When Knowing What’s Right Isn’t Enough

By March 14, 2017blog

What happens when you find yourself in a situation where what you know conflicts with what you do?

In the past five years, I’ve grown to love biographies of men and women from every time period and way of life, from presidents to civil rights leaders, to athletes, business leaders, war generals, theologians, missionaries, etc.  Among the many things I’ve learned over the 30-35 biographies I’ve read in recent years is that people are far more complex than we realize, as even the most gifted, passionate people have their flaws and moral blindspots that they navigate through life with.

Most recently, I just finished Jon Meachem’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, and I think it’s safe to say that Jefferson is the most complex, fascinating figure I’ve read about.  He’s like the Forest Gump of the founding fathers, always finding himself in the midst of the most important events that the colonies faced as they transitioned to become and grow as the United States.  It would be difficult to overstate how important he was in the formation and development of our nation today, and he had an eerily prophetic mind as to what challenges would lay ahead for the US far after he is gone.

And while I can’t help but appreciate the way he poured himself out for his country, I also couldn’t help but notice how, in many ways, his life was a massive contradiction.  Overall, there was a significant gap between what he knew and what he did.  Two examples:

Freedom and Slavery

The same guy who literally wrote the Declaration of Independence with the famous words, “all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, is the same man who owned 600 slaves over the span of his life at his Monticello plantation (featured image).  Think about that.  But here’s the thing, Jefferson himself knew deep down these two realities were in direct conflict.  Meachem writes:

Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform.  “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” he wrote in 1814, but that was not true.  He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape…

Jefferson really did hate the idea of slavery, and he knew it flew in the face of everything he believed in.  But he was not willing to give up his way of life, which depended on the work of slaves.  Ultimately, his desire for a “good life” overrode his desire for justice.

Presidential Power

The second example is how Jefferson viewed the amount of power that the President should have in leading the United States.  He feared that if left unchecked, the President would reflect the monarchy that they just rebelled and declared independence from in Britain, so he was resolute in helping to form a government that was filled with checks and balances, where the power was in the hands of the people as opposed to one man.  It was literally revolutionary, a brilliant form of government that the world had never seen before, and he was always paranoid about limiting the executive power to keep it that way.  But then, a funny thing happened.  Jefferson himself became the President, and he often did not apply the standards of “limited power” to himself.  Again, Meachem writes:

He believed he was the best judge of what was needed in the present crisis… “A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it not the highest,” Jefferson wrote after he left office.  “The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.”

Jefferson was instrumental in drafting the written laws of the country and he was resolute about making sure other people followed them, but when he was in the highest office, he didn’t hold himself to the same standard.  His desire to do what he wanted was stronger than his desire to follow the laws that he knew all too well because he was among those who instated them.

A Glorious Warning for the Church  

So what does this mean for the Christian and the body of Christ today?  Well, among other things, simply knowing what is right is not enough.  In general, so-called Christians’ knowledge far outpaces their obedience.  Yes, we know what we ought to do, how we ought to think, what we ought to put to death in the flesh, but we so often don’t.  Why?  Like Jefferson, it comes down to knowledge versus desire, and desire will always win out.

Knowledge is crucial.  The foundation of Christianity is knowing who God is and what he has done through his Son, Jesus Christ.  But knowledge isn’t everything, and simply having the right answers to the right questions doesn’t give evidence to true conversion and salvation.  To be a Christian is not to just know what Jesus did on our behalf, but it’s to love Jesus as a result of that which we know.  It’s supernaturally receiving a new heart by confessing our sin and believing in him as our Savior, and to have God’s Spirit put within us (Ez 36:26-27), which first transforms our desires, and then our actions.  In short, it equips you to become more like Christ, to actually begin to do the things that you know are good and right.

When what we know conflicts with what we want, we will ultimately choose what we want in the long run.  So the essence of the Christian life is not to just know more, it’s to love Him in such a way where his desires become our desires.  Once our desires line up with the God of the universe, he is pleased to give us that which we desire, for it’s for his Glory (Psalm 37:4).

We will never be perfect on this side of heaven, and we will often succumb to moments where we choose to walk in the flesh and opposed to the Spirit.  That is why we take comfort in the reality that our eternal security is not wrapped up in our performance, but rather in his abundant grace in sending his Son to die on the cross so that we may have life, and the forgiveness of sins – past, present, and future.  That’s all true, the grace of God is the source of our salvation.  Christ alone, by faith alone.

“What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we do died to sin still live in?”  (Romans 6:2).  That is a sobering question we ought to consider as we examine our salvation.  Do we see God’s grace as something that transforms our desires, which in turn enables us to transform our behavior, or do we see God’s grace as a get-out-of-jail-free card where we can continue to do whatever we want in the flesh and not feel badly about it?

It’s a tragic reality that many so-called, self-proclaimed Christians in this world will be utterly shocked on that last Day when they come before their Maker.  However, that’s not for me to decide for anyone.  I just want to pose the question, first to myself, and then to you, does what we know line up with what we do?  Or are those two things constantly in direct conflict with one another?

For all he did to shape and mold the birth of the United States, Thomas Jefferson often held himself to a different standard than he did others.  No one will probably ever write a biography about you or I, but if for some reason someone did, let it be said of us, that by God’s grace, our life and actions reflects our proclaimed faith.  Let it be said of us that what we do lines up with what we know, and let us give him all the glory and honor for it.