Chapter 7

The Different Kinds of Wisdom

According to Buddhist folklore, two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed. As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!” “Brother,” the second monk replied, “I set her down on the other side. But you are still carrying her.”

A Question of Wisdom. The insight of the monk raises an interesting question. If followers of Christ acknowledge moral and spiritual insight in another religion, do we weaken our case for the distinctiveness of our own faith?

I believe it strengthens our case when we acknowledge that the Bible helps us see wisdom outside its pages. As our inspired standard for wisdom, the Bible shows how to recognize natural, religious, and moral insights from the world around us. Most important, the Bible shows us how these first three kinds of wisdom help us see our need for the redemptive wisdom of the cross.

Let’s take a closer look at how the first three kinds of wisdom can help us build bridges to those outside our faith, without compromising the distinctiveness of Christ in the process.

Natural Wisdom. The book of Proverbs gives us examples of insights that abound in the cultures and religions of the world. Solomon shows us how to learn from animals, agriculture, and from personal reflection.

For example:

• Wise is the one who is not too big to learn from the ant (proverbs 6:6-8).

• The most important battles are fought in the mind (16:32; 25:28).

Natural wisdom can help anyone live a more thoughtful life. But it does not by itself give us hope in a world where all of our accomplishments are subject to change and loss (ecclesiastes 1:1-11).

Religious Wisdom. People of many cultures have found it difficult to think that the wonders of the natural world have no counterpart on the other side of death. As a result, many religions try to give hope beyond the grave. The following statements from the Bible have parallels in other religious systems:

• Those who hope only in this life are destined for despair (2:15-20).

• Nothing is more relevant than the eternal (12:13-14).

By believing in life after death, people of many religions have found the courage to make sacrifices for a better world beyond. But some minimize the importance of this life, and so waste the earth’s resources, wage unnecessary wars, and sacrifice their lives at the expense of others. Religious wisdom does not make people good merely by offering the hope of immortality.

Moral Wisdom. Spirituality without morality can result in everything from false gods to religious exploitation of the poor. According to the Bible, moral wisdom is so important that our Creator wrote His laws not only in stone but also in our hearts (romans 2:14-15). The Bible resonates with a universal human conscience when it says things like, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (matthew 7:12 niv) and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (romans 12:21).

Once again, we have an incomplete insight. When we think about the moral wisdom of love, our problem is not in knowing but in doing. No matter how much we want to love, we easily slide into self-centered thinking. None of us can give or receive as much love as our heart longs for.

Redemptive Wisdom. We are all wounded. We need more than natural, religious, or moral wisdom to do the right thing. We need redemptive insight to help us deal with the wrongs of others and our own wrongs.

Jesus offered redemptive wisdom when He said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (matthew. 11:28) and “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (mark 2:17).

Christ’s invitation to hurting and helpless people was not new. For centuries, Jewish prophets had been declaring that God lives not only in the heavens but also in the dark valleys of crushed and shattered people (psalm 34:18; isaiah 57:15).

What was new with Christ was that at the crossroads of the world, and on the center page of human history, God unveiled the secret of His redemptive wisdom. By an act of immeasurable love, our Creator became our substitute, dying in our place (1 corinthians 1:17-31).

Wisdom doesn’t get more profound than this. The darkest moment of human history was the means by which our Creator offered us His forgiveness and His everlasting life.

By the redemptive wisdom of Christ ruined and hopeless people learn to love as they have been loved, and to forgive as they have been forgiven.

Seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s gift of wisdom to us (1:30), we can read Solomon’s love for wisdom with even more appreciation. Now we can do more than celebrate the value of practical insight—we can see the source of all wisdom. “Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her” (proverbs 3:13-15 nlt).

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