Saturday, December 8, 2012

Yet Another Petraeus Commentary

General David Petraeus sinned.

I'm not particularly interested in talking about the specifics of his sin. As C.S. Lewis said, “One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both.” I might add that one person may be so placed that his sin gets him humiliated in national front page news, while another person so placed that his sin remains only between him and God. Most of us are fortunate enough to be more like the second person. The immediate consequences of the first man's sin are greater and are newsworthy, but the recent media frenzy surrounding Petraeus extends beyond that.

I'm more interested in some of the reactions to Petraeus's sin. “How,” reporters, columnists, and bloggers ask, ”could such an intelligent man – the head of the Central Intelligence Agency – make such a dumb mistake?”

The answer, of course, is that intelligence and morality don't really have anything to do with each other. A good intellect doesn't automatically mean good judgment. Sin can make people do dumb things.

I'm a pretty smart guy; more than smart enough to think through, in the abstract, the consequences of my actions and inactions. That often doesn't make a difference when the moment of decision comes; either I don't stop to think, or I ignore my reasoning to do what I want, or I convince myself that this time the consequences will work out differently. Intelligence – “knowing better” – has not helped me to actually do better. And I don't think I'm alone. Very few people, if told that they need to lose weight or stop smoking or spend more time with their family or give more of their time and money, will say, “Oh, thank you. I didn't know that. Now that I know that, I will immediately make the appropriate changes.” It's nice to think that Petraeus's problem – and our problems – are simply the result of not being quite smart enough, something that could be fixed simply with a little careful thought or the right kind of education or some better decision-making. In reality, though, our problems run much deeper than the mind; they affect the heart and the will.

Our society values intelligence. For the first eighteen years or so of your life, you're evaluated primarily on the basis of your intelligence and how well you apply it in school. Even into adulthood, your IQ has a huge impact on college, career and income. Surprisingly, and in contrast to modern society, the Bible has almost nothing to say about intelligence. In fact, other than describing a few people (Abigail, Solomon, Daniel, and Sergius Paulus) as smart, Scripture only mentions intelligence once, in Isaiah 29:14 (also quoted in 1 Cor 1:19):

Therefore once more I will astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
The wisdom of the wise will perish,
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.

The Bible does, however, have a lot to say about wisdom: good judgment, “experienced and competent mastery of life and its various problems” (TDNT, p. 1057). The Bible mentions wisdom hundreds of times, with Proverbs 9:10 being one of the best known verses:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Intelligence, schooling, knowledge, and reasoning are all good things, and I'm very thankful for them. But it's good to remember that they won't ultimately save us, and they may not even protect us in the short term from the destruction and humiliation that sin can bring. Wisdom, good judgment, and the fear of the Lord are far more important.

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