What is wisdom? Is it reserved for old age? Is it about pithy sayings, such as proverbs? Or perhaps it is that touch of cunning which gives certain people a clever understanding of situations that others would not have in a million years – Solomon’s ruling about a prostitute’s baby comes to mind (1 Kings 3). Certainly, the Bible’s view of “wisdom” would include such ideas. And as we saw in the previous post, wisdom, like love, faith, and truth, has been one of the great objects of human search throughout history.
So wisdom seems to be something other than merely the one or two ideas that we typically like to nail it down as. Which brings us back to this. In the posts that began this blog – a blog dedicated to wisdom – I offered examples of a key fact: The more territory you explore in the biblical wisdom literature, the more you see that what you thought you knew about wisdom expanding considerably.
In other words, wisdom is not so easily defined as we may think. Instead, wisdom is rather like a person. I mean, you can, for instance, define a human being as one thing, say chemically; but if that’s it, most people know that’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer. It leaves many questions unanswered.
Look at it this way, a person cannot be reduced to one or two roles. An adult can be a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandmother, a wife, an attorney, a musician, and so on. In other words, there is more to any one person than meets the eye. You’ve just got to look for it. The agency of wisdom is like that. To try to pin it down to any one or two things is reductionistic. The question “What is wisdom?”, then, like “What is truth?” or “What is love?”, is one of those big questions that defies an easy way of nailing down.
The seeking of wisdom is a lifelong process. You get it as you go along and you keep getting more of it as you keep seeking it. Because there is an increasing knowledge of wisdom as we go along, we must be cautious about trying to nail down to reductionistic definitions. I want us to keep that in mind, here, because now I’m going to break the rule and offer a definition!
“Wisdom is a way of seeing life and living in it according to how you see it.” Or you could put it this way: “Wisdom is a way of making sense of the creation in order to life in it effectively (and it will affect what you think is effective living too).”
This helpful understanding of wisdom comes from British theologian and philosopher John Peck, a leading specialist in the wisdom literature, and you can find more about it in chapter five of our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.
I’m sharing this exception to the rule for at least two reasons. One, it seems to me that it is big enough to avoid being reductionsitic. Two, I’ve found it a handy tool for discerning different kinds of wisdom, which is a prominent theme in the New Testament – the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. In fact, I am so keen on this understanding of wisdom that when I teach about wisdom, I encourage people to take time to memorize it because I have seen the good fruit it can produce over time.
This Christian understanding of wisdom comes from a prominent way in which the Bible sees wisdom: as the way the world works. For example: “In wisdom,” says the Psalmist when speaking about the works of creation, “you [God] made them all” (Psalm 104:24). From the prophet Jeremiah: “God … founded the world by his wisdom” (10:12; 51:15). And in the wisdom literature itself: “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Proverbs 3:19).
In other words, the whole universe functions by the wisdom of God. We see this emphasized in a peculiar passage in Proverbs 8:22-36, where “wisdom” is personified as if it where the very secret of the universe, as the craftsman at God’s side during the process of creation. (I wrote more about this here.) Therefore, says wisdom, “listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise.”
This text in Proverbs seems to be indicating, in part, that when God created the universe – with all its multifarious facets, with all the complex intricacies of its workings and its human beings – first of all there was a concept, or vision, that dominated and controlled, or made effective, that creative process. (This may be somewhat analogous to the vision that an artist has first, before putting paint to canvass.)
And the result is that the creation “stands up” as it were. It doesn’t exist like a cat and a dog fighting, which you can barely keep apart. It doesn’t exist like nitroglycerin, which, if you gave it a jar, might suddenly blow up, and you would never know when. Rather, the creation has stability, and this stability is orderly. There are rules on which it works. There’s a reliability and consistency to it, so that the same rules govern this earth which govern the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
That was in God’s mind as His wisdom, and it played a vital role in God bringing the world into being. “This means that when you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character” (Uncommon Sense). Yes. It’s a gorgeous mystery. And the more we get into it, the wiser we become.
The problem is that there are other wisdoms, other ways, ways that are not God’s way of seeing the world and living in it. In the next post I want to share a funny story about the difference.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Helene Villenueve & Artful Magpie respectively (permission via Creative Commons)