“What is Wisdom?”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Questions We Must Ask”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
August 19, 2018
1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
We are here this morning to dedicate the new school year and pray for a successful, and safe, year for students, teachers and all those engaged in the academic enterprise. We come together at a time when public schools are under attack – unfortunately too often literally as well as functionally. Beyond the kinds of horrific attacks at Stoneman Douglas and too many others, are the attacks not only on public education but on intelligence itself. Too many Christians with loud voices seem to be unable to accept the truth of science, and too many people in general cannot seem to distinguish between real facts and alternative facts or what we ought to call falsehoods. So how do we lift our eyes and our hearts and our minds above these things to find something even greater than facts, information, and knowledge? Let us ask ourselves the question, “What is wisdom?”
I looked up definitions of wisdom – an old, kind of cheesy, homiletical device that pastors use too often, in my humble opinion, because mostly it feels like “filler” rather than helpful information. So I almost never do it– but this time I will. One definition was “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Another said it even better, I thought: “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”
The passage of Scripture we read tells us “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” There’s a definition of sorts, but what is it really saying? Is that at odds with the other definitions? The word fear is problematic. What does it mean to fear the Lord? Should we cower because God intends to harm us? Old school theologians used fear as a tactic to control the faithful. They either implied or outright said, “If you don’t believe what I tell you to believe then God will smite you and you will spend eternity in hell.” The bumpersticker for that was “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The argument that one should read, believe, and obey the Bible literally or that one can read, believe, or obey it literally and without interpretation is not even worth arguing as no one does and no one can, fundamentalist claims to the contrary.
I think fear can take many forms but I believe the fear that the writer speaks of in “fear of the Lord,” is fear out of wisdom not fear out of ignorance or manipulation. The Hebrew meaning of the word can either mean a kind of holy awe, or it can mean to cower in the face of danger. Fear out of ignorance does not lead to wisdom it leads to distrust, anger, hatred, and violence. So if we fear people of another race or religion or sexual orientation we do so most often out of ignorance about who they are as individuals. It is as ignorant to call one race of people “lazy,” or “violent,” or to think that people of one sexual orientation are “pedophiles” or to say that all those whose political views are different from ours – well, choose your insult depending on your political viewpoint. This is called stereotyping and it is an expression of ignorance based either on our assumptions or the limits of our experience.
The other kind of fear is the fear that comes from wisdom. It is wise to fear ignorance just to be plain about it, because anger, hatred, and violence are never the course of wisdom. It is wise to fear lightning. While lightning is electricity and electricity is a blessing when it provides, heat, light, and power to cool or chill, when it provides energy for medical devices and a hundred other things. But electricity in the form of lightning can kill or at least injure severely. It is wise to fear its power. Like all forms of power, misused it can kill. Wisdom teaches us this. It is true, like gravity, it is not an alternative fact, nor is it a liberal fiction, nor is it a theory that the Bible disputes. It is true.
So what we are struggling with is “truth.” What is the definition of “truth?” At one end of the truth is the belief that there is absolute truth. The other end of that spectrum is the claim that the only truth is whatever one believes as true – that there is no objective truth. That becomes problematic when I don’t believe in certain things. Take gravity for example. I can “not believe in it,” and I can walk off a cliff, and I will still be subject to the truth of gravity.
We have devalued truth to the degree that today at the highest levels of public office, one can do and say things that are recorded both on video and audiotape and played back for everyone to see and hear, and then that public official can claim he never said or did it and apparently some believe what that person says rather than their own eyes and ears. Either that or they don’t care about the actions or words of the individual saying them. And then of course if someone uses some objective set of facts and statistics to prove something we disagree with, we overcome all arguments of facts and truth by throwing out that old saying, “well, figures lie and liars figure,” or “statistics can be used to prove anything.” So we dismiss truth because we don’t agree with it.
My point in all this is that if we cannot agree on any truth I don’t know that we can ever gain wisdom. And information, knowledge, and technology do not automatically or individually produce wisdom. Information may be true or false, but even if it is true it does not automatically produce wisdom. Knowledge is only a part of wisdom. Technology is not the proof of wisdom. We may have the technology to do certain things, but we may not have the wisdom to know whether using that technology is a good thing. Our definition called for “experience, knowledge, and good judgment” to produce wisdom. So if we apply that to the statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” it seems to me we must use our experience, our knowledge, and our good judgment or someone’s good judgment to determine what it means to “fear” God.” Without all three elements we risk having opinions that may not be true and we may take positions that are not wise and in the worst case may harm not just ourselves but perhaps many others.
Walter Brueggemann, the theologian that is dear to most UCC folks, reminds us that Scripture teaches us that God considers wisdom to be an awareness that our actions do have consequences and good actions result in good, and evil, bad, or just plain foolish actions have harmful outcomes. While these things may not happen instantaneously there is an inevitability to them. Breuggemann points out [ “On Wisdom,” day1.org, May 16, 2016 ], that choosing to do what is harmful, evil, or foolish is “functional atheism,” it is acting as if there is no God and he reminds us that Psalm 14 warns us “the fool in his heart says there is no God.” So we are here because at least to some degree we want to do what is right, we believe there is or at least may be a God, and we would probably all benefit from greater wisdom.
But I have bad news! I can’t pretend to have any wisdom to share, and if I have any at all I don’t have enough to give away, I need to hang on to all that I might have! But let me share some experience and knowledge that you can use your own good judgment to decide what to do that you might act wisely. This Scripture speaks of the “great works” of God, and that those who study them will “delight” in them. He says God’s works is “full of honor and majesty.” That God’s wonderful deeds are “gracious and merciful.” They are “faithful and just,” and “trustworthy.” I think that these qualities are a pretty good way to measure what we, and those we choose to lead us, do and say. Are their words and actions “full of honor and majesty?” Are they “gracious and merciful?” Are they “faithful just and trustworthy?”
All that said, I am mindful of another voice that I hear speaking in my ear, and it isn’t my wife’s voice, it is in Scripture and it says, “perfect love casts out fear,” [ 1 John 4:18 ]. I believe we can put “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” together with the Bible’s promise that perfect love casts out fear, by looking at the qualities the Psalm writer lists as God’s “works”: grace, mercy, justice and faithfulness, honor and majesty.” These are the works of the Lord God that the Psalm write urges us to live for. I believe that the writer is teaching us that to fear the Lord is to live by these qualities and I think these qualities are signs of the perfect love of God that cast out fear.
As we begin a new school year let us pray for students to learn, for teachers to teach, and for leaders of our nation who will demonstrate this wisdom. The wisdom of grace, mercy, justice, faithfulness, honor and majesty lead to perfect love. That love is what casts out false fears that lead to hatred, anger, and division. I believe that when we understand God’s perfect love we will have true wisdom. We will not be paralyzed by fear. We won’t be misled by untruth. We won’t be victims of injustice but we will still stand for grace and mercy and honor. Teachers teach the truth of science, the facts of mathematics, the lessons of grammar. Students learn your lessons and aim for more than facts or information. Ask why? Ask why not? Seek the wisdom that comes from the perfect love of God so that you don’t fall victim to so-called alternative facts that are simply untruths. Learn the difference between real leaders and those who simply want to enrich themselves at the expense of anyone who gets in their way.
It is foolish to believe there is no God. History demonstrates again and again that foolishness and evil and injustice rise up again and again but ultimately fall to what is good and just and is rooted in grace and mercy and honor and majesty in God’s eyes. But we must be wise enough to act for these things not wait for someone else to stand for them. We must be wise enough to seek to live by the perfect love of God, and to challenge our systems, our corporations, and our national leaders to live by those standards too. To live by the perfect love of God we can cast out fear and ignorance and evil.
I believe we can live by a higher standard that demonstrates a wise fear of the Lord. Those who live by that standard demonstrate grace, mercy, justice, faithfulness, and honor. We must demonstrate a higher standard for our children, for our nation, and for our God. AMEN.