Tuesday, April 5, 2011

God's Wisdom and Ours

These are notes from a chapter by this title in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God (Intervarsity Press, 1973).
His thoughts on wisdom have greatly challenged and encouraged me, so I typed them up today!

Whence comes wisdom? What steps must a man take to lay hold of this gift? There are two prerequisites, according to Scripture. First, one must learn to reverence God. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111:10; Prov. , cf. Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; ). Not till we have become humble and teachable, standing in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty (‘the great and terrible God’, Neh. 1:5, cf. ; ; Deut. ; ; Ps. 99:3; Jer. 20:11), acknowledging our own littleness, distrusting our own thoughts, and willing to have our minds turned upside down, can divine wisdom become ours. It is to be feared that many Christians spend all their lives in too unhumbled and conceited a frame of mind ever to gain wisdom from God at all. Not for nothing does Scripture say, ‘with the lowly is wisdom’ (Prov. 11:2).

Then, second, one must learn to receive God’s word. Wisdom is divinely wrought in those, and those only, who apply themselves to God’s revelation. ‘Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies,’ declares the psalmist, ‘I have more understanding than all my teachers:’ why?—for thy testimonies are my meditation’ (Ps. 119:99f). So Paul admonishes the Colossians: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom’ (Col. 3:16). How are we men of the twentieth century to do this? By soaking ourselves in the Scriptures, which, as Paul told Timothy (and he had in mind the Old Testament alone!), ‘are able to make thee wise unto salvation’ through faith in Christ, and to perfect the man of God for 'all good works’ (2 Tim. -17)…

If you stand at the end of a platform on York station, you can watch a constant succession of engine and train movements…But you will only be able to form a very rough and general idea of the overall plan in terms of which all these movements are being determined…If, however, you are privileged enough to be taken by one of the high-ups into the magnificent electrical signal box…you will see…the entire track layout for five miles on either side of the station, with little glow worm lights moving or stationary on the different tracks to show the signalmen at a glance where every engine and train is. At once you will be able to look at the whole situation through the eyes of the men who control it: you will see from the diagram why it was that this train had to be signaled to a halt, and that one diverted from its normal running line, and that one parked temporarily in a siding. The why and the wherefore of all these movements becomes plain, once you can see the overall position.

Now, the mistake that is commonly made is to suppose that this is an illustration of what God does when He bestows wisdom: to suppose, in other words, that the gift of wisdom consists in a deepened insight into the providential meaning and purpose of events going on around us, an ability to see why God has done what He has done in a particular case, and what He is going to do next. People feel that if they were really walking close to God, so that He could impart wisdom to them freely, then they would, so to speak, find themselves in the signal-box; they would discern the real purpose of everything that happened to them, and it would be clear to them at every moment how God was making all things work together for good. Such people spend much time poring over the book of providence, wondering why God should have allowed this or that to take place, whether they should take it as a sign to stop doing one thing and start doing another, or what they should deduce from it. If they end up baffled, they put it down to their own lack of spirituality…

In Ecclesiastes…the author speaks as a mature teacher giving a young disciple the fruits of his own long experience and reflection (11:9; 12:1, 12). He wants to lead this young believer into true wisdom, and to keep him from falling into the ‘York-signal-box’ mistake…What the preacher wants to show him is that the real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgement that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences ‘under the sun’ bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them at all….

It is to this pessimistic conclusion, says the preacher, that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you. (cf. 1:17f). And of course he is right. For the world we live in is in fact the sort of place he has described. The God who rules it hides Himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it all…Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.

Many of us need this admonition. For not only are we caught up with the ‘York-signal-box’ conception, or misconception, of what wisdom is; we feel that the honor of God (and also, though we do not say this, for the sake of our own reputation as spiritual Christians), it is necessary for us to claim that we are, so to speak, already in the signal-box, here and now, enjoying inside information as to the why and wherefore of God’s doings. This comforting pretence becomes part of us: we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all His ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us into the future. And then something very painful and quite inexplicable comes along, and our cheerful illusion of being in God’s secret councils is shattered. Our pride is wounded; we feel that God has slighted us; and unless at this point we repent, and humble ourselves very thoroughly for our former presumption, our whole subsequent spiritual life may be blighted…

(We may enter into) a state of hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit. There is a lot of it around today in Christian circles; the symptoms are personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians’ initiative and enterprise. Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of God in providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experiences that he didn’t. This is what happens when we do not head the message of Ecclesiastes. For the truth is that God in His wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which He is working out in the churches and in our own lives. ‘As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; even so thou knowest not the work of God who doeth all’ (11:5 RV)

But what in that case, is wisdom? The preacher has helped us see what it is not; does he give us any guidance as to what it is? Indeed he does, in outline, at any rate. ‘Fear God, and keep His commandments’ (); trust and obey Him, reverence Him, worship Him, be humble before Him, and never say more than you mean…(5:1-7); do good (3:12); remember that God will some day take account of you (11:9; 12:14)… Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly (7:14; 9:7ff, 11:9f)…Seek grace and work hard at whatever life calls you to do (9:10), and enjoy your work as you do it (2:24; 3:12f; 5:18ff; 8:15). Leave to God its issues; let Him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (11:1-6).

This is the way of wisdom. Clearly it is just one facet of the life of faith. For what underlies and sustains it? Why, the conviction that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world-order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what He is doing, and ‘doeth all things well’, even if for the moment He hides His hand. We can trust Him and rejoice in Him, even when we cannot discern His path…

God’s work of giving wisdom is a means to His chosen end of restoring and perfecting the relationship between Himself and men for which He made them. For what is this wisdom that He gives? As we have seen, it is not a sharing in all His knowledge, but a disposition to confess that He is wise, and to cleave to Him and live for Him in the light of His word through thick and thin.

Thus the effect of His gift of wisdom is to make us more humble, more joyful, more godly, more quick-sighted as to His will, more resolute in the doing of it and less troubled (not less sensitive, but less bewildered) than we were at the dark and painful things of which our life in this fallen world  is full. The New Testament tells us that the fruit of wisdom is Christlikeness—peace, and humility, and love (Jas. )—and the root of it is faith in Christ (1 Cor. ; cf. 1 Tim. ) as the manifested wisdom of God (1 Cor. ; 30). Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits to give to those who ask Him, is a wisdom that will bind us to Himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.

Let us see to it, then, that our own quest for wisdom takes the form of a quest for these things, and that we do not frustrate the wise purpose of God by neglecting faith and faithfulness in order to pursue a kind of knowledge which in this world it is not given to us to have.                                                                   

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