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Crazy Christians or Common-Sense Disciples? - When foolish can be wise

The apostle Peter makes me laugh sometimes. While I mean no disrespect to my namesake, I cannot help feeling that his zeal and love for Jesus got tangled in his shoelaces at times. On the Mount of Transfiguration, in his fear and amazement of seeing Jesus, Moses and Elijah in their glorified bodies, he wanted the moment to last, so kind of blurted, “Let’s camp out!” (Mk 9:4-6).

But the one that most makes me smile is in John 21:7-8, where, on recognising the strange figure on the beach to be the risen Lord Jesus, Peter had a momentary dilemma. He could not wait the few minutes for the boat to go the last hundred metres to shore, nor did he seem to feel it right to meet his risen Master in his underwear. So, he first got dressed, and then jumped into the water (duh)! Ten out of ten for passion and love, Peter, but scraping a three for common sense. 

Yet, for all that I find this amusing, there are times when, as Christians, our passion can conflict with common sense.

When I was 17 and newly born-again, my friends and I got up to all kinds of crazy things in the name of being ‘on fire for Jesus’. Some things we did were admirable, but others were just plain dumb. Like one friend who decided she would fast on Christmas Day (of all days) to ‘show her devotion to Christ’, which just upset her family. I would stay up all night in impromptu prayer meetings, but then could not stay awake for classes the next day.

We were not always wise, but we were totally in love with Jesus, and genuinely feared the all-too-common slide into lukewarm Christianity that we saw evidence of all around us. We did not realise that godly wisdom is hardly the enemy of passion – indeed, it is the backbone of it.

Which wisdom is which?

When we think of the word ‘wisdom’ in the Bible, our minds either go to the Book of Proverbs (“good” wisdom), or Paul’s comments about the world’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1-2 (“bad” wisdom). In the latter, Paul challenges the wisdom (sophia) of the world as being in opposition to the ways of God:

“For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ (1 Cor 1:19 ref. Isa 29:14)

And: Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Cor 1:20b-21)

Real wisdom, then, is aligning one’s life with the will of our loving Creator.

Although ‘the wisdom of the world’ is set, here, against the ‘foolishness’ of the Gospel, that does not always mean that faith = good, wisdom = bad. Rather, Paul is saying that the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen goes against the ‘wisdom’ of the world. The world thinks wisdom is being ‘clever’, ‘skilled’ or ‘knowledgeable’, but all that is foolishness if it ignores the one thing that we are here on earth to do. Real wisdom, then, is aligning one’s life with the will of our loving Creator.

But throughout both Old and New Testaments, God’s people are repeatedly told that wisdom is exactly that – forsaking actions, words and attitudes that come from self-centredness and greed and lust, and instead making good decisions based on love, obedience and faith in God and His word – ‘foolishness’ thus being the opposite of that quality. As the NIV (2011) text note for Proverbs 1:4 says, The Hebrew word rendered simple in Proverbs denotes a person who is gullible, without moral direction and inclined to evil.

Coming to the New Testament, except when commenting on the opposing philosophies of the world (see above), Paul clearly teaches that wisdom is an essential, core attribute of a follower of Jesus. Indeed, living outside of Christ is a life characterised by foolishness (see Titus 3:3), and life in Christ as one of ever-increasing wisdom.

Embarrassing Christians

It has been many years since I was that zealous-but-sometimes-silly young man. I hope I now understand much better the importance of being passionate for Jesus, stepping out in faith, and keeping your feet on the ground. All around us (and in this internet age, we hear more about them) are instances of people who have damaged the cause of Christ, because of a lack of common sense. We sometimes fail to think about how our actions are perceived by those around us. For example: Christians endorsing bizarre conspiracy theories; expressing Christian teaching in a way that is unnecessarily harsh or unbalanced; praying for healing or deliverance in an insensitive, overbearing or offensive manner, or Christians claiming that God directed them personally to do something highly questionable or strange.

Simple steps to wisdom

In Ephesians 5:15-17, Paul tells us to...

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

These verses in their context remind us that we are in ‘enemy-held territory’, and as such we need to tread carefully. As long as we live in this world, we should use our time on earth as best we can. We cannot afford to be careless. Yet these verses also encourage us that godly wisdom is something we can all achieve, by God’s grace, in simple steps:

1. Recognise we are playing with live ammo.

Have you noticed that many people seem to have at least one ‘silly Christian’ story, where someone who claims to follow Jesus has acted hurtfully, hypocritically, insensitively, foolishly or naively? It is very easy to despair of the Church, sometimes, especially in our media-fed age, where our dirty laundry is regularly hung out for all to see.

As any NS boy will know, you don’t mess around when you are handling live ammo. In the same way, we need to be aware that, as followers of Jesus, we deal daily with the life-changing, universe-shattering truths of Scripture. The Bible we have in our hands is pure dynamite; it contains matters of life and death – eternal life and eternal death. It is essential, therefore, that we treat both people and Scripture with the greatest of care, so that we have maximum impact for good in people’s lives, and not cause damage that we did not intend.

2. It is not what we believe, but how we communicate it.

Jesus said, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.(Mk 8:38). 

Yet Jesus also said, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Mt 7:6). 

It seems that, while we are to be bold in proclaiming the Gospel, Jesus also knew that there was a time and a place to share some aspects of the faith life which unbelievers would simply not understand and could actually use against us.

As an evangelistic speaker at universities around the UK, I have to be extremely careful how I answer certain questions in public. Believing that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), does not necessitate me showing disrespect to other people’s beliefs; the public mood in the UK towards a more liberal sexual lifestyle is such that even expressing biblical morality can easily be seen by some as ‘hate speech’. So, without compromising on the truth, I look for a way to take the ‘sting’ out of an argument, pointing people, always, back to the Person of Jesus.

The apostle Peter said, “…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behaviour in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Pet 3:15-16)

Peter is not really talking about having just the ‘right’ answer to an intellectual question. Rather, he is saying we need to be able to articulate clearly, gently and respectfully, why we believe in Jesus and trust Him. He is also saying (in verse 16) that our behaviour needs to match our spoken testimony. The fact that we don’t consider all these as sufficiently important is the reason there are so many, ‘silly Christian’ stories out there.

3. Many of us have an insufficient understanding of Scripture.

Ephesians 5:17 says, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Granted, we want to avoid being foolish, so how do we know ‘what the will of the Lord’ is? Paul also says in in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

I have often heard of people claiming, “God told me to do this”. I have done it myself many times. But how do we know that God really said that? I am deeply committed to the belief that the Holy Spirit can and does give us specific guidance on an individual level (some people call this a rhema word), as long as it does not contradict Scripture. But I don’t think it goes far enough to say that, if such a word does not contradict a particular Bible verse or teaching, then it must be okay.

The Bible is more than a source of correct doctrine, it is God’s primary way of revealing His character and purpose. We do not live in wisdom by proof-texting to justify a course of action. We live in wisdom when we allow the Holy Spirit to soak our minds and hearts with His word. All too often Christians follow a foolish course of action, not by doing something obviously immoral or doctrinally incorrect, but by failing to know the heart of the Lord Jesus enough to sense what would delight and please Him.

Time – lots of time – spent in God’s word, reading and reflecting on it, growing in Christlikeness, is the only way we can really, “test and approve what God’s will is” (Rom 12:2 NIV), because only then can we know the Lover of our souls as He truly is.

4. Wisdom is a life lived in eternal perspective.

As I grew in faith as a young man, I gradually saw how I did not have to choose between zeal and wisdom. How many times I have wished I could go back and delete things I said and did! Working with young adults (mainly university students) for over two decades has given me many opportunities, not only to speak wisdom into the lives of younger people, but also to be constantly challenged by their infectious zeal and idealism.

Achieving wisdom is not necessarily the same as achieving moderation. Neither is wisdom getting a ‘balance’ between ‘the world’ and ‘the Kingdom’. Indeed, there were many things that Jesus said that hardly sound ‘wise’ to our worldly ears. Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Man to, “…sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” sounds like an invitation to jump off a cliff, and would be completely nuts, except…

there really is treasure in heaven.

Similarly, the mini parable In Matthew 13:44 is a little stick of biblical dynamite: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Imagine watching someone sell his home, his animals, his wife’s jewellery – everything – to buy a field… for what? Is he crazy?! No, he is the wisest of men, because he knows what is there.

Wisdom, then, is getting two things in the right perspective: 

Firstly, that the people around us have not all experienced the love of Jesus as we have, so communicating our faith (in word and action) needs to be done in a way that is thoughtful, kind and seen as loving by those who would struggle to understand why we live the way we do. 

Secondly, let us not temper our zeal, but channel it into wise and loving pursuits that really matter. Wisdom is not achieved by watering down our love for Jesus, but by getting an eternal perspective on all things. A well-known quote, often attributed to Jim Elliot, says it all: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

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