I’ve been thinking about wisdom.
A friend of mine had her wisdom teeth removed the other day, and I suppose that started the thinking. I’m not sure why we have molars in the back that sometimes don’t fit and usually cause pain, and if that weren’t enough, why are they called “wisdom teeth?” For most of my life, I have lain awake at night pondering these things.
Okay, okay. I have many burning questions, and this one is fairly trivial. But it does puzzle me. Someone told me recently that in the 17th century, some guy called our third molars “the teeth of wisdom” because they wait until adulthood to make their debut. Apparently neuroscience proves that wisdom teeth emerge between the ages of 17 and 25 as a response to changing neural patterns in the brain associated with increased responsibility. Suddenly the term “wisdom teeth” makes sense. My wisdom teeth appeared at 17, and I looked like a chipmunk for awhile. I never got them pulled, and I still have all four. Apparently that’s a rare thing, nowadays.
But this is not an article about dentistry. Here’s another anecdote – I was at Indigo Books the other day browsing in the section that features top picks for personal wellness. I always love the bookstore because of the fun things to look at, the deep caverns of knowledge hiding behind covers, the Starbucks smell wafting through the aisles. But mostly I love the bookstore because of what it tells me about society.
Two tables were spread across the length of the section, and upon them sat a mountain of books. They were top titles all having to do with wellness in some way or another. And big and black in a stack of probably a hundred copies was a book called “F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way.” Curious, I flipped it open and began to see that there weren’t very many words in it. Essentially, it seemed like more of a table topper than an actual book. Whatever the case, I took a few minutes to peruse through what is hailed as one of the most inspirational books of all time, whose premise is that not caring is the key to personal freedom and spiritual health. The volume walks the reader through a variety of scenarios that involve decision making, and humorously (and flippantly) provides the answer: “F**k It!” The author is careful to point out that carelessness is not what the book is promoting, but rather a healthy sense of whimsy that fits the western expression of eastern philosophy.
It’s no secret that stress is a big issue in our society. After all, our society has us running around responding to texts while we’re on the phone with our internet providers. Some of us work all night in buildings with ultraviolet lights, and many of us are wondering how we’re gonna pay the rent, or the hydro, or some other thing. Anxiety is the fruit of our world’s structures and ambitions, and if we’re honest, we are all caught in the middle of a perpetual crisis. So it doesn’t surprise me that titles like “F**k It” are hitting the shelves and being picked up by anxious people. Philosophies like “F**k It” are lightweight and cheap, so they get sucked up by desperate people – people who have a vacuum of peace in their lives.
But the thing that’s most revealing lies in the fact that “F**k It” sits upon the shelf beside dozens of other books like it. Browsing further, something dawned on me. Of all the answers to life’s decision-making, bill-paying, self-improving, life-enhancing rat race, it seems like wisdom is not among them. There are plenty of mantras and philosophical ideas that provide a spectre of wisdom, but wisdom itself is not perceived as a thing to be valued. If wisdom does appear in these books, it’s a means to an end rather than a treasure to be sought after.
The Bible talks a lot about wisdom. In the ESV translation, the word wisdom appears 213 times, and wise appears 181 times. I probably could write a book on wisdom from a Biblical perspective. But that’s not what I’m going to do. Instead I’ll give you three things the Bible says about wisdom, and after that you can do the seeking yourself.
- Wisdom is something extremely valuable
As mentioned before, our society favors whimsical and laissez-faire approaches to life over wisdom, mainly because they’re cheaper by comparison. Although, I’ll admit this isn’t just a worldly problem, as even in the church, people are getting caught up in fatalism and moral relativism as a way of making sense of life, and things like personal responsibility, stewardship, and integrity are phasing out. But the value of wisdom remains true.
Solomon was a really wealthy and powerful man in the history of Israel. In II Chronicles, God offers Solomon a blank cheque, and Solomon asks God for wisdom. That alone says a lot about what wisdom is worth in this life, but there’s more.
In another place it says that “Fools despise wisdom” (Pr. 1:7). In other words, wisdom is so precious, you’d have to be an idiot to not want it.
Try this one: “Blessed (fortunate, happy) is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.” (Pr. 3:13-15, parentheses mine). The scripture then goes on to say that wisdom is the active ingredient in God’s work of creating and upholding the universe.
Why is wisdom valuable? The same chapter in Proverbs says, “My son, do not lose sight of these. Keep sound wisdom and discretion, for they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck” (Pr. 3:21-22). So we see that there are two dimensions of wisdom’s value. The first describes wisdom as “life for your soul” – which seems to be saying that without it, you have only a shell of a soul, devoid of life, lacking meaning, purpose, joy, and wholeness. The second describes wisdom as “adornment for your neck” which implies that wisdom and discretion change our appearance. If we have wisdom, people look at us and see it, because we wear it in the way that we carry ourselves and the way we govern our affairs. Like adornment for our necks, wisdom makes us attractive human beings. Not in a shallow way. It’s not about physical appearances, but what we emanate. Wherever we go, there will be people who see it and say, “I want that, too.”
- Wisdom must be sought after; unlike wisdom teeth, it doesn’t happen naturally
Here’s a tricky one. Most of us would agree with the sentiment that wisdom comes with age, but the fact of the matter is more complicated than that. Of course, Solomon was pretty old, but so was Ahab. Look up I Kings 16-22 if you haven’t heard his story.
The point is that, while wisdom teeth come automatically as part of the natural maturing process, wisdom itself is a bit more elusive. Unlike gray hair and menopause, wisdom is found intentionally, and not by mistake. Take a look at this passage from Proverbs:
“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 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” (Pr. 2:2-6).
In this passage we have a number of verbs, action words, which give us insight into how wisdom is obtained. First, we have an intentional action of leaning in and listening to wisdom in order to grab hold of it. The next verse of the text points to a deliberate act of making your desire for insight/understanding known, and the most basic way of doing this is asking good questions. I can’t stress the value of this enough; if you want to know something or understand something on more than just a superficial level, ask.
Next, it says, “if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure…” (Pr. 2:4). Again, there is an act of seeking, motivated by the thing being sought, as one might seek a missing cell phone or wedding ring. Of course, one only seeks something that is perceived as valuable by the one doing the seeking. But the point being made here is that wisdom doesn’t just spring upon a person the way something like puberty does. It’s both humanly essential, and non-mandatory. There’s an opt-out clause, and sadly, most of the world is opting out. The good news is that if a person does the things listed above, wisdom can be found. James says that anybody who lacks wisdom can ask God for it, and he’ll give it liberally (James 1:5).
- While wisdom is hidden, it’s meant for finding – God wants us to find it
I remember birthday parties, or family Easter gatherings, where we as children would be sent to search for something hidden in the yard or around the house. Looking back, what I realize now is that the point of the hiding was the joy in the finding. Our parents would hide things, not to deprive us of them, but so that they could share our delight and excitement when the hidden things were discovered. Chocolate eggs may not be the same as wisdom, but I believe this profound principle applies, for “nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (Mk. 4:22).
Proverbs is a very rich book, full of powerful descriptions and imagery. In one place, wisdom is described as a woman crying in the streets (Pr. 1:20-33). The word for wisdom in Hebrew here is plural, perhaps teaching that the many glorious dimensions and manifestations of wisdom are contained in this one woman, named Wisdom. While there is more to this passage than this entry could contain, one point is clear – wisdom is longing to be heard. Though beautiful and queenly, she is given almost no attention by the busy men walking by. Though authoritative and erudite, she is being mostly ignored. Though she promises good things and knowledge to those who listen, “the complacency of fools destroys them.” (Pr. 1:32) This picture sounds like the society I see around me. Wisdom’s voice is loud and clear, but most are too busy, too proud, or too stupid to pay attention.
To find wisdom, one must seek it. But the good news is that it can be found; in fact, the purpose of the mystery is to be unveiled. God wants us to obtain wisdom, because it keeps us safe, guides our way, and provides a solid foundation for our feet to stand on. The other good news is that we aren’t groping in the dark for some ethereal virtue. God’s word is the map for finding wisdom, and there are concrete steps that can be taken in order to attain it. That’s not to say it’s easy. Something of value has a cost, and if we desire it, we need to be ready to do what’s necessary.
But the main point of my writing this is to say that wisdom is valuable, and worth our effort, and we need to see it that way instead of believing the lies of the culture. God hasn’t sent us in pursuit of some pointless, wispy thing, but something that strengthens and gives meaning to our lives. It offers so much more than just “F**k It” and Que sera, sera. It gives life to our souls, and adornment to our necks.
To read more about wisdom, check out the book of Proverbs. It’s found somewhere around the middle of the Bible, right after the Psalms, and it’s probably the best collection of wise sayings anyone could ever compile.