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More Admired Than Acquired?

Asked to raise your hand if you want to be wiser, and most of us would — we’re smart enough to know the right answer! Yet somehow, we’re far slower to seek this capacity to understand life from God’s perspective by coming to its best source — the Word of God.

IMPACT : Let’s start with the nature of wisdom and knowledge. Euripides said, “Knowledge is not wisdom: cleverness is not, not without awareness of our death, not without recalling just how brief our flare is. He who overreaches will, in his overreaching, lose what he possesses, betray what he has now. That which is beyond us, which is greater than the human, the unattainably great, is for the mad, or for those who listen to the mad, and then believe them.”

Darius: The Book of James in the Bible defines two kinds of wisdom. There is worldly wisdom, and heavenly wisdom. Worldly wisdom is filled with “jealousy and selfish ambition”, but “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. ” (cf. Jas 3:13-18)

In our world today, we have plenty of knowledge, but not necessarily much wisdom. In the context of technology, we see an obvious “cultural lag” where advancements in human knowledge are outpacing our advancement in moral values.

We are faced with challenges like artificial intelligence (AI), bioethical challenges (e.g. surrogacy, egg freezing, etc.), and more. When dealing with all these questions, many societies have quickly embraced these new technologies without carefully considering the consequences.

Jean: The question of what wisdom is can be answered in many different ways. Here, Euripedes, a 5th century BCE playwright, perceives that wisdom requires an understanding of human mortality and limitation. My understanding about the nature of wisdom is largely influenced by my faith, based upon my study of Christian Scripture - especially wisdom literature in the Old Testament - about this notion. There are naturally areas of overlap, as well as distinctions, between what Euripides conceives, and what are discoursed upon in biblical passages. In one respect, wisdom in the Old Testament relates to a theological understanding about the nature of humanity, and how humanity stands in relation to God, especially via creation. As an instance, the wise person acknowledges that every human - indeed the world - did not come into being on its own, but rather is a created being with a Maker. Ecclesiastes. 3:1-11, esp. vv. 1 and 11, famously describes how God has appointed times for every matter in creation and history. God places a notion of unmeasurable time in humanity's consciousness, yet humanity cannot find out all of God's activity from the beginning to the end of time. (These notions are popularised in the hymn, "In His Time".)

Joshua: I suppose at its core, the distinction between knowledge and wisdom is that wisdom is essentially knowledge that is applied in a discerning manner. To bring another Biblical example, even demons have the “knowledge” of God’s existence and certainly understand His power and will, and yet they do not have the wisdom (or faith) to apply that knowledge appropriately.

IMPACT : Thinking about your responses, what would you say to those who might describe wisdom as “relative” or subjective, since we’ve seen that Biblical wisdom differs from worldly wisdom, as Darius has described from our modern context.

Darius: Differences in value systems are part of our world; there are different faiths, creeds, ideologies, etc. However, the Bible presents Wisdom as something that transcends them all. “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight..” (Prov 4:7)

This kind of heavenly wisdom belongs to God. It is not something subjective or dependent on different cultures, and so on, but something objective, based on a transcendent God who sees all and knows all. As Christians, the Bible teaches that believers have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16); we need to learn to align our thoughts with God’s thoughts, by trusting in Him, seeking His will, and living by faith each day.

As Christians, the Bible teaches that believers have the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16); we need to learn to align our thoughts with God’s thoughts, by trusting in Him, seeking His will, and living by faith each day.

Joshua: Off the top of my head, I’m not sure how I would answer that question as posed from an unbeliever. That is certainly an issue we see today and throughout history, as people take a moral relativist approach to their beliefs. But as far as the Christian response, I think Darius nailed it. Wisdom at its core is a gift from God and is something that comes from Him alone. To quote another verse from Proverbs: “For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov 2:6). We see that wisdom and knowledge and understanding are things that are given to us from the Lord, and as such, there can be no subjectivism to it; God alone defines what is true.

Jean: I would propose a few criteria that I hope they will consider - if the wisdom proposed actually brings about a flourishing of the world and humanity; if the wisdom benefits themselves only or the common good; if the wisdom claimed will actually bring about good outcomes not only immediately, but which endure in the long run.

IMPACT : Having defined wisdom, our next question pertains to sources of wisdom - even godly wisdom. The role of the court jester from historical courts and literature suggests that wisdom can come from unexpected (or unwelcome) sources. For example, how relevant is the role of a “court jester” in our churches? In Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night”, Feste the jester is described as "wise enough to play the fool". He has the licence to speak truth to power with no holds barred; teaching us to see beyond our narrow perspectives, our imperfections, without shaming us. Who has the role of “court jester” in our churches?

Darius: One person in the Bible who spoke truth to power was Paul towards his fellow apostle Peter, who was more “senior” in terms of years of knowing the Lord. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about how he “opposed [Peter] to his face” because of Peter’s hypocrisy in refusing to eat with the Gentiles after certain people came to him (Gal 2:11-14).

Today, there exist Christian comedians and satirists like “Babylon Bee”. I enjoy this genre, because it honestly confronts errors within the church today and within society, with a generous dose of humour. This is valuable, and there is a place for that.

I believe that all Christians have a role in being “court jesters” to one another. The Bible calls us to “teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom” (Col 3:16). To be clear, this is not a licence to go around judging, shaming and condemning others. Instead, it calls on us to exercise godly wisdom in keeping one another accountable.

Joshua: I’m going to preface my response by acknowledging that I’ve never read Twelfth Night, so the entirety of my understanding is a quick look into its synopsis and Feste’s character summation. To clarify for those that might be unaware, the “jester” is not what we might initially think of when we hear the word. They’re not necessarily wearing a large clown wig and doing juggling tricks for our enjoyment. Yes, their job is to make people laugh, but (at least in the Shakespearean context) they are often the most intelligent characters in their scene and have the greatest understanding of what is happening. So while I agree with Darius in that we should all be called to play that role to our fellow believers in the church, we should also expect that person with seniority or leadership to play the role of speaking “truth to power.” While I am a bit hesitant to equate someone like a senior elder with a jester, it is true that it is their responsibility to speak the truth to us with no holds barred.

Darius: Sometimes, I have heard people in church say that they cannot disagree or critique their church leaders' actions, citing a verse to touch not the Lord's anointed (1 Sam 24:6). This is a misunderstanding.

The Hebrew word for "anointed" here is "mashiach", which we recognise as the word translated “Messiah” (the Anointed One). We should respect church leaders (Heb 13:17), but nowhere in the Bible does it say that church leaders are "mashiach" or “Messiah”.

We should at all times speak the truth in love, including to church leaders who err.

Jean: It is interesting to probe the notion of a "court jester." The court jester historically was a court entertainer. Few actually attained the freedom to "speak truth to power with no holds barred." As a character entirely created by the playwright William Shakespeare, the court jester Feste is an entertaining fictional figure who is wise enough to shed light on certain truths to others, even those holding higher social positions, regarding human imperfections. Why would Shakespeare create such a figure? One plausible explanation is that Shakespeare identified with Feste. His drama company was commissioned by aristocrats to put up plays. According to this understanding, someone who is a "court jester" like the wise Feste, would also be someone like Shakespeare, brilliant at using words to depict life.

In the Christian context, I agree with Darius' assessment and reference to Col 3:16. Just as there is a place to teach and admonish others, there is also a place for us to be open to the "teaching and admonishing" by trusted fellow-Christians.

IMPACT : Thanks for giving some context to the notion of the “court jester”! Picking up on your comments on humour, it would also be true to say that speaking truth to power is sometimes best done with humility, along with a subtle dash of irony and indirectness. Some would say that Jesus was the Master of truth-telling in its various forms, the parables being a good example of stories which start light-heartedly but have something of a ‘sting in the tail’ as a point of truth.

What is the wisest thing you have heard recently?

Darius: One of the wisest things I have heard recently is: “Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.”

We tend to imagine that many of the atrocities that we read about in history are very remote, and involve some very bad or ignorant people. But the truth is that many of these atrocities began simply as bad ideas that went unchallenged and were even widely accepted.

This forces us to think about what bad ideas we are tempted to accept today, and to rethink our attitudes towards them.

Jean: The wisest thing I have heard is not actually recent, but a classic and profound statement about human understanding. Gerhard von Rad, in Wisdom in Israel (trans. James D Martin, 1972) says, "There is no knowledge which does not, before long, throw the one who seeks the knowledge back upon the question of his self-knowledge and his self-understanding." Here, I wish only to pick out one point from a much longer discussion. Knowledge needs to be critically tested in terms of the bases of a claim, which depends in part on testing of that knowledge, and the expertise, experience of the speaker - his training on a subject, the scope and limitations of his understanding, and the workability of his knowledge in real life. This requires a high level of self-awareness, and continual reflexivity about one's own knowledge.

Joshua: Mine is much simpler than Darius’ or Jean’s, but it is the reminder that one of the most important things we can do in any undertaking that we are considering -- whether that be in the larger mission field or even just reaching out to your unbelieving friends or family -- is to just take that first step. Trust that even as small and insignificant as you think you might be, God can use you for a greater purpose far beyond your dreams.

IMPACT : Finally, according to Aristotle, “Wisdom is scientific knowledge, combined with intellect, of what is by nature most honourable”. Why is practical wisdom so rare?

Darius: Most people today think in very pragmatic terms: What is the easiest way to get what I want? What can benefit me the most, but costs the least?

This is confused with practical wisdom.

Wisdom calls us to reflect on what is True, Good and Beautiful, and to pursue it. This is the way to a good life. We see this in the Book of Proverbs, where Wisdom is portrayed as a woman calling out in the public square. She says that “whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.” (Prov 1:33)

Jean: Much of modernity is enraptured by the notion of technological power, and many people today are drawn by the notion of consumeristic power. I long to learn and imitate the cruciform wisdom from above (Jas 3:13-18). He sought not His own glory, but ‘giving up His power’ (in the sense of becoming a human), sought to work and serve the good of others, to the glory of God.

Joshua: I think that on top of the pragmatism and consumerism that are rampant today, one of the other major issues we see is the abundance of the individualistic mindset. Even in one’s walk with God, many Christians only think about it in terms of that single relationship between them and God, but ignore the importance of the Church as well. And I think that contributes to the lack of practical wisdom, as many people don’t seek that discipleship and teaching from other more mature Christians who would be able to help impart that wisdom.

Darius Lee enjoys a good conversation about the things that are True, Good and Beautiful. One of his favourite books is Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Joshua Carpenter is a software engineer from North Carolina (USA) who is also working towards his master's degree. He enjoys spending time with friends and daydreaming about how much more free time he would have if he hadn’t decided to go back to school.

Dr Jean Luah is a full-time faculty at Singapore Bible College. She teaches Biblical Greek, Old Testament and Systematic Theology. Her research is in hermeneutics, or interpretive theory and practice.


VOL. 47 NO. 6 of IMPACT Magazine

WISDOM: EARTHLY OR HEAVENLY?... Knowing something or someone?

By Robert Solomon


By Eugene Low


By Lai Pak Wah

A COMPASS TO GROW IN WISDOM... Biblical values in parenting. By Delia Ng



By Mary Yeo-Carpenter


~ The Impact Panel responds ~

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