Pastor, Sit Lightly on the Wisdom of the World

Israel departs EgyptThe phrase, “Plunder the Egyptians” is commonly heard amongst church leaders today, especially at conferences on church leadership and growth strategy. Usually the phrase is used to validate secular wisdom. So if I am teaching at a conference about church growth and I make extensive (or exclusive) use of a trending book on corporate leadership, I need only remind my audience that God’s people plundered the Egyptians. Let me offer two important observations about this language with an eye on its original context, before we think about what God does say about worldly wisdom: (a) as Israel leave Egypt in Exodus 12 we read that God gave them favour in the sight of the people resulting in permission to plunder silver, gold jewellery and clothing; and (b) in Exodus 32 it is fairly safe to conclude that the plundered gold was used to form a physical idol. One might make a tenuous link between what was plundered and idolatry, but let us rather note that Israel plundered material things from Egypt and later those same things were worshipped instead of Yahweh. Plundering the Egyptians, at least in the book of Exodus, has nothing to do with secular principles and worldly wisdom.

A simple word search of the New Testament reveals that we should probably be far less enamoured with and influenced by the wisdom of the world, leadership gurus and corporate strategy than many regrettably are. The book of Colossians has a lot to say about wisdom and Christ but due to the limited space I have in this short post I want us to consider just a couple of themes briefly. God is often described as wise in the New Testament (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 3:10), which would explain why prayer regularly takes the shape of asking him for wisdom (James 1:5; Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:9-12). Following on from that observation, wisdom is linked with Christian living (1 Corinthians 6; Ephesians 5). The only time the word comes up in the pastoral epistles is in 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul is urging Timothy to grasp tightly the inspired truth of Scripture which is able to make people wise for salvation and training them in godliness. I realise that that is far too brief a survey but I think that it would be hard to argue against this tentative conclusion: wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service. Most of that conclusion can be read in 2 Peter 3:15, where Paul’s writings (New Testament epistles) are described as wisdom that comes from God.

Moving on from the conclusion above, I would like to highlight how the New Testament often contrasts the wisdom of the world with God’s. The passage most likely to be familiar to most is 1 Corinthians 1-2, most noticeably: “I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1). The most vivid and emphatic language used to make this contrast is undoubtedly in James 3-4, see particularly 3:13-18 for the apostle’s searing distinction between God’s wisdom and earthly acumen. Within James 3-4 these find their respective expressions in prayerful humility and presumptuous arrogance.

Finally, we come to 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, “Our boast is this…we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (1:12). In its historical context, Paul was addressing a church that were entranced by powerful men, “super apostles”. Because of the impressive figures they cut, these church leaders towered above everyone else. We can imagine that they were highly thought of even by non-Christians because of their powerful influence, wide learning and versatility. But that is conjecture. What we do know from 2 Corinthians is that it was necessary for Paul to devote much of his epistle to calling the church back from worldly power, leadership and wisdom. That, I am convinced, is something many of us need to be reminded of today. Though Paul threatens stern discipline upon his arrival he reminds the Christians at Corinth that he was a sincere, vulnerable and weak man fully dependant on God. It does not seem to me – from this quick look at the New Testament – that worldly wisdom, secular strategies, and corporate leadership principles are prized in God’s eyes nor do they result in humility or prayerfulness—in fact, the opposite seems to be true.

A few words from D. A. Carson in The Gagging of God suffice as a near perfect conclusion to this post. I say this because the attitude he cautions against concerning the social sciences (polling and surveys) is the same attitude I see many adopting towards secular wisdom. “More frightening is the impression that the social sciences hold the key for church renewal and growth. The assumption seems to be that we are basically okay theologically, spiritually, morally, in our prayers and passion and understanding, and that if we just add this component we are bound to see fruit. The solid core of this outlook is that we do need to understand the people to whom we minister. The falseness is that such understanding and the adaptive change that springs from it guarantees spiritual growth. It may be something God uses, and in that case God is to be thanked, for he is the Author of all good gifts, not least knowledge, including knowledge of demographic profiles. But he may withhold his blessings: he has certainly done so before. Blessings are not guaranteed by reading Gallup reports.” Likewise, blessings do not flow from the world’s wisdom but God himself, who is our wisdom and the one who generously offers wisdom to those who seek it.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

7 Lessons on Wisdom and Wealth from Proverbs

Motivating a building project at your church? Preaching series in Nehemiah. Financial giving is dropping off? Pulpit thumping sermons from Malachi. And whatever the occasion, in and out of season, have Jeremiah 29:11 handy. Though said tongue-in-cheek, this is tragically how the Old Testament is often treated and taught, as little more than a collection of unrelated stories, poetry and laws to prop up whatever we need it to. This is no different when it comes to the book of Proverbs, which seems to promise wealth to all who are obedient to God and ply his wisdom. But in the seven short points below I hope to persuade you that it is more nuanced than that.

1. God blesses the wise with wealth (3:9-10, 15-16; 10:22)

WisdomThis is an unavoidable conclusion as you read the book of Proverbs. But we must remember that the genre of wisdom employs principles that are generally true rather than unconditional promises and strict formulas. Material gain will result from wisdom, for God rewards those who honour and obey him. Furthermore, wealth can make life’s challenges easier to navigate (10:15-16). Thus wealth is both a blessing of wisdom and one that when wisely put to use greatly assists us in living. Because God orders our universe, our actions have consequences; this is positively seen when wisdom results in material blessing.

2. Foolish behaviour leads to poverty (10:4-5; 6:6-11)

This is vividly portrayed in the contrast between the hard worker and the sluggard (26:13-15). While laziness is the primary reason given for poverty in Proverbs, other follies are given: over-indulgence (21:17); oppression of the poor (22:16); even being frugal or stingy (11:24). This means that though folly or laziness might be the cause of poverty, it is not necessarily the cause (see point four). In Proverbs, God urges us to be productive not lazy. Contrast with the point above, God’s wisely ordered universe means that, generally speaking: if you are foolish and lazy, you will suffer want.

3. The wealth of fools will not last (13:11; 21:6; 22:16; 23:4-5)

Proverbs raises the tension of the wealthy wicked or rich fools and righteous sufferers (also see Psalm 73). This is an uncomfortable and confronting question that arises from a mere glance at our world. But 11:18 reads, “Evil people get rich for the moment, but the reward of the godly will last.” Money is not as precious as right living for it cannot avert judgment (11:4). Despite God blessing the wise with wealth, it cannot be your security, nor should you conclude from your wealth that you are righteous. Sinners can be wealthy while the wise suffer. The ultimate difference between those two groups of people in Proverbs is not how much they have but who they serve, which God they worship.

4. Poverty is often the result of injustice and oppression

Wisdom involves knowing when laziness is the cause of poverty as opposed to circumstances or injustice (13:23). Since God’s world isn’t mechanical and the human condition is complex, the poor person might be wiser than the wealthy (16:8). “The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD made them both (22:2). Therefore, poverty is not necessarily the fruit of laziness or folly. The Bible knows many righteous and godly people who suffered greatly with persevering faith and integrity. Jesus comes to mind first. It is therefore a terribly reductionistic, not to mention far from biblical, assumption that poverty and suffering are the results of a lack of wisdom, or faith.

5. Those with money must be generous (29:7; 3:27-28)

This principle is surely not one many would need to be convinced of; while neither Old or New Testament people of God practised communism they were expected to share the wealth God had entrusted to them. There are rewards and blessings for being generous (29:14; 28:27; 11:24). This idea is picked up by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9. In both Old and New Testaments we must recognise that being generous in order to get something in return is not actually generosity; it is selfishness. Again, because Proverbs presents us with generally true cases: generosity is not a formula for gaining wealth. We do not seek blessings from God through generosity, rather we should seek to bless others generously, doing so wisely (6:1-5).

6. Wisdom is better than wealth (3:14-16)

Proverbs makes things relative using better-than forms (15:16, 17; 16:8, 16; 17:1; 22:1; 28:6). Repeatedly the book insists that wealth ranks far beneath godly fear of the LORD. Furthermore, Proverbs provides numerous characteristics that are more important than having wealth: peace (15:16; 17:1), loving relationships (15:17); honesty (16:8; 28:6); and a good reputation (22:1). These flow from wisdom (16:16), which is almost synonymous with reverent fear of the LORD (15:16) and godliness (16:8). So while wisdom may not necessarily bear the fruit of wealth it should shape how we live, to love others and trust God.

7. Wealth has limited value (11:4)

Tremper Longman IIIWisdom enacted in right living keeps us from dangerous situations (6:34; 2:11). But wealth can be troublesome (13:8), exposing the rich to scorn (19:10) and bringing false friends (14:20). All of our points above, taken together with this final one, should warn us that it is foolish to: measure faith by wealth; to think that wisdom (and our relationship with God) is a means to wealth; and that we should pursue wealth above godliness, virtue and generosity. God has much greater things in store for us than those that can be stolen, rust and cannot last into eternity.

This post originally appeared at Christ Church Umhlanga. I have reposted it here with a few alterations because the original was lost when major structural changes were made to that website. Most of the material is gleaned from How to Read Proverbs by Tremper Longman III.

For the Illumined Mind

augustineThere is a special breed of Christian, well at least in my opinion, who were brought to life from a state that appeared quite alive to begin with; those people who were actively searching for truth but were unable to grasp it by their own pursuit.

Of course we understand that they were not truly living since all things apart from Christ are spiritually dead, but a special type of person I still feel. The kind of person Paul preached to in Athens, who groped around in the darkness for the Truth who was not far off (Acts 17:27). People like Augustine who reflect: “I enjoyed the books, while not knowing Him from whom came whatever was true or certain in them. For I had my back to the light and my face to the things upon which the light falls: so that my eyes, by which I looked upon the things in the light, were not themselves illumined.”

There is a world of information and knowledge, where truth can be discovered, with many thinkers, readers and writers operating in it; intelligent people who have studied broader and deeper than I ever think I will. But there is one supreme truth that many of these intellectuals will continue to fumble in the darkness for, one that many simple minded men have taken hold of: Christ Jesus! “For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18).

But by the mercies of God, “he saves us, not because of the works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour” (Titus 3:5-6).

This special Christian, who once pursued knowledge by the pattern of the world, is now set free by the mercy of God to think and reason and calculate in truth. I love to watch this person, who so loves to think, suddenly understand the information he has curiously stored up all his life. Their minds reboot and now direct them on a path of living out the will of God. David Peterson in Possessed by God writes,

“It is a fundamental principle of Christian spirituality that God does his sanctifying work through our minds. In so doing he works with our conscious cooperation and permission.”

A great reversal has taken place, the Romans 1:21 man now becomes a Romans 12:2 man and the instruction is to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is.”

But caution, there is still the warning to not be conformed to the world, because the wisdom and influence of the world is very appealing. It draws out our old compulsive nature and deceives us once again into thinking that it is true wisdom. But it is folly because worldly thinking has not been thought through to completion. The godless man looks at life as it is now, as if this is all there is and ever will be. There is no vision of a perfected world; no decision made in light of the eternal. Whether consideration has been given for an entire lifetime or for one-hundred lifetimes, it is still too short-sighted to be fully good, perfect or true. How difficult it is to keep our minds set on things above, allowing the prospect of eternity to shape our perspective. This short life is so distracting and enticing; to pursue comfort, worldly knowledge and acclaim. As explained so well from the pulpit recently, the only gain in death is if to live is Christ (Philippians 1:21). Any other life pursuit will end in loss and prove you to be the greatest fool.

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!” To paraphrase Ephesians 4:18-23: Your mind is no longer futile, ignorant of the eternal or darkened in its understanding. You have heard about Jesus, you were taught in Jesus, as the truth is in Jesus. Therefore, put off your old self, be renewed in your mind and put on the new self.

foreverIt is no wonder that it is the Spirit who works this out in us. He is from the eternal, sets our minds on the eternal and makes us into a new self, preparing us for the eternal. We are being made into forever beings, in the image of our creator, and the preparation begins in our minds (Colossians 3:10). It is amazing that God would go through so much effort to acquire for himself someone like you for forever!

Reader, fabulous and most brilliant mind, be renewed so that your discernment will be clear to see that the most reasonable offering to God is yourself.