I have known a few wise people in my time, people whose insights and opinions I really trust, but there aren’t many.
There was Joy, who was our vicar’s wife. She was very prayerful, and she understood people. When I was with her, I felt I was with someone who knew me from the inside. She was someone who could put me on the right path, point me in the right direction, and I knew I was safe on that journey. I trusted her. And I owe her a lot.
After that, I’m struggling to think of any one who is truly wise.
I have known people who thought they were wise, but I didn’t see it in them myself. Perhaps I just didn’t connect with their wisdom. I have known people who were very clever, very intelligent, but that is a different thing entirely. Knowledge and wisdom may overlap, but they are not the same thing.
A Jewish professor once told my husband Sheridan that there was a Jewish blessing for a wise man, – but he had never had occasion to use it.
True wisdom is a rare thing.
You catch glimpses of it sometimes, when someone says something and it starts ringing bells for you, and you think – yes, that’s right, that’s true, that’s good, that’s helpful. It happens when people can speak from the head and the heart at the same time with complete integrity, and you know that the speaker is talking from the inside of their subject, that they know, they really know, what they are talking about. And they care about whatever it is they are talking about. And they care about you.
Would I have seen wisdom in Paul if I’d been in Corinth half way through the first century? I wonder.
Corinth was cosmopolitan, people coming and going from all over the world. There was a thriving business community, so it was a pretty prosperous place. People were generally quite pleased with themselves. If you lived in Corinth, you had arrived. People there knew the way of the world; they were pretty sophisticated as far as culture and trade were concerned. Easy to get complacent. Easy to think that you knew all there is to know about life.
Paul spent some time in Corinth and set up a church there, and then he moved on to other places to tell more people about Jesus and start more churches, but he stays in touch. He is always eager to receive their news, and writes letters to help and encourage them, and – if necessary – to admonish them, when he thinks they are wandering into dangerous territory.
And he talks to the Christians in Corinth about wisdom. Of course, they think they know what wisdom is. To be honest, everybody does. Everybody – well, most people I know, anyway – think that what they know and believe is all you need to know and believe, that the way they see the world is the best and most perfect way of perceiving the world.
The wisdom of the world says that money matters, that it’s OK to cut corners to get what you want, that everybody cheats a little bit and if people don’t know what you’ve done, you can get away with it. The wisdom of the world says that my feelings and needs and desires come first. The wisdom of the world says that if you want something, you go for it, you get it, whoever gets trampled in the process. The wisdom of the world says that you don’t rock the boat, you don’t challenge those in power, you keep schtum and keep out of trouble. The wisdom of the world says: be strong, be invincible, be rich, be powerful.
Paul says No. God’s wisdom is different. God’s wisdom hangs on a cross. God’s wisdom starts with weakness and thrives on vulnerability. It is forged in suffering. It doesn’t bear down in power, but raises up in love. God’s wisdom lets go of self and loves the other person without conditions.
So if you think too much of yourself, you haven’t found wisdom yet. But then, if you think too little of yourself and haven’t discovered how much God loves you, then you’ve still a way to go. If you need people to keep telling you how well you’ve done and what a good job you’re doing, you haven’t got there yet.
Wisdom matters because it’s what feeds you and informs you and guides you if you want to grow in God’s way. You may know it when you glimpse it, like catching sight of the rainbow after a shower, but laying hold of it is not easy. You can’t buy it, you can’t trade it, you can’t hoard it. You find it by letting go, by finding your own place of weakness and giving it to God. Only the Spirit of God can help you see it. Only the Spirit of God can help you grow in wisdom.
God’s wisdom didn’t make much sense in Corinth 2,000 years ago, and God’s wisdom doesn’t make sense in Gateshead in 2014. It’s about seeing the world with another pair of lenses. When I put my distance glasses on, suddenly I can see everything so clearly. And if I go to the cinema and put 3D glasses over the top of my distance glasses, which is not easy I can tell you, then I can see clearly and in 3 dimensions.
I wish I could just put on some wisdom specs! I would love to see the world and all the people I meet in God’s way. But I am having to learn how to see, I am having to learn how to hear, I am having to learn how to perceive with God’s eyes and ears, with the eyes and ears and heart and prayer of wisdom.