By Aian Macpherson
Solomon is famous for it, Jesus is it and I would love to have it. Wisdom! A few thoughts…
Proverbs says, ‘Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed’ (15:22). Also ‘where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counsellors there is safety’ (11:14). In the better known passage from Ecclesiastes 4, used at many weddings it says,
Two are better than one… For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help… A threefold cord is not quickly broken. Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king, who will no longer take advice.
For an individual to be wise they must be part of a community and have an ability to listen, the foolish man will reject instruction (proverbs 26) but the wise listen to council. Community is not only the place to gain wisdom but to practice it. Solomon was granted wisdom by God to rule the people.
‘because you… have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you (1 Chronicles 1).
Wisdom may be manifest in an individual but like all gifts it is for the building up of the community (1 Corinthians 14).
There are many instances where wisdom and knowledge are set side by side. For example ‘For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding’ (Proverbs 2). However wisdom and knowledge are not the same – wisdom is rightly applied knowledge. So Knowledge (and information) is important, but does not constitute wisdom.
Some information is received through faith. ‘‘Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?… God understands the way to it, and he knows its place (Job 28). All scripture is God breathed (2 Timothy 3), the Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1).
But this does not mean a dismissal of other information, as Augustine says,
it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics (the ordering of the heavens and the earth – science) and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil.
All manner of people will bring facts (small pieces of truth) to the table of knowledge. ‘Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’ (Romans 1). That the very endeavour of science seemed worthwhile is because of a belief in a stable, ordered universe made by a faithful creator. This has been acknowledged by historians of science and non-Christian philosophers alike (e.g. Alfred North Whitehead). It is a great loss to the church and to all people when Christians reject knowledge and are transparently foolish to the entire world.
If I want to build a house I will consult an architect. To build a dam I will need an engineer. To remove a tumour I need a surgeon. If administration is needed you appoint a gifted administrator. To understand the rotation of the galaxy I need a physicist, and to make wise use of that knowledge I may need a theologian. This of course ties back to finding wisdom through the gifts of the community but it also brings us to…
We must choose with good sense who to trust and what knowledge we seek. This is a process of discernment. I take account of many factors about myself in this process – discernment without self-awareness is a short road to self-justification. Unacknowledged, convictions, opinions, prejudices and whatever we call good common sense are dangerous, they must all be laid out on the table to be examined. Thus when discerning we are doing two things. Ensuring that we are open to learn as well as being shrewd in what sources we trust.
I examine myself for stubbornness. ‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid’ (Proverbs 12). Wisdom is open to correction. In the Old Testament to be stiff necked or hard of heart is to be wrong. Likewise in the Gospels we repeatedly see people who hardened their hearts against God’s kingdom and who could not see the new thing God was doing (e.g. Mark 3 ‘he was grieved at their hardness of heart’).
On the other hand the Gospel does not teach relativism. The open heart of wisdom is not undiscerning. Whilst Jesus teaches with great clarity about not judging people in Matthew 7. Jesus immediately goes on to say ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine.’ And be aware of ‘false prophets… You will know them by their fruits’.
The letter to the Hebrews puts it this way.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food… solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil…
Which brings us nicely to…
Wisdom is as wisdom does. Wisdom is about practise. In Exodus 31 God calls Bezalel and fills him with divine spirit, with ability, in every kind of craft, and appoints with him Oholiab who is skilled. The word here (chokmah) translated ability and skill is rendered most commonly as wisdom. Wisdom is not a virtue of the ivory tower but of life.
Wisdom walks the way of Jesus which means keeping his commands to love God and neighbour, enemy and each other. ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’, ‘if I… understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing’ (1 Corinthians 8 and 13).
When in Matthew Jesus says ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’ the law, it was not only his words but his whole life that is the fulfilment. If I want to learn about power, money, success or even systematic theology and biblical studies I may need to look to very different people and places than when I want to learn about kindness, service, faithfulness, generosity, joy or patience. We must prioritise with wisdom based on the example of our teacher.
We all need Information, Sense, and Experience to be wise. We also need much more – I have not even touched on the beginning of wisdom in the fear (awe and wonder) of God or on the place of the Holy Spirit – but that is a beginning.