“Too smart for his own good” is a strange phrase. What exactly does it mean to be so smart that it causes one harm? The general idea behind the phrase is that a person can have a great intellect, but not the corresponding wisdom and humility that allows them to use that intellect well. In particular, there are situations in which intellect can become detrimental to our spiritual health. Intellect becomes bad when it is disconnected from relationships, is unaccompanied by wisdom, and becomes the ultimate goal.
Paul warns the Corinthians particularly of the dangers of self-contained intellect. He states:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. (1 Cor. 8:1)
Within the context here, Paul is writing about the matter of eating food sacrificed to idols. The knowledge that is possessed is the knowledge that “an idol has no real existence” and there is “no God but one” (8:4). As a result men are free to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols; it ultimately means nothing to eat such food. But Paul has a greater concern than just this basic information. His concern is for the love and care of others. “Knowledge” disconnected from real relationships leads to arrogance, and that’s how some were acting in Corinth. So, Paul adds:
7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (v. 7-13)
Knowledge alone “puffs up,” or makes one prone to pride and arrogance. Love, on the other hand, builds up. Knowledge is important. It is important to know that there is no God but God, and it is important to understand the difference between sin and freedom. Knowledge alone, however, won’t build up the church from whom Christ died! Knowledge must be connected to relationships or it becomes destructive.
Knowledge must also be accompanied by wisdom. Someone who is “too smart for the own good,” has knowledge but lacks the wisdom to know how to utilize that knowledge in a meaningful way. Consider the way that James speaks of faith:
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2:18-20)
James makes an important contrast here between the expression of faith and the demonstration of faith. One of the unique ways he demonstrates the difference between those who say they have faith and those who actually demonstrate it is by appealing to the example of the demons. You can say that you believe God is one – “you do well” – but notice that this knowledge causes the demons themselves to shudder! Demonic knowledge was accompanied by at least enough wisdom to know that they should shudder. But knowledge without any work, without any response, without demonstration is “useless.” Knowledge, in this case, lacks the corresponding wisdom that makes it actually faith. In fact, there is a great danger that knowledge, unaccompanied by wisdom can lead us into trouble. It can make us cold-hearted, disconnected from God, and useless to the church. Knowledge without wisdom is simply information, and information does not lead to actual transformation.
Finally, knowledge becomes bad when it becomes the ultimate goal. It is possible to love learning about God more than you actually love God. It is possible to love intelligence, knowledge, facts, information, and simply being smart more than you love the God from whom all things flow. In these cases intellect becomes an idolatrous goal. The Bible tells us that we are to love God with all our mind (Matt. 22:37), but for some their intellect becomes a way to love themselves with all their mind. It is perversion of God’s good design and intent. In multiple places the Scriptures connect knowledge to our relationships with God. So, we read:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Prov. 1:7)
Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD (Prov. 1:29)
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. (Isa. 11:2)
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God…(1 Cor. 1:30)
Knowledge is a means to a greater end: loving God. But when knowledge is viewed as the ultimate goal, the end in and of itself, then it becomes a bad thing.
Intellect is a valuable tool, but it is a servant tool. It is designed to submit to God and serve His ends, not be an end in and of itself. When we make intellect the most important thing, when we use it to love ourselves, when we disconnect it from meaningful human relationships and practical living it becomes bad, possibly even destructive. Too smart for one’s own good is a possibility. Knowledge serving God is the goal.