Sermonette: Is Ignorance Truly Bliss?
The Desire to See
David C. Grabbe
Given 14-Feb-15; 18 minutes
We have a saying today that “ignorance is bliss.” This phrase has come to mean that a measure of peace and contentment comes from not knowing something that is disturbing, along the lines of “out of sight, out of mind.” But now that saying has been modified into the quip that “because ignorance is bliss, it explains why some people are so happy.”
The saying that “ignorance is bliss” is just the flipside of what Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 1:18:
Ecclesiastes 1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Thus it is true that in many instances, it is more comfortable to not know something. And yet Solomon does not suggest that we avoid knowledge; he only states that there is a toll which certain knowledge will take on us.
This sermonette is about a specific area of knowledge, and our approach toward it. We are just under seven weeks away from Passover, and even as there are physical preparations that must be made for the spring Holy Day season, there are also spiritual preparations for us to do to ensure that we observe the Passover in a worthy manner.
I Corinthians 11:27-32 (Holman) Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the bodyand blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing [or discerning] the body,eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. If we were properly evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord, so that we may not be condemned with the world.
The knowledge we are concerned with today is the knowledge about ourselves. We understand that accurately evaluating our lives should never be far from our minds, and not limited to this season. But as we see here, self-examination is foundational for observing the Passover in a worthy manner. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also spiritually deadly. Without an acute recognition of our spiritual state, there cannot be a true appreciation of the sacrifice that was made for us.
The knowledge that comes through self-examination does produce sorrow, and yet it can be positive if used in the right way. Jesus Christ says that those who mourn are blessed, and they will be comforted. The implication is that they are mourning over their spiritual state, and God will comfort such people through completing the salvation process. And so our sorrow and mourning can be turned to joy because they set the stage for positive changes. But the effectiveness of that knowledge really hinges on whether we actually want to see the reality about ourselves. As the adage says, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
There is a contrary example of this that may be helpful to consider. It is an extreme example, but it can still give us food for thought as we think about our own approach to knowledge. The example is found in the book entitled The People of the Lie by the late Dr. M Scott Peck.
In Dr. Peck’s years of counseling, he encountered some individuals whose pride and self-centeredness produced such destruction in the lives of those around them that Dr. Peck gave them their own category of dysfunction, which he labelled malignant narcissism. The people he writes about have a self-concern and defensiveness that is so intense that others become emotionally maimed. Their effect on other people is so damaging that Dr. Peck goes so far as to call them evil. That is a very unusual thing in the field of psychology, which is values-neutral. His basic definition of evil is something that does violence to life or liveliness. It goes beyond taking a life physically, and inhabits the realm of doing harm to the autonomy, well-being, and basic human dignity of another.
The violence that is perpetrated by these people is not the sort that is visible or obvious. Instead, it is subtle, and almost never seen directly. But one catches glimpses of it in the effect on others—seemingly crimeless victims, so to speak, who have no obvious bruises, and yet who are wounded and confused in spirit, whose lives have been steadily degraded by an oppressive force. Dr. Peck calls those he writes about “the people of the lie” because a primary characteristic is a pretense—an exterior they display of respectability and even righteousness, even as they damage and smother those around them. They are living a lie—a well-constructed lie of an upright citizen who nevertheless expertly sacrifices other people on a self-defined altar of perfection. Other people tend to start avoiding these people of the lie, because on some level they sense that it is only a matter of time before the knife will come out and the sacrificing will begin in some way.
This ties in to our topic of self-examination because the people of the lie will do everything possible to avoid the light of exposure, whether from themselves or from others. They flatly refuse to acknowledge their failures, and woe! to the person who threatens their self-image by suggesting that they do not have it all right. In addition, rather than acknowledging a sin or other short-coming, they will project their evil onto others. Thus any perceived failing in the people of the lie will be shifted to someone else. Nothing is their fault. Any relationship problem is because of the other person. They have a keen instinct for honing in on where others do not measure up, because that keeps the bright light off of themselves.
Passover is a memorial of the death of the Creator God in order to raise man from his pitiful plight of sin and wretchedness. Partaking of the Passover means first recognizing that we need saving. It means acknowledging how far short we fall from the image of Jesus Christ, and our absolute dependence on what only He can provide if our lives are going to improve. In contrast, the people of the lie really do not believe they need to change, or that they have any major defect. They may pay lip-service to personal growth as part of their pretense, but Dr. Peck’s conclusion is that they live in sheer terror of looking inside, of making an honest accounting of the fruit of their lives. They will not bear the extreme discomfort of shining a bright light into the dark places of their souls. The have no desire to see, and thus even a sacrifice as great as Jesus Christ’s would hold little meaning for them. Yet it is only when a man acknowledges the depths of his own brokenness that he can begin to appreciate the awesome cost of what was done for him.
As I said, the people of the lie are an extreme example. But there is something similar—and something closer to home—that is written for us:
Revelation 3:17-19 Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.
In verse 17, Jesus Christ gives a double-indictment for spiritual blindness. That is, He says that they are blind, just as He says that they are wretched, and miserable, and so forth. These conditions are bad enough on their own, but the fact that He has to tell them that they are blind shows their complete ignorance. In other words, they are blind to the fact that they are blind. During His ministry, Jesus healed a number of physically blind men, and every one of them was well-aware of his condition. They all knew that they needed help. Yet this letter describes an unrecognized blindness. Being blind is bad enough, but being blind and assuming one is just fine is a truly pitiable condition.
There is a trait of human nature here of which we must be aware, and that is our proclivity to create our own standard of righteousness, coupled with selecting evidence that allows us to measure up almost perfectly. For example, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee had gathered all the evidence of his righteousness: he was not an extortioner, adulterer, tax collector, or unjust man; plus he fasted and he tithed. This was his evidence of how well he measured up to the standard he had in his mind, and he had no interest in seeing anything else. Yet it was the man who was overcome by his sinfulness, and readily acknowledged it, whom God justified.
In other instances, the Pharisees held up their having Abraham as their father, and how well they kept the Pharisaic traditions, as evidence that they were right, and the Son of God was wrong. They would not accept any evidence that they had problems, and felt justified in doing violence against the Holy One who called them into account. They did not want to see.
The Jews in Haggai’s day were enamored of their paneled houses while neglecting the house of God. God told them twice to do a self-examination—to consider their ways. He also pointed out what He had been doing to help them see that they were off track. Their crops were not yielding, they barely had enough to eat or drink, their clothing was not warm enough, and their money kept running out. God was hindering them, and yet they had hidden their eyes from that contrary evidence. The people were not making the connections themselves, so God had to connect the dots through the prophet.
As another example of this proclivity, think back to where we started, with the Corinthians. They had received spiritual gifts from God, and these became their evidence of God’s favor. But Paul had to point out all the evidence on the other side, such as the schisms, the prideful tolerance of sin, and the mistreatment of the poor and weak in their midst. That evidence had not made it into their balances, and it is in that context that Paul admonishes them to examine themselves before taking the Passover, so they would not incur God’s judgment for their violence against the Body of Christ. Leviticus 7:20 says that if a man eats a sacrifice while he is unclean, God will cut him off from his people. This is what Paul was trying to help them see: their uncleanness in the way they were conducting themselves was putting them in danger of being cut off … yet they were blissfully ignorant.
In each of these examples of selective evidence, we also see Christ’s work to encourage His people to do a proper accounting. In Haggai, He called for a drought on the works of their hands. In Corinth, many were sick and some had died, but that judgment was still better than being condemned with the world. In the first century, God took on the form of a man, and gave His people a message personally. And with Laodicea, He says that He rebukes and chastens those He loves. He is always working to help His people to see, and often His work involves doing things that should make us curious about the cause, so that we inquire of Him.
So, coming back to Laodicea, the evidence of righteousness that is being held up has to do with being rich and increased with goods. That might apply physically, but it certainly applies spiritually. Every one of us has riches—things that are significant to us that we can hold up as evidence that we are right with God.
But there is a major piece of evidence that we keep tripping over and ignoring, and that is being vomited from Christ’s mouth as a distasteful thing. The church is scattered far and wide. And even as there is division in our midst, it is only natural to come up with reasons why the fault lies with someone else. And as long as we reject any possibility that there is something wrong with us—if we do not want to see—then nothing changes. It is simple to find fault with a minister, congregation, or group, and make the judgment that we are better off separating from those problems. And the kicker is that our observations may be true, and our decision could be godly—and yet as long as those problems remain our focus, it means that we do not have to do the really hard work of shining the light on ourselves. Laodicea means the people judge, and when the people can only judge in their own favor, the fruit of that deformed seed can only be violence and division.
Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
We understand the necessity of studying God’s word as part of our self-examination. But if we stop there, we can still walk in darkness, because our comprehension of the Scriptures is not complete, and we also have an ability to overlook what we do not want to see. And so what we need is the written word of God, combined with the Word of God who became flesh. We need His mind—His Spirit—in order to put things together accurately. As the next verse says, “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” He is the one who can help us see clearly.
If we want to see—if we want to have the right perspective on our lives, and thus gain a deeper appreciation for the sacrifice made on our behalf—He will respond, and help us see what is needed.
His desire is not to crush us. His desire is to help us out of the state of wretchedness and corruption, and lead us into abundance and eternity. But He needs to know that what He is offering is what we truly want, even though it means seeing things that we would rather not see. Even in that, though, He is merciful, and will not give us more than we can bear.
But to keep the salvation process moving forward, we have to acknowledge where we stand in relation to Him, because our growth will stop without that reminder that we are not yet a finished product. Our ignorance might allow for some short-term bliss, but it may also harm those around us, and it will cut short the good work that God began in us.
Hebrews 4:14-16 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
This is a time of need. What we need to consider is whether we will acknowledge it, and ask for His help to see ourselves. If … we want it.