Chapter 8: “This Old Book.” 2, Growing in Wisdom

Understanding the Bible as a text, applying it to our lives, reaching out to the needs of the world, and relying upon the Holy Spirit to guide, protect, and transform us: all these things require wisdom and are also ways by which we grow in wisdom. You could go your whole life and never know about the Cities of Refuge—or other fine details in the text—-but you could be very helpful to other people because of your ability to interpret the Bible for current circumstances. I flip to a few “yellow” passages:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7).

….if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; 
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures— then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. 
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice
and preserving the way of his faithful ones (Prov. 2:3-8).

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her (Prov. 4:7-8).

Wisdom seems like a quality that, if you claim it for yourself, you don’t really have! (I don’t claim it: so am I unwise, or truly wise?) There is a difference between being wise in your own estimation, and having wisdom alongside your qualities of kindness and humility. I love this next proverb because here, at the very end of a book about right living and wisdom, we’ve an acknowledgement by someone (Agur son of Jakeh: Prov. 30:1) who doesn’t claim to have wisdom.

Surely I am too stupid to be human; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the holy ones (Prov. 30:2-3).

Agur’s search leads him to a feeling of inadequacy and, in turn, a renewed search.

But an admission of failure in this regard is commensurate with another favorite passage:

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Cor. 2:3-7).

The Holy Spirit provides and demonstrates wisdom, apart from our human talents of speech, persuasion, and popularity. This was important for the Corinthians to know, because in their prideful attitude they had forgotten how to love.

Spiritual power, insight and wisdom do come from the risen Lord, thus the importance of an active, loyal relationship with Christ.

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Again … we gain Christ’s wisdom when we understand who Christ is, what he taught, and what he has done for us. As we live [our] lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith (Col. 2:6-7), we gain insight into God’s grace, our own strengths and shortcomings, and the gifts of grace which God may use through us to provide blessings and help to others.

The Spirit also gives wisdom liberally:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you (James 1:5).

So Agur son of Jakeh is admirable in his humility. And yet wisdom is a gift that God can’t wait to provide us. You may feel that you lack wisdom but perhaps God is providing it for you in special ways.

Notice in the Corinthians and John passages above, that a group of people is involved. It is so easy to fall into an unintentional individualism as you read the Bible—as if John 3:16 was directed to you alone. We grow as Christians together, in whatever congregations to which we may belong. We are part of the branch growing from Christ; we’re not solitary leaves thereon. It’s easy to forget that because, after all, a certain amount of our personal Bible reading is done in lovely, personal solitude.


Let me think some more about these topics as I turn to another favorite verse. During one of the summers when I worked on this project, my family and I visited Europe as my daughter’s choir toured several cities: Heidelberg, Speyer, Erfurt, Eisenach, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. Emily had wonderful experiences in this choir as she used her musical talents with other teenagers. On one of the tour’s last days, we took our seats for a noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. As we all absorbed the beauty of the sanctuary, I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words:

Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein

My German is rusty so I needed two or three seconds to translate the phrase … Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22, KJV). The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, the wonders of Vienna itself, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a deep sense of peace and assurance.

The whole verse in the NRSV is But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Can you deceive yourself by hearing the Word? Very easily! You hear the word and believe, but because you believe you feel pleased with yourself … and continue feeling hatred toward particular individuals or particular groups. You hear the word but never “bridle” your tongue; consequently your religion is “worthless” (James 1:26). You hear but never take the time to actively love and care for the needy (James 1:27). You hear the word in the sense that you respect and defend the Bible, but you compartmentalize your faith as one aspect of your life among many. A very subtle way to deceive yourself is to hear the word, to love the Bible and Christ, but to have a very shallow, kind of faith: to “do the word,” you think merely have to be a good, churchgoing person who serves on committees and has a very conventional, upstanding morality. Surely God would be impressed to death by your goodness!

Even a life-changing profession of faith, so cherished in evangelistic experience, can be a “hear but not do” kind of thing. I don’t want to get into debates about whether or not one can lose one’s salvation (also as one whose theology is more Arminian than Calvinist, I’ve some ideas); I do want to say that both Jesus and Paul cautions us to be humble and attentive to our faith (Matt. 7:1-5, 21-23, Rom. 11:21-22, 25). In Christ we have an accomplished salvation, but Christ in turn also calls us to transformation, discipleship, and loving-kindness expressed in service.

“Doing the word” means embracing the Gospel message in its wholeness. You’ve fewer illusions about yourself and your position in life because you understand, cognitively and spiritually, that you are no better than the worst sinner you can think of. Every aspect of your life is in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. You accept the grace of God through Christ as a free, unearned gift, which in turn links you to the power God provides for your living. You understand that God’s love liberates you to show loving-kindness to others; God’s love doesn’t give you license to be a meaner person than before; his love changes your perception so you can see other people as those for whom Christ died. (An analogy might be: when the person you love loves you back, you feel free, joyous, and changed.)

As we’re transformed together by God’s love, we grow together in certain characteristics taught so frequently in the Bible:

* Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
* Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
* Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
* Loving kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means, “to suffer with.”)
* Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
* Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
* Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
* Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
* Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.

And yet … Christian love is not anything specific that you do, in the sense that Christ provides you a checklist or (as I have here) a list of bullet-pointed characteristics. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). That last statement means: the law cannot define these qualities and—Paul is being wry and ironic—these qualities are not illegal. As Richard B. Hays writes, this section of Galatians “is the most impassioned defense anywhere in Scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide the community of faith.” But Paul’s opponents at Galatia wanted to impose various structures and laws to that community. Obviously laws and structure can be good things, but Paul retorts that the Spirit is a sufficient guide, as that Hays writes, “A church guided by Paul’s hopeful word would cultivate a community of flexibility and freedom, living with openness toward the unpredictable liberating movement of God’s Spirit.” Hays notes two examples: Wesley’s preaching outdoors to coal miners, and African American churches that addressed civil rights issues in the 1950s and 1960s.[1] Could our contemporary congregations become these kinds of communities in deeper ways?

An emphasis on Bible study—and the self-diagnosis and wisdom that comes from Bible study—is a powerful tool for churches, in addition to (or instead of) the more programmatic means that congregations sometimes adopt. But (as I’ve said before) that is why we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey.[2]

I read a lovely story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.”[3]

I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the challenge: How wonderful if we, who would never be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, lived our lives in such a way that Bible study was intimate—and an intimate part of our everyday lives, and a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies? We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together and perhaps reexamine our cherished yet unhelpful opinions. We’d grow in wisdom and kindness.[4]

Link to last section


[1] Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 329.

[2] A Bible explorer should think of good books about the Bible as tools the Spirit can use to open up the Bible’s meaning. I consider the many authors I’ve cited among my “journeys,” some of whom I’ve known personally, to be a kind of fellowship in addition to other online and face-to-face kinds of fellowship that I need and enjoy.

[3] Stephen M. Wylen, The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), 73-74.

The great Jewish scholar and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “It is clear that in Rabbi Akiva’s view the study of Torah is more important than its practice… Not only is the study of the Torah the highest good per se; it has the added benefit of leading one of the fulfillment of the mitzvot.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Reflected through the Generations, edited and translated by Gordon Tucker (New York: Continuum, 2011), 156.

[4] Brevard S. Childs notes that in the famous blessing, Numbers 6:24-26, “The blessing of God entails a life of wholeness in which the inner and outer dimensions of life cohere.” “Such a picture of wholeness was only possible in the context of corporate worship. To consider it [the cult, that is, the worship practices of the Israelites] a form of ‘self-salvation’ or ‘works righteousness’ is utterly to misconstrue its significance…The cult was the conduit through which God lavished his benefits.” Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 167-168.


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