Wisdom

“Who” James asked, “is wise and understanding among you?” [James 3:13]

 

This is in the same letter that all but began with an invitation to wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

 

It’s interesting that these days I don’t hear many people talking about wisdom.  Much more is said about being “smart” or learning how to “make it in life.”  But, whether it’s popular or not, wisdom seems to be something important.  “So here it is: “God, please give me wisdom!”  I want it, I need it, and I’m asking for it.  In everything I do and say.  And, if I can be bold: soon, please!

 

As I ask for wisdom I know that it’s one of the “ribbon” topics that we find threaded through the entire Bible.  It seems to be very important to almost all the Bible writers.

 

But the first reference to wisdom in Genesis is an eye-opener.  In chapters 1-2 God is presented as both creating and offering “good”, more “good”, and “very good” surroundings and care for the first couple, Adam and Eve.  They were made by God, for God, and in a bond that displayed God’s relational image: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

 

Yet the first mention of wisdom comes in chapter 3, amid this idyllic and dynamic relational launching of humanity:

 

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that is was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked.  [Genesis 3:4-7]

 

The context for this exchange was a brief and surprising argument.  God had told Adam earlier that he would die right away if he ever ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We’re not absolutely sure why such a deadly tree was planted in a garden full of goodness, but most scholars assume it represented freedom—the option to do something other than what God called for.  Which is certainly the way events unfolded when the serpent called God a liar.  God said “you shall surely die” and the Serpent said “You will not surely die.”  A very bold move.

 

God, a liar?  That’s a very strange idea, especially if we think of lying as a usually selfish attempt to reshape reality, as in “No, officer, I didn’t know I was speeding” . . . even if the throttle had been intentionally set at 12 mph over the posted limit.  So lying can be treated as a useful ploy for someone in a defensive position like a speeder caught in a speed trap, but God is the creator of everything.  He shapes reality, so the idea that he would ever lie in order to reshape the reality that he created is utter nonsense.

 

What is even odder is that Adam and Eve both accepted the serpent’s invitation to treat God as a liar, and to eat from the fruit of the tree that would make them wise.  But they had their reasons: it was, after all, their chance to “be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Yet even that option was odd because they knew the “good” already.  Everything around them was good, good, and very good.  The only new feature the serpent was pressing them to embrace  was the chance to know evil.

 

Later in the Bible we return to the moral issues of wisdom that are obvious in Genesis 3.  A set of books are, for instance, called “wisdom literature” and among that set the Proverbs are most explicit in pointing to the importance of wisdom.  A central theme is offered in 1:7—“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”  Yet there is much more.  Let me cite two more segments as examples of the range of topics Proverbs offers: one treating wisdom as the basis for God’s work of creation and the other elevating the priority of wisdom.

 

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.  [3:19-20]

And,

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. [4:7]

 

So we find these texts inviting us to see God’s wisdom expressed in his creation.  Yet wisdom  is not treated as a built-in component of human nature, though humans are a part of that creation.  Wisdom needs to be pursued by the wise person.  And we would also see, in a broader reading of Proverbs, that there is a connection between knowledge and wisdom: wisdom is needed in order to accurately engage knowledge.

 

With that bit of background in view, let us return to the book of James.  Again in chapter 3 where he invites readers to embrace wisdom he also points to two types of wisdom in 3:15: one that “comes down from above” and another that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”  In the latter version it becomes clear that the serpent’s offer of wisdom made in Genesis 3 is still alive and active!

 

So what is the ultimate difference between God’s wisdom and the serpent’s version?  It has everything to do with the ultimate axis of reality: either God, the Creator, is the center of reality; or we, the creatures, are the center of reality—functioning as if we are “like God.”  So that everything either pivots on God’s character, works, and words; or everything pivots on our individual concerns and our pursuit of happiness.

 

With that distinction in mind, listen to the way James summarized the outcomes of the two competing wisdoms:

 

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  . . . For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

 

True wisdom, then, begins with God.  It treats others as fellow creatures, made by and for God; and companions with us under God’s loving care and direction.  It makes life work!

 

But the alternative wisdom begins with self at the center allows a person to be a “winner” in office politics; and it allows a person to “beat the system”; and it has a self-centered source, in the wiles of the serpent who calls God a liar. 

 

One wisdom is rooted in the true reality in which God’s love is at work, and our wisdom is aligned with him and with his love.  The other starts with a love of self, and it leaves everyone else at risk.  It is a wisdom located in the knowledge of evil the serpent offered us in Eden.

 

I prefer the wisdom from above, and pray for that wisdom to grow each day.  And it starts with my delight in Jesus, the author of all creation . . . who also loves me, and you.

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4 Comments

  1. Leanne

    “So here it is: “God, please give me wisdom!” I want it, I need it, and I’m asking for it. In everything I do and say. And, if I can be bold: soon, please!

    Is there room for one more in that request?

  2. Lee

    My prayer for wisdom is: I desire the wisdom to discern the prompting of the Spirit as opposed to my desires and the courage for action. Answer yesterday please!

  3. morgan

    not again! oh Ron…this morning in my in-box was 2 letters, one from you regarding wisdom, and one fron cal beisner REGARDING MY QUEST FOR PRAYER REGARDING WISDOM!

    this morning there were two e-mails in my box regarding wisdom, and it just so happens they were both from my favorite theologians! my quest for wisdom in my retirement and how to serve God in these, the best years of my life have eluded me. i hope you all wont mind a little encouragement and practical God centered advice from cals e-mail.

    from cal beisner
    As for your prayer request for wisdom and discernment, thanks for explaining that it’s regarding retirement. Amazing that we’re nearing that age, isn’t it?! I do pray that the Lord will give you the wisdom you need to decide on the next chapter of your life.

    But–well, I suppose you probably remember this about me from Cannon Beach: I don’t tend to hold my opinions to myself, do I? So here goes: I don’t believe in retirement, if by that we mean ceasing to work and just relaxing till we kick the bucket. I think 2 Thessalonians 3:10 applies as long as we live. Now, it might well be that we reach a point at which we no longer need to earn an income to keep fed, clothed, housed, medicated, transported, etc. But that doesn’t mean we should cease working in the Lord’s service. It might just mean that we’ve reached a point at which we can shift into a kind of service that doesn’t pay–or that doesn’t pay enough to live on, but we needn’t worry about that because we don’t need enough pay to live on.

    Reading your life story I’m guessing you probably see things about the same way. I recognize in it that you’ve sought every opportunity to serve others. So, the wisdom and discernment I pray for for you is simply that you’ll see how best to put the gifts God has given to you–of compassion, wisdom, skill, etc.–to continued use in His Kingdom when you don’t need to be earning an income anymore.

    Oh, and now, let me also pass on to you something I learned from a dear theologian friend, Dr. Henry Krabbendam, about sixteen years ago when I was considering a call to teach at Covenant College. In his hearing another faculty member asked me if I’d accept the job if the president offered it. (There was controversy about the potential appointment–a handful of faculty members didn’t like some of my views and wanted to keep me out. I wasn’t eager to be the cause of discord in the faculty.) I gave what I thought was a brilliant and wonderfully pious answer: “Just pray for me to know God’s will.” Then I felt these enormous hands on my shoulders from behind. (Henry’s about 6’9″, four inches taller than I.) Then Henry’s booming voice, in his strong Dutch accent, said, “Oh! No, Brrrrrodderrrr! You’f gott it all wrrrongk!” “Huh?” I thought. “What could have been better than the answer I gave?” Henry explained: You don’t need to know God’s will–not in the sense you have in mind. He doesn’t reveal that until it comes to pass. But our loving Heavenly Father is sovereign over all things, and we know His plans will always come to pass. What you need is not to “know God’s will,” for you won’t and can’t know that until, step by step, He reveals it in practice, but to know how to make a wise decision. And here’s how, in four steps: (1) Faced with options, ask of each, “Is it lawful?” That is, is it consistent with God’s moral law as revealed in Scripture. That is the will of God that we can know and that alone is the will of God for which He holds us accountable (Deuteronomy 29:29). Sin is transgression of the law. If an option isn’t lawful, according to God’s moral law in Scripture, we know it’s not God’s will. Whatever options are lawful are not sinful, no matter whatever else they might be. (2) Of the remaining, lawful, options, ask, “As I delight myself in the Lord, which of these is the greatest desire of my heart?” Not, “Which do I most want for my own pleasure, for my own pride, for my own sense of accomplishment, or to please someone else?” But “as I delight myself in the Lord, which do I most desire–which would give me the greatest joy standing before Christ as I do it?” On the basis of Psalm 37:4, I have grounds to believe that’s the best choice. (3) Assuming there might still be more than one option that meets both (1) and (2), and even if there seems only one left that meets (2), now ask, “Of the lawful options, which one gives the greatest opportunity to further the Kingdom of God?” Of course, being of finite mind, I can’t know for sure the answer to that, but I can give it my fallible best to figure it out. Assuming that 1, 2, and 3 line up, go for it, with all my might. But while going for it, (4) watch for the signs of providence–open and closed doors. And be confident that God, none of whose plans ever are frustrated, will always ensure that I am dead center in His will in the sense of His plan; I’ll never miss it. As soon as he went through that four-step decision making process for me, it was crystal clear to me what I should do: accept the position if offered. And understanding that process and using it has never failed me. It has relieved me of great anxiety, trying to guess the “secret things” that “belong to the Lord,” rather than simply trusting that what He has revealed in His Scripture is enough. It all comes down to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, really. If I need some further revelation to make decisions that please Him, then Scripture is not enough. But Scripture itself teaches that it is sufficient (2 Timothy 3:16-17, “every good work”).

    Well, probably you didn’t anticipate so much when you just asked for prayer, but may the Lord bless you with this. And indeed, I do pray that He will give you great wisdom, and joy, as you decide how next to serve Him.

  4. R N Frost

    Good words, Morgan! God’s longing for us to gain a bit of wisdom seems to be a message he’s ready to underline to more than a few of us. Yet your story of a double-dose when my post came through in tandem with Cal Beisner was a bit of a shout from him, wasn’t it!

    The connection with Covenant College makes me smile. A friend from my days in London is on the faculty there, Kelly Kapic, so I’m enjoying getting bits of news about the school as I hear from and about him and his activities. That aside, thanks for sharing the story about Dr Krabbendam’s wisdom on the subject of spiritual wisdom.

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