I usually find life's complexities pretty perplexing, often pleasantly so. Recently however, I have been mulling over a conundrum which has been popping up frequently in my conversations with friends and loved ones (though it it has been chewed over by veritable centuries of Christian thought). Since I have decided to jot down some of my ideas about it here, let me put the conundrum succinctly: how can some unbelievers show so much wisdom when so many Christians live life so foolishly? To wrestle with the force of this question, you do not have to have poured over the great pagan works of Greco-Roman antiquity, or have studied the Crusades in detail, or have read a biography of Gandhi, or have spent a grueling semester abroad with a Muslim family in North Africa. The only thing necessary is to have been struck at one time or another by the realization that some of the smartest, wisest, and nicest people in your life do not trust in Jesus for salvation or confess him to be Lord.
Humbling as it may be, Christians simply do not have a monopoly on wisdom and wise living. When we come to Christ, very few us get zapped at the same time with instant supernatural skill in wise living. God’s promise to give wisdom to everyone who asks is absolutely true; nonetheless, this promise does not come with a timetable, and far too few Christians even spend time asking God for wisdom. All too often, we Christians regularly replicate the foolish, immature, and even destructive attitudes and behaviors of the unbelieving world around us: sometimes we surpass them. We frequently appear to aim at being wise as sheep and innocent as snakes.
So, if wisdom does not come naturally from being a Christian where does it come from? Wisdom in Scripture is a practical, habitual skill in living life well, grounded in an insight into and understanding of how reality is set up and structured. This structure of reality is rooted in God’s creative order, an order which he established for everyone when he created the world and which he still upholds and sustains for everyone through his common grace in the midst of a world filled with the common curse of sin and brokenness.
The key words here are creation and common grace. Whether we have salvation in Christ or not, we each have access to the world God created by way of our observation, reason, and lived experience. Armed with God’s tools and God’s help, both non-Christians and Christians alike can gain considerable success in living life skillfully. Christians can learn much about life from myriads of non-Christians, dead and alive, who have lived and taught wisely. To assume that Christians have an automatic superiority in wise living in this present age is to deny both the goodness of God’s creation and the sufficiency for the time being of his sustaining providence for those created in his image.
But this is far from the whole story. The Christian message, the Gospel, announces that God “hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The wisdom of the Present Age, otherwise normally valid, is of no ultimate value when entering into the Coming Age, into the Resurrection and the New Creation. Here human wisdom, built so precisely on God’s purposes in our Creation, becomes bewildered and clueless when confronted with God’s wisdom, exuberantly manifested in our Redemption through the Cross of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians,
While the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, to us who are being made alive it is the power of God. … For, since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased, through the folly of what is proclaimed, to save those who believe.
In view of our foolish living, God the Father, moved by infinitely powerful love, sent his Son Jesus to live and to die wisely on our behalf. In this "foolish" act for the sake of fools, he accomplished something far beyond anything revealed in the universe up until that point. This Gospel appeared then, as it still does now, to be utter nonsense, but this perception does not change the fact that all of reality has been restructured and reordered by Christ, and one day it will be regenerated in him. Paul continues,
We do in fact speak wisdom among the mature, yet wisdom not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Instead, we speak a mysterious and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.
According to Paul, every Christian must possess, indeed does possess, a unique wisdom in light of this reality, rooted in submission to God’s wisdom as realized in Jesus Christ.
God’s wisdom requires two fundamental actions: trust and reprioritization. Trust demands that the Christian, in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ, depend entirely on God for every good thing, beginning with his salvation from dominion of darkness and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Reprioritization demands that the Christian, in light of the Kingdom that Christ is bringing with him when he returns, make decisions which acknowledge the transitory character of the things of this life, preferring instead to “store up treasure in heaven” which will never pass away. Those wise in the wisdom of this age can never and will never understand trust in God’s wisdom or the decisions made in its light. The authentic Christian will always appear foolish to the worldly-wise who scratch their heads and look on. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As Christians, we must embrace wisdom wherever we find it: God has given it to the world for his glory and our benefit. This is absolutely true. But we must never forget that such wisdom is not enough: the deepest wisdom is found only in a paradoxical and counter-cultural way of life, steeped deeply in the truth of a Gospel which heralds and opens to us a heavenly reality to come.