Knowledge as a Dangerous Thing?

How many times have we heard or said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing?” It’s usually reserved to explain (or rationalize) when we proceed to act without knowing what we should know.  That doesn’t often turn out well.  Although I’m pretty handy around the house, I can think of times when I attempted a DIY small engine repair without sufficient knowledge—(I mean, how hard could it be?)—and quickly found myself way over my head.  To say I made matters worse would be too kind.

Knowing Too Much vs. Too Little

But too much knowledge isn’t all positive, either, for it can be the source of arrogance and condescension.  “Knowledge puffs up,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “while love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1).  No one likes a “know-it-all”, and few of us would admit to being one.

Knowledge can wear you out, too, as the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes in a favorite Bible verse for college students everywhere:  “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).  That did little to placate my parents and teachers, who were more apt to respond with “Study to show thyself approved” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)!

What I Didn’t Know Then

In a more serious vein, the ancient writer pointed out that knowledge can also be a burden: “the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18That might seem to be an odd correlation until we think about it.  If you’ve ever discovered the betrayal of a friend or partner, whose promises of loyalty nevertheless persist, you might relate to Bob Seger’s classic line “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”[1]  Undoubtedly, there are some things that we learn and can’t “un-know,” even if we wish we could.  The weight of the knowledge seems too much to bear, and we might wonder if the “bliss” of ignorance is preferable to the paralyzing grief brought on by knowledge of an ugly truth.

Now You Know

Having traveled in developing countries, and visited in impoverished pockets of US cities (including my own), my eyes are open to the impact of injustice, structural racism and oppression, or ill-advised or even well-intentioned policies, on various segments of humanity.  Experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of abject poverty, it would be exceedingly difficult to walk away without doing what I can.  So, too, regarding the suffering and need of fellow citizens or nearby neighbors due to the widespread devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, or the major earthquake in Mexico, which currently fill our TV screens (if we’re fortunate enough to have power). Do I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then?  Perhaps, but in the notorious words of Biggie Smalls “if you don’t know, now you know”[2].  So, what are you and I going to do about it? The apostle James reminds believers everywhere that doing nothing is not an option: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17).


[1] Bob Seger, “Against the Wind” (Against the Wind, Capitol 1980)

[2] Biggie Smalls, “Juicy” (Ready to Die, Arista 1984)