The Problem with Wisdom

In part three of our series, Finding Wisdom, we took a look at another common area we look to in order to find meaning for our lives. This week, we looked specifically at wisdom itself. Wisdom seems like it should be a good thing, but the harder we pursue it, the more we find that maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Keep reading to see why and what we can do about it.

The Problem with Wisdom

College holds a special place inour cultural narrative.  In books,movies, and TV, it is heralded as a time for young people to go off to pursuehigher learning and to grow in wisdom—a journey that cannot be completedwithout a great deal of experience and experimentation.  And at one time, that was more true thannot.  Universities were generally staffedby men and women who were genuine scholars in their respective fields and werecommitted to shaping young minds with the knowledge and tools they were goingto need in order to find success in whatever field they happened to bepursuing.  Over the past generation orso, though, that classical mission has…morphed…somewhat. 

The result of all of this has beenthe general transformation of our college and university system from alaboratory for the growth and development of wisdom and intelligence to a placewhere silliness is embraced with a near-religious seriousness.  For example, at Reed College, you canactually take a class entitled…are you ready for it…“Underwater Basket Weaving.”  Yes, that really exists…for credit.  At Cornell University, you can learn thefiner point of Tree Climbing.  OberlinExperimental College offers a whole load of classes whose academic value may beworth a bit of further investigation including “Breaking the Rules: AnIntellectual Discussion of Fight Club,” “Video Game History: Rise of a NewMedium,” “Chosen: Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The Office: Awesome, Awkward,& Addicting,” “Calvin & Hobbes” (which, I’ll admit, sounds prettyinteresting to me given that I both own and have read the entire collection),and “From Ban to Bar: The History, Politics, and Taste of Chocolate.” amongothers.  Not to be outdone, theprestigious Princeton University offers a course called “Getting Dressed.”  Personally speaking, my college P.E. creditwas Kick Ball: Canadian Rules, which the professor openly acknowledged to theclass was titled as such because the university wasn’t going to grant creditfor a class that did little more than have their elite students play thepopular school yard game that actually has its own adult amateur league and shehad to come up with some kind of a title that justified a course in which sheintended for students to do just that. For what it’s worth, we usually played with six bases instead of fourwhich I don’t really think they do in Canada…or anywhere else for thatmatter. 

Well, this morning, we are in thethird part of our conversation about meaning, what it is, and where we can findit for our lives called, Finding Meaning. The big idea for this whole journey is that we are creatures designedfor meaning.  We all need something bywhich we feel like we can define our lives. We need a purpose.  We need adirection.  That applies to both peopleas individuals and as groups.  Wholeorganizations need a clear and compelling meaning and direction or else theywill eventually peter out into silliness of some sort. 

The problem is, most of the placeswe look to in order to give our lives meaning can’t deliver on the thing theypromise.  As a result, two weeks ago westarted this whole conversation by establishing a foundation for meaning.  That foundation is Jesus Christ.  Life without Christ is meaningless.  It is through Jesus that we gain access tobecome a part of the grand story God has been writing since He first called theuniverse into existence, and will continue writing into eternity.  This is the only story big enough to sustainthe weight of our lives and in which the things we pursue each day can have animpact that goes well beyond themselves. If we don’t start on this foundation, whatever else it is that we restour lives on will eventually collapse, leaving us falling into a sense ofmeaninglessness that will last until we land on the rock that cannot bemoved. 

With our foundation established,last week we began to look together at some of the various big categories ofmeaning we pursue.  We started withpleasure.  We pursue meaning in pleasurebecause it’s easy and it feels good.  Theproblem, of course, is that pleasure can’t furnish meaning for long.  When we begin looking to pleasure for meaninginstead of…well…pleasure, it offers us only a receding high that demands anever-growing investment of ourselves to achieve.  In the end, pleasure may make you shout, “Ohboy!” but on its own will never bring joy. 

The next place our culture oftensearches for meaning is in wisdom.  Thisseems like it should be a more fruitful pursuit at first glance.  I mean, what could be wrong with wisdom?  That’s something nearly everyone wants to getmore of.  Wisdom is a good thing.  Becoming a wiser person seems like it shouldbe something we should all be striving to reach.  And yet, just like pleasure, when we searchfor wisdom for its own sake, when we search for wisdom as a source of meaningunto itself, we are setting ourselves up to head down some pretty strange andeven dangerous roads. 

Still, wisdom is a good and noblething, right?  I mean, we don’t want toavoid wisdom.  Even a cultureincreasingly defined by secularism in one form or another recognizes that.  A wise person is better than a foolishone.  This is a broadly understoodtruth.  Secular folks understand this tothe extent that there are whole thinktanks focused on understanding and growingin wisdom.  One, a project of theUniversity of Chicago’s philosophy department, takes the form of a websitecalled wisdomresearch.org.  Their statedpurpose is “to deepen our scientific understanding of wisdom and its role inthe decisions and choices that affect everyday life.  We want to understand how an individualdevelops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are mostlikely to make wise decisions.  We hopethat, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also beginto understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, becomewiser as a society.”  In other words, sciencecan tell us how to be wise. 

But, while projects like wisdomresearch.orgtreat the accumulation of wisdom very scientifically, for many, attainingwisdom is just the opposite of scientific research.  It doesn’t require careful experimentation,it requires gaining broad and varied experience.  The more we can experience, the better.  The people we consider wise are those who canshare stories about all the places they’ve been and all the people they’vemet.  We also tend to look at wisdom as somethingthat’s inherently esoteric.  The moreerudite and inscrutable it sounds, the more likely we are to be impressed withwhatever it is.  And if the fact that Iused esoteric, erudite, and inscrutable in a span of two sentence impresses youat all, that just proves my point.  Whatwe find is that when we pursue wisdom as a prize unto itself, our efforts oftendevolve into what is from any objective point of observation on a level withthe silliness of Looney Tunes. 

For instance, Aston University inEngland released a report proving that toast tends to fall on the buttered side.  It was published in the European Journal ofPhysics.  In other words, somebody spentmoney to construct and carry out a research project aimed at determiningwhether buttered toast falls butter side up or down.  As long as they observed the five-second ruleit was probably a tasty project.  Inanother project, the Institute of Food Research in the UK performed agroundbreaking analysis of…soggy cereal. They called it “A Study on the Effects of Water Content on theCompaction Behaviour of Breakfast Cereal Flakes.”  That sounds pretty impressive, doesn’tit?  In case you are wondering, higherwater content leads to soggier cereals. My favorite is a study from the University of Bristol (England) that waspublished in the prestigious Nature Magazine that offered readers wisdom on theoptimal way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of coffee. 

While I am confident the folks whodesigned these research projects, performed the experiments, and wrote therespective papers took their work seriously, this is all silliness.  Whether buttered toast tends to fall butteredside down may result in our being a little more careful with our bread onceit’s buttered, it’s not going to have any larger impact on our lives.  It won’t make us wiser people.  It really won’t even make us meaningfullysmarter people.  This all just points usfirmly in the direction of the futility and inanity of wisdom pursued for itsown sake.  And the thing is, none of thisis new.  Solomon was writing about italmost 3,000 years ago.  He took a lookat wisdom as a source of meaning and came away disappointed. 

Listen to this starting inEcclesiastes 2:12: “Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly, forwhat will the king’s successor be like?” In other words, he set out to get his mind around the nature of wisdomand foolishness in order to sort out if it would have any sort of a meaningfulimpact on his legacy.  Is it going toposition those who come after him to do any better than he had done?  Come back to v. 12: “He will do what has alreadybeen done.”  That is, he’s going to fallinto the same mistakes and traps that the folks who came before him haveencountered.  So…does this mean wisdom isjust pointless? 

No, it doesn’t.  As we’ve already said, there is still valuein wisdom.  Solomon recognizes thistoo.  Verse 13 now: “And I realized thatthere is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light overdarkness. The wise person has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.”  That makes sense, right?  It’s better to be wise than not.  Even the most secular wisdom is better tohave than nothing.  But…it still isn’tsomething that can function as a source of meaning in our lives.  Why? Look at the rest of the verse there: “Yet I also knew that one fatecomes to them both.  So I said to myself,‘What happens to the fool will also happen to me.  Why then have I been overly wise?’  And I said to myself that this is also futile.  For, just like the fool, there will be nolasting remembrance of the wise, since in the days to come both will beforgotten.  How is it that the wiseperson dies just like the fool?” 

You’ve felt that before,right?  Let me get personal with you forjust a minute.  My grandma died this pastweek.  Many of you already knew that andthank you for the gracious concern you’ve shown my family.  We appreciate that beyond what you canimagine.  But listen: Her path to the endwasn’t pretty.  As she drew nearer andnearer to her homegoing—or at least, her temporary home while she waits withall the saints for the final resurrection when she will have her resurrectionbody and we will be reunited for eternity in the new heavens and new earth—bothher body and her mind broke down.  Shecould not care for herself and when we visited her a couple of years ago eventhen she didn’t know who our boys were. Sitting down on her couch with all three boys on my lap or next to meand having her seriously ask, “And who are these boys?” is not something I’llsoon forget.  And yet my grandma was agood and godly woman whose heart was full of godly wisdom.  She was committed to her Jesus, fervent inprayer, and a student of the Scriptures all the way to her end.  Now, yes, she went to sleep last Monday nightand woke up with Jesus, but her final days were not pretty.  They were not peaceful.  She was in miserable pain for most of thelast several years of her life though you would not have known it to look ather most of the time.  And what’s more,her mind gradually brought her to the place where she couldn’t easily communicateanything she was feeling such that she could get the right kind of help.  What good is living that kind of a life if itends with that kind of humiliating frailty? Shouldn’t that kind of an end be reserved for someonemore…deserving?  It’s no wonder that asSolomon pondered all of this he finally exclaimed, “Therefore, I hated lifebecause the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me.  For everything is futile and a pursuit of thewind.” 

There’s still more than this: Tryas we might, we can’t get our heads around this.  We can wave the flag of God’s sovereignty,but ultimately, until we are able to ask Him face to face, we won’t know.  Or as Solomon puts it over in 7:23-24: “Ihave tested all this by wisdom.  Iresolved, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was beyond me.  What exists is beyond reach and verydeep.  Who can discover it?”  It’s almost like he’s embracing a cynicaldespair about anyone really finding wisdom. And this from a guy who still to this day bears the distinction of being“the wisest man who ever lived.”  If hefinally threw up his hands and declared, “I don’t get it!” what chance do wehave?  As long as we pursue wisdom forits own sake, very little. 

And yet, everywhere we look, we seethese pursuits of wisdom for their own sake. We see pursuits of wisdom that are little more than flights offancy.  We know we need it, but likeSolomon experienced, we can’t ever seem to find it in such a way that makes adifference.  So, we end up with collegecourses in underwater basket weaving and research studies published inprestigious academic journals on the best way to dunk a donut in coffee.  This is all a symptom of the very secularitythat so many believed would lead more surely to a generally accessible wisdom thanthe supposedly narrow limitations the Christian faith offered us. 

Along the way, we’ve embracedsecularism in some very profound ways as a people, thinking this would make ourlives better.  Secularism says wisdom forits own sake is the way to go.  That’sall we need to create a better world.  Asa part of this we have rejected God and even the divine in general.  Here’s the problem: We were made for God.  Taking Him out of our lives and out of ourculture hasn’t solved any problems. Pursuing wisdom for its own sake along the various lines laid down bythe secular worldview has not left us wiser or more fulfilled, it has left ushaunted and disappointed.  We aredisappointed with a God-less life because as we have already talked about onthis journey, a God-less life is inherently devoid of any meaning beyond whatwe can construct for ourselves and that’s never going to be big enough to bearthe weight of our lives.  Because of thiscontinued emptiness, we are haunted with this ongoing need for significance andpurpose.  You see, just because we gotrid of God doesn’t mean we got rid of our need for Him.  The result has been an attempt to investmeaning in things that are naturally meaningless.  We take the mundane and make itmeaningful.  More significantly, in ourpursuit of some kind of wisdom that can give substance to our attempts to livea good life, we take the silly and make it sacred.  We see this all over the place. 

The cruelty here is that there issimply no meaning to be found in all these pursuits of “wisdom.”  Wisdom has to be grounded in its source if itis going to do anything positive for our lives. Here, though, is where someone might protest: Okay, let’s forget thesilliness and focus on just plain old common sense.  We live in a part of the world where it’scommon to hear folks of a certain generation bemoan the loss of commonsense.  These folks agree with us thatthere’s no wisdom to be found in much of the silliness that characterizes so muchof our culture.  “We just need commonsense again,” they say.  And yet, what isthe standard retort to a wish for more common sense?  It just isn’t that common.  Even where we manage to find some commonsense, as Solomon might respond, what good does that ultimately do us?  Perhaps we wind up better able to handle avariety of life’s many situations in ways that leave both us and the peoplearound us better off than when we found them, but to what end?  There’s no point.  Focusing on being good for this world whileignoring the big questions of life proves to be just as empty a venture aspretending the big questions of life are something other than they are or elseanswering them in more and more inane and esoteric ways to avoid theuncomfortable stare of reality. 

This all just brings us around tothe big question for the morning: What is the proper grounding for wisdom?  Where does wisdom need to be rooted in orderto have the beneficial impact on our lives we look to it to receive?  The answer is Jesus.  Real wisdom is grounded in a relationshipwith Jesus.  Real wisdom is about seeingthe world through the lens of the kingdom of God.  It is about pursuing the character of God inthe various circumstances and situations of our lives.  It is about knowing who God is and living boldly in light of that.  It is aboutnot merely knowing the right thing to do—something that must be defined and canonly be objectively defined by the character and commands of God—but beingcommitted to pursuing that right thing in spite of how difficult that venturemay be.  Or to put all of this much moresimply as Solomon himself does several times in the collection of Proverbs hewrote, wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord. The seed of wisdom is planted in our hearts and lives when we giveourselves over to the lordship of Christ out of our respect for who God is andwhat God’s done.  Real wisdom is groundedin a relationship with Jesus. 

So then…how do we get it?  How do we grow in wisdom?  Well, for starters, we can ask for it.  At least, that’s what James, the brother ofJesus said.  And his words carry someweight because he was Jesus’ brother.  Ifhe could be convinced Jesus was who he said he was, we should probably payattention to what he has to say.  In theletter he wrote bearing his name he said this: “Now if any of you lacks wisdom,he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will begiven to him.”  Perhaps you’re like meand have asked for wisdom in certain situations, but have you ever genuinelyprayed (without any doubt in either God’s willingness or ability to give it)that God would make you a wiser person? If you want to be a wiser person, going to the source and asking Him toshare isn’t a bad place to start.  Realwisdom is grounded in a relationship with Jesus, and that’s a relationship thatwill always result in our growing in wisdom when we pursue it with theintentionality it deserves. 

But do you know what He’s probablygoing to do when you ask that?  He’sgoing to put a stirring in your heart to do one of a couple of things andprobably both if you’re not as fully engaged with either of them as you couldbe.  What are these?  The first is to immerse yourself more fullyin the Scriptures.  The apostle Paul toldTimothy, and through him us, that all the Scriptures are breathed out by Godand are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training inrighteousness so we will be thoroughly equipped for every good work, in otherwords, to make us wise.  If you want togrow in wisdom, working out your relationship with Jesus by engaging more fullywith the words He spoke and inspired is the best place to start.  Real wisdom is grounded in a relationshipwith Jesus.  You need to make engagingwith the Scriptures a regular part of your life’s rhythm.  I’ve talked about it before, but the YouVersion Bible App is one of the best tools I know of to help in this venture(beyond, you know, an actual Bible).  

The other thing is this: You needto be fully engaged with a community of faith that is committed to living outthose Scriptures together.  And here’swhat I mean by engaged: You need to be actively worshiping alongside fellowfollowers of Jesus.  You need to bestudying the Scriptures alongside them. You need to be serving alongside them. And, when you’ve been around long enough for your cup to be pretty full(and if you’ve been following Jesus for more than, let’s say, ten years, eitheryour cup is pretty full or you’ve got a leak in it somewhere you need to getplugged), you need to be actively pouring that cup in the cups of folks whoaren’t quite as far along in their journey as you are.  Should I be more specific about what thatlooks like?  That means you are eitheractively in a teaching position particularly with the kids and youth if you areso called and gifted, or you have someone you are intentionally, if informally,mentoring or discipling in the faith. These two things more than just about anything else reflect a healthyoutworking of your relationship with Jesus and real wisdom is grounded in arelationship with Jesus. 

Listen to this: Wisdom, likepleasure, will not give your life any meaning on its own.  Your pursuit will become first silly and thendangerous the harder you look.  But,wisdom is still something worth having. It won’t give your life more meaning, but your life will be better withit than it will without.  If you want toexperience this life-improving blessing—and who wouldn’t—ask God for it, andthen invest yourselves in the Scriptures and your church community.  As you pursue those as the outworking of yourrelationship with Jesus, you will find what you seek.  Real wisdom is grounded in a relationshipwith Jesus.  And as an added bonus, themore fully you live out of your relationship with Jesus, the more meaning yourlife will have both for you and for the people around you. Real wisdom isgrounded in a relationship with Jesus. So start there and be wise.  

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