Elusive Wisdom


Before we get to the second part of my posting on being a Church family, I want to add some thoughts on wisdom in a modern age. I couldn’t stop thinking about the issue this weekend, and as I was out on my tractor for several hours Sunday, I had plenty of time to think.

I was interviewed for a radio show called “Wise People” this last Saturday and will be again this Saturday. But the fact is, despite the title of the show, I find wisdom elusive.

I’m 47 years old, and if I were asked to comment on the pat answer about getting older and gaining wisdom, I’d have to say that the conventional wisdom on wisdom and age just doesn’t work. Or at least it doesn’t work in the conventional sense.

At the age of 21, I didn’t have a lot of room for “wisdom” that didn’t meet my preconceptions. I was pretty much the standard angry, young know-it-all. Sadly, that was a state that persisted for far too long.

But as I’ve gotten older, I seem to have fewer prepackaged answers and a whole lot more questions. The list of “Stuff I Don’t Get” gets added to daily.

When you get down to it, all practical wisdom concerns making sense of people and God. In 47 years, what I have come to understand of people is that I don’t understand them at all. And while I can definitely see God  moving in certain situations, it’s those situations in which I don’t see Him that I come to realize that my understanding of God could fill a thimble—one made for Barbie.

The supposedly wise person makes sense of people in light of sin. Understand the nature of sin and you understand why people do what they do.

But honestly, the older I get, the less satisfying that response becomes. And it is less satisfying because no one can know the future, and it’s our relationship to the past, present, and future that makes understanding humanity so difficult. How sin informs the past and present is hard enough to comprehend, but add the future and I don’t see how any nonprognosticator can make predictions.

Now put God into that mix. The result, at least to me, is too big to get one’s head around.

Which is why Romans 8:28 is so hard for me to understand:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
—Romans 8:28

The first part is hard enough to grasp, but it’s the phrase after the comma that makes my head spin.

If you’re couple who spent years trying to conceive, and finally that blessed bundle comes, what is to be said when the little baby dies unexpectedly? Did that babe get in the way of your purpose in life? Is it a good thing then that the baby died? And what can be said when no more children come?

Or you’re a missionary couple with kids, and after 25 years of marriage the whole couple thing crumbles. One day you were sharing the Lord with lost tribes of people in the backwaters of India, and the next day you’re in divorce court. PotholeHow did it all go so wrong? If the calling to marriage and mission were there, why did it end up like this?

Or you’re part of a leadership team at your church, and one by one every person on that team gets hit with calamity: cancer, divorce, depression, suicide, and so on. Do all those calamities really work together for good? Is it enough to say, “I survived,” and call that outcome good?

I talked about Christian maturity in the radio interview, but defining maturity is hard. We tend to think of it as some kind of Ph.D. in theology, but if my own experiences are any indicator, perhaps it’s something else entirely. And perhaps there’s some other meaning behind Romans  8:28 that eludes us.

Karl Barth, when asked to summarize the contents of his massive book Church Dogmatics, responded, “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so.”

A children’s song.

In response to Barth’s answer, I’m sure some “wise” people snickered. Yet when faced with all the craziness, the nonsensical happens, the head-shaking personal calamities in the lives of ordinary people, the godly decisions that went south, the hopes that fell to pieces, and the general nastiness of human existence 2010, perhaps Barth’s answer is the wisest of all.

God knows that I don’t understand life—or Him—any better than that.

{Update: I had originally thought J.I. Packer was behind the “Jesus Loves Me” quote, but it was Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth.}

28 thoughts on “Elusive Wisdom

  1. Bob Aarhus

    I think our problem with Romans 8:28 is that we need to ask “whose good” are we achieving. Is it good for us, or good for God? And if it is good for God, is it not good for us? Christ’s crucifixion was certainly not good for Him, in a temporal sense, but in a spiritual and eternal sense it was the greatest Good that has ever been achieved by man.

    I think the greatest step of faith is when we can’t see the good that is to come of our particular circumstances (losing the baby, suffering the divorce, getting the cancer) and yet continue to believe. As Screwtape notes, “Our [demonic] cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

    I’ve driven coast-to-coast cross-country twice now, and both times had to traverse arid desert on the way. Were I to judge the destination by the surrounding landscape, I would have turned back and never accomplished the journey. I had to trust that my map was accurate and have faith that the Interstate Highway System didn’t dump me in the middle of nowhere or, worse yet, Newark. Of course, I *knew* the East Coast was there from previous experience, so I always had reason to believe. That’s the difference, I think: we don’t actually know whether there is a ‘good’ outcome at the end of this (or any) road. And that’s the essence of faith, I suppose.

    • Great thoughts, Bob.

      Still, no matter whose perspective one takes, I, in my limited wisdom, cannot see how the ending of a missionary couple’s marriage or the death of a child works for good, either for us or God—at least in the perspective of the way Romans 8:28 is traditionally taught.

      I think of the tragedy in the life of Steven Curtis Chapman, the well-known and well-loved Christian musician. His son accidentally backed a car over his adopted daughter, killing her. Trying to make sense of any of that or finding the good in it seems like an exercise in futility. While it is fine to say that God understands and knows why, I know from my own experiences and those of others that little of that works out positively this side of heaven. It is what it is, and the scars don’t always heal just right (or even at all). You move on, but the sadness of it all doesn’t go away. In my opinion, trying to say something wise concerning that tragedy may miss the whole point. Perhaps all we can say is what Barth says.

  2. Quick correction on your quote at the end.

    It’s not J.I. Packer, but the context is still close.

    It was Karl Barth, and it was in reply to a journalist who asked him to summarize is 12 volumes on church dogmatics.

    Otherwise, great post. 🙂

  3. Great questions, Dan, and I love your honesty. Truly, wisdom from above can only be built when we realize that we have no earthly wisdom, and that level of wisdom is nothing to be scoffed at. Many a believer never gets to that point. Bob, your comment spoke volumes to me, and I love the quote from screwtape letters. While this still doesn’t provide an answer to the question “why” I think the greater wisdom here is to resist trying to answer that question in the first place. I think, like Bob says, this is the “essence of faith”. Theologians can argue whether God intended the bad thing to happen, merely allowed it to happen or was powerless to stop it. In this life we may never have that answer. All we CAN know is who He is and what He’s told us. If He says He brings all things together for good, I trust that He can do it, regardless of how impossible it seems. I think as humans we tend to see our own importance in a greater light than we should, and miss the greater picture, the grand plan, that He is unfolding, at such a level of wisdom and understanding that I will never understand. All I can do, like Bob said, is trust. In the end, who am I, the clay, to tell the potter what He can and can not or should or should not do with me? I understand that these words may bring little comfort to a parent grieving over a child, and I will readily admit that I have not suffered such loss in my life. Still, what loss I have suffered has taught me to see things from a higher perspective than the one I am naturally given to. I agree that the simple, child-like “Jesus loves me” may be the best answer of all. Outside of that, what else matters?

  4. I read Romans 8 as saying that the purpose we are called to is becoming like Christ, so God works all things to mold us into Christ’s image.

    I wonder if wisdom is ultimately realizing how much we don’t know, and being okay with that.

    • Fred,

      This evening we were discussing why Joseph told the chief baker that his dream meant he would die. What good is knowing? It’s kind of the opposite of your case. Can we be okay with knowing even if there is nothing that can be done to stop the inevitable?

      • Bob Aarhus

        That message wasn’t primarily for the Baker, it was for the Cupbearer. Years later, the Cupbearer remembers that Joseph interpreted the dreams correctly, and points Pharaoh to Joseph. Anybody can say “Things will get better”. It takes a real prophet to say, unflinchingly, “You will not escape.”

  5. Paul Walton

    You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Gen 50:20
    Joseph’s brothers intentions were for pure evil, but God’s purpose was to use it for good. Because He is sovereign He is able to make good come out of evil. This is were faith comes into play, can we trust Him to bring about everything in our lives for His glory and highest good?

    • Paul,

      I’m studying the life of Joseph right now. Though I’ve taken comfort in it, I’ve always found the Gen. 50:20 quote hard to understand.

      I guess the questions I would have are these:

      * We know that God is no respecter of persons, but is everyone a Joseph? Should we naturally assume then that Gen. 50:20 applies to us at all times and in all circumstances?

      * The Bible says this:
      There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.
      —Ecclesiastes 9:14-16

      This poor, wise man had the same impact that Joseph did, yet he did not receive the lauding that Joseph did. God indeed used the man, but he remained mired in poverty. And after his one contribution, no one listened to him again, and he was forgotten. Doesn’t that seem strange if we try to apply Romans 8:28 or Gen. 50:20 as they are taught?

      * That passage continues:
      Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
      —Ecclesiastes 9:18

      If we apply Romans 8:28 the way some do, how are we to make sense of this passage? It would seem impossible to ever destroy anything good. Romans 8:28 makes it seem that good never vanishes. Yet, here is Ecc. 9:18.

      If it rains on the just and the unjust, does having faith make the rain any less real? Or should we assume that the baby dying or the couple divorcing are ultimately good things because God will always make good out of them? That seems a bit strange, as I can then justify all manner of wickedness and sadness because they always end in good. (Though we know that Paul says that cannot be.)

      Are some things just inherently bad and always stay that way, at least this side of heaven?

      • Apparently, Joseph’s words were not heeded by the Egyptian public. Pharaoh brought a fifth of the harvest into the storehouses. What prevented at least the wealthy to store up another fifth of their own crops for themselves so that they would not end up enslaved to Pharaoh?

        • Poet,

          It makes me crazy when people try to use those passages as reasoning to give more than a 10% tithe. The fact is, if they read more closely, the priests were exempt from the tithe. And who are the priesthood today? Well, you and I. 😉

          • I was speaking in the economic sense. Pharaoh imposed a 20% tax at Joseph’s behest in order to store up food against the famine. A prudent man of means might have thought to himself, “Hmmm, maybe I should store another 20% in my own barn to weather out this future famine.” If that man had done that, then he would not have had to sell himself into slavery to Pharoah. But there is no indication any private citizen undertook such a savings program for himself.

            • Poet,

              In reading that passage, it doesn’t appear that savings would have made a difference. The famine was so severe and the need for food so constant, that everyone was tapped out by the end. All of Egypt wound up in Pharaoh’s clutches.

      • Paul Walton

        I believe the faith principal exercised by Joseph can be applied by all believers. What Satan or man intends to do to us for harm, can be used by God for His glory and highest good, if we trust in Him.
        Death, divorce, or what have you, it’s all about trusting Christ through it, even when we can see no perceivable good coming from it, ever. (Job)
        God is sovereign nothing happens that He did not coming, He has the correct response to give to us if we listen, and trust Him. We may never see the purpose in our lifetime of why a terrible event took place and how God used it for good, but that should not stop us from trusting Him.

        • Paul,

          I struggle with the distinctions between “God can” and “God will.” God can do anything! But will He in every situation in life? That I’m not sure about. Yet we often teach that God will always come through as He did for Joseph, and that every rotten thing in life has a silver lining that God uses for ultimate good this side of heaven. I would contend that it may not always work like that, so are we setting people up for disappointment?

          Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t think we stress faith for the impossible ENOUGH in our churches. We always turn to man-made solutions the moment we think God may not come through. I think the Church in America is going to get a wake up call soon about the need to be more faithful in asking for big things and expecting them.

          What bugs me, though, is when something rotten happens and then the fingers of blame come out: You didn’t have enough faith. I also get an eye twitch when we try to excuse rotten things by saying that God is going to fix it in such a way that we’ll be happier in the end. I think some things just end poorly, at least this side of heaven. That’s not to say that ultimate good won’t come out of it when we stand before the Lord, but I don’t always think that bad things end up with silver linings on Earth.

          J. Hudson Taylor is a classic case of this. One of the giants of the Faith, his work in China is one of the reasons that country has a vital Church that is growing by leaps and bounds. But Taylor buried his entire family in China. And when he returned to England, people saw the pain of that loss in him and remarked that he was something of a shell of the man he had been before his missionary work. Certainly, Taylor’s reward in heaven is immense, but his final days on earth were marked with a lingering sadness. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes the ending doesn’t match the experience of Joseph.

          Even with Joseph, I was remarking last night how his final words in Genesis on the heels of 50:20 were filled with a warning, as I believe that in his lifetime the tides were turning against the Hebrews in the land of Egypt. He was seeing, whether prophetically or just from interpreting the burgeoning signs of the times, that all would not be well with the Hebrews soon. Then in Exodus 1 we see the fulfillment. In a bitter irony, it may have been Joseph’s strict depletion of Egyptian and Hebrew wealth as payment for grain in Genesis 47 that fostered the conditions that later led to Hebrew enslavement. By concentrating Pharaoh’s complete hold on every part of Egyptian life, that enslavement seems assured. And I’m sure that for those Hebrews that lived and died as slaves in Egypt, it didn’t feel good.

          • Paul Walton

            I would agree with everything you wrote, on this side of eternity things may very well end badly from our perspective. But for someone who is faithfully trusting Christ in their life, He should be enough. Every Christian may not experience a outcome like that of Joseph, but the lesson we should learn is that God can bring good out of evil. If God’s will is not sovereign, then He is not all powerful, right? God’s ways are not man’s ways, His ways are far beyond human understanding, but I trust Him, and I know he is good, the cross shows me that. By all accounts Jesus life ended badly, Satan meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.

  6. In Joseph’s life, the chief good – the salvation of his family and the world through the storehouses of Egypt – was not realized until decades after he was thrown in the pit by his brothers. I don’t know if anyone else has pointed this out, but Joseph’s time in Potiphar’s house and his time in prison would have been a learning experience. He would have learned the wiles of wayward women and criminals. During the famine, no doubt women and criminals were trying all kinds of schemes to get their hands on food without paying for it. Joseph knew their tricks and could train his officers likewise.

    Now, many preachers have preached about Joseph being exalted to second of Egypt as a good thing, emotionally, for Joseph. This is one of the proof stories for health, wealth, and prosperty messages. I don’t know about you, but I think Joseph would have traded position, influence, and wealth to be back home in Canaan with his family. He never returned to Canaan. He had to make preparations for his bones to be carried back.

    Consider, too: How many of us would have considered it a good thing for Israel to relocate to Egypt only to be enslaved for hundreds of years and then be brought out to a desert place to rebel and wander for forty years before entering the Promised Land? Why not just stay in Canaan and have Egyptian caravans deliver monthly care packages?

    What good was it for Joseph to know the baker’s death? Because this showed to butler, who recounted to the Pharaoh, that the one true God has power over life and death. And Pharaoh’s dream had a similar story in it: life and death.

  7. What if you won’t know what the good is until decades later? What if you won’t know in your lifetime, except perhaps prophetically, as Joseph knew? I had a friend whose grandparents wanted to be missionaries to Brazil, but they had to settle for another country. “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Proverbs 13:22). Their granddaughter, my friend, reported on missions to slums in Brazil and fell in love with the place. But she went to Japan was a two-year missionary, where she met her husband: a Brazilian. They married and moved to Brazil, where they now minister.

  8. Sulan

    having gone through a life changing episode a long time ago — even though I didn’t understand it all at that time, and really can’t say I do now — but as I just let God be God in my life, understand that He has a plan, I grow closer to Him each day.

    I witness the mightiness of God each day — not in a lightning bolt type episode, but in small things I witness in others as I go along sharing Him.

  9. Jeremy

    I agree with you dan that basically all the answers we have to such tragedies seem…well silly. My heart aches for those who go through such horrible events. The fact that we don’t understand is exactly why we need God. I have a three year old daughter and when she gets her she comes running to my arms and says, “Daddy hold me.” I don’t know what it does for her completely but my embrace heals her even if the pain doesn’t go away immediately. I have learned in such times to run to my heavenly Daddy even when “I don’t get it” and say “hold me.”

    • Jeremy,

      While I think that some sectors of the Church go overboard with their love of uncertainty, I think we have to make some kind of peace with it, at least as it applies to the events of our lives. The Scriptures ARE certain, as are key doctrines of the Church. They are inviolable, and attempting to look at them through man-made lens of uncertainty is a gross error. But the same doesn’t always apply to the events of your life and mine. We still live in a sin-filled world and are subject to some of the problems of such a world.

      • Jeremy

        Dan I would like to hear you talk on the judgment aspect of such tragedies. That is, what should we say if some one believes that it is because God is judging them. For instance, Pat Robertson on Haiti or a family falling apart from death and disaster. Is judgment a reality under grace or postponed to the final judgment because of grace? I ask your opinion not out of mere curiosity but because I have been asked this question recently and often.

        • Jeremy,

          When the Tower of Siloam fell and killed a bunch of people, Jesus was questioned about the tragedy and His response was perfect. He deflected the question back and made it not about the people who died but those who asked the question. What were they to do with the reality of death. He said, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”

          When Bartimaeus is born blind, the natural inclination was to say it was due to sin in the life of someone connected to him. Once again, Jesus deflected that line of thinking and said it was for a reason no one considered.

          I don’t think we can always draw strict lines between an individual Christian’s calamity and the necessity of sin in their lives. Paul endured a whole lot of calamity and it can be argued that his righteousness was a lightning rod for that calamity. I have long said that people who inflict pain on the Enemy incur his wrath, so the presence of a whole lot of bad in someone’s life may be the reverse of what is common thinking; that person may be doing everything right and the Enemy feels a need to counterattack.

          For the unsaved person, I think a better case can be made for tying calamity to sin. If you’re manufacturing meth and you burn your house down, cause and effect seem pretty convincing there! Drive drunk and get killed, same thing.

          It gets interesting for me when we start talking about groups of people. I believe that we can’t necessarily discount calamity when it hits a group of people. Then again, it’s just as big of a mistake to offer a kneejerk condemnation too.

          One of the greatest examples of doing it wrong regarded Jerry Falwell’s statement about 9/11 being a judgment on this country. I was never a Falwell fan, but I was stunned at the number of Christian leaders who immediately condemned Falwell’s statement. My response was to ask myself whether or not Falwell’s statement had merit. I decided that it might. But even if it didn’t, it couldn’t be entirely discounted. It was something I needed to think soberly about. That those incensed Christian leaders demanded a retraction from Falwell so quickly told me that they spent not one single second asking themselves if Falwell’s statement had any merit. I think their reaction was foolish—even if Falwell was wrong. (And, almost ten years later, I’m not sure he was.)

          In the end, examination is always called for. That we so quickly run away from that examination explains a whole lot about us and the about the state of America 2010.

          • Jeremy

            Thank you for your thoughts Dan. You have a gift for explaining. Your thoughts are very sobering and critically rational.

  10. I’m not Dan, but I’ll give my two cents. Regarding the saints, I don’t believe God “judges” us, i.e. brings major disaster as punishment. Scripture is clear that the Father disciplines His children, but the death of a child is not, in my opinion, discipline. Now, whether the Lord brings judgment on unbelievers, i.e. Haiti, I will reserve my opinion, as I really don’t have a strong one.


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