Responding to the know-it-all
Jonathan R. Hein
The poet Stanislaw Jerzy Lec once wrote, “The only fool bigger than the person who knows it all is the person who argues with him.” That aphorism contains two truths.
Truth #1: Confrontation is a poor tactic when dealing with know-it-alls. Psychologists explain that know-it-alls fall into two categories. Some have a sense of superiority, genuinely believing they know more than others. They will not listen to any argument, for they assume they already have all the pertinent information. Other know-it-alls have an underlying insecurity. If you confront them, they will perceive that as an attack upon their self-worth and dig in their heels. Arguing with either type of know-it-all is going to be ineffective.
Truth #2: When encountering know-it-alls, you want to argue. Perhaps it is because you find their smugness annoying. However, your inclination to argue is more likely because you believe know-it-alls are sharing dangerous falsehoods as truth. Perhaps it is a college professor who claims that anyone who questions evolution has been misled by religious zealots into anti-scientific superstition. Perhaps it is a neighbor who, after reading a few books that question the historicity of Jesus, now explains how pointless church and prayer are. We want to quarrel with them because we love our Savior and his Word. Yet quarreling with them is ineffective
So how do you deal with the know-it-all? Here are some suggestions:
Love the know-it-all deeply.
It is easy to view the know-it-all as an enemy to be vanquished. Ask the Spirit to help you see him as a soul to be won.
We think, “But that know-it-all is such a jerk.” Look at him or her in a different way. When we come into this world, all of us were dead in our transgressions and sins—spiritual corpses (Ephesians 2:1). But without asking or deserving it, the God of grace intervened. He “made us alive with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). Were it not for the Spirit’s effort, you would be every bit as opposed to Christianity as the know-it-all. But God used someone to enable you to see the light. That person loved you enough to bring you to the font . . . to witness to you . . . to teach you Scripture. It is your turn to show love. “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Being that light begins with loving the lost. The know-it-all is desperately lost and in need of love.
Ask questions that probe why the know-it-all believes what he does.
Some have compared an argument to a house. In this metaphor, what one believes is the roof. To be held up, that roof needs strong walls. In other words, one must have sound reasons why he believes, or eventually what he believes crumbles. So, ask the know-it-all questions about why he believes what he believes.
Take that neighbor who read the book questioning whether Jesus was a historical figure. He says, “It is very scholarly. They guy who wrote it has his PhD!” You might respond, “Okay. But most history scholars say there is plenty of evidence that Jesus existed. Why do you value the opinion of this author more than other scholars?”
The true goal is to get the know-it-all to examine if the rationale for his beliefs is rooted in objective fact or personal desire. If Jesus is who he claimed to be, then the know-it-all is under Christ’s lordship. Therefore, he is inclined to accept that author’s claims because he doesn’t want Jesus to exist. A follow-up question for your neighbor might be, “Do you think you are being completely unbiased? Might there be a reason you don’t want Jesus to be a real person?”
Help the know-it-all to see that Christians are reasonable.
Some believe that being Christian means setting aside human reason. That is a gross misrepresentation. For Christians, Scripture is supreme. When Scripture says something that conflicts with reason, we simply acknowledge that we cannot grasp all of God’s works and ways. However, Christians still use reason.
Take Jesus’ resurrection. We believe it is true because through the gospel the Holy Spirit created faith within us. However, in creating that faith, the Spirit addresses our God-given intellect. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:6, St. Paul writes, “[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brother and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living.” Paul challenges those skeptical of Christ’s resurrection to consider the eyewitnesses. Ask the know-it-all, “Isn’t eyewitness testimony still something reasonable people value?”
Or take one’s approach to science. I believe there are laws of nature. I also believe that God wrote those laws and is above them. Therefore, I am open to the supernatural. When scientific inquiry suggests that the universe is so orderly that it appears as though it were engineered, the unbeliever must find a natural explanation. So, he theorizes that there was time—billions of years—for the universe to come to exist only through natural means. When I look at the same evidence, I’m open to the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful Designer who created everything supernaturally. I am not anti-intellectual or close-minded. The unbeliever assumes everything came to be without God. I assume God created it. Both of us have assumptions about how to explain things. I’m willing to accept supernatural explanations, but the unbeliever rejects that explanation. I’m actually more open-minded than the unbeliever
But we aren’t blind. We see everything the unbeliever does. We just interpret what we see differently. At death, the unbeliever sees a corpse. I see a sleeping Christian. The Spirit’s power is why I believe that. But the testimony of more than five hundred eyewitnesses tells me it is also reasonable to believe that.
Tell the know-it-all what he does not know.
You may have softened the know-it-all with your love. You have tried to help him understand that the way he views things is not entirely objective but flows from some personal assumptions. And your questions show that you aren’t some mindless zombie. You also think deeply about things. All these things give you the opportunity for conversation with the know-it-all, maybe even more than one.
But none of this will win the know-it-all for Christ. Only the gospel is the power of God for salvation. So show the know-it-all Jesus.
The know-it-all thinks he knows what God would be like, if there were such a being. He believes that God would be judgmental and controlling and if you were to fail him, there would be dire consequences. Like all of us, the know-it-all has a conscience. Failing God is a terrifying thought!
As Christ’s ambassador, you get to tell the know-it-all, “Friend, you do not know God at all!” You get to tell him of a God who had no interest in exacting a pound of flesh but instead took on flesh so that he might also take our guilt, paying for it with divine blood. You get to tell him of a Creator who gave this ordered universe to all humans to enjoy and care for. You get to tell him that God’s Word is there not to control us but to set us free. Sharing this good news . . . that is the only hope for the know-it-all.
Only a fool argues with the know-it-all. So don’t argue. Love. Question. But ultimately, proclaim the wonders our God has done.
This is the ninth article in a 12-part series on sharing your faith.
What’s your story?
How have you shared Jesus? Every encounter is different, and we want to hear from you. To whom in your life did you reach out? How did you respond to a know-it-all? E-mail responses to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “How I shared Jesus.” Include your name, congregation, and contact information. Questions? Call 414-256-3231.
Author: Jonathan R. Hein
Volume 106, Number 7
Issue: July 2019
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