In recent posts, I have tried to reflect what J.I. Packer* has written about wisdom. I [and Packer] have looked at wisdom from several different perspectives. Now we have reached the point where we need to “nail down” what wisdom means. Packer does this with a simple question: “What does it mean for God to give us wisdom?”
First of all, I need to apologize for the metaphor of “nailing down” anything. That very idea is laughable but it fits well with the problem that man has with gaining great knowledge. We think we are capable of understanding the wisdom of God but we can’t.
Packer uses transportation illustrations to make the point that we are wrong-headed about what God would give us even if He chose to give us wisdom. Packer takes the reader to a train station, a rather busy hub. The trains come and go in an orderly manner, avoiding collision and maintaining a very effective timetable. People are getting where they need to go if they catch the correct train. They literally can set their watches by the movement of the trains.
This is all fascinating but not surprising to railway enthusiasts. They know about what Packer calls the “electrical signal box” that controls train movements.** He writes of the box as the control panel for all the many trains in the hub. Glowing lights show trains moving or stationary on various tracks and as one watches the control panel, the “bigger picture” of the train stations begins to make sense.
I refer to this illustration to point out that this type of wisdom is not what God give us if He chooses to bestow some inkling of Divine Knowledge on us. It is merely what we think we will get: “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 every moment how God was making things work together for good” [Packer, 102-03].
Well, Packer is very clear about what he thinks about our quest for this kind of wisdom. Expecting that we will ever have this level of discernment is “futile.” “God has given us guidance by application of principles [which] He will on occasion confirm…by unusual providences, which we will recognize at once as corroborative signs.” This type of momentary ability to see through a glass darkly [1 Corinthians 13:12] is all we can ever expect. “This is quite a different thing from trying to read a message about God’s secret purposes out of every unusual thing that happens to us” [Packer, 103].
Ok, it is so disappointing that we can’t have what we want, so how do we handle it?
A person who has a tremendous need to see the world as black or white [what psychologists call dichotomous thinking] may say “Well if I can’t have this global level of wisdom, what is the use of seeking wisdom at all? Packer goes to Ecclesiastes to explain the response that some may have. Why concern yourself with trying to understand anything; most occurrences “under the sun” bear no outward sign of rational, moral ordering of God. The author of Ecclesiastes has a dim view of what we can know about this world, Divine Wisdom or not. A sampling of some phrases sprinkled throughout the Biblical book testify to this: “life is senseless,” “why toil at anything because it will not amount to anything in the end,” “we have no control,” “the wicked prosper and the good don’t,” and “you see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard, bearing no relation to whether it is deserved.” In short, God’s ordering of events is inscrutable. “The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and depressed you get with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks” [Packer, 106].
What is the effect of all this? Packer says that we might have wounded pride, because God has slighted us. Unless we repent and approach God in a humble manner our spiritual lives may be “blighted.” Expanding beyond individual Christians, the church may have what Packer calls “spiritual inertia” and “critical cynicism” due to the fact that God has chosen to hide His providential purposes from us.
Packer describes what happens as “hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit.”
Do we have to respond with despair, bemoaning the fact that God’s ways are not our ways.*** No; God gives us guidance regarding this problem.
In my next post, we will turn to the very book that bemoans our plight. “The preacher [of Ecclesiastes] has helped us to see what it is not [the wisdom that God will give us]; does he give us any guidance as to what it is?
The answer: yes he does.
*from his book Knowing God
**since this book was published in 1973, today’s trains are computerized of course…
***“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9