Here are the notes from our Faith Community talk this week. I hope they encourage you :)
Our Quest for Wisdom
This week was my birthday. I turned 45. This is the first birthday that has felt “big” to me: like I should pause and pay attention, think about what this means. I think this came from learning that Martin Luther King, Jr. died at 39 – I hadn’t known that. It made me aware that it’s an honor to reach this age. It feels like a crossroads of sorts, where ALL my varied life experiences so far kind of all come together and start to make sense, and that I should notice the way God puts things together. That this is a wisdom we earn in life. I don’t think this is tied to any specific age; I think we’re all in this process.
All this made me think of a time about 10 years ago, when I asked for wisdom specifically, and how God has answered that prayer in some unexpected ways.
Here’s what happened: when Steve and I were newlyweds, we joined a small group at our church that focused on looking at marriage through the lens of the Bible, using that as a blueprint from which to build these important relationships. One night we were talking about prayer, and trying to be bolder in asking God for what we need. We went around the circle and each answered the question: “If you could ask God for ANYTHING, what would you ask for?”
There were lots of good answers, but one really stuck with me. When we got to our friend Chris, he said, “Well, King Solomon had the chance to ask God for anything he wanted, and he asked for wisdom. So that seems like a smart choice to me.”
I liked that.
I went home and read the story in the 1 Kings 3: how God came to Solomon in a dream and asked him this question, and when he asked for wisdom, God was pleased, and told him:
Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have you asked for the death of your enemies, but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. MOREOVER, I will give you what you have not asked for – both riches and honor – so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life. (1 Kings 3)
Following Chris’ lead, I asked for wisdom that night ten years ago, and have asked for it many, many times since. When I asked, here’s what I was expecting:
I thought it wisdom was something that came as sort of a Divine Download, where supernaturally, God would just deposit all this “knowing” into my mind; where I’d find myself able to comprehend and handle things that would have confounded me before. I thought it would be similar to when I learned Astrology. Back then, whenever anyone told me their birthday, I’d “know” a whole slew of information about them: their personality, what motivated them, their fears and goals, ways of approaching things. It was a little creepy, but it was handy. For 6-7 years, this was my primary system for navigating relationships: friendships, at work, romantic prospects. And as I’ve shared before, what I “knew” via astrology was surprisingly accurate…but it wasn’t GOOD. As fun as it was to feel like I was accessing supernatural information, it rarely put anyone in a positive light, and tended to reveal things that were unflattering or sort of “you at your worst.” At some level, it made you feel known and exposed, rather than known and encouraged. (Later I could understand why in the Bible, God tells us not to seek this sort of knowledge from sources other than Him.)
The Bible tells us in a couple of different places that we’re hardwired with a bent to look for wisdom via what we can do: (In my case, learning someone’s birthday)
Indeed, the very first man and woman came to look at things this way, after Eve’s encounter with the snake in the Garden of Eden. In the third chapter of Genesis we read about a shift in Eve’s perception of the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, which God had told Adam they were not to eat. But then she chatted with the snake, who lied to her and said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Then Eve started to crave what she thought she couldn’t have. We’re told that “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.”
Eve had probably always seen that the fruit was pretty, and guessed that it would taste good. But when the serpent came along and told her it would give her knowledge, THAT’S when Eve decided to defy God. And since then, we seek knowledge. We want to KNOW things based on some easy behavior or attitude:
- Learning someone’s astrological sign (or Myer’s Briggs or Enneagram, etc.)
- Moving furniture to a special arrangement
- Adopting a 100% positive attitude
- Eating vegan or paleo or Atkins (or any other specialized way) not for health reasons, but in the belief that it will give us “clarity” or make us “more evolved.”
We want life to be better…we want to KNOW things and be wise…and we love the idea that that can come via something we do or learn or say. We love the idea that WE control it.
Now, there are elements that are similar, sometimes, where it feels like I get a “Divine Download”:
- Certainly, reading the Bible broadens my understanding of God and our relationship to Him and gives me a new lens for how to see the world and respond to it. It gives me wisdom to handle things differently than I might have before.
- There have been countless times where I’ve “known” something I could not have known on my own, with ideas that just sort of popped into my head.
- The Bible describes gifts from God that come under the heading of Prophecy, where people know things they could not know any other way, because God tells them.
- And I’ve had lots of experiences where, when faced with a challenging question or situation when talking with someone, I’ll open my mouth to respond and think, “I have no idea what I’m going to say here…” and yet I’ll say something “wise” that I’d never thought of before.
But I’m not sure these experiences are the kind of wisdom King Solomon was asking for, or the kind the Bible encourages us to pursue.
By and large, God has answered my prayers for wisdom by hurling me into one situation after another that I have almost no idea how to handle. It comes with gaining lots of momentum and then slamming into a wall, then working with God for answers and understanding (and motivation and stamina) to get through or around it.
Almost always, it’s situations where there are perhaps two available, obvious responses:
- The “normal” response, filled with extreme reactions, positive or negative.
- The “Christian” response, filled with niceness and determined, tamped-down calm.
Rarely do either of these responses appeal to me. I’m not all that extreme, and I’m not all that nice. So I find myself casting about for a 3rd option. And rather than the lovely long-range plan I’m looking for, I usually get minute-by-minute possible responses. God even skips some minutes. Sometimes a lot of them, and I feel more or less left to my own devices.
And when His minute-by-minute suggestions clash BLUNTLY with both the “normal” response and the “Christian” response, it sets up these double & triple wisdom-needing situations, because people get mad (or disappointed, or resentful, or whatever), and then there are relational issues on top of whatever situation was at issue in the first place.
It’s a mess. And yet in the midst of these messes, God leads me through, one minute at a time. It’s only when things are more or less over–which often takes a couple years–that I can look back and see what God was doing: what all those small instructions added up to, maybe even a little bit of why He directed things that way, places I “zigged” when I should have “zagged.”
And I realize that as a result of this experience, I “know” things – I have wisdom – that I did not have before.
In short, the way in which God answers our prayers for wisdom is SO MUCH HARDER than I thought it would be.
It reminds me of a Sara Grove song, where she contrasts the difference between “What I thought I wanted” and “What I got instead.” She describes how life hands us these situations that are UNFAIR, and we want them fixed. And yet how, over time, we see that the broken engagement, the betrayed friendship, the disappointing grade on your statistics exam, and the wall that popped up out of nowhere and stopped your momentum cold…lead to good things…eventually.
I DISLIKE this system.
And yet, given that a couple of weeks ago we talked about becoming Spiritual Superheroes, I must admit that this system is one of the ways God gives us His power. Superheroes are people who have been through some “assignments” with God, survived impossible situations, experienced the joy of being part of helping/rescuing/bringing hope into hopelessness, and so have hidden stores of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and belief.
This isn’t the ONLY way God’s power works…it’s only a small fraction. But it is an IMPORTANT part of what we pick up in life, and what we have to work with as we move forward in the future.
Let’s look at how one of the Proverbs personifies wisdom, describing it in incredible terms:
Selections from Proverbs 8 – Wisdom’s Call
Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver; knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
I wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power. By me kings reign, and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold, what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing wealth on those who love me and making their treasuries full….
….blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. Blessed is the man who listens to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For whoever finds me finds life and receives favor from the Lord. But whoever fails to find me harms himself, and all who hate me love death.”
When I was new to following Jesus, someone suggested that I could pray this Proverb over myself. This was so encouraging, because in my life before, you might have described me as smart in an analytical sort of way, and enthusiastic. But I doubt the word “wise” would have come to mind. The idea that God could make me wise when I hadn’t really been that before was so hopeful.
And yet I was confused by what I saw when I read King Solomon’s words that he wrote toward the end of his life, in a book of the Bible he wrote called Ecclesiastes, where he describes how “God has placed eternity in the hearts of man,” and yet his experience of gaining the very best life has to offer leads him to conclude that it’s more or less “meaningless” – that we labor for all these things we want in vain.
- THIS is the conclusion of the man to whom God gave EVERYTHING?
Whenever I reach a point like this in the Bible – particularly something that is really troubling – I ask, “So how does Jesus change this dynamic in our relationship with God?”
- To recap, Eve’s decision to eat the fruit she thought would give her wisdom was EXPRESS disobedience to God, and it caused a breech in the relationship between God and us that has continued through every generation. It put inside of us a longing for things that are contrary to God.
- God sent his son Jesus to BRIDGE this gap—to give us a way to overcome these longings, rather than be enslaved by them.
- Once this bridge is connected, we have a promise that when we die, that’s not the end of the story—there’s more. There is life in heaven with God.
- We have only the faintest idea what that could possibly mean. But one of the things it seems to mean is that the things we do here on earth AREN’T MEANINGLESS. That we’ll see things that have happened in a new way, and say, “Yeah…wow…hmmm…okay; that makes sense now.”
And even in the meantime, during our lives, we get glimpses of this. These glimpses are the wisdom the writer of Proverbs 8 describes.
So how do we “hang at wisdom’s doorway”? And what do we do with what we find there?
The Apostle James offers us some guidance here: He says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…” (James 1:5)
Then a bit later, he tells us that there are two kinds of wisdom, and gives us a template to consider when we’re trying to figure out where our thoughts or guidance might be coming from:
“if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14-16)
Note: this DOESN’T say, “don’t have any ambition.” God created us to have dreams and goals, to work hard to better ourselves and make the most of what we’re given. Jesus told a parable specifically to make the point that whatever we’re given—whether a little or a lot—we’re supposed to invest it to try and make a return.
But selfish ambition and bitter envy have a feel that isn’t encouraging and hopeful; but rather clawing and filled with disregard for others. James is essentially saying that God didn’t create a world where, to make the most of our talents, we need to mow down whoever is in our way to get to where God wants us. That is the system set up by our enemy, the devil.
In contrast, he says, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17-18)
This too, has stumped me, because not all of the wisdom I’ve received from God has looked like these things as I’ve walked it out.
Doesn’t it sound like Christian nice-ness and people-pleasing? How could you ever leave a romantic relationship where the other person still loved you, or a job you were really good at, in a way that was “submissive and impartial”?
But as I’ve prayed about this, I’ve sensed God drawing a distinction: saying that I don’t bring these qualities to the process, He does. HE exhibits these qualities in the fruit of the wisdom He bestows. HE is pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
And thus the choices we make when following Him will produce this fruit. Not always immediately. But over time.
We don’t have to force ourselves to be our best approximation of these qualities. We just have to seek God for his wisdom, and do our best to obey
- Even if it’s costly
- Even if it’s awkward
- Even if it’s not “nice” and/or a full expression of every one of our emotions.
When we do this, we can trust that God will bring about conclusions to situations that are each one of these things. (Or, occasionally, we’ll realize that what we listened to was not “wisdom” from God, and we’ll know to look for a different way to handle things next time.)
And so that’s what I’m celebrating, here on my 45th birthday: the glimpses I have of how God has lead me and others through IMPOSSIBLE situations, and yet once the dust settles, we can see that what transpired has these qualities James described: full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, pure and at peace. That even in the places where we don’t know how to be considerate with others, God is considerate with all of us.
It leaves us more in awe of God…and wanting to see more of His Kingdom, here on earth.
We prayed through Proverbs 8, asking God to fill us with the wisdom described there. We took communion. And then we spent some time in “newcomer prayer,” asking God for words of encouragement, strength & comfort for someone joining us for the first time. I am still in awe at how God showed up for all of us, speaking words we could not have known any other way and cheering us on as we walk out these lives He’s directing.
I’m grateful :)