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Checkpoint Summer 2021: Knowing God

CMS missionaries Dave and Leoni Painter serve in Cambodia, where the dominant Buddhist religion values ‘acquiring knowledge’ as a good work. How to help students of the gospel understand grace?

The lesson was proceeding well. I followed the Khmer language textbook on this subject that I had been developing over the last few years. The previous night I had been up carefully preparing PowerPoint slides. I’d remembered all the relevant Khmer technical words, the class engaged in an active and sometimes heated discussion, and the students’ understanding of the subject matter seemed to have grown over the last three hours. Then one of the students said, “Thank you, Teacher, you gave us good knowledge.” My heart sank…

First, some background.

New missionaries doing serious Bible teaching

It felt like an anomaly when Leoni and I, relatively new and inexperienced missionaries, were assigned to teaching positions. The task was to instruct eager local  Christians how to serve God’s people through an understanding of God’s word in their language so they might serve in their own culture. We were assigned to teach the Bible, an ancient document written by human hands, yet inspired by God.

As teachers of theology, we had to consider that the Bible is written in a different language, to a different cultural and historical situation, and, in the case of the Old Testament, under another covenant. When our students correctly read the Bible it seriously challenges their worldview as they enter into the biblical world and encounter Christian doctrines with fresh understanding and vigour. They come to a better understanding of grace, atonement, the state of the dead, and the new creation, that at first leaves many of them dizzy, some in shock, some upset, but many craving for more.

How Buddhism affects our students

Most of our students are new Christians, often coming from Buddhist families who follow Buddhist traditions. Their communities are centred on the local wat (Buddhist temple) where the state primary school is typically located. The local school language syllabus is crammed with explanations of religious doctrines built upon a Buddhist and animistic worldview.

Therefore, I should not be surprised that even though my students identify as Christian, read their Bibles daily, and pray and fellowship with other Christians regularly
(they often pay a hefty price, in their communities, for their confession and baptism), much of their thinking and reasoning remain entrenched in the Buddhist milieu.

“Thank you Teacher, you gave us good knowledge.” My heart sank.

An essential component of the Buddhist worldview is obtaining ‘knowledge’. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree to contemplate the world’s problems of suffering and death, he did so in order to gain the knowledge which became the foundation of Buddhist teaching. Thus, the Buddha was able to enter Nirvana  (cessation of existence) through understanding the universe, that is, through the knowledge gained by contemplation (or study).

The Buddha shared this knowledge with his followers, who rapidly grew in number. Buddhist teachers preached sermons and Buddhist monks became missionaries.
Buddhism subsequently split into various schools and sects as different interpretations of their sacred texts arose, especially when it encountered foreign cultures. Buddhist monks translated these scriptures so they might be more widely understood, and the teachings were practised far and wide. When described this way, Buddhism and Christianity have some similarities.

The problem: knowledge

However, when my students say, “Teacher, you give us much knowledge…”, this is a sign to me that they remain entrenched in the Buddhist worldview.

As Paul reminds, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:1–2). While the student might be seeking to pay the teacher a compliment, it shows that they are probably still walking along the path to Nirvana. Studying the Bible, reading books on theology, understanding Greek and Hebrew morphology, syntax, and grammar can all be seen to be a means for personal improvement leading to a very different salvation.

Knowing about God versus knowing God

There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. In the Khmer language, there are two different words for ’knowing’ that separate these ways
of knowing God. We can know (deng) about God, that is, knowledge of his attributes such as his divine providence, sovereignty, omnipotence, omnipresence etc. This can remain a purely academic or intellectual exercise.

On the other hand, we can know (skoal) God by coming into a living relationship with him because of grace. This should result in a confession of personal sin, true repentance, and active submission to his Lordship. It means a change of allegiance, where loyalty goes from self to Christ the King. Evidence of such a change is seen in the lives of believers in both word and deed.

Students who truly know God

When I am teaching my students, I want them to approach their study with a firm Christian motivation: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17) The apostle Paul says nothing here about the study of scripture being simply interesting, or a stimulus for intellectual growth, or the means of finding a pathway to escape the suffering of this world (Nirvana).

Of course, we try to make our classes stimulating, but this is not an end in itself. My students should be preparing themselves both in the classroom and on our school campus for a life of gospel service. If they remain righteous and truthful, grounded in grace, their teaching will be effective for gospel ministry, perhaps bearing fruit 30, 60 or 100-fold.

PRAY

Pray that in the grace of God, Bible students in Cambodia and elsewhere will learn that knowing God is not the same as knowing about God.