I Corinthians 1:18-30
Croesus was the king of ancient Lydia, reigning from 560 to 547 BC. Famous for his immense wealth, he once encountered a man by the name of Solon. Solon had traveled throughout the world and was seen as a person of great wisdom and insight.
Croesus, after showing Solon his vast stores of treasure, asked which man is most happy? Because of his great wealth, Croesus assumed Solon would name him as the happiest man on the earth. Solon, though, shocked Croesus by naming others who were happier. They were happy in spite of having no relation to great wealth, thus teaching Croesus the wisdom that happiness is not found in what we possess. Croesus had so much, but he did not have the gift of wisdom.
The middle school I attended had a quote from the book of Proverbs above the stage in the auditorium – Happy is the man that findeth wisdom (Proverbs 3:13). This is the lesson that Solon sought to teach to Croesus, that wisdom is a great gift that enriches life in ways that go far beyond the riches of wealth or possessions.
As we continue our study of spiritual gifts, this morning we come to the gift of wisdom.
The Scriptures have much to say about wisdom. Wisdom, in the Biblical sense, is not necessarily knowledge. A wise person may have a great deal of knowledge, but it is not knowledge that makes a person wise. To have knowledge is to possess a mental store of facts, figures, and truths that come through education and study. Education is very good at imparting knowledge, but it won’t necessarily impart wisdom, because wisdom is more than a collection of facts, figures, and truths; wisdom is the gift of having insight into the nature of life and truth.
What I have done in most of the messages about spiritual gifts is to define the gifts. What I haven’t done as much is talk about how we develop those gifts in our own lives. I believe that most people have one or two of these spiritual gifts, but that does not mean that we cannot develop some measure of the other gifts. I may not have the gift of wisdom, but I can develop some amount of the gift in my life.
1. Wisdom comes from living a life of the spirit.
Yesterday morning I was in Louisville and stopped at a post office. While waiting in line I was running this message through my mind, trying to get it more organized. I was staring at one of the walls and noticed that on the wall was a collection of specialized stamps, and one of the stamps was labeled wisdom.
How convenient, I thought. I walked over and looked at the display. The picture on the stamp to represent wisdom was very interesting but I had absolutely no idea how it related to wisdom. It was just the word wisdom and a picture. But it had my curiosity, so I had to find out the relation of the picture on the stamp to wisdom. Where do you go when you need to know something? Google, of course. The image on the stamp is a sculpture called Wisdom, and it stands over the entrance to the GE building at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which also happens to be #56 out of the top 150 favorite tourist destinations in the country. The sculpture of wisdom is 37 feet tall, and under the sculpture is this quotation, which is not on the stamp, by the way – Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of Thy times, from Isaiah 33:6.
It took a little bit of work to find out what I wanted to know, but the time invested was worth it.
We are a combination of flesh and spirit, and if we are going to nurture the gift of wisdom in our lives we must work at nurturing the spirit. Flesh is the word the Scriptures use for describing that part of our life where we are concerned with taking care of our physical needs such as food, water, shelter, making a living, and such matters. The spirit is much different. The spirit deals with other concepts, and we aren’t as pressed to work at the spirit. If you don’t work at the spirit you won’t go hungry. If you don’t work at the spirit you won’t lose your job.
This is part of what Paul is talking about in our Scripture passage this morning, that some people invest nothing into the life of the spirit. Their lives are concerned only with the elements of survival each day – making a living, feeding and clothing ourselves and our families, and gaining a few possessions. There is certainly nothing wrong with those things; they are essential to life, but a life of wisdom is one that is concerned about more than just surviving, about more than just feeding ourselves, about more than just clothing ourselves, and about more than just earning a living.
A person who thinks there is nothing more to this life than just existing for the 24 hours of each day will have a hard time understanding matters and principles of the spirit. This is what Paul means when he says the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.
The logic of a life living without the spirit is a life that says every penny I earn I should keep to myself. That money can be invested to ensure that my needs are taken care of and that I have a comfortable retirement, and I can buy some of the things I would like to have. The life of the spirit says, I cannot think just about myself. Yes, I need to take care of my own needs, but I cannot forget that others have needs and some of them are not able to take care of their own needs.
The life of the spirit is the way of wisdom, and it is a way of life that is diminished if it is not exercised. Here is where we find one of the great differences between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge can help a person to gain a great many things in life, but wisdom will guide us in how those things ought to be used.
This is why people gain a great measure of satisfaction from spending hours working at a fund-raising event, and finding a great level of satisfaction in making money to give away rather than in making money to keep. But to someone who cannot see beyond making money for himself, it seems as foolishness to be giving anything away.
2. Wisdom seems counter-intuitive.
I really, really dislike reading instruction manuals. I inherited this unfortunate trait from my dad, who used to open a box and immediately throw away the instruction manual. I can remember him putting together something one day, and it wasn’t going well, and he muttered to himself I’m going to have to dig the instruction manual out of the trash. I especially dislike reading instruction manuals for computer programs. I would find more joy in nailing my feet to the floor than in reading software manuals. So as I was comparing a couple of software programs recently my decision was immediately made when someone said this program is much more intuitive – you don’t really need to read the manual to figure out most of it. That’s the one I want! Which, unfortunately, hasn’t proven to be all that intuitive.
Something that is intuitive is something you can just figure out on your own, because it seems obvious. The problem with faith, the problem with the life of the spirit, the problem with following Jesus, is that those things are often counter-intuitive; they don’t always make a lot of sense.
We can be very influenced by the world in which we live, and not even realize the extent of the influence. When I was young I once asked my mom how people know to do things such as file their taxes. She was busy collecting papers and items to file our family’s tax return, and I wondered how people knew about things such as filing taxes. She told me, it’s just one of those things you learn as you grow up. No one really has to tell you; you just know.
We absorb certain values and beliefs because they are a part of the culture in which we live. We don’t consciously adopt them or take them to heart; they just become a part of who we are.
The values of the spirit can be in conflict with the values of the world in which we live, those values that become a part of who we are. The values of the world are often values of self-survival, self-first, getting a bunch of money and a bunch of stuff, and the values of the spirit are love, and not just love for those who love us, but love even for our enemies. The life of the spirit is a life of compassion, to say we will not forget others while we are looking after ourselves.
A life of the spirit – a life of wisdom – will ask things of us that don’t, at least on the surface, make any sense.
3. A life of wisdom is a life bound to the lives of others.
The Romans could not understand how the cross could be a sign of strength or power. To the Romans the cross was a sign of weakness, because it was used on their enemies. If you were crucified, you were weak. The Romans used the cross unsparingly, because they didn’t value the lives of others. They cared about their lives, but not the lives of others. The Roman Empire was full of people who did not matter to the Romans – those whose own countries had been defeated by the mighty Roman army, the millions and millions of slaves throughout the Empire, the millions of peasants who struggled to scratch out a daily existence.
The Christian faith spread rapidly throughout the Empire, in part I believe, because it preached a message that those people mattered, and every life mattered. Those who had been told they were worthless were now told they were of great value, those who had been told they had no freedom were told they could have freedom, those who felt forgotten found that someone had indeed remembered them, and those who were considered unlovable found they were loved.
A life of wisdom is a life that connects to the lives of others. John Donne wrote the famous lines –
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
(From Meditation XVI).