Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing enough to not put it in a fruit salad. And that sums up what Job says about knowledge and wisdom and understanding. Scripture actually talks quite a bit about wisdom. James 3 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.”
So, Job asks his friends, “Where does wisdom come from?” You can’t mine for it like silver or refine it like gold. It can’t be taken out of the earth like iron or smelted from ore like copper. You can’t mill it like flower or dig for it like stones and sapphires. All the things we value in this world—we can’t find wisdom like we find these things. It’s not discovered by sheer hard work. And you can’t google it as if you’re simply looking for an answer to a crossword puzzle.
Where does wisdom come from? Proverbs, of course, talks about wisdom as something that is, indeed, attainable if only one has the wherewithal to look and dig. Paul discusses wisdom in his first letter to Corinth. “Where is the one who is wise? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Where does wisdom come from? Where is it to be found? And who has it?
What I’m coming to understand is that wisdom doesn’t come by sheer effort and will. You can’t go looking for it as if it is something to be found. It is something to be embodied. Theologians often pair Wisdom with the Word. Wisdom, in Greek, is Sophia—a feminine noun. Word, in Greek, is Logos—a masculine noun. The two comprise the Christ—the Wisdom and Word of God embodied and sent to humanity in the form of humility and compassion.
Wisdom is embodied in humility and compassion. It is not sought after but learned through the challenges that break down our walls of what we thought we knew. Because, you see, knowledge is just information. And information can be used for all sorts of things. The atomic bomb was created through knowledge. Its use, however, was a matter of wisdom—either the presence or lack thereof, I might never be certain.
Knowledge can be looked up and recited, like a memorized formula. But its application is a matter of wisdom. Where, then, does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding?
We ask these things as people who have seemingly conquered the world and think that surely we can locate this, as well. We can conquer wisdom and bend it to our will, just as we have done with all other created things. Except if we see Wisdom as Christ, just as we do the Word, then wisdom is not created but existed from the beginning of time. And like God, she cannot be unearthed, uncovered, dug up, or discovered. She must be embodied through humility and compassion.
And humility and compassion were the last things Job’s friends had as they discussed his predicament with him. A good and faithful man, Job lost everything—home, family, job, health. His friends stood by him but, it seems, only for the purpose of helping him see he must have done something to deserve all this. Because, if they can determine what he did, they can avoid such a punishment from God. They offered knowledge—the best they had. But they had no wisdom. They had no humility. They had no compassion. Because these things don’t need to find answers to why. They are willing simply to sit with the questions in all of their discomfort.
And that’s the difficult part. We’re good at knowledge. We like to look up the answers to the questions. But the wisdom piece of things is much more difficult. It’s uncomfortable. It takes longer. And there never seems to be an answer. So, instead of taking the time and entering into the grief, we seek the simple answers. We try to offer knowledge. We say things like, “God has a plan,” or “God needed another angel,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”
Kate Bowler addresses this in her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.” She says,
“The prosperity gospel is a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren? The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way. I would love to report that what I found in the prosperity gospel was something so foreign and terrible to me that I was warned away. But what I discovered was both familiar and painfully sweet: the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. And no matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same. I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest. Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of graduate school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it’s getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don’t think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way. I don’t believe that anymore.”
I went to college with a man named Mike Jensen. He sang in the choir. He was, I think, two years ahead of me. He seemed larger than life to me. When we went on a tour to Europe, he and a few friends stayed on to backpack their way around the places we hadn’t stopped. He and a few others started a band called Sweatlodge that played at various campus gatherings. He was the kind of person who just seemed to know what he wanted and went and did it. He had a strong faith life and later became a band leader at a local church. He taught music at this same college and led a worship band that traveled around playing for churches. The band even came to Our Saviour’s one year, and I kept thinking that this one student looked an awful lot like a guy I went to school with named Mike. Turns out it was him.
Not long after that tour, around 2013, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After surgery to remove it, it came back with a vengeance. A movie was made by one of his classmates who ended up in Hollywood called, “This Day Forward.” I was finally able to purchase it on vimeo and watched it last night. I started crying before it even started and didn’t stop until long after it was over. Because I could remember my own encounters with him. And because, just a few days ago, he wandered out of the facility he’s been living in and hasn’t been found—at least not as of today, Thursday, the day I’m recording this.
And there is absolutely no form of knowledge or answers that will make any of this right for him or his family. There are no answers that will make this okay. No platitudes that will make sense of this. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? We want to make sense out of the senseless pain we experience. Because if we can’t give meaning and purpose to it, then we’re left with a sense of hopelessness. Without meaning, we can’t put our pain in a box that we can control. And it’s all left in God’s hands.
According to the movie, Mike kept a journal after his diagnosis. And in it he talked about how hard a time he was having with his diagnosis. He said, “I forgot one thing: I need God.” And in the movie, his daughter says, “The only person who has every right to be pissed off can only think to thank God for everything [God]’s done.”
Friends, that is wisdom. Only a few months after Ben Splichal Larson served as intern at this church, he and his wife and his cousin were in Haiti during that horrible earthquake that claimed so many lives, including Ben’s. And in the midst of the shaking and uncertainty and fear, from across the room, Renee could hear him singing to God with his last breaths. Singing praise to God. That is wisdom.
Wisdom is not having all the answers for why bad things happen to good people. Wisdom is recognizing that no one gets out of this life unscathed. Wisdom is being open to where God is at work in the midst of the worst moments in our lives. Wisdom is praising God, even when we can’t see to take the next step forward.
We are in such deep need of wisdom—the kind of wisdom that doesn’t seek easy answers but is willing to walk through the muck with one another with humility and compassion. That is the work being done by groups in our congregation such as Faith Partners—ready to walk with those being hurt by the disease of addiction; the Inclusivity Team—preparing a path to discern how to walk with the LGBTQ community, as well as other people excluded from our daily worship lives; the FEAST ministry, seeking ways to walk with those who are incarcerated; school volunteers and backpack program supporters; groups discussing racism and white supremacy in our nation and in our lives. This is our mission: To walk with Christ and neighbor, healing brokenness together.
Wisdom comes at a price—it costs us our comfort and our certainty. But thanks be to God that Christ was willing to pay the price of death, itself, so that we might learn wisdom through the experience of the cross.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church