I became a Christian just before my junior year of high school. Almost immediately I had an overwhelming desire to read and know the Bible from cover to cover. Not knowing any better, I started in Genesis and decided to read straight through. It was a long, difficult journey, but after a few months I trudged through the Old Testament, admittedly wandering for quite a while in the deserts of the major and minor prophets.
Of what I could understand, one of the texts that stands out to me most after twenty years is the passage where young Solomon asks God to make him wise. The conversation goes like this:
“Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?” God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.”
While only 16 years old, the moment I read that passage the Spirit of God moved in my heart in a way I was yet to experience as a new believer. I knew that the desire for money and status (both valuable things to a kid who grew up poor) weren’t ultimately going to make me godly or attuned to the will of God. Immediately, I dropped my Bible on the bed and I fell on my knees on the floor and began to beg for God to make me wise. Whatever else mattered in this world, I knew I could not understand it without wisdom. All I wanted in that moment was for God to give me wisdom.
But I had no idea what I was asking for.
In fact, as I continued to pray that prayer of Solomon’s through the years I realized how dangerous that prayer is. I call the prayer dangerous because it’s almost downright stupid. Praying for wisdom is a prayer for pain.
Wisdom is not just an intelligence bomb that God drops on us one day when we get our first gray hair. It’s not an intellectual realization that hits us one day simply because we’re aged. We’ve all known older folks who are foolish. No, wisdom has less to do with gray hair and more to do with the experience of suffering and making the choice during that suffering to continue to live in engagement with God (whether that engagement is positive or negative does not necessarily matter).
When I prayed for wisdom, I assumed it would just come in an instant. At the very least, it was something God would give me through further education. But when I received my BA, my MA, or my MDiv, “wisdom” wasn’t etched on any of them. Whatever wisdom I have has come through my suffering, and that with God.
When I’ve thought about defining wisdom in recent years, I define it as, “Aligning my actions with the intentions of creation.” Whatever aligns with creation’s purpose is wise (life, goodness, love, justice, virtue), and whatever destroys creation is foolish (hatred, envy, gossip, injustice, idolatry).
But after ruminating on this definition, I realized that any understanding of wisdom must also keep in mind that wisdom’s ultimate expression was the cross of Christ. To the world, Paul says, the cross is foolishness. But to those who believe, it is the wisdom of God.
In other words, in asking for wisdom from within the Christian tradition, what I’m really asking for is a cross. I’m not asking God to cause me to suffer, but I am asking God to teach me, dwell with me, walk with me, and urge me on in my sufferings. Wisdom is not the ability to avoid suffering, but the ability to embrace it and see it as a necessary component to salvation – a cross that must be carried by all followers of the crucified messiah. On some level, wisdom’s connection with pain is hardly even a Christian distinctive, as the book of Job is set within the Old Testament subset of “wisdom literature.” In Job, wisdom is gained through walking with God – indeed, debating God! – throughout the experience of pain.
In the entire biblical tradition, praised as wisdom is, it’s nearly a fool’s errand. Through its process and in its conclusions, the person who has learned wisdom has had her view of the world shadowed with suffering. But as foolish as it may seem, it is those shadows of suffering that serve the ends of saving the world.