What makes a person wise?
The default answer for many Christians (and it’s a good answer) is to recite Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” Although, take care to notice King Solomon refers to faith (the fear of the Lord) as wisdom’s beginning. A beginning, by nature, leads to other things. And so, what comes in the second half of the verse makes sense: “and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Insight is born from faith. Insight discerns and then acts along life’s way.
Just so you know, my question was prompted by the text of Job 32:9. I crossed paths with it this morning during my short devotion. The text reads:
“It is not the great that are wise, nor the aged that understand judgment.”
I explored the context of the words, and as it would go, Elihu is the one who spoke them. It seems to me that from among Job’s so-called friends, Elihu was the only one who really tried to help Job as God would desire, which explains why neither Job nor God rebuked him in the final analysis. It’s from that angle we can learn from Elihu’s words. They resonate with Godly authenticity. Essentially, he speaks them to dispel some of the foolishness of Job’s critics. The first point he makes for Job is that just because someone is considered great does not mean wisdom inhabits his or her innards. And Elihu’s right. You and I both know people who’ve attained the title of greatness in this world, and yet have done so in ways that were not all that wise or virtuous. Look at Hollywood and pick a celebrity. Consider Washington DC and choose a politician.
Taking that point a little further, Elihu adds that age isn’t necessarily relevant to one’s ability to wield wise discernment. This is definitely true. While I know plenty of older folks I’d consider wise, I know plenty more undeserving of the descriptor. The man in the White House is an example. I’d trust a salamander to better understand the difference between right and wrong before trusting Joe Biden. On the flip side, I also know people well beneath my age who have firm grips on insight’s steering wheel and understanding’s chrome gear-shifter. Charlie Kirk is one of those people. He’s hard to outthink, and when it comes to discernment, he’s pretty solid. When he hits the gas pedal, my first inclination is to get in the backseat and simply enjoy the ride.
Still, I suppose the question remains: What makes a person wise?
Or perhaps thinking from another angle—since Elihu brought it up—maybe I should also be asking, “What makes a person great?”
Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, the people in my life I’d label as great are usually the ones who don’t see themselves as being all that spectacular to begin with. What’s more, no matter what they do, their labors always seem to be aimed at faithfulness to Christ. Again, paradoxically, this most often results in them being counted as lesser to their friends, family, and co-workers in an onlooking world. The world may appreciate them as people, but they don’t necessarily consider them among the greats.
The first example that comes to mind in this regard are the parents who do what they can to protect their children from cultural influences—namely monitoring their video game and internet access, having absolutely no tolerance for foul language, forbidding clothing that promotes inappropriate sexuality, and so many other things—these folks are great people in my book, even though they’re often interpreted by others around them as backwater itinerants with unrealistic expectations. Another example is a person who prefers anonymity when giving a sizable gift to the Church. In most cases, the world considers this a wasted opportunity among peers for recognition. Other examples of greatness are the Christian business owners who stand their ground while the cancel-culture attacks; or the pastors who hold to the Word of God rather than bending a little here and there to fill the pews. It might seem foolish not to embrace woke ideologies that all but guarantee a business’ success, or as a small church struggling financially to bend one’s theology a little in order to see more money received through the collection plate.
In summary, I think maintaining a steady course of faithfulness to Christ and His Word when everyone and everything around you is moving in the opposite direction indicates greatness.
Of course, these are just random examples that come to mind, and I could go on describing similar people and contexts. Still, I imagine what I’ve shared already sounds somewhat familiar to another group of people I consider great: the ones who observe, interpret, and respond to the world around them through biblical lenses. Those are the folks who read the descriptions above and made mental comparisons to our Lord’s interactions in the Gospels. For example, when a woman cries out regarding the greatness of Jesus’ mother, He is quick to reply that those who hear the Word of God and keep it are even greater—nay, blessed (Luke 11:28). When the disciples want to know who’s the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven, the Lord sets before them a toddler—someone of simple faith, a little one who trusts Him no matter what (Matthew 18:1-5). When the disciples are again found wrestling with the issue of greatness, the Lord so crisply reminds them that whoever is to be counted as great among them must be a servant (Matthew 20:26).
Again, I could share so much more in this regard. The Scriptures are full of this stuff. Suffice it to say that to be great in a way that actually matters doesn’t mean being powerful or popular. It certainly doesn’t mean being the oldest and most experienced. It almost certainly doesn’t mean being the most eloquent, smartest, wealthiest, or best looking. Instead, it starts from faith, and then it moves forward with a desire for steady and ongoing alignment with the will of Christ. And this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. Apart from this, there’s no beginning.
By the way, it sure seems like this could be what’s behind Elihu’s less-than-direct communication to Job in the verse right before the one I originally shared. It certainly seems like he’s insinuating that the real measures of both wisdom and greatness have more to do with God’s gracious in-reaching than it does the nature of man.
“It is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (v. 8).
If this is true, whether or not Elihu could articulate it precisely, it means that parents can continue to fight the arduous fight of faith for their children confident they bear wisdom and greatness that are not their own, but rather, were established in them by God. They can be sure these things have replaced their flimsy desires for worldly prominence with a sturdy determination aimed at faithfulness. Likewise, a person can give generously in support of the Church’s efforts without needing to be recognized. A Christian business owner can stand his or her ground, and a pastor can hold fast to the Word, come what may, because of this wonderful truth, too.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Thinking on what happened to Scott Smith recently in Loudon County, Virginia, or what’s happening to Jack Philips, or the struggles of Barronelle Stutzman, or my new friend Artur Pawlowski in Canada, I can’t help but think just how right Emerson was. The world doesn’t get it. It just doesn’t understand real wisdom. It just can’t identify true greatness. This is true because the world’s definitions are completely out of step with the Lord’s definitions (1 Corinthians 1:20-25). On the other hand, believers know there’s only one kind of wisdom born from a singular form of greatness that can and will carry a human being from this life to the next, and this wisdom and greatness has nothing to do with anything this world might try to set on a pedestal.