My wife is the youth minister at the church we attend. As a dutiful “pastor’s wife,” so to speak, I tag along every week and get to hang out with the kids. They’re hilarious, fun, and incredibly sharp. Tonight, during a lesson on Proverbs, the question was asked, “Why is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom?” (Prov. 1:7) Almost immediately, one of the kids answered, “Because we need God to give us wisdom. We can’t attain it on our own.”
His answer hit me like a ton of bricks. I had totally forgotten this. Have you?
Many of us American Christians came to the knowledge a long time ago that there were many spiritual things beyond our grasp. Salvation, we learned in Sunday School, is not ours to earn. We understand that we have no responsibility to determine future events, nor any capability of doing so. We know, in many ways, how helpless we are. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that many of us do not understand how profound our dependence upon God is. We need God for everything—and I really mean that. “In him,” Paul writes, “we live and move and have our being.”
This truth must be applied to the pursuit of wisdom. Often defined as “knowing how to apply godly principles to everyday life” or “Christ-like knowledge and behavior learned through experience,” wisdom seems to be something we can pick up along the way, given enough time. Whether ministers and teachers intentionally present it this way or not, it is often talked about like something we can take care of on our own—something we can earn with or without God’s help. God took care of the big-picture stuff; surely we can handle the day-to-day.
But this assumption is a dangerous one. Attitudes like this have caused and are continuing to cause real damage to people’s spiritual lives. Those who have internalized this abuse of the “Protestant work ethic” have lain awake at night and wondered why they can’t kill those old sinful habits. They have wondered why their most despised and dreaded temptations never lose their alluring power, and why they keep making the same stupid decisions over and over again. They are wondering why they aren’t getting better.
Tonight at youth, our assistant rector reminded us of something the previous youth pastor (a former student at our seminary who moved away to pursue a Ph.D.) used to repeat often: the answer to being better is not to try harder. In fact, the answer to being better is not within us at all. Rather, maturing in the spiritual life is a direct result of spending time in God’s presence, and allowing God to shape us. Only when we understand our rightful place in relation to God—or, as the author of the proverb put it, cultivate the “fear of the Lord”—will the pursuit of wisdom yield any fruit. It is a skill that God himself develops.
Of course, it takes time. Wisdom is not simply dropped in our laps. But the journey begins with the “fear of the Lord,” the moment we behold him and are moved only to silence. It begins when we come into his presence and instinctively untie our shoelaces because we know we are on holy ground. Wisdom is a gift, given to those who immerse themselves in God’s presence and live in intimate relationship with him.
“We need God to give us wisdom. We can’t attain it on our own.” It's amazing, but sometimes you just can't beat the profound insights of a thirteen-year-old kid. Out of the mouths of babes, I guess.