By David Hegg
In our society the words “knowledge” and “wisdom” often are taken as synonyms. But it wasn’t always so. In the ancient world “wisdom” was much more than knowing; it also included doing, and doing right. Wisdom was understood as a skill, an applied action and not merely a set of archived facts and experiences. To the ancients, wisdom was the skill of righteous living.
This righteous living was critiqued according to two questions: Was a particular action in keeping with God’s commands, and was it beneficial for the community? In this way “wisdom” was seen as having both a vertical component (relating to God) and a horizontal component (relating to society.)
An example for today’s world might be something as simple as putting your grocery cart away after you unload your purchases into your car. The wise thing to do is take the time to push the cart into the cart storage space, instead of just leaving it in your parking spot. It may be less convenient, but it is better for the community. Of course, there will always be the pull on our hearts to do the easy thing, to take the “shortcut.” But the study of wisdom is clear: When what we do is driven by our own desires, we take shortcuts, which are often neither righteous before God, nor good for our neighbors.
In ancient wisdom literature, emphasis is placed on three areas of life: wealth, sexuality and power. In each case, these essential life components can be used wisely, or can be pursued via shortcuts that end up bringing ruin to both individual and society.
According to the ancients, wealth was to be pursued and gained through the vehicle of work. Work was seen as a gift of God to humanity for the purpose of imaging Him who was the first workman. You can read all about it in Genesis 1 and 2. The shortcut to wealth was crime. As you can see, when people work it is good for society, while crime is certainly harmful.
So too sexuality was understood as God’s gift but was to be pursued and enjoyed only within the bond of marriage. To do so was to live righteously before God, and to create the stability in marriages and families that was essential to the health of the community. A casual look at our society will show that when this way of wisdom is undermined through the shortcut of extramarital sexuality, individuals, families, children and the neighborhood as a whole suffer dramatically.
The last area — power — was recognized as a necessary component for society even as its abuse was chronicled as one of the more potent vehicles for evil. The key was to see power as always used in a way that was righteous before God, and good for the welfare of others. Bribes, greed, tyranny and a host of other “shortcuts” in the use of power were declared not only to be abuses of God’s gift, but also responsible for the breakdown of most of the natural relational components necessary for a healthy, self-sustaining society. Power used well created equality while abusive power created multiple divisions, usually along economic lines, in the community.
It doesn’t take a trained sociological eye to recognize we are largely reaping the ugly harvest of shortcut seeds sown in our neighborhoods. Millions of children are at risk because the American family is being consistently fractured, even as marriage is being abused and abandoned in the self-centered pursuit of sexual satisfaction. We are passionately pursuing self-gratification even as the pursuit is killing the very happiness and stability we crave, our children need, and our society requires.
If wisdom is judged by its relation to God and to the benefit of society, then what do we call lives lived primarily to satisfy selfish desires? When we learn that living by pulling our own strings, and looking out for No. 1 is toxic to ourselves and those who rely on us, what kind of life is that? We have pushed hard to assign God to the extreme margins of our lives and replaced Him with our own dreams, dreams that all too often are actually death to us, and certainly leave little room for what is best for others.
Maybe it is time we stopped thinking about how smart we are, how knowledgeable we are, how entitled we are, how independent we are, and figured out that the ancients knew much better than we about living well-managed lives. Maybe it’s time to find some ancient wisdom, and I can recommend the Bible if you’re serious about rediscovering the truth that God is good, and whatever He asks of us is always our very best option.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.