Westminster Seminary California strives to prepare pastors and other Christians who are biblically sound, compassionate, courageous, and…wise. God’s people need leaders who are “wise, understanding, and experienced men” (Deut. 1:13; see Acts 6:3); and all Jesus’ people are called to encourage one another “in all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). Now, cultivating wisdom in hearts and minds is a daunting enterprise. It cannot be produced merely by classroom lectures, research papers, and final exams. Rather, wisdom thrives at the intersection of divinely-revealed truth and life’s confusing experience. And we can only grow in wisdom as a community.
As I write, vivid images from the 2018 XXIII Olympic Winter Games and Paralympics in South Korea are fresh in many minds. The competitions were gripping. The feats of skill, strength, and stamina amazed us. Background feature stories gave us glimpses of the months of life-consuming training that athletes invested to prepare for those seconds or minutes of competition. Such extended, strenuous effort has a specific goal in view. Although medals of gold, silver, and bronze were awarded, the real prize was a sense of well-earned accomplishment and, of course, public recognition on a global scale.
Wisdom, like serious sports training, takes hard work. Finding it is like digging through rock in search of precious ore.
…if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come
knowledge and understanding. (Prov. 2:4–6)
Although wisdom is a prize that lasts longer than medals and media acclaim, wisdom attracts a smaller fan base than athletes—or, for that matter, actors or musicians or politicians, who bask in the adoration of audiences and social media “likes.” Why does wisdom have so few fans?
For one thing, wisdom lacks the flashy appeal of high-profile achievement in sports, entertainment, or politics. Ecclesiastes spins a parable of a little city saved from a great invader by the strategy of a poor wise man…who was promptly forgotten by everyone. The Preacher concludes, “The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools” (Eccles. 9:13-17). Yet the story shows that sage advice spoken calmly doesn’t grab as much attention as publicity puffs, sizzling tweets, and blistering blogs.
Moreover, wisdom takes time to cultivate. To get wisdom’s point, you have to slow down and observe, to ponder and to process. “I passed by the field a sluggard…all overgrown with thorns…and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw and considered it; I looked and received instruction” (Prov. 24:30–32). Tracing the cause-and-effect route back from a chaotic farm to a negligent farmer demands prolonged reflection. Who has time for that? Snap judgments and quick reactions are effortless and efficient, until they prove disastrous in the long run: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty” (Prov. 21:5).
Yet the Bible commends wisdom as a priceless and enduring treasure, worth the effort and worth waiting for. Wise people have learned how to live well, through the ebbs and flows of our confusing pilgrimage through this sin-wounded world.
Wisdom sees through surface appearances, exposing reality as it actually is. Popular maxims make this point: “appearances can be deceiving,” so “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Biblical wisdom confirms this insight. In the Garden, the serpent sounded as if it had humanity’s best interests at heart: “God knows that when you eat of [the forbidden tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Yet Satan’s agenda was not human flourishing, but ruin and death. “He was a murderer from the beginning…a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Proverbs 9 presents two women, Wisdom and Folly, each inviting the naïve to enter her house and feast. Their invitations sound alike, but Wisdom’s menu gives life, whereas Folly’s guests dine with the dead. To make strategic decisions, we need wisdom’s clear perception of the reality behind superficial appearances.
Wisdom anticipates outcomes in the future. When we face a fork in the road, as we often do in life, wisdom helps us to peer “around the corner” and envision the different destinations to which alternative paths lead. In those crucial moments of decision, appearances are often deceiving: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12). As Adam and Eve sadly learned, when we face competing claims about what will result from following one path or another, everything depends on whose counsel you trust and follow—your own, some persuasive tempter, or the God who gave us life and breath.
Ultimately, all wisdom comes from God himself, but he conveys it through various means: general revelation and common grace; the law of the Lord and the fear of God; and Christ, in whom are all the treasures of God’s wisdom.
General revelation and common grace. Despite our Fall into sin, God’s providence maintains order in his universe, and his common grace retains remnants of our identity as the creatures who bear his image. Consequently, both believers and unbelievers can make similar observations about how God’s wisdom works in the world. Proverbs counsels:
Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.
(Prov. 23:4-5 ESV)
The Instruction of Amenemope, an Egyptian document that predates David, said it this way:
Do not cast your heart in pursuit of riches….
Do not place your heart on externals….
[Riches] make for themselves wings like geese
and fly away to the heavens.
Both Israelites, who knew the Lord, and Egyptians, mired in paganism, could see how stupid it is to bind your heart to wealth, since it easily sprouts wings and takes flight.
And both those who follow God and those who do not can see that there is something seriously amiss with the world, though they disagree over the source of the problem. We therefore need clearer, fuller wisdom than experience and observation can yield.
The Law of the Lord and the Fear of God. Although the universe displays God’s power and deity (Rom. 1:19-20), its message is hard to hear because of the “static” that human sin has introduced. Moreover, God’s common grace, which defers the reckoning that rebels deserve, further complicates the picture, allowing the defiant wicked to prosper throughout life, while people of integrity suffer one crushing blow after another (Ps. 73:3—14; Job 1:6—2:10). It is no surprise that the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, viewing things “under the sun,” within the parameters of this age, concludes in frustration that all is “vanity,” meaningless (Eccles. 1:2). In the short run—in our lifespan on this earth—things do not work out the way they are supposed to: “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (7:15).
We need a display of divine wisdom that transcends our sense experience and thoughtful reflection, one that reaches beyond the boundary of death. We need the all-wise God to speak wisdom in words that enter our ears and hearts. Although “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1, 7), we need a clearer word from God to dispel the cloud of our confusion. In order to heed that clearer Word and to receive its wisdom, we need a deep change of heart, one that turns us around to face the divine Giver of all true wisdom:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
This heart-level reorientation toward our Creator can occur only through the fullest display of God’s wisdom, his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
Christ, in whom are all the treasures of God’s wisdom. The Apostle Paul echoes the imagery of Proverbs 2:4 when he describes Christ as the One “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Yet when we come to Christ—and specifically to his cross—the wisdom of non-Christians and the wisdom of Christians part ways. To the church at Corinth Paul writes:
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:22—24)
Two categories of people found the cross an unacceptable solution to what is amiss with the world. On the one hand were Jews, who “demand signs.” On the other were Greeks, who “seek wisdom.” The Jews’ demand for signs expressed their longing for power. Greek philosophers preferred an intellectual remedy: a new theory, a fresh concept, scientific breakthroughs, and technological advances—not a crucified Christ.
But here is where both the world’s power-seekers and wisdom-seekers go wrong: the wisdom of the world is near-sighted. It sees things only on the surface, not in depth. So the world’s wisdom underestimates the gravity of the human predicament, and therefore underestimates how radical a remedy is needed to address our real problem.
The wisdom of God, revealed in the crucified Christ, goes all the way down to the heart of what is amiss with us and the world we inhabit, to the core of what stands in the way of our well-being. God’s wisdom pierces beneath surface troubles: physical brutality, self-serving exploitation, ignorance, disease, poverty, and so on. As bad as they are, they are only symptoms of a deeper malignancy. God’s diagnosis of our disease goes right to the core of who we are by birth into Adam’s fallen race. We are rebels, alienated from our good Creator. We are guilty, deserving his righteous wrath. Our defilement and dysfunction go so far into us that no mere exercise of power—physical strength, military armaments, economic resources, political coercion—can reach them. And no merely human wisdom—philosophical, scientific, medical, technological, educational—can probe the mystery of our brokenness, much less devise its solution.
The ultimate wisdom that yields well-being entails the great exchange accomplished by the eternal, innocent Son of God on our behalf. This exchange is a gracious substitution, his righteousness credited to us the guilty, and the divine wrath that should be ours poured out on him.
… in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.…For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:19-21)
It is this stunning exchange that makes Christ’s cross, which looks like the height of folly and the depth of weakness, the complete and final display of God’s mind-boggling wisdom and world-shaking power.