Watching Wisdom

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
—James 3:13

I have studied or worked in educational institutions for nearly all of my life. If you count daycare and take away the stint I did assisting a jewelry designer, I think it adds up to 91% of my years on this earth. I consider it a privilege to run in academic circles because it has often offered exposure to some of the latest and greatest in terms of research and practice in a given field. Academics themselves are also rather intriguing to me. They tend to be the folks who are both hungry to know and eager to share. I have benefited greatly from the intellect of so many of them.

And yet, while much knowledge can be found in the Ivory Towers of this world, seeking out wisdom is a little more elusive. We know that there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom—many of us could probably even articulate that difference fairly clearly—but pinpointing the difference in action between a knowledgeable person and a wise one requires more nuance.

James gives us a helpful starting point: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (3:17). This list can be a useful touchstone, but implementing wisdom must involve more than assessing what you can check off the list and working harder tomorrow to hit the rest of them. The Bible gives us a lot of information about wisdom, but our goal is to transfer that knowledge into practice. To do this well, wisdom should be watched.

When I married my husband, I inherited a much guarded cookbook of family recipes that I was eager to make—a cheesecake, a potato salad, a strawberry pie. These recipes promised opportunity to show my affection for my husband in an avenue where I felt quite confident: food. I had always considered myself a good cook, so you can imagine my frustration when the first try on nearly every family recipe was some level of disaster. The cheesecake overflowed. The potato salad was more of a soup. And the strawberry pie just looked strange.

Eventually I realized that when the recipe said to pour the first cheesecake layer into a pie pan, it anticipated a certain shape and size of pan. The order of the recipe steps for the potatoes was crucial to liquid absorption. “Stack the strawberries” implied a particular way of stacking. And it wasn’t until I watched my mother-in-law make these recipes that I figured out what I had been doing wrong. Adjusting my mistakes wasn’t as difficult once I had seen how it should be done. In fact, I realized that part of what made me so good at my own family recipes was that I had made every one of them side-by-side with my mother, taking in all the unwritten details without realizing what I was doing. I needed someone to show me the recipe steps so that I could have a full picture of how to follow them properly.

In a similar way, wisdom is better learned when we combine what we read in the Bible with watching wisdom in action. When another sister is open to reason or shows mercy, it teaches us how to layer those in. When a brother is impartial or sincere, we see how the fruit is stacked in his heart and are inspired to follow. Through our experiences with wise Christians, wisdom is transferred, imbibed, and embodied.

But even for those with a dearth of wise mentors, the Bible doesn’t leave us hanging. The book of Proverbs offers a poetic depiction of Wisdom, personified as a woman. In Woman Wisdom, we see a glimpse of how we might pursue and practice wisdom in our own lives. I encourage you to read the first nine chapters of Proverbs and consider how God defines wisdom.

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