Last week I watched a young cashier struggle. The cash register baffled her. No one had taught her how to manually make change. She didn’t exactly project the warmth and friendliness that exclaimed, “I’m so glad you’re here.” As you might expect service was slow, orders were wrong, and customers grew testy.

How did this happen? How can it be that a human being — created in God’s image, given the ability to reason, the capacity to add and subtract, and a mind that’s capable of storing enormous amounts of information — becomes so overwhelmed by such basic tasks?

I wonder if we’re complicit in this. On the surface, it looks like our basic institutions let this woman down: family, community, and school. The Church may have failed her, too, because surely if we love our neighbors and yearn to see our community thrive, somebody would have intervened; someone would have taken the time to nurture the gifts God gave her.  

We may not have realized that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:29-34).

Smart people, of course, aren’t better than others. Plenty of us know exactly what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). We’re grateful that there’s nothing elitist about Christianity. 

At the same time, the Scriptures take a dim view of intellectual neglect. Proverbs 1:22, for example, asks, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will … fools hate knowledge?” Ten verses later we learn that “the complacency of fools will destroy them.” God has gifted us with incredible minds, and it’s clear that He expects us to maximize every neuron. 

We may get a better feel for what God’s getting at when we look at a few key characters in the Bible. As we watch the Christian story unfold, it’s helpful to see that God used some exceptionally bright people. Author and theologian Gene Veith points out that Moses, before he led God’s people to the Promised Land, had been raised in Pharaoh’s household where he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). He was, then, by any standard, brilliant. 

In God’s providence, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego showed “aptitude for every kind of learning, [were] well informed, [and] quick to understand.” As a result, they were invited to the court of Nebuchadnezzar where they were schooled in “the language and literature of the Babylonians” (Daniel 1:17). By God’s design, and for the sake of Christ’s coming kingdom, these men were always striving to become wiser, smarter, and more sophisticated in their thinking.  

The Apostle Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), which means he excelled at the most prestigious academy of its kind. According to Veith, Paul made routine references to Greek drama, employed classical rhetoric, and was comfortable navigating the logic of Greek and Roman thought. Paul was so smart that Festus, a Roman official, worried that “your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24). 

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego showed aptitude for every kind of learning and were quick to understand.

We know that Solomon had a reputation for being wise. But we may not have realized that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:29-34). Solomon spoke some 3,000 proverbs and composed more than a thousand songs. “And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” To accomplish His redemptive plan, God made Solomon the smartest, most talented man who’s ever lived. 

None of us will ever possess a fraction of Solomon’s wisdom. It’s not likely there are many Pauls or Daniels among us either. Even so, we must deal with the fact that God reveals Himself in a 3,000-page book and everyone, regardless of formal education, interacts with Him in the 66 books of the Bible. For that reason alone, our abilities to read, think, and reason are precious skills that must be polished. 

And for that reason, Veith points out, there’s always been a correlation between Christianity and literacy. Throughout history, when Christian missionaries visit new nations they learn the language, translate the Bible, and teach people to read. Once people plunge into God’s Word, their interests widen, curiosity is stirred, and the thirst to master new subjects becomes unquenchable. 

The cashier from last week needs job skills. But we owe her much more. For her sake — and ours — we must kindle her “aptitude for learning.” Because we never know what God has planned.