Wisdom is not the same thing as being smart.
Who’s the smartest person in history? Albert Einstein? Stephen Hawking? Marilyn vos Savant?
We all admire geniuses. In fact, human intelligence is a gift from God. But there’s something even better than intelligence. The Bible places a higher value on wisdom than intelligence. Wisdom has moral benefits.
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding—
indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Note the words knowledge, understanding, and wisdom there. The terms are interrelated but not synonymous. The following chart illustrates the distinction between these words.
Knowledge has to do with facts. Knowledge deals with the question, What does the data declare?
Let’s say you are walking in the countryside and see an unusual stick. It’s about three feet long and an inch in diameter. You pick it up and it feels heavy, which suggests it was recently cut from a tree. This is an exercise in knowledge, the gathering of facts or data.
Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines knowledge as “A clear and certain perception of that which exists.” A person may possess a tremendous amount of data, may be able to astound friends with facts, or have the mental capacity to memorize long passages of literature. Yet all this knowledge alone is of little benefit.
A friend remembers a high-school assembly years ago that illustrates this point. A man had memorized the Sears catalog, well over 1,000 pages. He handed out copies to the students who quizzed him for the duration of the assembly: What’s on the bottom of page x? He answered correctly without fail.
Very impressive … but so what? Knowledge alone is of very limited value.
Today’s technology has given us access to virtually unlimited information. But to what end? What difference does the data make in our daily living?
Knowledge is useful, but it doesn’t address the ethical questions of life. It doesn’t direct us in terms of what we should do; it only tells us what we can do. And just because we can do something based on our knowledge doesn’t mean we should do it.
We can, but should we?
Advances in life sciences in the 21st century are one dimension which screams this question. Some scientists are now experimenting with human-animal hybrids, experiments involving animal embryos and human stem cells.
Our friends at BreakPoint recently reported about a new technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat). CRISPR is giving geneticists the ability to edit lower life forms (read bacteria) with the potential to “edit the genome of other, far more complicated life-forms. As Nobel Laureate Craig Mello told National Public Radio, CRISPR ‘essentially [allows you to] change a genome at will to almost anything you want. The sky’s the limit.’”
Eugenics—think the Nazis and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger—is about improving humanity “through controlled breeding.” And now genetics is getting closer to eugenics. We are approaching the ability to eliminate “negative traits” and replace them with desirable traits. But the ethical track record of technological advances in a society dominated by a naturalistic framework is not encouraging.
Yes, technological development is part of the cultural mandate, but that doesn’t mean every conceivable new technology is wise. Or good.
The next level in the three-word combination of Proverbs is understanding. This word relates to discernment. Understanding builds on knowledge. It deals with the question, What does the knowledge mean?
Understanding has to do with What is the meaning, the significance of these facts? Are they important or unimportant? Is this information worthy of my time or a waste of my time? How can I use this data? Given the dimensions of the stick mentioned above, and how green (versus dry) it is, you can gather how strong and flexible it will be. You can assess how it might be used.
Understanding is an acquired skill. We must learn it. Our five senses collect information which goes into our brain. Understanding that information is not as intuitive. However, understanding is better than knowing. Understanding moves us toward discernment.
For example, when you look at a painting you begin by gathering information. You note the colors, the style (modern, postmodern, the great masters), the artist’s name. You are gathering information. You are building knowledge about the painting. You form judgments about questions like, Is it beautiful? Do I like it?
Understanding takes this to the next level. For example, you could consider, How might virtue or vice arise from this painting? Is the artist calling me to what is good? Or is he contributing to degradation?
Picasso’s paintings are generally regarded as superb in the world of art criticism. Stylistically his work is admirable. But many of his paintings degrade women. Picasso treated women poorly. He demeaned them by his work. To recognize this is to come to an understanding or insight that transcends knowledge.
Applying understanding to one’s knowledge is vital for life. Without understanding, knowledge is of very limited use. Knowledge will enable you to plant a garden or repair a bicycle. These are important. But knowledge without understanding seriously reduces the scope and impact of a human life. Understanding moves a person beyond the visible into the vital, metaphysical dimension of life.
For understanding to do its work we need to distinguish between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and the hideous. Many people fail to recognize the importance of these distinctions.
Not every claim to truth is equally valid. Not every assertion of beauty is to be taken at face value. We are often expected to assume moral equivalence between opposing systems as if there were no real difference between good and evil.
All of this brings us to the matter of wisdom – the moral application of truth. How do we apply truth in our lives?
From there, you can employ wisdom. Wisdom asks, What do I do with this information? If you decide to use the stick as a club for unjust treatment, that indicates folly. On the other hand, suppose you use the stick to make a flute, to create beauty. That would reveal wisdom, since to create beauty is to imitate God, the author of all that is beautiful. Wisdom uses knowledge and understanding to develop beauty, truth, and goodness.
Wisdom is active. It does not merely contemplate. Wisdom built the universe. It is God’s craftsman.
Near the end of his life Moses prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” The heart that longs for active wisdom will find it.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Wisdom begins in the worship of God and moves into action. The queen of Sheba made an epic journey to meet Solomon who was considered the wisest man alive. Through his actions and those of his servants she saw wisdom displayed. The effect of wisdom was her own newly discovered fear of God.
If we live by these precepts the nations will see who God is and honor Him.
What percentage of your time is spent on:
- Using electronics, or processing data?
- Reflecting on the knowledge you have gained to determine what is important and what is not important in your life – gaining understanding?
- Wise reflection and decision making that will move your life to a state of flourishing?
Do you and your friends think about these questions?
- from a forthcoming book by Darrow Miller and Gary Brumbelow