April 28, 2007

Wisdom Isn’t Technique

Category: Bible - OT - Ecclesiastes,Feasting :: Permalink

I’ve recently been reading Jeff MeyersA Table in the Mist: Meditations on Ecclesiastes with my wife.

Unlike many commentators, who see Ecclesiastes as a sort of negative apologetic (“Everything is vanity … apart from Jesus“), Meyers presents Ecclesiastes as biblical wisdom throughout.  The author isn’t a lapsed Solomon or a cyncial Solomon or a Solomon on a bad day or a Solomon trying to convince us that without God everything is useless.  Rather, the author is a wise Solomon, trying to teach us to view life from the right perspective.

I’ve often heard that wisdom is “applied knowledge.”  It’s “know-how.”  As Meyers says,

American Christians often read wisdom literature anticipating concrete, functional advice.  Ask an American what wisdom is and you are likely to get an answer that has to do with practical know-how.  You will be told that a wise man knows more than theory; he knows how to do things.  A wise man, therefore, will be able to figure things out.  More than that, he’ll be able to fix things.  So wisdom is the ability to figure things out and the practical skill to get things done — to control one’s life and circumstances (p. 27).

Not so, says Meyers.  In fact, when we start reading the wisdom literature in the Bible, we find remarkably little “how-to” information and nothing about how we can control our lives.  In fact, it’s just the opposite:

The other mistake we make about wisdom is to think that godly wisdom gives us leverage such that we can learn to control our lives through the acquisition of biblical knowledge and skill. The idea here is that biblical wisdom is “how-to” wisdom: how to have a successful marriage, how to raise children, how to do business.  The outcome can almost be guaranteed if the proper techniques are used.  The mistake is to think that biblical wisdom gives one control.  As Packer writes, “So far from the gift of wisdom consisting in the power to do this, the gift actually presupposes our conscious inability to do it!”

That is the message of Ecclesiastes.  What the author intends to teach us is that real biblical wisdom is founded on the honest acknowledgement that this world’s course is enigmatic, that most, if not all, of what happens is quite inexplicable,  incomprehensible to us, and quite out of our control. We cannot leverage the course of the world this way and that to suit our petty purposes.  The godly wise man and woman will humble concede that God has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about his providential purposes.  Therefore, all of our attempts to influence or comprehend the world and the course of our lives are futile, useless, vain, and empty.  Vanity of vanities.  The wise man learns to walk by faith and not by sight.

Ecclesiastes is the book about faith in the Old Testament.  It tells how the man of faith looks at the world.  We are told that a wise and faithful person will come to embrace the perspective of Solomon that all of life is “vapor”!  The life of faith is not grounded in our ability to discern the meaning of everything in the world.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction concerning things not yet seen (Heb. 11).

Life in itself is unable to supply the key to the questions of identity, meaning, purpose, value, and destiny.  Only God holds the key, and he must be trusted with it.  He does not make copies of the key for us to use.  You do not get to keep God’s key in your back pocket.  Sooner or later, if you are a believer, you are going to have to actually trust God to keep the key to life.

To the extent that we have learned true wisdom, our part as Christians is to fear God and keep his commandments, to receive and use the gifts of God with joy and gratitude, that is, to eat, drink, work, love our husbands and wives, rejoicing in all of these things, all the while knowing that we cannot understand his ways and must not attempt to play god in his world.  We must not try to gain leverage to manipulate the world to our petty purposes.  That is the wisdom of Solomon (pp. 16-17).

Encouraging words for me as a man and as a church planter.  So much of my work doesn’t bear immediate fruit and I may never see the fruit from a lot of what I do.  It’s entirely possible that after all my work to plant the church here, this congregation may eventually have to fold.

I read a lot of books about church planting and evangelism, but as I do I’m also aware, at least in part because of what Meyers is saying here, that there’s a temptation.  The temptation is to seek the right techniques.  If only I could master the right techniques, the church would grow.  People would come.  We’d have the vibrant, culture-enriching, culture-transforming community that this city needs. If only I could do the right things, learn the tricks, gain control.

But with church planting as with all of the rest of life, seeking that kind of control over your life is like trying to shepherd the wind, as Ecclesiastes says.  God works out His plans, and my calling as a man and my calling as a church planter is to obey God, to do what He’s called me to do, to labor faithfully, to put up with the frustrations, to love my wife and family, to love the people of God, to love people in the world around me, to eat and enjoy my food (especially my wife’s cooking!), to drink the good stuff (especially red wine and dark beer and the occasional Scotch), to feast with family and friends, and to be merry, trusting in God because He holds the key to life.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:56 pm | Discuss (8)

8 Responses to “Wisdom Isn’t Technique”

  1. Angie Says:

    I’d like to link to this post on my blog, but looks like you aren’t quite finished with it. What happens after “And”?

  2. Sean Brandt Says:

    Excellent post, and I needed to hear it. Thanks.

  3. John Barach Says:

    Um … thanks for pointing that out, Angie. That paragraph was from my rough draft and I’d meant to delete it.

    I guess I was going to say that I could do all of that and still end up not seeing the fruit of my labors because my labors don’t put life or “results” in my control. But at the end of it all, I can still come home each day and rejoice with my family and celebrate with the church and even if the church plant folds or all my plans are frustrated, I can still trust that God’s plans are frustrated and therefore it’s possible to eat and drink and be merry, because God has accepted my labors and there’s nothing better for me to do.

    Something like that. But instead I deleted it.

  4. duane vandenberg Says:

    I needed to read this, much like I needed to hear our sermon in church this morning-“but seek first the kingdom of God”. If we focus on having the kingdom of God dominate our lives and thoughts, God will take care of the rest.
    There were some really good links on your site recently about church, community and evangalism, but like you wrote in this blog, all the right techniques aren’t going to do anything without God working out His plans


  5. Michael Shipma Says:

    Church planting and technique temptation is something I am, regrettably, all too familiar with. Church planting is seldom about church planting anymore.

  6. Claire Martens Says:

    Could what you’re saying be phrased “Wisdom is knowing principles, not procedures”?

  7. John Barach Says:

    I think that’s often true, Claire.

    But I suspect that Meyers is saying a bit more than that, namely, that no amount of knowing principles or anything else is going to make life make sense to you. At least, that’s the wisdom Ecclesiastes teaches.

    On the other hand, that’s certainly not all there is to wisdom. Solomon’s wisdom is exemplified in his treatment of the two harlots and the one baby. It’s not “know-how,” as if we could say, “Aha! Now we know the technique to use in similar situations.” But it’s a deep Spirit-produced sense of the situation, I guess, a sense of what needs to be done and an ability to evaluate responses and so forth.

    (And why is that particular case, out of all the cases Solomon judged, THE great example of his wisdom in Scripture? If you can figure that out, it’ll teach you great wisdom, too, I imagine, ’cause that’s what puzzles in the Bible are for: to make your brain sweat and to make you grow as you wrestle with them.)

    So yes, you’re right: Wisdom isn’t mastering techniguqes and procedures (“Do this and then this and then that”) but has more to do with understanding the principles of life in the world.

    But even so there’s a lot of stuff that will just baffle you, and a considerable part of wisdom is saying, “Well, God knows. He’s working out His plans. Let’s have a glass of wine tonight!”

    And I think when you do that — when you wrestle, confront frustrations, and learn to trust God in them — you do learn the kind of wisdom that helps you make proper judgments, too. But don’t ask me how it works. =)

  8. Charles Says:

    Yes John, I think God is saying in Ecclesiastes (Meyers’ book), ‘chill out children, don’t have a cow (make an idol) over what (many issues in life) only I am in control of anyway.’

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