I was 28 years old in this portrait. Scott and I were just beginning to heal from the near-death of our marriage and he surprised me with a trip to New Orleans to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. He forced me to sit for a sidewalk artist, and I was so embarrassed.
But I’m thankful to have this memory now. It marks the beginning of our truly falling in love the right way after years of trying to figure it out, and the season in which we each really began actively seeking a genuine relationship with God.
Not long after this, I started praying a very specific prayer that God would someday make me wise. I don’t know exactly what I was picturing as a “wise, old me,” but I knew that wisdom was what I wanted. I just didn’t know how hard it would be when God started answering this prayer.
So many times through the years, I’ve looked at this portrait that Scott wanted hung over my “prayer chair” in our bedroom and wondered why I continue to feel less wise with each passing year. Things that at least sometimes felt so clear to me years ago, seemed to be more confusing than ever. I’ve wondered if becoming wise is simply a process of recognizing that you don’t know anything about anything.
Then I started on this search for God mentioned in my last blog post, Dark Night of the Soul. During my third read-through of this book, Knowing God, I came across this very long excerpt that struck me in a powerful way this time. I’ve reread this excerpt a number of times over the past few days, and it makes so much sense to me. More than thirty years after I began asking God for wisdom, I think I’m starting to get a glimpse of what this means.
Maybe someone else will be touched by this, as well, so I’m sharing the full excerpt here:
“‘Ecclesiastes’ means simply ’the preacher’; and the book is a sermon. The author speaks as a mature teacher giving a young disciple the fruits of his own long experience and reflection. He wants to lead this young believer into true wisdom. Apparently the young man (like many since) was inclined to equate wisdom with wide knowledge and to suppose that one gains wisdom simply by assiduous book work. Clearly, he took it for granted that wisdom, when he gained it, would tell him the reasons for God’s various doings in the ordinary course of providence. What the preacher wants to show him is that the real basis of wisdom is a frank acknowledgement that this world’s course is enigmatic, that much of what happens is quite inexplicable to us, and that most occurrences ‘under the sun’ bear no outward sign of a rational, moral God ordering them all.
“The text is intended as a warning against the misconceived quest for understanding, for it states the despairing conclusion to which this quest, if honestly and realistically pursued, must at length lead. Look, says the preacher, at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-colored glasses, rub your eyes and look at it long and hard. What do you see? You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools. You see evil running rampant; the wicked prosper, the good don’t. Seeing all this, you realize that God’s ordering of events is inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so. The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.
“It is to this pessimistic conclusion, says the preacher, that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you. And of course he is right. For the world we live in is in fact the sort of place that he has described. The God who rules it hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it at all. Be realistic, says the preacher; face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.
“Many of us feel that, for the honor of God (and also, though we do not say this, for the sake or our own reputation as spiritual Christians), it is necessary for us to claim that we are here and now enjoying inside information as to the why and wherefore of God’s doings. This comforting pretense becomes part of us; we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. And then something very painful and quite inexplicable comes along and our cheerful illusion of being in God’s secret councils is shattered. Our pride is wounded; we feel that God has slighted us; and unless at this point we repent and humble ourselves very thoroughly for our former presumption, our whole subsequent spiritual life may be blighted.
“Among the seven deadly sins of medieval lore was sloth (acedia) — a state of hard-bitten, joyless apathy of spirit. The symptoms are personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians. Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of God in providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experience that he didn’t. For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives.
“But what is wisdom? Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly; present pleasures are God’s good gifts. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do, and enjoy your work as you do it. Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you. This is the way of wisdom. Clearly it is just one facet of the life of faith. For what underlies and sustains it? Why, the conviction that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing, and ‘doeth all things well,’ even if for the moment he hides his hand. We can trust him and rejoice in him, even when we cannot discern his path.
“Such then is the wisdom with which God makes us wise. God’s work of giving wisdom is a means to his chosen end of restoring and perfecting the relationship between himself and human beings — the relationship for which he made them. It is not a sharing in all his knowledge, but a disposition to confess that he is wise, and to cleave to him and live for him in the light of his Word, through thick and thin. Thus the effect of his gift of wisdom to make us more humble, more joyful, more godly, more quick-sighted as to his will, more resolute in the doing of it and less troubled (not less sensitive, but less bewildered) than we were at the dark and painful things of which our life in this fallen world is full. The kind of wisdom God waits to give to those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.” ~ “Knowing God,” Chapter 10 “God’s Wisdom and Ours” by J. I. Packer
So, do I still want wisdom? Some days, yes. Some days, no. I just pray that God will keep picking me up when I fall down and breathing this desire into me when my heart would really rather seek comfort and an easy path. That he would lift my chin so that I can look into his face and know that only there will I find any of the true desires of my heart.