Wisdom, as related to human beings, may simply be defined as the life quality that enables one to make good choices in the complicated circumstances of life in order to walk a good path. For the follower of Jesus, wisdom is the art of godly living.
Every culture knows that there is a way to live that is rightly called foolishness. There really is a way to waste your life and fizzle your days away filled with folly. We are always seeking wisdom from others yet many times we go all over the place looking to figure out how life works.
Bookstores are jammed full with self-help books offering wisdom to the seeker. Movies and literature are filled with wise characters (Yoda and Gandalf the gray being some of my favorites). There is never a shortage of gurus being paraded out on the Oprah Winfrey show. Usually they are western dudes dabbling in eastern philosophy who write books and get paid.
Ironically, we are people who are surrounded by impressive knowledge but seem to be profoundly lacking in wisdom. Our culture seems to have a deficit of wisdom as we tend to float like empty ballasts upon a sea of nothingness. I offer Reality TV as proof. Seriously, how many times can a chic fall in love in the course of weeks with multiple dudes and make out with all of them in a hot tub?
We may know how to split the atom, make machines talks, decode the genome and scan the electrical activities of our brains but we remain unsure about how to make life work. In our search for meaning and happiness wisdom is offered to us yet not all wisdom is not created equal you know.
All Wisdoms Not Created Equal
Scripture speaks of several ways of being wise that will not offer us much help in life. Appearing at first to be good ways to live but in the end they are bankrupt in offering us the guidance we need. We’ll look here at two.
Wise in our own Eyes
The book of Proverbs, a great biblical book that contains true wisdom, teaches us that there is a way to be wise in our own eyes. The person wise in their own eyes is called a fool in Scripture because he measures the rightness of every path by his own opinion alone. Our own opinions must be weighed and at times followed, but if the source of our own wisdom is not given a broader point of view we can be self-deceived. The third Hebrew proverb offers us great instruction here:
1My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, 2for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. 3Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. 5Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3:1-8 (ESV)
Here we see wisdom coming from the teaching of a Father reflecting the wisdom of following God’s paths for life. I’m not wanting to meddle with the idea that we Americans hold dear—that we should trust our own heart above all things. I hope to completely blow it up. We are not isolated individuals, we need wisdom from God and other wise people rather than a crowd of fools encouraging us to just listen to whatever your heart tells you.
So wisdom cannot emerge from ourselves alone; the Bible warns of this extreme. Yet it is not always found among the horde and the throng and we are warned also of the wisdom of crowds.
Wisdom of the World
The book of James contains some of the most compelling discussion of wisdom in the New Testament. James 1 teaches us that when we lack wisdom we should ask God to give us some (more on this in a bit). James 3 gives us an interesting contrast between wisdom that is from above and the ways and wisdom of the world.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 (ESV)
Old pastor James is so blunt is he not? He teaches us that there is a wisdom from God that leads to a certain kind of life together which reflects peace, gentleness, reasonableness, mercy, fruitful and sincere lives together. When we get to being jealous of one another, our more focused on ourselves and our Kingdom rather than the Kingdom of Jesus we are walking in different kind of wisdom. This James calls earthly, unspiritual and demonic.
Though America has been shaped by a rugged individualism it has also contained a collectivist view as well. In recent times this has been heightened and now we think there is wisdom in any crowd. We have written business books about crowd sourcing1, the internet lets us vote on everything and our politicians are always talking about this vague and amorphous thing called “the will of the American people.” Whereas being wise in our own eyes is one dangerous extreme, just following the worldly wisemen of our crowds is certainly another.
18Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 (ESV)
The letter of 1 Corinthians makes it clear that the wisdom of the world is folly with God as it seeks to guide human life and affairs apart from him. As God is the author and creator of life, God is also the one who knows how he made humanity to function. To claim wisdom while living apart from Him is the Scriptures definition of folly and futility (Proverbs 1:7, Proverbs 9:10)
Wisdom from God
God is said in Scripture to be all wise. JI Packer describes this as meaning he chooses the best and noblest end at which to aim, along with the most appropriate and effective means to it.2 If we desire true wisdom it must be from above, grounded upon and dependent up the wisdom of God. Let’s take a little detour for a moment to illustrate this by talking about worldview.
Wisdom is indeed relative among human beings. Whether something is ultimately wise or foolish depends upon your point of view. One mans foolishness might be another’s deep wisdom. Yet there is a worldview that is quite different than a limited, temporal, finite view that we each have.
A worldview, or Weltanschauung, is a complete way of seeing life. Each of us has a set of beliefs regarding the origin, meaning, value and purpose of our lives. Wisdom would have her way with us when we live in a way consistently with such purposes. If the purpose of life is to stay drunk and naked, then one is wise to do so. If it is not the purpose for human life, then one is a fool to spend his days in like fashion.
I hope you see the reason we need wisdom that is from above. We need God to reveal to us the way in life that is truly good, right and true not simply what we want that to be. There is a reason why Jesus is called the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Colossians 2:1-10). Jesus is the path of wisdom for us revealed. His way of life, his teaching, his work and the good news of his death, burial and resurrection for us is the grid by which wisdom is known.
In light of this, followers of Jesus can avoid being wise in their own eyes by looking to Jesus for wisdom. In the same way, we can avoid being captivated by the crowd by standing firm in his truth as mockers call us fools. Wisdom is acting and following in concert with the truth that is in Jesus and his Word. If we are wise it is in him, if we are fools in this life for choosing him over all else, we revel in that privilege.
On Becoming Wise
Let me close by saying wisdom is something that grows in us progressively as we walk with God in his world. It is no coincidence that the ancients saw the elderly as a source of wisdom; they have lived more life with God and have learned from him through teaching and experience. Proverbs 20:29 teaches us that the glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair. It is not always the case that old age = wisdom3 but there is a general principle here that we can learn and deepen in wisdom over time. The tragic story of King Rehoboam ignoring the wisdom of the elderly for the counsel of some punk young men is a classic example of this principle. You can read this in 1 Kings 12 in the Old Testament. In closing here are some simple ways we grow in wisdom if we are faithful to sit at her feet over time.
Study and listening to God’s Word
God has revealed himself through his Word that we can study, read, listen, meditate upon and obey. Over time we gain the ability to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14) by the constant practice of the teaching of God. Learning and following over time results in becoming wise.
Heeding the words of the Wise
Proverbs 11:14 reads, Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. Further Proverbs 24:6 teaches us that in an abundance of counselors there victory. Of course, the counselors must actually be wise, but the point is that we can learn from others if we listen. In fact the book of Proverbs begins by with these words:Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. Our parents, our pastors and our community of faith has wise counsel for us…but we don’t always listen.
Learning the Hard Way
The final way we learn is the hard way. This is where we do foolish stuff and we reap the reality. We all have been here have we not? God is kind and will discipline us to help us walk in wisdom. Yet as I tell my kids, you can learn just by listening to me—but like Bill Cosby once said, some children simply cannot get by without a good beating.4
I do not claim to be a wise guy, but I have been around the block a few times. My counsel is that we listen and follow Jesus together—our only wise God and Savior…
- James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds (New York: Random House, 2004)
- J. I. Packer, Concise Theology : A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1995, c1993).
- A notable passage is Job 32:9—of course old people can be foolish too, the point is wisdom does come with experience.
- See Bill Cosby, “The Same Thing Happens Every Night” Available online at http://www.last.fm/music/Bill+Cosby/_/Same+Thing+Happens+Every+Night—worth a few minutes to laugh.