Ernest Hemingway is reported to have once said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” Pastor John, do you think this is true? Are the deepest thinkers the most unhappy people?
First of all, I doubt that Ernest Hemingway ever knew an intelligent, red-blooded, unashamed, thoughtful, articulate, happy Christian. The circles he functioned in, and the jaundiced view of life that led him to blow his brains out when he was 61 years old with a shotgun, didn’t give him very good exposure to the possibilities of a kind of happiness that thrives precisely amid the sorrows of knowledge.
He does put his finger on a truth that is biblical, and it is Ecclesiastes 1:18: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” That is what he experienced, and that is true.
“The life of thinking and increasing in understanding is mixed. It increases sorrow, and it increases joy.”
So, my answer is yes. It is true because the Bible says so, and at the end of Ecclesiastes it says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That is true. The intellectual life, the life of the mind, the life of thinking and wrestling with problems and trying to solve them, is a life of increased sorrow and weariness.
Yes, it is, but notice that it does not say that increased knowledge leads to decreased joy. See the difference? Increased sorrow? Yes. Decreased joy? No. What if sorrow and joy increased together almost in proportion with increased knowledge? What if the reason all the intellectuals Hemingway knew were unhappy is that they were only increasing in one kind of knowledge and not the kind that brings joy?
Increased Knowledge, Increased Sorrow: Five Reasons
Biblically, the case for knowledge, the life of thinking and increasing in understanding, is mixed. It increases sorrow, and it increases joy. If you would know God better and know the world better and know yourself better, there is a price to be paid in sorrow and vexation. It will be costly, and there is also pleasure to be had. It is, the Bible says, worth it all. So, let me give the reasons that I can think of why the Bible says that increased knowledge increases sorrow.
1. The more we know, the more we don’t know.
It is like paddling your little boat of knowledge farther and farther out into the endless sea of knowledge — which is infinite, because God is infinite — away from the comfortable shores of security and ignorance. The ignorant people don’t know the extent of what they don’t know.
Switch the metaphor from paddling to climbing. Those who pursue knowing get to the top of a ridge that they have been climbing for ten years, and as they pull their chin up over the top, they see ten thousand mountains to climb. The person at the bottom, who hasn’t been climbing, he can’t even see over the ridge. He has lost sight of the person climbing the ridge, and so he is not bothered by those ten thousand mountains yet to be scaled out there.
2. The more we know, the more we know of suffering.
Knowledge increases sorrow because the more we know, the more we know of suffering. This is a fallen world. The more you know of it, the more you weep. It is futility. It is brokenness. It is misery.
The ignorant feel some of it, but those who increase in knowledge of the world outside, in the scope of history — it is a conveyor belt of corpses, one historian said. We weep because of the more we know of this fallen world.
3. The more we know, the more we are accountable to live up to.
The third reason that knowledge growing increases sorrow is because the more we know, the more we are accountable to live up to. To whom much is given, much will be required (see Luke 12:48). Our responsibility increases.
“Not many of you should become teachers” (James 3:1). There is a burden to carry when God has given you insight. Yes, Christ gives help with all our burdens, but Paul spoke of an anxiety for all the churches. He carried so much in himself, and he wanted them to know so much. It was a burden that they learn this and live this.
4. The more we know, the more our ideas change.
Knowledge increases sorrow because we are compelled to change our ideas when we learn some things, jumping from that little boat I talked about — that little boat of knowledge that you are sailing on into the sea of what you don’t know. Sometimes you have got to leap out of the boat because it turns out to be wrong.
You think, “I am sailing the wrong theological boat, and there is just a little raft of truth out there.” You have got to leap for you. You get splinters in your hands and your ego, and that is painful to have to share your thoughts. I mean, I wept my eyes out in the fall of 1968 as my theology was crumbling and needed to be rebuilt. It is a very painful thing to walk through transformations of what you think you know.
5. The more we know, the more senility saps.
The last one I thought of was that knowledge increases sorrow because the more we know, the more dementia will take away. A mind full of great truth from God’s word and God’s world will feel the sting of senility more keenly than the mind that has less to lose.
So yes, Hemingway, much wisdom increases vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow, but the message of the Bible is that it is worth it. It is worth the sorrow. The summons of the Bible everywhere is this: get knowledge, get understanding. The Bible never says to run away from it. It warns you of the pain, but it never says to turn and run.
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom, and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1–5)
That it hardly a warning. This is as aggressive an invitation as you could possibly make to go for it. Yes, sorrow — but go for it.
“There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.” (Proverbs 20:15)
Jesus: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hosea 4:6)
“I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Romans 10:2)
“[In Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:3)
So, in other words, Mr. Hemingway, increased knowledge does increase vexation and sorrow, but that is only half the story. Oh, that you had known the other half. In Jesus Christ this “vexing” knowledge is a treasure chest of precious jewels.