“Can’t you just tell us what to do next, Bill!” It’s tempting to tell people what to do next. I like the feeling of being an expert. My sinful side likes it because there’s an element of control in telling people what to do. Experience, though, has taught me to reign in my advice-giving.
I’ve learned that a well-timed question is better than a piece of advice. What people discover is what they own. Besides, if people reach their own conclusions about what to do next they can’t blame the consultant (me!). When people are forced to wrestle with the process, they end up seeking God for a creative solution for their context. This is the way of wisdom.
Now, I’m not advocating that we have to invent everything from scratch. For example, it’s not a compromise to choose a Bible study curriculum or ministry program on the Christian market. The issue is not which will guarantee the best results but which one best meets our needs and context. The way of wisdom wisely seeks the best choice through the filter of God’s word and experience. It is the biblical alternative to programmatic thinking.
The dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment” (Compact Oxford English Dictionary). Theologian Dr. Daniel Estes describes the Hebrew meaning of “wisdom” (as used in Proverbs) as being “skilled in living as Yahweh intends, and often it is connected with understanding and knowledge . . . wisdom has been embedded by Yahweh in His world, so it embraces all of life.”
Wisdom is not a collection of laws designed to be neatly applied to every situation. In describing the nature of a proverb, Estes’ observation can be equally applied to most of Scripture: “Proverbs tend to be deliberately enigmatic — a strategy designed to tease the hearer to reflection.” We’re called to reflect, ponder, think, and meditate on the Word (Psalm 1:2-3). While a biblical command or principle may be straight-forward, the Holy Spirit gives direction in its application. For example, we’re commanded to “love one another” (John 13:34) but how this looks in individual situations will vary. There is no uniformity in obedience. In other words, the Lord has allowed us to wisely choose the best course of action in living out his commandments.
What prevents the way of wisdom from slipping into moral relativism? Undergirding the way of wisdom stands the premise that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Reverence for God produces wise behavior and irreverence for Him results in foolish conduct. The way of wisdom fixes our attention on pleasing God in our life choices. The second preventative for moral relativism is saturating our minds in the Word of God. The Lord would never lead us counter to the counsel of His word. Finally, moral relativism is constrained by the abundance of counselors (Proverbs 11:14 NASV). Wise men and women are not infallible but are insightful in their counsel. The very nature of “consulting” is giving advice by someone of experience and wisdom.
The way of wisdom, then, runs counter to programmatic thinking. Wisdom has a different outlook on growth, timing, predictability, and rule-based thinking. As we disciple people and build disciplemaking cultures, the way of wisdom has several applications.
- Wisdom understands that growth is seasonal. Wisdom knows that there are periods of planting, watering, and reaping (John 4:35-37; 1 Corinthians 2:6-8). Too often we assume that our actions or programs caused growth when in reality, the planting ministry of others nourished the soil. We just happened to be present when the spiritual fruit was ready to harvest. Wisdom comes alongside of people to discern a person’s stage of growth to minister appropriately.
- Wisdom uses assessment and context to choose the “means.” Wisdom asks questions and takes time to assess the timing and the context before taking action. The insight gained from assessment and the understanding of context determines the choice of programs or curriculum.
- Wisdom practices flexibility. It would be easy if growth was predictive and followed normative patterns. Unfortunately, our programs do not happen in a vacuum. Life throws us curve balls of illness, job loss, or family crises and our programs become disrupted. However, our greatest spiritual growth is often found in these unpredicted times of trials (1 Peter 1:6-7). If our goal is the development of people, and not running a program, we will choose to take advantage of these life events and flexibly use them as opportunities for growth not obstacles to a program’s successful conclusion.
- Wisdom applies principled thinking. Programmatic thinking relies on the rule book. Life and ministry is full of challenges not found in an instruction manual. In our programs, people become ill, lose their jobs, or drop out. What do we do next? It’s at this point that we apply principled thinking from the Scriptures. Principled thinking looks for the biblical principles, examples, and assumptions that gives guidance to the next steps.
The way of wisdom is a challenge for those of us who like our directions tied up in neat bows and packaged answers. Instead of ministry formulas, the way of wisdom relies on the Holy Spirit, the ultimate “counselor” (John 14:16-17). Instead of a step-by-step approach, the way of wisdom leads us to choose what is best and relevant to my ministry context. Instead of an instruction manual, the way of wisdom directs us to the Scriptures, the source of wisdom available to all through the Holy Spirit. Let’s practice the way of wisdom as an alternative to programmatic thinking.