Saturday, November 17, 2012

Wisdom, Defined

Robert Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken," is a poem about wisdom. The poem depicts a man who comes to a fork in a road attempting to decide which of the two roads to take. The poem famously ends with: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

When you hear the word "wisdom," what, exactly, comes to mind? Wisdom, like many qualities, is an ambiguous and near unattainable virtue in the minds of most people. Some think of intelligence when contemplating wisdom, while others associate it with old age. Others would define wisdom as good judgment or a commitment to act morally. You have likely known several people you would consider wise, and if you were asked to label the characteristics you deem wise about them, what would they be?

As believers, we are called and empowered to be wise. It is crucial, then, that we properly define and understand what it really means to be wise.

Wisdom is defined as "the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment." Our wisdom, then, is apparent by our judgment, and our judgment is ultimately dependent upon our experience and knowledge. Proverbs 2:6 reiterates this fact by equating wisdom, in part, to knowledge and understanding.

While experience varies greatly from one person to the next, all of us learn from our experiences in the same way. One person may experience financial hardship after amassing debt while another may experience money related trials from living a lifestyle they can barely afford. In both cases, the lesson learned is to prioritize saving above spending and to live below your means. Likewise, one person might have few friends because she treats them badly, while another is lonely because she refuses to get close to anyone out of fear that she will be hurt. Again, in both cases, the realization is the same: it is necessary to maintain healthy relationships.

While our experiences vary, they all serve to teach us the same lessons. None of us can claim that we do not possess the ability to be wise because of our past. 

The other contributing factor, then, is knowledge. Just as we all have different experiences, we all possess different God-given levels of capacity for retaining information. Fortunately, as believers, though, we have God's Word which we can continually reference as the embodiment of all worthwhile knowledge. We are, therefore, without excuse when it comes to our knowledge.  

The Bible figure most known for wisdom is King Solomon. The third chapter of I Kings depicts Solomon's prayer for wisdom and God's response. In his request, Solomon asks specifically for "an understanding heart to judge [God's] people, that [he] may discern between good and bad." God defines Solomon's request more succinctly as "discernment in administering justice."

We see from this passage that wisdom involves discernment - especially between what's right and wrong - and that it leads to justice. We do not rule nations as Solomon did, but our wise choices still have a significant impact on ourselves and others. As a husband and father, I am responsible for leading my family, and that responsibility is similar to Solomon's, albeit on a much smaller scale. My desire for wisdom should be every bit as strong.

Of course, none of us wants to be unwise, but wisdom is a daunting task in a sinful world in which the evangel is deemed foolishness. Believers possess the ability to discern right from wrong, but few could be readily labeled as "wise." Why is this?

One of the primary culprits that prevents us from acting wisely is emotion. We tend to allow our emotions to overpower logic, reason, and truth. Strong emotions like anger, jealously and fear are especially powerful in blocking our better judgment. Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is "deceitful above all things." Basing our decisions on how we feel is often a recipe for disaster because our feelings are fleeting and tend to cloud the truth. When you have an argument with someone, you may feel like hurting that person or writing him out of your life, but truth and reason demand the opposite. If you act on your feelings the relationship may be ruined, but if you put your feelings aside in light of what's right, the relationship will flourish. It's no surprise that one of the most frequently cited characteristics of wise people is calmness and a demeanor which is slow to anger. One of the first steps toward wisdom is committing to doing what's right, regardless of how you feel.

Another deterrent to wisdom is the lack of foresight. Most people base their decision on the "here and now" and what will bring them immediate gratification. Because they do not plan with an eye on the future, they continually set themselves up for surprising disappointment. Wisdom requires the ability to always be forward-thinking - to responsibly plan for whatever may occur down the road.

Most importantly, wisdom is rooted in love. God is love, and if we are to be successful imitators, we must prioritize love above all else. Love is the foundation of Godly wisdom.

We see, then, that a wise person is someone who knows and understands God's ways, prioritizes love, plans accordingly, heeds life's lessons, and always acts in accord with what's right and true instead of how he or she feels. In short, wisdom is doing the opposite of what the world deems wise. Let us pray that God will grant us all the ability to be wise according to His standards, not the world's - to take the road less traveled by, as Robert Frost's poem so beautifully conveys.

© 2012 by Stephen Hill

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