You’re just about to save that document on your computer when the everything on the screen freezes in place. Everything but your mouse cursor.
So you move the cursor to the “Save” button and click. No response.
Click. Click. Click. No response.
It doesn’t matter where you click, or how fast, or how many times. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
Train up a child in the way he should go;Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
even when he is old he will not depart from it.
The thing about Proverbs like this is…sometimes they don’t work. Typically, children inherit the looks and values and mannerisms of their parents. It happens often enough that it’s a pattern. But then sometimes, it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen photos of parents who are dark-skinned whose (biological) child is lily white. I know parents who are quiet and introverted, and all of their kids are boisterous and outgoing. I know parents who raised their kids to follow in their footsteps as good churchgoing Christians, and their kids walked away from the faith. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
If wisdom is a formula, the formula is broken.
Wisdom: finding what is good in a confounding world
The wisdom literature of the Bible is not the only wisdom literature we’ve inherited from the Ancient Near East. We have fragments of ancient wisdom writings from Egypt and Babylon. The sages of those days were their version of our scholars, philosophers, researchers, and scientists. They didn’t employ the modern techniques or standards of our post-Enlightenment world. But they knew how to be students of the world around them, observing nature and human behaviour in order “to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things” (Ecclesiastes 7:25).
I searched with my heart…till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.Ecclesiastes 2:3
All of their studies and research and pithy proverbs were intended to find the good life, the satisfying life. They wanted to know what a man was meant to do and how he was meant to do it. They believed that if only one could gain access to and align one’s life with “the scheme of things,” the hidden order that underlies the world, one would then become wise.
Wisdom in Scripture means choosing the best and noblest end at which to aim, along with the most appropriate and effective means to it.J. I. Packer
Wisdom is what we’re all seeking deep down. We want to know “the best and noblest end at which to aim” our lives. We want to know “the most appropriate and effective means” to that end. So we look for the structure, the scheme or pattern, beneath it all.
Proverbs: the full flower of common grace
What we find in the book of Proverbs is a collection of poetry and proverbs designed to make a young man wise. Yet even those of us who are no longer young can benefit from it. The proverbs are not only carefully composed; they are arranged, woven together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s no coincidence that these two proverbs were positioned adjacent to one another:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,Proverbs 26:4–5
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Here we gain not only a few tips on how to answer a fool. We learn that the collectors of these proverbs did not think of them as ironclad rules that held true in all situations. They thought of them as tools in a toolbox. If you want to remove a nail from a wall, you’ll need a hammer. But if it’s a screw, you’ll need a screwdriver. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly; sometimes you don’t. It depends on who the fool is, and who you are. Knowing when to employ which proverb is just as important as knowing the proverbs themselves, as we learn shortly afterward:
Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,Proverbs 26:7
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Collectively, these proverbs reveal to us the individual threads in a larger tapestry, in the orderly work of art made by God the Creator. This tapestry or “scheme of things” is presented to the young man who reads the book as a desirable woman, Lady Wisdom:
Does not wisdom call?
Does not understanding raise her voice?…
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of old.…
then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the children of man.…
“For whoever finds me finds lifeProverbs 8:1–35
and obtains favor from the LORD.”
Because wisdom is personified as a Great Lady, so we are led to view ourselves as living in a deeply personal world, infused with personal agency. It is not the austere, impersonal world of Rationalism, governed by natural laws, absent any agency of a personal God. No, it is a world in which the Lord is personally involved. Wisdom is his hidden divine hand. So the one who finds wisdom “obtains favor from the LORD.”
Another word for “favour” is grace.
Wisdom works not because it allows you to hack into the impersonal law and order of the cosmos. Wisdom works because you gain access to the mind and ways of a personal God. Wisdom works only because God showers the world with his unmerited favour, his common grace.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
A Primer on Common Grace
Maybe you are asking the question, “Why is all this happening?” Alongside that important question is another one you ought to ask: “Why has it not always been happening?”
However, there is a flip side to this truth. God does not send rain evenly on the world; clouds pass over and vanish, seasons come and go, and years of drought fall even on fertile lands. So it is with the rest of the common grace God gives (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). Sometimes, the order and ease of wisdom malfunctions. The formula is broken. The computer screen freezes up. Nothing works like it’s supposed to.
Job: the departure of common grace
Job is introduced to us as “one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He himself repeats what we are told in the Proverbs, that this is the life of wisdom:
God understands the way to it,Job 28:23, 28
and he knows its place.…
And he said to man,
“Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.”
Yet Job finds himself, a wise man, suffering unimaginable pain. He has lost all his possessions, all his children, even his own health. He has seemed to have lost the good life that wisdom promised. Wisdom has broken down, so that Job grieves:
But where shall wisdom be found?Job 28:12
And where is the place of understanding?
Wisdom is hidden because the Lord has withdrawn his common grace from Job. The rainclouds of grace have passed over Job without a drop and left him exposed to scorching heat and drought.
Job grieves not only the loss of all the good in his life. He grieves because the world no longer makes sense. Wisdom has gone silent. Order has given way to chaos. His world has come apart. This honest sage cannot bear the words of his friends, “miserable comforters” (16:2) who falsely accuse him in order to reassure themselves, so they can cling to their delusions of an orderly cosmos.
Ecclesiastes: the disruption of common grace
The book of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the personal story of Job, from one man suffering the deprivation of common grace. The Preacher or Speaker of Ecclesiastes is looking for the broad view of “all that is done under heaven…everything that is done under the sun” (1:13–14). He embraces every experience that he can, listens to stories from faraway lands, and seeks out the writings of wisdom, “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (12:9). As we learned earlier, he is “adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things—which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found” (7:27–28).
There are almost no ironclad rules, or formulas, or perfect equations for life which will guarantee success, which will grant us what we are looking for.
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.Ecclesiastes 11:6
Here where I live, where a mountain valley meets the sea, no one can forecast when and where the rain will fall. This is very inconvenient if I want to go for a trail run in the woods in another part of town. To my exasperation, the weather may be overcast but dry where I live, yet when I arrive where I want to run, I find a downpour there, only a couple kilometres from my home. It’s impossible to predict. There is no pattern to this hyperlocal rainfall, no obvious rhyme or reason. God gives common grace unevenly.
And so, because common grace is disrupted, because it is dispersed in an uneven way across the world God has made, wisdom doesn’t always work the way it ought to. It doesn’t produce the results it should.
I have seen all the activities that have been done under the heavens—and all of it evaporates; it is grasping for the wind!Ecclesiastes 1:14 (my translation)
Job and Ecclesiastes present to us the confounding of wisdom, as common grace is disrupted and even departs. In what John Murray calls “an undeserving and sin-cursed world,” grace cannot be presumed upon, and wisdom cannot produce lasting gain.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.James 4:13–16
To boast, to presume, to take it for granted that wisdom will produce the results we think—this is the height of arrogance.
No wisdom, no understanding, no counselProverbs 21:30
can avail against the LORD.
It only takes a pandemic to prove this point. All the wisdom of the worldwide economy breaks down. The WHO and CDC are confounded and easily corrupted, because even when we sequence the genome of the COVID-19 virus, we are baffled by the course of its disease, SARS-CoV-2.
We are hoping we can develop a vaccine, and produce it soon. The scientific might of mankind is now concentrated on this effort like no other task in history since Babel. But if we can manufacture such a vaccine, and if it is effective for a reasonable length of time, it will be the common grace of God that makes it all possible. And in the meantime, people are dying even in places where governments mandate lockdown measures, and economies are groaning even in places where the government has denied the danger. We do the best we can; we have no assurances. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.
Folly: the stubbornness of the legal spirit
The evangelical church in America has been trained up in the way of America, and it cannot bear to depart from it. We, too, share the can-do optimism in which we seek a “more perfect union,” progressing from one degree of glory to another. This progressive mythos seems to have a basis in reality, of course. We have moved beyond our unenlightened ancestors; the rights of minorities and women are now recognized. “Because it’s 2015,” declared Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to much fanfare—his words now obsolete. Protests over treatment of African Americans reveals a damned spot we just can’t scrub out, which has sometimes been called America’s original sin. Yet we cling to the myth of progress, egged on by the scientific revolution, the sexual revolution, and what Iain Provan calls “the modern economic miracle in the West.”
We understand better than any generation before us, we imagine, how to make the world work for us. We stand on the edge of yet a further revolution in genetics, which will give us substantial control, we believe, of human life itself. All this is the consequence of looking into the nature of things, and it has bred enormous self-confidence, culturally, in our ability to govern ourselves and in due course to usher in utopia.Iain Provan
This is just how the world works, we assure ourselves. And the evangelical church bought it hook, line, and sinker. It perfectly aligns with the effort-reward equation of the legal spirit, the belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We have a stubborn confidence in that equation, just like Job’s friends. We presume upon it.
We need look no further than what is commonly called “the prosperity gospel”—the belief that health, wealth, and prosperity are assured to everyone who believes that God will give it to them, according to a magical-mechanical formula. From the milquetoast Joel Osteen to the wild-eyed Benny Hinn, one of America’s chief exports to the developing world has been this filthy heresy. It is the legal spirit channelled into greedy gain. It is folly run amok.
Then, too, there are other false gospels of the American church. The “social gospel” reassures us that if we just educate enough people and structure our institutions just right, we will finally achieve that “more perfect union” and fulfill the long-deferred promise of “liberty and justice for all.” If we just do the right things, utopia is assured. It is a stubborn folly.
And then, too, the church has fallen for overconfident “wisdom” in the results of obedience to God, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). In the ’90s, “purity culture” was all the rage. The idea was that the key to a successful life was a successful marriage, and the key to a successful marriage was maintaining sexual purity before marriage. So the legal spirit hijacked the Christian sexual ethic to serve its own interests. Young women were promised that if you wore a purity ring and wore modest clothes and went to Bible study and church, Prince Charming would fall head over heels for you and give you the happy family you dreamed of. Young men were promised that if you stayed away from porn and refrained from sex and “courted” a girl rather than “dating” her, you would find a smoking hot wife who would give you a dynamite sex life. There was a give-to-get here, a transaction with God and man, the guaranteed formula that the legal spirit loves. The results have not often lived up to the hype. God did not agree to our bargain.
All of these follies are built on a kernel of wisdom. There is value in gaining wealth, in social action toward a just society, in sexual purity—according to biblical standards, not our own. But the stubborn fool within us, the legal spirit that denies common grace, hijacks these good things. It refuses to admit that common grace is disrupted, and many in our world are deprived of it.
In a fallen world, utterly dependent on the common grace of God, wisdom doesn’t always work. Even when a pandemic strikes, we refuse to admit that we live in such a confounding world.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.Ecclesiastes 9:11
The end of the matter: finding what is good in a confounding world
So where is the good news in all this?
The good news is this: you can find rest in a confounding world.
After reflecting on the changing seasons of life, the lovely moments that are meant to pass away, the Speaker tells us:
…[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.Ecclesiastes 3:11–13
God wants us to be happy. He wants us to find rest and contentment. He wants to free us from our relentless pursuit of wisdom and analysis and figuring out life. He wants to free us to enjoy his common grace.
Eat and drink. Take satisfaction in all your work. Gain wisdom, but recognize its limits. Hold your plans with an open hand. Love and cherish people, and do not cling to them as your security in a confounding world. Grieve and lament and know that in time you must let all these things go. There is only one Refuge, only one Rock that cannot be moved.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.Ecclesiastes 3:14
In the final analysis, it will be God who weaves the threads of the tapestry together, who sets everything right in the end. He is the one who truly knows wisdom and gives wisdom, because he is the Giver of grace.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.Ecclesiastes 12:13–14
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