What Ever Happened to Wisdom?

Richard Foster

I planned to write a piece today on the institution of marriage, but I’m attending a conference of sorts (I’m not exactly sure what this is) and the hours slipped through my over-caffeinated fingers.  Instead I’ll offer an off-the-cuff reflection on the beauty and the precious rarity — especially in this age — of wisdom.

In the act of interviewing Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline and the current Sanctuary of the Soul, I was reminded how strange and counter-cultural a thing wisdom has become.  Foster is the kind of guy who not only brings a well-marked Bible to an interview, but who opens it frequently and answers from scripture.  He’s the kind of guy who takes a year-and-a-half “fast” from writing and public speaking because he believes God wants him to become comfortable again with anonymity and stillness.  He’s the kind of guy who invites his son to give him a “trail name” (as is the custom when you hike the Appalachian Trail) and waited for ten years for his son to deliver on the promise.  The name his son gave him?  Wisdom-Chaser.

When I was a child, Solomon was among my favorite characters because he was said to be the wisest man in the world.  Then someone pointed out James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”  From that day forward, I prayed for wisdom almost everyday, and sometimes multiple times daily.  In my childish way of thinking, God had promised a free giveaway.  If you want freedom, just ask for it, and God will give it.  So I asked as often as I could.  If someone had told me that wisdom comes, in large measure, through the things our flesh flees, perhaps I would have asked less eagerly.

One of the best pieces of advice my father ever gave me was, as I was about to depart for my freshman year at Stanford University, I should seek people of wisdom and not merely intelligence.  Intelligence is a capacity — or, more accurately, a collection of capacities.  We call a person intelligent when she is able to process vast amounts of information, penetrate it with analysis, bring clarity from confusion, or attain new insights or fashion new syntheses of knowledge.  Like most capacities, intelligence is value-neutral.  If you have the capacity of drive cars well, you can use that capacity to be a cop or a robber.  Intelligence, likewise, can be employed to manufacture biological weapons or it can be employed to develop cures, to create internet viruses or to fight against them.

As predicted, I found many at Stanford who possessed extraordinary intelligence, but quickly came to see that intelligent people were a dime a dozen.  I was surrounded by intelligent people, some of them breathtakingly intelligent, and yet they did and believed some of the most foolish things imaginable.  Wisdom is far rarer than intelligence, and far more valuable as well.  Wisdom is directional, or value-positive.  You can be immaculately intelligent and utterly deceived in your beliefs.  But wisdom implies that your beliefs, to the extent you are wise, reflect the truth.  Wisdom implies that you have gained some insight into the true, the good and the beautiful, that you have listened to Life and learned some of what it teaches.

Why do we speak so little of wisdom today?  Kierkegaard wrote that Christ shows us the Truth in the form of Life.  Christ shows us what it means to live with wisdom.  The American church, and the evangelical church in particular, by and large does an excellent job explaining why a person might receive the gospel and what he might do to begin growing in Christ.  Yet it does very little, appallingly little (I think), to help mature Christians grow into men and women of wisdom.  The world is longing for it.

Heck, I am longing for it.  I’m very fortunate to have found a church where there are men of wisdom who can provide me with guidance.  Even so, I found it so very refreshing to sit with another human being for an hour, to look him in the eye, to speak of meaningful things, and share in the bounty of wisdom that God has given him through his life.

So, look for men and women of wisdom.  They’re hard to find, because they make no effort to draw attention to themselves.  They’re not concerned that everyone learn what wise people they are.  But if you look for people of everyday faithfulness, people who have gone through the ups and downs and emerged with peace and clarity, people whose hearts and minds are thoroughly transformed by the gospel, you will find them.  They’re out there.

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  • Tim, in an essay in Bruce Waltke’s festschrift, JI Packer speaks of “sophiology” (rather than theology) which is the wise pursuit of life and thought in communion with God. I always liked that term. The more I reflect on the nature of wisdom, I am convinced it is a central concept in the OT (already in the Garden episode) and people like Foster are guides to all of us to help us remember.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I named my daughter Sophia for similar reasons, Pete. I’d like to see a little less concern with being right – however important right belief may be – and a little more concern with being wise.

  • Brenda Rogers

    Grace and Peace and Rest in the Truth be multiplied to you in abundance.
    There was a time in my life that I believed everything I read in print was the truth. I reasoned, “how could a lie be printed?” I was very young then and now, alas, I am middle age at 65 😉 Looking forward to loving the rest of my life, learning to love.
    I read a statement once that stated, “Knowledge is “Surprised” by Truth!” . . .The Lord gave me a dream from 1 Cor.1:26-31 where a group of people where sitting in a conference setting. The well known speaker whose name was withheld from me as I was awakened, went through the audiance asking all across the full room, “have you read 1Cor.1:26?” Each one had their Bible and at any moment could have opened them and read it, but not one did . . .including myself, knowing the question was coming to me. But when I was ask, I then “woke up” and of course reached right for my word and read it.. .The fear of the Lord is a good beginning place, with getting and keeping the first commandment First while living by the golden rule…Thank You for sharing your heart. I love the way you form your thoughts which produce such well spoken sentences, to provoke others (at least me) to share the richness and pleasure of their own walk with the Lord. Thank you for walking in wisdom towards those who are outside, redeeming the time, as your (public) speech, as I see it, is always gracious, seasoned with salt. (Col.4:4-6) (Isa 50:4)

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thank you, Brenda, for your encouragement and for sharing out of your *own* bounty here. God bless.

  • william stout

    Fr. Richard Rohr says most men of necessity spend the first half of their life seeking “things:” education, relationships/spouses, jobs and careers, a decent car and decent housing, passions and hobbies-basically finding their place in the world. In the second half of our life, if we are blessed with most of these “things,” we are then able to seek wisdom and deeper stuff from the perspective of middle age. Also, once we achieve all these accomplishments we find there are still deeper needs. I’m not sure I buy this completely (some people are pretty wise when young and vice versa) but it’s an interesting idea.

  • Bryon Bailey

    Thank you so much, Timothy, for reminding us that wisdom is to be treasured above anything that this world has to offer, and even above much of what God has to offer. Scripture is full of instruction and real-life examples regarding the successful pursuit of wisdom. I was recently encouraged along those same lines, having read through I Kings. Solomon, given by God a carte blanche opportunity to fulfill any desire, asks for wisdom (chapter 3). In chapter 4, we read that he was also given “breadth of mind” (ESV). That last phrase really hit home with me, and I’ve found myself asking for the same thing, that the Lord would grant me “breadth of mind”. The rub, of course, lies in the motive for my asking. Is it for my glory, or for His?

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    “Wisdom implies that your beliefs, to the extent you are wise, reflect the truth.”

    Ay, there’s the rub.

    But seriously, this was a nice piece. I think of wisdom as the intersection of knowledge and empathy, the understanding of both how the world works and how people exist in and react to the world. Or as Kant put it, “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”

  • What a beautiful sermon Dr.Timothy, i was held very captive and it really gave me thought.You are so very right about seeking wisdom instead of knowledge because, knowledge comes a day at a time and wisdom comes to show you how to apply that knowledge. I am not that good with my wording and sentencing but just a plan Jane in my language which i am sure you picked up immediately, i am better face to face in a conversation or perhaps my thing is reciting Psalms i know 30 some Psalms and i love all of them. This is what i do on my days off, i use my karaoke and recite Sam McGee and Psalms i love poetry and do write also. I love the word of God how wonderful a letter of love to you and all who believe.How his words drip like gold, refined gold on the ancient pages of time and patience. To me it is like a love song that never ends the more you read it the more information you get you can never just read it and not find something new and peaceful and beautiful.Wisdom to me is knowing God and hearing him when he is calling you and knowing that he is always there watching and loving you and Love is correction yes he does this to, but that’s when you can say He has not given up on me yet he loves me i just got corrected. This to I believe, that the animals do not talk because they know to much. Ecclesiastes:X Blessings and Peace!

  • Ken Walker

    Thank you for your reflection on wisdom. I encourage you to seek the audience of your Dad, one of the wisest men I know and my best friend.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hi, Ken. Agreed. I think it was my appreciation of my father’s wisdom that led me to believe in the value of wisdom as a young man.