Knowledge and wisdom are related, but they are more like cousins than like identical twins. Knowledge has to do with facts, data, and skill; wisdom has to do with significance, purpose, and intention. Knowledge is concerned with “what” and “how”; wisdom is concerned with “why” and “who.” Knowledge is important, but not nearly as important as wisdom.
Knowledge makes it possible for us to drill for oil miles beneath the surface of the ocean; wisdom tells us whether or not it’s a good thing to do. Knowledge makes it possible for us to manufacture nuclear weapons; wisdom tells us whether or not they make us feel any safer and more secure. Knowledge can put the technology for mass communication in our hands; wisdom can give you something worth saying. Knowledge can make you smarter than the people around you; wisdom can make you kind. Knowledge can get you a job; wisdom can help you discover your life’s purpose, your calling. Knowledge can help you make a living; wisdom helps you make a life.
Wisdom most often grows in us as we pay close attention to what happens to us, with us, and within us. Clues to wisdom emerge like wheat from chaff, as we sift through our successes and failures. Wisdom deepens as we ask ourselves searching questions about what we have done, why we have done it, and what consequences have resulted. It is possible for wisdom to come from our experience, because God will not waste it. Because God suffuses creation and history, there are no experiences which cannot be our teachers.
Since wisdom emerges from experience, wisdom has often been thought to be the special gift of those who have lived long and well. I have gathered a good deal of whatever wisdom I might have from listening carefully to those who are older than I. My grandfathers had a profound influence on my life. With one, I took long walks along the flood wall that protected the city of Huntington from the Ohio River, He talked with me about his life and mine and about God. With the other grandfather, I tool long rides into coal country in his C&O Railroad-owned pick-up truck. He taught me to notice things—things along the road but also things in my heart and things in other people’s hearts. My friend from St. Louis, LaVerne Buckner, was a retired English teacher and middle school principal. She had miraculously recovered from a massive brain injury, and she was a faithful guide to what truly matters in life. She lived for love and for joy, read voraciously, wrote incredibly encouraging notes which seemed to arrive at just the right time, and was astonishingly generous with her church, family, and friends. Her well-lived life teaches me still, years after her death.
Of course, not all of the wise are chronologically old. Wisdom does not automatically come with age, and it is not kept from the young. There are people who have not yet lived long, but they have lived deeply or suffered greatly or been blessed unexpectedly. They have, therefore, what we sometimes call, “wisdom beyond their years.” One of the great gifts of living in Christian community is the collected wisdom that we find in it. You and I have the opportunity to learn from people who are ahead of us—either in years or in insight—on the journey.
Jesus embodied wisdom. In 1 Corinthians, Paul called Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” (1:24), and Paul candidly acknowledged that, to the world, Christ’s kind of power looks like weakness, and his kind of wisdom sounds like foolishness. The wisdom of Jesus Christ is not simply sanctified common sense; it is not Poor Richard’s Almanac bound in leather to look like a Bible.
With Jesus, humility is strength; loss is gain; and the way up is down. Wealth is dangerous; neediness is blessed; and grief is joy’s opening. Wounds are power; emptiness is the way to fulfillment, and death is life. Jesus will cause us to invest time we do not have in helping people who will never repay us, to love the people who are hardest to love, to forgive those who wrong us, and to pray for our enemies. His way often contradicts our expectations and our common sense.
Jesus’ way seems paradoxical, but it proves to be the way of genuine wisdom, because it enables us to have a stable shelter of meaning in which to weather life’s storms: “Everyone who hears these words of min and acts on them will like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).