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.

Patient Prayer

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.

Wisdom is one of those treasures we appreciate when we discover it is missing.

And yet, God’s promise to give us wisdom stands. He just doesn’t give it as a bolt from heaven—not usually, at least. I am not even sure if Solomon received it instantaneously after his famous prayer (1 Kings 3:9). If so, he was an exception.

Generally speaking, God uses means, and we acquire wisdom through patient prayer, learning, observation, and experience—which take time, causing us to go slow instead of jumping to conclusions or following sets of step-by-step instructions.

The expressions used in Proverbs 2:2–4 to describe the acquisition of wisdom indicate a slow and patient process. The passage talks about “making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding.” It tells us to pray (“call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding”) and then go on a conscious and laborious search for it (“seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures”).

Humble Learning

Knowledge is a foundational part of this search for wisdom, starting of course with knowledge of God’s Word, since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). But fear of the Lord implies humility, and “with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2). To learn, we have to admit our inadequacy and limitations. As William Cowper wrote in his poem The Task: “Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much. Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.”

“We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12) is a good prayer when facing a difficult situation. We don’t have to panic if we don’t have an immediate answer to the problems that come our way, as overwhelming as they can be. I know it’s easier said than done. I have been there. But the basic knowledge of who God is for us in Christ can sustain us.

Practical knowledge is also an important component of wisdom: an understanding of the situation and of the remedies that are available. This, too, requires patience—a lesson I learned the hard way. When facing a difficult diagnosis for my son, my first reaction was to try to find a quick remedy by reading books about similar situations with a successful outcome. I figured that if it worked for others, it will work for us. I was wrong. While similar, our experiences didn’t find a perfect match in any of the ones I surveyed, and what worked in one case didn’t work in another.

More than ever before, the apparent contradiction expressed in Proverbs 26:4–5 made perfect sense: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” As frustrating as these instructions can be to our impatient minds, they uncover the valuable truth that each case must be considered on its own merits.

Still, the Bible encourages us to learn from others and to consider their advice. There might be times when we have to make quick decisions and have to rely on the limited information we have, trusting that God will protect us. But that should not become a habit. In general, we should try to obtain as much information as necessary from reliable sources to make informed decisions. To this end, it’s important to be willing to listen to opinions that might be different than ours.

The basic knowledge of who God is for us in Christ can sustain us.

Some Christians reject any secular advice. Others accept it as long as the beliefs of those who give it are not too contrary to theirs. But Christians don’t have a monopoly on practical wisdom. In the Bible, the Philistine king Abimelech rebuked (with good reason) both Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 20; 26), and Jethro provided invaluable advice to his son-in-law Moses, apparently only a day after turning to the worship of Jehovah (Ex. 18).

Jethro’s example is particularly instructive because he took time to observe the situation before giving his advice. This carefulness is sorely lacking today, especially among the new throngs of self-proclaimed experts on social media.

If our decisions have to do with people, it’s also important to consider what we know about them as individuals instead of following some generic rules. One of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life was to go against medical advice with one of our sons. It was a heart-wrenching decision that we made with great difficulty because it was a matter of life and death, but the decision turned out to be right. In this case, what we knew about our son had a lot to do with our decision, and the doctors, while advising caution, respected and appreciated our input.

One important lesson I learned at that time from my husband—who is naturally wiser than I am—was to consider carefully the consequences of our decisions. He had probably tried to teach me the same thing for years, but it finally sank in. A particular course of action might sound right on paper, but what will be its outcome in our particular situation? Can the resulting circumstances be even more challenging? Can we bear the responsibilities that come with our decision?

Cultivating wisdom is hard work. Much of it comes from experience, which includes failures, but the same Spirit who gives us wisdom helps us to rise after our falls. Most of all, we can be encouraged in knowing that God wants us to be wise, having “predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29), who is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

The difficulties we encounter are not part of some earthly purgatory or boot camp for heaven. They are part of the unnatural situation sin has brought into the world, making heavenly realities particularly hard to grasp. Yet, our walk through this life, as difficult as it may get at times, is ordered by the same all-wise God who has been governing the world—including the people and situations our decisions may affect—for His glory and the good of His children.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 31, 2021.

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