“Converting Knowledge into Wisdom,” Ensign, July 1983, 2
Some years ago, in an article about Admiral Robert Peary’s efforts to reach the North Pole, the writer suggested an analogy that has great significance to our time:
“On this trip, [Admiral Peary] traveled a whole day toward the North, his sled dogs unflagging in their speed. At night, when he checked his bearings to determine his latitude, he found to his surprise that he was much further South than he had been in the morning.
“All day, it seems, he had been driving toward the North on an immense iceberg drawn southward by an ocean current.
“And sometimes it occurs to me that we are all standing on this iceberg, racing forward in one direction, while the very ground beneath us moves implacably in the other direction.
“With tremendous speed and power, we are moving toward discoveries and inventions that utterly dwarf Peary’s conquest of the North Pole. In medicine, in technology, in food supply, in materials and techniques and processes, we have made more progress in the last fifty years than was made in the previous five hundred.
“Yet, at the same time, the ground we are standing on steadily seems to move backward, drawn not by ocean currents, but by social currents too vast and deep for us to comprehend, much less to control.
“As we check our bearings to determine the latitude of the human condition at this point in history, we are more surprised and appalled than Peary to learn that we are ‘farther South’ than our fathers or grandfathers were.
“The first two-thirds of the 20th Century have witnessed a monumental regression from the hopes and aspirations of the 19th Century. For now, with all the new techniques at our disposal for mastering nature and controlling our own destinies, we appear further than ever from our goals.” (Sydney J. Harris, Deseret News, January 7, 1964, p. 14-A.)
As I reread this statement, I think Sydney Harris summed up rather well some aspects of the present world situation. Certainly mankind is more knowledgeable in many areas than it has ever been before. “In medicine, in technology, in food supply, in materials and techniques and processes,” we have made and are making unprecedented progress. Not only is knowledge in these areas being accumulated so fast that one can hardly keep abreast of it, even in a very narrow field, but the application of much of it is literally transforming our way of life.
We are also gaining knowledge in other fields—those, for instance, which relate to men’s personal conduct and to their dealings with one another. Unfortunately, however, we do not seem able to put the knowledge we acquire in these areas to similar beneficial use. An example of this is the continued use of tobacco in the face of knowledge that it greatly increases the incidence of lung cancer.
Another example is found in the area of family relations. In spite of all we know about the causes and evils of divorce, and in spite of the tremendous work done by marriage counselors and other welfare agencies, the divorce rate is still going up.
These are but two of many illustrations which could be cited to sustain the conclusion that “as we check our bearings to determine the latitude of the human condition at this point in history, we are more surprised and appalled than Peary to learn that we are ‘farther South’ than our fathers or grandfathers were.”
Now, I know I have not told you anything new. Our predicament is quite generally recognized, and many solutions have been suggested. There are those who pin their hopes on the United Nations. Others contend that the solution depends upon education. Some say it depends upon a knowledge of economics. Others put their hopes in armaments.
No doubt all these proposals have their functions. But in my judgment, no one of them nor all of them together will cure our fatal weakness. I say this because not one of them, either wittingly or unwittingly, takes that weakness into account. Our fatal weakness is, as already indicated, the inability to put to beneficial use knowledge which relates to our own personal conduct and to our dealings one with another on the local, national, or international level. What we have already said about tobacco is true also for immorality, which involves many people in worldly cultures.
The same thing, in varying degrees, could be said with respect to honesty and every other moral principle. Many in the world simply do not have the capacity to apply with wisdom the knowledge they have about the enslaving philosophies of Satan. In dealing with his influences, they react about like frogs. I am told that a frog dropped suddenly into a pan of hot water will immediately jump out, but that if he is put in a pan of cold water and placed on a stove, he will stay in it until he boils to death. I think in these matters many are getting pretty warm!
Many people correctly make the point that our only hope is to turn to God and his laws of conduct. For example, Charles Lindbergh said that in his young manhood he thought “science was more important than either man or God,” and that “without a highly developed science modern man lacks the power to survive.” After World War II, however, he went to Germany and saw what bombing had done to that country, which had been a world leader in science. There, he says, “I learned that if his civilization is to continue, modern man must direct the material power of his science by the spiritual truths of his God.” (Reader’s Digest, February 1964, pp. 95–96.)
With these generalities we, of course, agree. But like the statistics on cigarettes and lung cancer, and the reports on divorce and immorality, they don’t get results. They have “a form of godliness” but lack “the power thereof.” (See 2 Tim. 3:5.) They don’t change men’s personal habits or arrest their steady descent into moral and philosophical degeneracy.
As I think about mankind’s great learning, our progress in material things, our unsolved problems, and our declining morality, I come to the conclusion that our troubles are in large measure due not so much to a lack of facts as to a want of wisdom. What we desperately need is to recognize and acquire that quality which converts knowledge into wisdom.
Webster distinguishes wisdom from “knowledge—which [according to him] denotes acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts, … and from science,” which he says “is exact, organized, and classified knowledge, especially in relation to the physical world,” and third, from information, which he defines as “knowledge communicated or acquired, especially by reading or observation.” Wisdom as distinguished from these, he says, “is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts, especially in their practical relations to life and conduct.” It is for want of this capacity that our generation is deteriorating. The development of this capacity, which converts knowledge into wisdom, is one of the blessings that comes from receiving the guidance and companionship of the Holy Spirit after we have entered into the Master’s church.
Since knowledge is an “acquaintance with, or clear perception of, facts”; and “wisdom is the capacity of judging soundly and dealing broadly with facts; especially in their practical” application “to life and conduct,” it follows that wisdom, although more than, is nevertheless a product of, and is dependent upon knowledge.
The Book of Mormon specifically relates God’s wisdom to his knowledge. Speaking of God’s plan for the salvation of men, Lehi says: “All things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.” (2 Ne. 2:24.) Thus, as God’s perfect wisdom is a product of His knowledge of all things, so man’s wisdom is dependent upon his knowledge. But since man does not know all things, it is possible, as already indicated, for him to be knowledgeable about many things and still be short on wisdom—that is to say, the [known] facts … in their practical relations to life and conduct.”
Mankind generally has proved short in wisdom on two counts. First, mankind does not have all the facts; and, second, mankind does not have the capacity to make maximum beneficial use of the facts it does have.
Is there, then, no hope for improvement? Yes, there is a way. That way is for men to come to a knowledge of the true and living God.
The Psalmist gave us the answer when he said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps. 111:10.) Now, I have done a little homework on the meaning of the word fear as here used. And I assure you that the Psalmist did not intend it to mean dread, fright, terror, or dismay. What he did intend to express by whatever word he actually used was “profound reverence.” Webster uses this phrase, “profound reverence,” as one of the definitions of fear. A more meaningful version of the Psalmist’s statement would be, “Profound reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Let us consider now for a moment the significance of profound reverence. One definition of profound is “arising from the depth of one’s nature.” Reverence is the soul of true religion. Its seedbed is sincerity. Its quality is determined by the esteem in which one holds the object of his reverence. And this esteem is evidenced by his behavior toward that which he reverences. When one reverences God, the profoundly reverent person has a worshipful adoration coupled with a respectful behavior toward him and all that pertains to him. One who has a profound reverence for the Lord loves him, trusts in him, prays to him, relies upon him, and is inspired by him. Inspiration from the Lord has always been, and now is, available to all mankind who have a profound reverence for him.
In soundly judging—which is a function of wisdom—the inspiration of the Lord can and often does compensate for unknown facts—that is, for lack of knowledge. For example, if a stranger at the crossroads, not knowing which way to turn, can receive inspiration from God, his decision will be as wise as if he had known all the facts. Why? Because God “knoweth all things.” Inspiration from him is an expression of total wisdom.
Not only does such inspiration compensate for want of facts; it also induces men, by self-discipline, to conform in their personal conduct and in their dealings one with another to the highest standards that they know. In other words, it gives men the capacity which distinguishes wisdom from knowledge.
Surely the Psalmist was inspired when he declared that profound reverence for God “is the beginning of wisdom.”
Obviously, no one can have reverence for an unknown being. Conversely, those who have the most profound reverence for God are the people who know him best.
The conclusion of the whole matter is: Wisdom is in short supply in the world today because men do not know God, not even all those who preach of him. Until mankind comes to a knowledge of God, we will continue in our distraction, regardless of how much other knowledge we acquire.
The Lord, knowing all things, foresaw our present state, and long ago, speaking about us through his prophet, Isaiah, declared, “The wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.” (Isa. 29:14; see also 2 Ne. 27:26.) Confirming the fact, He has said in our day that the wisdom of men has perished and their understanding has come to naught. And he has specified the reason for their loss of wisdom, their forsaking of him:
“They have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant;
“They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world.” (D&C 1:15–16.)
The Lord has also told us clearly many times where our wisdomless course will take us. And I assure you that that condition will be neither comfortable nor pleasant.
If a person seeks to obtain wisdom in his life, the first step he must take is to seek the Lord, “to establish his righteousness.” He must come to a realization that he is inadequate in and of himself. He must in sincerity call upon God with full purpose of heart. “Seek, and ye shall find” (Matt. 7:7) has ever been and is now the pattern and the promise. Doing this, a person may—and it is the only way he can—be led to a knowledge of God from which springs that “profound reverence” declared by the Psalmist to be the beginning of wisdom.
To guide mankind to this means of escape, God revealed himself and his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, anew in this dispensation. He has revealed anew the way in which we must walk if we would know him. First, we must seek him in the manner he prescribed—namely, by prayer and by studying the word of God, modern and ancient, but particularly modern. Such prayer and study leads to faith in God, the Eternal Father, and in his Son, Jesus Christ. The next step is repentance. Such faith and true repentance is followed by baptism and the reception of the Holy Ghost. Accepting and obeying these first basic principles and ordinances, as they are prescribed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then continuing to conform to the commandments of God, gives one not only an intellectual concept of God, but a personal knowledge which is derived from “profound reverence,” which is the beginning of wisdom. Wisdom, thus gained, will not only lead individuals to a solution of their personal problems, but if enough persons gain wisdom, it will lead mankind to a solution of the larger problems facing this generation.
My sincere desire is to impress upon our minds and souls that to foster wisdom is a central purpose of our membership in the Church. If we fail to understand and appreciate the importance of the wisdom that comes through inspiration from the Lord, we will have missed a pearl of great price. God grant that we may not miss it and that we will be imbued with its significance.
Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
1. Mankind’s troubles are in large measure due not so much to a lack of facts as to a want of wisdom. What we desperately need is to recognize and acquire that quality which converts knowledge into wisdom.
2. Until mankind comes to a knowledge of God, we will continue in our distraction, regardless of how much other knowledge we acquire.
3. The development of the capacity to convert knowledge into wisdom is one of the blessings that comes from receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
4. Profound reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
5. In soundly judging—which is a function of wisdom—the inspiration of the Lord can and often does compensate for unknown facts—that is, for lack of knowledge. Inspiration from God is an expression of total wisdom.
1. Relate your personal feelings or experiences about receiving wisdom from the Lord. Ask family members to share their feelings.
2. Are there scriptural verses or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
3. Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop to the household head concerning knowledge and wisdom?