issue, or that your stand is more correct than someone else, that is kind of knowledge that “puffs up.” He’s talking about the ego, you see. And what the ego gets involved, that muddies the issue! “But in contrast to that,” Paul says, “love builds up.” Caring enough to honor someone else’s stance on some issue, whether you agree with it or not, is a loving act. And choosing that loving act builds up a relationship.
Paul was a great debater. But he recognized the problem with debate. He knew that sometimes a debate became an argument. And when that happens, the argument itself often becomes the most important thing! At that point winning the argument becomes everything. The issue then becomes secondary. You know what that’s like. We don’t want to be proven wrong. That would be a blow to our ego! We would feel like we’ve lost. And that’s the problem when something becomes an argument, you see. All of a sudden one has to be the winner and one the loser.
Think about what happens in a marriage. The Bible tells us, in marriage, “the two become one.” Well, if that’s truly the case, any time one person wins and the other loses, there is no winner! The couple – as a whole – loses! It’s like in mathematics, when you multiply any number by a negative number. The outcome is negative. (That never seemed fair to me in math! But it’s true.) And that’s true not just with married couples, but with all relationships. When one person becomes the winner and the other becomes the loser, the overall relationship has lost.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with debate. I like a good debate. But we need to recognize that, in its purest form, the object of debate is learning and growth. But the object in arguing is always the same – winning. And when a debate starts turning into an argument, that’s when we need to learn the kinds of skills that will help us to move whatever it is back into the realm of debate. And a big part of that is the love that Paul’s talking about. And a big part of that is recognizing that “knowledge does indeed have the potential to “puff up.”
Our society has finally started to deal with the problem of bullying. It’s been around for ever, but now it’s being recognized as bad. (Which is the first step in dealing affectively with it.) But think about it. Why do bullies do what they do? Do they really enjoy seeing others suffer. Perhaps. But the real reason bullies put others down is that it makes them seem bigger. They put others down because it “puffs them up.”
Now that’s an extreme example, I know, but the underlying principle is similar. When we say we know more than others, we are building ourselves up. (and often putting others down!) When the ego is in play, we start to think in terms of, “I’m not going to let anyone tell me they know more than me – about eating meat offered to idols.” It then becomes, “I’m not going to lose this argument.” And then, if we’re not careful, we can get to the stage where we will eat that meat – or do that controversial thing – in front of others. At that point, we’re doing what’s called “forcing the issue.” The effect of that is that we’re continuing the argument – just without the words. We may not actually be speaking, but we’re continuing the argument. Were just letting other things speak for us. There are a lot of symbols in our lives of who we are, and what we think, aren’t there? And I think Paul would challenge us to be careful with those symbols!
I think he’s right on with this. “Knowledge puffs up. But Love builds up.” When we put out that we know more than someone else, when we think more highly of ourselves than we ought, that knowledge is how knowledge “puffs up.” Then, in contrast he says, “Love builds up.” And the more I think about this, the more I come to understand that love is a choice more than it’s a feeling. There our feelings associated with love, of course, but love is a matter of who we treat one another. And how we treat others is a matter of choice.
Love, then, is the choice to build each other up. And I hope you see how that runs contrary to the ego, which seeks to build up the self. It also runs contrary to human nature. We have to choose love. We have to choose to build up others. Because the natural human reaction is self-serving. Love is the choice to build up someone else, instead.. If we don’t make that choice, the overwhelming default is self-service.
This is one of the ways we are called to be different than the rest of the world. I’m not saying there aren’t people in this world that understand self-sacrificial love. But as followers of Christ, it is required of us. Jesus said, “Whoever would be my disciple must take up (what?) the cross and follow me.” “For whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” And by the way, “finding their life” doesn’t just mean survival. That means finding the true life, the joyful life, the glorious life for which God intended us!
That’s the thought I want leave you with today. In giving us mandates for the living of this life, God wants the very best for us. And in this whole knowledge and love issue, God knows that the building up of the self causes division and even misery among his people. He wants us to know the glory of his kingdom when we follow the way of love and the upbuilding of one another! So think of those words. Put them up on the refrigerator of your hearts. And seek to build each other up through the choice of Love – which may be the hard choice, but is always the best choice.
Eternal God, we love because you first loved us. We seek to know the glory of your kingdom, and to live our lives as Jesus would have us live. Please grant us the strength we need to do that. Help us to know the power of the Holy Spirit guiding us, and convicting us, so that we may truly be conformed to the image of Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.