The school-year has ended in Minneapolis, and I’ve been reflecting on some of the highs and lows of journeying with my daughter through online first-grade. Thankfully, there’s been an overall trajectory of learning and growth, many moments of joy, and impressively creative projects about “giant pandas” and “how the stars and sun were formed.” And, to be honest, there have been some really challenging days, from frustration-infused rants about assignments and difficulty concentrating. In my not-so-great parenting moments, I tried to persuade Eleanor to just finish the work. Reminders about the ticking clock were neither helpful nor wise. Eventually I would see how I was prioritizing tasks over listening and learning. On my best days, I would remember that wellbeing and wisdom matter more than academic achievement. My daughter’s capacity to persist, to take breaks, to let go of perfectionism: these life lessons would contribute to her flourishing now and in the future.
The book of Proverbs teaches us that wisdom can be discovered in many contexts: in trials and tribulations, like a pandemic; in relationships with other people; in work and in school; in nature and other religions; in scripture and ultimately in God.
Proverbs tend to get short shrift in many communities of faith, however. Maybe it’s because they appear bizarre, if not absurd: “The one who lives alone is self-indulgent, showing contempt for all who have sound judgment” (Pr. 18:1) What does that mean and how does it apply to life today? The Hebrew itself is obscure and hard to translate.
Maybe it’s because some Proverbs sound downright offensive, and we rightly fear their placement in the mouths of foolish preachers. Here’s one for you: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense” (Pr. 11:22). Yikes.
Sometimes Proverbs are contradictory, like these two back-to-back verses: “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. Answer fools according to their folly or they will be wise in their own eyes (Pr. 26: 4-5).” Which is it? Answer or don’t answer. I suppose it depends on the context. Surely it takes wisdom to discern if, how, and when to ignore foolishness or take it on.
Simply put, Proverbs are enigmatic because they woo us to ponder big questions: How do I live faithfully and well in this particular situation, context, and relationship? What kind of a person do I want to be?
For this reason alone, they deserve our listening ear.
Proverbs tend to take one of two forms in scripture: short, pithy saying that can be committed to heart; and, extended instruction that might last for chapters. Like other poetry, they convey beauty, truth, and goodness through sparse and evocative language; through humor; through parallelisms; and, through captivating and surprising imagery.
The prologue to Proverbs (chapter 1, verses 1-7) reveals the intent of the whole collection: to share wisdom with us and to awaken in us a desire for wisdom so strong that it guides us throughout our lives. Of course, this begs the question: What does it mean to be wise?
Images from popular culture come to mind, such as Gandalf the Wise in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s timeless trilogy. Gandalf is a wizard, a researcher, a moral compass, and an insightful guide who leads through encouragement and wise sayings. Or there’s the smart aleck Tyrion Lanister from The Game of Thrones. He’s morally ambiguous, given his binge drinking and murder of his father. No one would hold him up and put him on the same kind of pedestal as Gandalf, but still, in spite of severe moral lapses, Tyrion’s life demonstrates an inner integrity and quest for a better world marked by thoughtfulness, safety, and care.
Proverbs personifies Wisdom—more on that in our next blog—and in the prologue presents a fairly comprehensive vision of wisdom and its many qualities.
Wisdom is related to “efficacious instruction,” which connotes thoughtfulness, good sense, resourcefulness, and courage. Wisdom also is related to “righteousness, justice, and equity,” a trinity that appears throughout Proverbs. These words mean that wisdom results in fair, transparent processes in the court of law and the rendering of accurate, reasonable judgements. Wisdom fosters communal relationships marked by loyalty, care, and a commitment to defending the rights of the poor and those at risk of exploitation. In other words, wisdom’s rewards are communal, not merely or even primarily personal.
Wisdom shines forth in prudence. This term is rarely used in modern parlance. The closest we might come to it is the phrase, “being a prude,” an insult that suggests one is overly cautious, rigid, and fearful of (real or supposed) impropriety. But from the perspective of wisdom, the prudent exercise self-discipline for the sake of their own wellbeing and that of others. Rather than being impulsive, they slow down and make decisions with care. They are shrewd in assessing other people and organizations. They are neither gullible nor easily manipulated. They demonstrate discretion: forethought, clear and accurate assessments of a situation, and creativity and competence in problem-solving.
Discretion is related to another quality of wisdom, skillfulness. According to Old Testament professor Bill Brown, the Hebrew word for “skill” means “the art of steering” and conjures up the image of maneuvering a boat through both calm and turbulent waters as well as wide open seas and narrow waterways. Those who are skillful lead communities through a conflict or crisis; they share lifegiving advice in the midst of perplexity; they navigate organizational, even national, politics. So that people and communities might thrive and be marked by righteousness, justice, and equity.
Wisdom can be learned; indeed, it must be learned. Through listening to the wisdom of creation and identifying it wherever it appears. Ultimately, though, wisdom begins (and ends) with what the sage calls “the fear of the Lord.” This is not the kind of fear conjured up by Jonathan Edwards in his famous, or perhaps infamous, sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which the wicked are dangled perilously above the flames of hell. No, this fear is reverent and humble. The wise bend the knee before God in respect and receptivity, in curiosity and wonder. They recognize their own fallibility and they desire to learn and grow. Their posture is not self-deprecation but rather openness to the One who is truly wise and who lavishly shares that wisdom with us. Because they trust that God is both wise and good.
Why seek wisdom, especially when it sounds so arcane? Because to do so is to seek God. Because the outcome of wisdom is personal and communal flourishing; just and equitable social relations; leaders with integrity; and persons who exude the virtues of faith, hope, and love in their interactions with each other and with the earth itself.
How might you seek wisdom this week? Will you read the kinds of books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris, Marilynne Robinson, or Wendell Berry? Will you attune to your ears to the wisdom of children? Or how about a nature walk or walking meditation? Perhaps you will read more poems and prayers of the Bible. Whatever it may be, we hope you experience the many gifts of wisdom in your life.
This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on June 13. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).