Christians are supposed to be the wise. I often wonder if we really are.
While my own preaching and teaching, as well as that of others I know well or have sat under, contains a lot of practical application, I am beginning to suspect that I haven’t spent a lot of time teaching about wisdom or providing the formation needed to gain it.
We’re alright at telling people what to do, but I wonder how well we tell people how to decide what to do, or how to think. Practical application would tell me that in x scenario the way of Jesus means you should do y set of actions. The problem is that a lot of the time it depends on the situation—and perhaps even the people involved—what the right thing to do is.
What we need is to be formed in such a way so that we can judge for ourselves what good and bad choices look like in the situation we’re facing. We need to, in the words of Solomon, get wisdom (Proverbs 4). You can’t simply be told wisdom, though you can be gifted it, you need to form it.
We package our teaching in neat and easily digestible ways and are then surprised when our people don’t grow up into wise, mature Christians. If all you eat in your life is fast food you’ll get fat, and you won’t develop the palate to appreciate the finest of food. No one likes scotch the first time they try it, you have to be learn to drink it and then learn to savour it. Wisdom and maturity requires struggle, it requires effort. To be wise you have to chew.
The Old Testament law was given to be a guide to the people, to show what living God’s way looked like. The idea was that the people would learn wisdom and so no longer need the law because they would be able to discern the right path in each situation. The law was given until it would be written on our hearts: until we gained wisdom.
As the story developed and Jeremiah prophesied of a law scribed on hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 11, 36) it became clearer that we couldn’t simply learn wisdom, we had to be gifted it.
“Get wisdom!” cried Solomon. “How?” we wept in despair. “From my hands” said the Lord.
The people who by the Spirit have the law written on their hearts—Christians—don’t need the law to tell them what to do, they have been gifted the law in their very selves. Why are we bad at doing it then? We have to grow up into wisdom.
Adam and Eve were told not to eat from a tree. We know it as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s perhaps better translated as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. It’s less the tree of what is for and against God, why wouldn’t God want them to know that? And, why would they need it, surely the Lord would tell them? Rather, it’s a tree of wisdom, of judging the good or bad course in a particular situation, a tree of discernment.
I suspect that in time God would have wanted Adam and Eve to eat from the tree, but only mature people at the right time are gifted wisdom by God. The Law didn’t come until after the family was a nation; Jesus didn’t come to die, rise, ascend and pour out the Spirit until the right time was reached (Galatians 4).
I’ve often wondered why the Enemy’s suggestion that Adam and Eve eat from the tree in their childlike state was wrong (it’s clearly wrong, God forbid it in no uncertain terms, but why?). Clearly he motivates them with terrible motives, undermining God’s word and suggesting they could be “like God”, but why was the act of eating wrong? I would suggest that part of it is that he was shortcutting God’s plan for them. It sounded good because in other circumstances it could be good, but shortcuts to wisdom are the route of the Enemy.
We read in Genesis 2 that the two trees were in the middle of the garden. Its reasonable to imagine them as next to each other. To eat from the Tree of Life you had to brush past the branches and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. On the path to Life Adam and Eve had to physically reject taking wisdom for themselves and instead wait to be handed it. The way of the Enemy is to try to take wisdom; it kills. The way of Jesus is to wait for wisdom to be gifted, and it gives life.
Wisdom takes time. It’s a gift, but one that needs fanning into flame (2 Timothy 1). We grow up into ever increasing maturity, and therefore wisdom.
That makes my question harder to answer. I want to know what to do to bring my people into wisdom, and nothing quick will work. A quick fix will do the opposite of what I’m aiming for, it would be the tactics of the Enemy. How often do we do that, I wonder?
So, trying to think longer term, how can we disciple people into becoming the wise? What would formation into wisdom look like? Here are five suggestions.
Tell me why
Being told what to do in preaching and teaching is no bad thing. The law was given until we gained wisdom. We need to be pointed in the right direction. However, if we want to move into being able to discern for ourselves, we need to understand why things are good and bad.
Yes to being told what to do, but only if you tell me why.
“Come let us sit as men do, and discuss important things”
Our public preaching, and any other direct teaching contexts we have, will not be enough. Formation requires back and forth, it requires questions and answers, it requires us to wrestle with the text. We need to sit and discuss.
I’m still learning to do this well; I know lots of young people with lots of questions about the Bible that don’t always have that much to do with the text of the Bible. If I can get them to wrestle with the text in the Spirit, I’m winning.
I know lots of other young people without a lot of questions, I worry about them more.
Receive the Gift
Jesus is the wisdom of God, and wisdom is a gift of the Spirit. I rarely pray for wisdom. This needs to change, and I need to model it to others. I rarely lay hands on someone to impart wisdom (read rarely as: I cannot remember ever doing this). I often would lay on hands for someone to receive power in a situation, or gifting, or an impartation of the love of God, but wisdom?
If wisdom is a gift, why would good charismatics not expect to receive it in impartation as well as through the grind of daily living?
There’s a perception that the church isn’t a place to take your questions, we just have to believe. We must become a place where people can ask genuine questions. Jesus loves questioners. There are such things as bad questions, and sometimes we need to help people find better questions, but we shouldn’t ever be shutting down questions.
If anything, we aren’t critical enough: not about our faith but about the world we live in. Do our people even consider the impact on their hearts and souls of the cultural waters in which we swim? We don’t all need to be cultural critics, but we do all need to be critics of our own hearts and notice the effects that things we do, think, say and feel have on them.
Teach the Bible
Our Biblical literacy is generally pretty poor (speaking of British Christians in the abstract, here). Andrew Haslam says that to build strong Christians who can stand the winds of our day we need “nose-to-tail” preaching: we need to preach the Bible “warts and all”. Amen and Amen.
If we want to grow in wisdom, teach the Bible, all of the Bible, especially the bits that we might be tempted to avoid.
I was planning a preaching series through Joseph and asked my senior pastor if he’d like to skip the story of Judah and Tamar, it seems like a break from the main narrative and is both ‘colourful’ and culturally tricky. He said no and that he’d like to speak on it. That’s wisdom. It isn’t a break from the narrative, as I now realise, it’s the dramatic set up for the turning point of the narrative (and reveals Judah as the surprising hero) and allows for some beautiful reflections on true repentance.
We’re supposed to be the wise, and one day we will be. But why wait? Get wisdom.