For seven years I drove my 1989 Chevy pickup around without air conditioning. It went out somewhere around West Lake, Florida while driving from Louisville to Orlando in the summer of 1998. That was the summer of raging forest fires across northern Florida, so not only did I almost sweat death, I about choked to death too. It was like driving with a moist napkin from a BBQ restaurant wrapped around your face while the bathroom hand dryer blows up your nose. I came back to Louisville at the end of the summer, then moved to Arkansas (also moist) and kept thinking I should get the A/C looked at – but also knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the repair. Then we were about to move to Phoenix. No way I’m moving to Phoenix (not moist, but very hot) without A/C. I took it to the shop expecting the worst. How many months would I have to skip eating to pay for this? It wasn’t what I expected. It was a $25 relay switch. Seven years of sweat to avoid $25.
Wisdom: Probably one of the most underrated attributes of our modern society is wisdom. People love skill, charm, intellect, etc., but without wisdom, all else are near useless. In fact, wisdom is probably one of the most valuable attributes a person can display.
But what is wisdom? How do you define wisdom? Let’s start by looking at some things it is not. Or, at least, not only.
What Wisdom is – and yet is Not (Only)
Smarts: Intellect is great, but wisdom is not only intellect. One can be incredibly smart and not be wise. Think of the contrast between a college freshman at Harvard and a grandfather you admire. Whom would you go to for life advice? I had a Masters in Chemical Engineering when I crossed the Georgia state line into Florida and felt the atmosphere in my truck cab change. Yet I drove that way SEVEN more years.
This hints that there’s a component of experience-over-time involved in wisdom. You learn tons from experiences and those shape the way you view the world the next time something happens. And yet wisdom is not only experience. Because there are many people with many experiences from which they do not seem to gain wisdom. I love the quote from Bible teacher Crawford Loritts along these lines: “Experience isn’t the best teacher, but it is the only school a fool will attend.” (ouch.)
This implies that wisdom has a measure of teachability – i.e. being able to learn from the experiences of others. A wise person says, “I saw him do that and I will learn from that.” I remember in my latter teen years seeing two buddies try to create a ‘tattoo’ on their shoulders by pressing a hot quarter into their flesh. I remember thinking, “I was pretty sure I should never do that, and now I’m absolutely sure.” Thank you, dear friends, for letting me learn from your experience.
Yet a wise person isn’t only teachable – isn’t only on the hunt for insight from others. He’s also content with who he is – not chasing after the latest trendy self-help guru.
The Roman philosopher Seneca, and contemporary of Christ, in Letters from a Stoic (Letter IX, p.51-54) said ‘The wise man is content with himself.’ He explained with the following story:
“The wise man… unequalled though he is in his devotion to his friends… will still consider what is valuable in life to be something wholly confined to his inner self. He will repeat the words of Stilbo… when his home town was captured and he emerged from the general conflagration, his children lost, his wife lost, alone and none the less a happy man, and was questioned by Demetrius. Asked by this man, known, from the destruction he dealt out town to town, as Demetrius the City Sacker, whether he had lost anything, he replied, ‘I have all my valuables with me.’ There was an active and courageous man – victorious over the very victory of the enemy! ‘I have lost,’ he said, ‘nothing.’ He made Demetrius wonder whether he had won a victory after all. ‘All my possessions,’ he said, ‘are with me’, meaning by this the qualities of a just, a good and an enlightened character, and indeed the very fact of not regarding as valuable anything that is capable of being taken away…. Does it make you see how much easier it can be to conquer a whole people than to conquer a single man?”
Here we have a few dynamics at play. Stilbo, with his inner peace and confidence, (and confusing name: is he an art supply product or circus performer?) unraveled the very man set to destroy him. The man who thought he was powerful was rattled by the wise. Reminds me of the young linguist in the book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes who was disrupted by the utter joy and peace he witnessed among a remote Amazon tribe. They had nothing, hardly any shelter or clothing or any possessions, yet they were measurably some of the happiest people on the planet. That stood in stark contrast to the depressed, dissatisfied, slightly grumpy people in his hometown who sent him to be a benefit to this tribe. The meek humble the powerful.
The closing line of the paragraph from Seneca holds another wisdom: “See how much easier it can be to conquer a whole people than to conquer a single man?”
Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art thought this may have been the root issue behind World War II:
“You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. [Note: they do exist.] Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”
Overstatement? Definitely. Yet no doubt conquering the inner man is no small challenge. The wisest people I know also have the greatest sense of inner calm and peace and contentment about who they are – they actually like themselves and don’t mind being alone with their own thoughts.
What Seneca was admiring in Stilbo was a contentment – a contentment like the Apostle Paul who said, ‘I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Philippians 4:11). Can you find contentment in the moment, or are you constantly dissatisfied with your present situation? The stereotypical person who must pick up their phone at every moment to fight off boredom – to be constantly entertained by outside influences. That person is not content within themselves, and, probably not someone you would consider wise.
I faced this in a big way recently – the lack of contentment. Our family lived in Fiji for six months. Our first month there I was ate up with worry and anxiety about what my job would be when we returned to the USA. I already had an open invitation to return to the organization, but I left not knowing my specific role once we returned. And it was making me miserable. So much so that I couldn’t fully enjoy Fiji. I couldn’t enjoy the moment with worry for the future. And I was living in FIJI.
One day I finally turned the corner by realizing it didn’t help anything to worry about something so far out. Too many factors could affect the outcome. Shoot, we didn’t even know we’d be in Fiji 18 months before then. So many factors can change in six months.
Ephesians 5:15 says “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.”
Wisdom is able to make the most of the moment. To be content with who you are, though you are still seeking to improve, and with what you have. It’s able to think ahead, and yet also live in the moment, to not waste a single day.
One thing I admire about Seneca is that throughout his letters he often quotes Epicurus of all people. I know, shocking, right? (refresher: Epicurus was the founder of the rival philosophy club) So to quote him in a positive light – man, that would be like Obama quoting Trump, Gandalf quoting Sauron, or Coke quoting Pepsi.
Here’s how he quotes him:
“Epicurus himself, who has nothing good to say for Stilbo, has uttered a statement quite like this one of Stilbo’s. ‘Any man,’ he says, ‘who does not think that what he has is more than ample, is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.’
“What difference does it make, after all, what your position in life is if you dislike it yourself?”
“Only the wise man is content with what is his. All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.”
Anyone who can graciously quote their rival, that takes confidence, humility, and, dare we say, wisdom.
Yet wisdom is not only contentment. Contentment can sometimes turn into complacency.
We don’t only need contentment, we also need active contentment.
A Working Definition
So how can we best sum up wisdom? I’ve always liked Dennis Rainey’s definition: “Godly skill for everyday living.” I think that’s a good start.
I think the best modifier to use when describing wisdom is to add “transcendent” or “divine” to the front. Something different gets triggered in your mind when you hear “divine wisdom” versus just plain wisdom. That is a better wisdom for sure. Yet ultimately, all wisdom is divine wisdom, for if it is not divine, then from whence does it come? Humans? Plants? Garden Gnomes?
True wisdom is ultimately rooted in being able to discern God’s will in any given situation. That’s why Proverbs says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In order to gain divine wisdom, you must begin with a reverence for God – a desire to know and understand His perspective.
The more quickly you are able to discern and understand God’s perspective in any given situation and apply it to your life, that is the main measure of your wisdom.
So here’s my stab at a working definition of wisdom:
“Discerning and readily applying God’s truth to your life.”
There’s an element of knowledge and application/action to wisdom. The two dance together.
Wisdom is hard to find in our world, it’s a rare commodity. That’s bad, but that’s good, because the more scarce a commodity, the more valuable. If you can exercise wisdom and teach your children to do so, they will be sought out by kings. (Proverbs 22:29)