When my son Jonathan was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I found myself in urgent need of wisdom and discovered that I was sorely lacking. Later, when I started to speak about mental illness and had to decide on what topics I considered most important, I immediately thought of wisdom. It’s a virtue few Christians value and cultivate. I know I didn’t. It’s one of those treasures we appreciate when we discover it is missing.
The Bible speaks repeatedly about wisdom and exhorts us to find it. But sometimes our efforts seem frustrating. Like Job, we ask: “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding? It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (Job 28:20–21). We know, as Job confesses in the end, that “the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28), but how does it translate in practical terms?
And what is wisdom anyhow, according to the Bible? Is it simply, as John Calvin said, “knowledge of God and of ourselves”? Or is it, as many Christians believe, the skill of knowing what to do in situations where Scriptures are silent?
The Bible seems to advocate both of these meanings and more, rejecting a dichotomy between theory and practice. Biblical wisdom includes a technical “know-how” (as in the case of the temple artisans in Exodus 31) without separating it from an overall knowledge of God and His plan of salvation.
The challenge of navigating within this harmony of meanings makes the search for biblical wisdom both laborious and exciting. It also requires some exegetical work, especially in an age where the temptation to seek quick answers and to make Scripture subservient to our needs is particularly strong.
One example of utilitarian exegesis is the treatment of James 1:5, which is sometimes taken as a “name it and claim it” promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” When approached with that narrow mind-set, the strong warning that follows causes guilt and confusion: “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6–7).
I have met Christians who, feeling a need for wisdom in a specific situation, have claimed this promise and, to prove their faith, have taken the first thing that came to their minds as the answer from God. This turns the promise into a magic formula.
Some make the same mistake with the book of Proverbs, taking it as a collection on tips to follow in order to live a happy and prosperous life, with well-stocked pantries and well-raised children who never stray. When, after following the instructions, things turn out differently, the same Christians are left with disappointment or feelings of guilt. Thankfully, we have books such as Ecclesiastes and Job, which provide a wise balance.