Cultivating Wisdom Part I.
A few years ago, a celebrity moved into the neighborhood where we lived at the time. Once word got out, this circumstance became both cool and annoying: cool, because he lived right by our house, and annoying, because he lived right by our house. On most days, cars drove by slowly, hoping to catch a glimpse of this shy guy. Drivers would stop in the middle of the street, holding up cell phones, or parking and setting up tripods. That they were blocking traffic on our little street mattered not a jot to them. These stalkers wanted to look at the superstar.
I guess it isn’t often that a village has a resident owl in plain view. I have to say, as owls go, he was pretty cute. I assume at night his cuteness faded to black as he preyed on local rabbits and mice, but our village was totally into him, innocent rabbits be damned.
Daytime was naptime for this chap, and he loved to catch a snooze in the sun at the front of a convenient south-facing hollow in a tree a few steps from our front door. One afternoon as I was busily writing a sermon for the upcoming Sunday service, I heard raised voices outside. Through my porch window, I saw a teenage girl at the wheel of what looked to be a brand-new Jeep Cherokee. She was—inexplicably—backing up and driving forward (she was moving all over the street), and she and her passenger were throwing things at the tree.
Seeing this, I donned my superwoman cape and flew out the door.
“What are you doing? Are you throwing things at the owl?”
The driver smiled. “Oh, we are just trying to wake it up!”
I thought our high school was highly ranked. Sigh.
“Please don’t do that. And by the way, you shouldn’t do that, because owls are nocturnal. Please just take a picture.”
They looked at me blankly and drove away. I guess I should have defined nocturnal.
I checked on the critter, and he seemed fine, but he then disappeared for three days—he was wise enough to know he needed a break from celebrity stalkings gone bad. He was certainly wiser than teens who throw things at sleeping birds, and smarter than parents who toss their sixteen-year-old the keys to a $45,000 jeep, but I digress.
Owls being associated with wisdom is not a new notion—some say this idea goes back to the time of the Ancient Greeks (the patron goddess Athena was known as the goddess of wisdom and symbolized by the owl). Others believe it stems from the relative silence of owls. Whereas most birds sing, tweet, and twitter all day (we have become those birds, apparently), we don’t hear much from owls.
An English nursery rhyme from 1875 reflects this idea:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
What Is Wisdom?
I have a tee-shirt I often wear during workouts emblazoned with the quote, “I am still learning” thought to be from Michelangelo (I found it at the National Gallery of Art in DC). Admittedly, I bought it because the black and white tee looked classy (vanity, thy name is Kerry) but I also agree with the sentiment: no matter our age or expertise, we all benefit from a humble approach to increasing our self-awareness, emotional stability, and wisdom.
But learning is not enough.
One definition of wisdom is “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Christian writer Jack Wellman explains, “[Wisdom] is the ability to use knowledge and understanding to think and act in such a way that common sense prevails and choices are beneficial and productive.”
For instance, a toddler’s wise parent knows to cultivate a protective space: placing safety gates across stairs, covering electrical outlets, moving breakables out of reach. It sounds like common sense, but until we put common sense into practice, we are not acting with wisdom.
How Do We Acquire Wisdom?
It is evident that God wants His people to think and act wisely. The Bible contains more than 200 verses about wisdom. In the book of Proverbs, wisdom is mentioned over 50 times. When the word fool is used in Proverbs (over 70 times), it is often contrasted with a wise person’s actions (Proverbs 9 is a prime example: this chapter contrasts wisdom with its counterfeit, known as folly. We will dive into that chapter in Part II).
Proverbs was written by King Solomon, who inherited the throne of Israel from his father, King David (about 1000 years before Christ). Solomon was likely around twenty years of age when his father died (you can read a lively discussion on his age here), and suddenly this young man had to lead a nation.
One day, God spoke to Solomon: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” (2 Chronicles 1:7). Wow. What would you have asked for: unlimited wealth? The ability to fly? Lightening to come from your fingers toward your enemies? (Am I divulging too much of my fantasy life?)
Solomon’s humble response is such a contrast to our current culture’s propensity to think we have arrived when given a bit of fame or accomplishment: “Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties …So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?“(1 Kings 3:7, 9). It takes a wise person to admit when he needs wisdom.
God answered Solomon’s request, and he gave generously: “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29). Plus, He threw in the wealth and prosperity that Solomon could have asked for but did not.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 3:16
If we want to acquire and cultivate wisdom, we should learn from someone who has it. My mom Kate, born and raised in County Galway, Ireland, is known among our family and friends for her wise, pithy sayings (please imagine these spoken with an Irish accent): “Love is blind, but marriage is an eye-opener.” “Don’t worry until you have something to worry about.” “It’s only a problem if you make it a problem.” “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
She drops these pearls in context. If we are concerned that something might not turn out well, that is when we might be told that worrying can be a waste of time and energy. Or, she advises, if we treated an angry person with kindness—the “honey”—instead of anger—the “vinegar”—the outcome may likely be positive.
But even wise Kate does not have 3000 sayings.
The book of Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes, which Solomon authored, are known as the wisdom literature of the Bible. Solomon wrote over three thousand proverbs and one thousand songs (1 Kings 4:32). His wisdom gift from God was so astounding that kings and queens from the known world traveled to Jerusalem to learn from him (2 Chron. 9:23). Scripture is clear that this wisdom was from God and not of Solomon’s own ability. But he did more than receive the gift, he cultivated it. But how can we acquire wisdom and understanding? Like Solomon, we must first ask for it!
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.Proverbs 4:7