April 30, 2021

Discerning God’s Wisdom from the ‘Wisdom’ of the World

I remember thinking as a kid that the Israelites in the Old Testament were so stupid in the ways they disobeyed God. My limited experience as a kid, and particularly as a rule follower, thought it was ridiculous. They couldn’t just follow simple instructions? God said don’t do it, so don’t do it.

Now that I’ve grown in understanding my own heart, I cringe reading about the Israelites grumbling and forgetting God, because I know that I’m prone to do the same. I’ve come to understand that folly can take on a seductive shade. After all, “Don’t eat from that tree” was an extremely simple and obvious command. Yet here we are post-Eden, our world broken and shaped by the seductive folly of the snake’s question; “Did God really say?”

When We Were Dead

In my childhood ignorance, I thought I could chose wisdom and follow God in my own strength. That I could outrun folly. I didn’t understand what Paul says about who we are before Christ in Ephesians 2:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience-among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

My very nature outside of Christ couldn’t choose wisdom, however obvious it was, because my nature outside of Christ was dead in sin. I thought sin was something I could out-perform and avoid. Steer clear, follow the rules, don’t be a fool, and you’ll be good and go to heaven. Choose wisdom.

But I was afraid. I was afraid of that realm of the dead, of hell. What if I didn’t do it right enough? What if I didn’t pray that prayer the right way? What about when I did inevitably screw up? However obvious wisdom and goodness may have been, I lived in fear and uncertainty, with the unsettling suspicion that attaining them was out of my grasp.

What Dead People Can’t Do

Ephesians says without Christ, we are dead in sin. Dead people can’t do good for themselves or others, they can’t follow rules, they can’t follow God, they can’t choose wisdom. They have nothing to get puffed up about. They are dead. Which is the exact position of folly’s guests. Paul says this who we were before Christ. Our first and foremost struggle with wisdom is that without Christ, our position is spiritually dead, putting true wisdom beyond our grasp.

Now let me be clear, there is a beautiful thing called ‘common grace’ that means this doesn’t play out in its fullest sense. People who don’t know Jesus can make wise choices. (And people who do know Jesus can make some really stupid ones.) Society isn’t thrown into utter chaos because God hasn’t given us completely over to the damaging effects of our sin. In His common grace, He gifts humans with the gift of wisdom.

However, this wisdom will always be limited without Christ. Psalm 14:1 tells us “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” However wise a person’s decisions may be, without Christ, that person remains spiritually dead. Rejecting God is rejecting wisdom.

Worldly Wisdom and An Upside-Down Kingdom

Where being dead in our sin before Christ is our first barrier to wisdom, when we belong to Him, we will wrestle between two kingdoms and their opposing values. Worldly wisdom is our second barrier to godly wisdom. Paul goes on in Ephesians and other New Testament letters to remind Christians to put off their old lives marked by the characteristics of folly and death—selfish motives, sexual immorality, instant gratification, corrupt speech, and so on. But he also holds out the traits of new life in Christ: service to others, life giving speech, good deeds.

The traits of the new life are obviously good, and the traits of the old life are obviously destructive, but Paul repeats it because we’re forgetful. This is also why Solomon uses repetition in the book of Proverbs. Fallen humanity is forgetful and prone to sin. The day-to-day realities of choosing wisdom can prove challenging.

That juicy piece of gossip at your Mom’s house doesn’t seem all that sinister. Serving your family doesn’t feel very life giving. That movie or novel that you know isn’t edifying looks so appealing and surely can’t be that dangerous. Including someone from your church that you don’t feel naturally drawn to, that can’t really be how I build the Kingdom, can it? Surely that can’t be wisdom. 

But the Kingdom of God is upside down compared to the wisdom of this world. Our sin nature and the world’s wisdom bristle at it. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 1:18 that to the world, the gospel is foolishness. Take a look at any popular show or film and you will see some form of ‘wisdom’ held out that is opposed to the godly wisdom of the Bible.

In worldly wisdom, personal happiness and fulfilment is often the highest good. Here ‘freedom’ means having whatever you want, whether in sex, material goods, or choosing your own truth. The world says sleep with who you want, live how you want, be who you want to be. But Proverbs tells us that this thinking leads to death. The Kingdom of God looks upside down to the world, and the wisdom of God is not the wisdom of man.

James calls this ‘wisdom’ the world would offer, “earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 3:15) No mincing of words here. A YOLO, You do You, This is My Truth culture offers up pretty little lies that are so deeply familiar and tempting, they can seem harmless, tantalizing, wise. But James calls them earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. Paul tells us that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God, and claiming to be wise, the worldly have made themselves fools.

We must grasp the values of God’s Kingdom that are upside down to the world’s. So how can we choose true wisdom in a world that opposes it? We’ll look at this in more detail next week.

This is part two in a series on Wisdom and Folly, based on the book of Proverbs. You can read part one here.

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