WISDOM ACCORDING TO CHRISTIANITY
By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline
February 5, 2013
Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. - Proverbs 4:7 (cf. 9:1)
O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. How unfathomable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out. - Romans 11:33 (cf. 16:27)
It seems to me a bit presumptuous to write about wisdom. Shouldn't only wise people teach about this topic? And how would we measure this elusive virtue in order to find who is wise and who is not? Surely wisdom, like most human characteristics, is on a continuum with a 'normal curve,' where most people have some and only a few people have a great deal of it.
I admit that I am not qualified to measure anyone's wisdom or lack of it, including my own; I can only say that since childhood I have desired and sought it. In Sunday school I was greatly impressed by the story of Solomon, who as a youngster suddenly found himself on the throne of Israel; he did not ask for wealth or power or popularity, but for wisdom. And he ended up getting the other things as well. I have always figured that God had already given Solomon wisdom before the boy asked for it, for no child would have asked for such a thing except one who already had wisdom beyond his years.
You may have noticed that there are different categories of wisdom, for example street-wise, financial, political, technical, academic, psychological, social, and of course spiritual. I think that what most people call 'wisdom' is made up of one part intelligence, one part experience, and one part depth of understanding of human nature - all leading to the definition of wisdom coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "common sense to an uncommon degree."
The importance of experience in the development of wisdom tends to separate the wise from the foolish in terms of age; wisdom has always been associated with maturity: "Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom." (Job 32:7, cf. Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 1:20) Of course, old fools do exist, but almost by definition, foolishness is primarily found among the young. The word sophomore means 'wise fool' (or one who is wise only in his own eyes) and we all understand the difference between a sophomore and a senior.
Speaking of higher education, we agree that academic knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Not by a long shot. I have known scholars and professors, and have read the writings of a multitude of highly educated people. In my experience, having university graduate degrees does not seem to be particularly helpful for gaining wisdom- it may even slow the process because it can provide false confidence and tempt one toward arrogance ("more knowledgeable than thou"). Academic training certainly did not make me wise. Instead, what wisdom I have gained has been more associated with "the school of hard knocks" and with a strong desire to avoid repeating mistakes. I am no masochist.
Wisdom may be best defined as that good judgment which uses knowledge appropriately for a beneficial outcome. Knowledge is like having a computer and wisdom is like utilizing the computer to accomplish desirable goals. Thus, wisdom may be regarded as "understanding in action."
Wise as serpents, innocent as doves
In his book "Leading with a Limp" (2006), Dr. Dan Allender points the reader to Matthew 10:16, where we hear Jesus instruct His followers: "be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves." He makes the point that it is good to be clever, crafty, and shrewd, as long as our essential motivation is pure, that is, as long as our desires are only for others' good, to support the growth of God's kingdom on earth and to increase His glory.
Dr. Allender writes: "Employing cunning for the sake of redemption is not the same as using manipulation to achieve one's [selfish] ambition. You can be crafty and wise while being committed to the other person's good."
"Yet what too often masquerades as wisdom is a spirit of know-it-all-ism, and naiveté often tries to imitate innocence. The differences in both cases are crucial. First, a legion of bright men and women know why the sky is blue and moon sometimes has an orange tone, but they don't have to tell all they know or make others feel stupid for not knowing. But a know-it-all often uses knowledge as a weapon to impress and control others with his apparently superior acumen. Second, a naïve person avoids facing the dark side of reality by looking through her rose-colored glasses. In contrast, innocence is a hunger for purity that rests in the promise of its coming day. Innocence is not fluffy optimism; it is a passionate anticipation of full redemption that purifies the heart with hope [without denying the probability of tribulation in the near future].
"Telling stores of genuine truth and wisdom calls us to admit our distorted sight. We see through 'a lens darkly' at best, and at worst we are suspicious, doubting, and presumptive."
Wisdom, patience, and humility
Rather than high IQ, I believe wisdom to be more closely associated with what has been called social and emotional intelligence, and with an understanding of the nature of reality - especially human nature. Those who are wise are likely to be saner than the rest of us, more in touch with their own weaknesses and feelings, more discerning regarding other people, and more able to delay gratification. Wisdom is always accompanied by other virtues, such as faith, hope, love, justice, mercy, and especially humility and patience.
Patience is difficult to achieve because we must wait for it. And humans don't do waiting well, although it is one of the essential things we must do successfully if we are to know a measure of contentment. If we lack competence at delaying gratification, we will be anxious and frustrated, and we will often act prematurely. As novelist Dean Koontz has remarked, being "impatient for the future, we try to control it with our own powers, but the future will come as it comes and will not be hurried. If we are good at waiting, we discover that what we wanted of the future, in our impatience, is no longer what we want, that waiting has brought wisdom." So patience may be regarded as the ability to wait comfortably, trusting that time and God are on our side.
Humility also accompanies true wisdom. This is because only Christ is perfectly wise; the rest of us are lacking. The person with greater-than-average wisdom realizes that all of her experience and knowledge is not enough. So you might say that it is only a fool who thinks himself wise. That is because true wisdom is a spiritual thing; it depends upon God and His guiding revelation: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. " (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Humility is simply honesty about the reality of our ignorance, weakness, and self-centeredness. The truth is that we are unfinished business, a 'work in progress.' This humility is absolutely required for godly leadership and wisdom. Humble people, by definition, are less arrogant, less self-righteous, and less controlling. They are more likely to have that "heart of a servant" which Jesus both required and developed in His Apostles. Because of their honesty about their failures, both Peter and Paul exemplified this humble quality.
Any actual usefulness t0 God is not going to occur because of our own strength and wisdom, but only through God's grace and power, and such divine strength can only manifest when we are open and vulnerable about our own true weaknesses. It is that paradoxical strength of weakness that the Lord mentioned to Paul associated with his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7-10). We must get out of God's way so that He can work through us. The ego must go. Jesus must become greater and I must become less.
Gift or fruit?
Beyond the extended definition of wisdom presented above, I must at least mention what Pentecostals call the 'spiritual gift' of wisdom or discernment. Charismatics regard spiritual gifts (as on the Day of Pentecost) as unlearned and unearned, a free, all-at-once birthday gift for those who are born again from above by the Holy Spirit. This concept is controversial because not all Christians believe that the spiritual gifts were continued beyond the Apostolic Age. It is not my purpose to enter into that controversy here. However, all Christians should be able to agree on this: knowledge of the scriptures and time spent in prayer will increase our probability of having "the mind of Christ"- the highest form of wisdom attainable. Perhaps this kind of wisdom is more a 'fruit of the spirit' than a gift-although all fruit(s) are also gifts, because we have nothing good that was not received as a gift from God (James 1:17). Here is excellent news: wisdom is certainly a dimension of spirituality wherein all Christians can grow.
The following teaching outline contains a significant amount of scripture in order to confirm the essential points regarding the nature of wisdom. Those who love the Word of God will appreciate it.
BIBLICAL WISDOM - Teaching Outline
I. WISDOM IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
A: Human Wisdom: The wisdom literature in the Bible includes Proverbs, Job, and the writings of Solomon (most of the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and possibly some older parts of the apocryphal books, such as Ecclesiasticus), and some of the Psalms. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24) who became king of Israel after David died (1Kings 1). He asked God for wisdom and was given it (1 Kings 3) and he built the temple (1 Kings 3) and dedicated it to God with prayer (1 Kings 8). However, his many foreign wives and perhaps his great wealth and public acclaim turned his heart away from God (1 Kings 11). He was not so wise after all; or maybe being wise in the ways of the world turned out to be a spiritual handicap. The lesson we get from Solomon is this: all merely human wisdom is in vain. Without God, "all is meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (see Ecclesiastes 1 & 2).
"Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them." (Hosea 14:9)
As wise as he was in the human realm, as far as we know, Solomon never grasped the deeper spiritual wisdom of his father David. Solomon wrote things like this: "So I say that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" (Ecclesiastes 3:22) Although Solomon's final conclusion was inspired by God, he was unable to live it: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13b-14) Unlike his father David, Solomon provided no clear hope for salvation beyond this life.
David sometimes failed grievously in his choices, but he sought a personal relationship with God above other things. He was "a man after God's own heart" in two ways, he was a seeker after God and he resembled God's nature. Therefore, in my opinion, David's wisdom was superior to that of his son Solomon. He had a heart for God and therefore God informed him of that wisdom that was spiritual and pure: "My mouth will speak words of wisdom: the utterance from my heart will give understanding." (Ps. 49:3) David chased after God, not the wind. Note Psalm 53:2: "God looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is anyone who is wise, if there is anyone who seeks after God." And Psalm 63:1: "O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land..."
II. WISDOM IN THE NEW TESTAMENT ("rich toward God" - Luke 12:21)
"In our search for wisdom we cannot stay in the Old Testament, or even in the wisdom literature. We have to move on to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ: For he is made unto us wisdom, and in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found. Especially the cross, which is foolishness to the proud, is the wisdom and the power of God. For the two chief blessings of Jesus' death and resurrection are the knowledge of God and deliverance from evil." -- John R.W. Stott
The "mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16) An Old Testament prophetic link is found in Proverbs 8:22-25: "The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I was brought forth." This passage from Proverbs is from an allegory on wisdom. But these may also be words concerning Christ Himself and His existence with His Father prior to the Incarnation. Paul may have been alluding to this passage when he wrote, "...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor.1:24) and "...Jesus Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom..." (1 Cor.1:30, KJV).
Jesus indicated clearly where His own words came from when He told his disciples: "The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work." (John 14:10) "The words I have spoken to you, they are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63) "Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon the rock." (Matthew 7:24)
So if the words of Christ are so vital, then we need to become immersed in them. There is no higher wisdom for us. This is our most important reason for reading the Bible. We must depend upon the Gospels and compare these divinely-inspired words, comparing them to our own subjective thoughts and feelings which are susceptible to error (even when we think they are coming from God). The words of Jesus are never in error. And we are directed to search "the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 3:15)
Ephesians 1:15-23: Paul's Prayer for Spiritual Wisdom
"...remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come."
A. The Holy Spirit teaches wisdom God sent the Holy Spirit for the purpose of teaching. Jesus told the disciples: "All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you." (John 14:25-26) "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me." (John 15:26) "I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth." (John 16:12)
"For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." (1 Corinthians 1:25)
"The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." (James 3:17)
The Apostle Paul was quite clear about the source of His teachings and priorities. In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:1-16), Paul writes in depth about the difference between human wisdom and Holy Spirit wisdom, and this extended scripture quote provides an appropriate conclusion to our study: "When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we speak of God's secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"- 10 but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: 16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ."
Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church in Douglasville, Georgia.
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