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.}