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The Way of Wisdom

First Published JCF Newsletter February 2016

By GARY ALLEY

“There is a way that seems right to a person,
but its end is the way that leads to death (Pr 14:12; 16:25).”

Easy answers are cheap and abundant.  They populate the web like gaudy road signs hocking their wares.  Likewise, everyone has an opinion, and with the dawn of social media we get to hear them daily.  The “opinion smog” that pollutes our emails and browsers makes it taxing to filter the internet air.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is expensive and rare.  It takes time and research to crystallize an intelligent thought and a prudent response. Often, it is not simple and quick but is configured from experience, patience, and humility.  In contrast to the clogged, horn-honking highway traffic, wisdom’s way can be slower, bumpier, and lonelier.  Even so, a word of wisdom is worth more than an opus of opinion.  

This idea of “two ways” was known in other ancient literature, but the biblical tradition is its most famous source.  The Didache, an early Christian document from the first century which served as a sort of discipleship manual for new believers, begins its text by emphasizing the disparity between the two ways: 

“There are two ways: one of life and one of death!
And there is a great difference between the two ways (Didache 1:1).”

The Didache builds its “way of life” on Jesus’ affirmation of the two greatest commandments in first century Jewish practice—to love God and neighbor.[1]  Jesus’ daily conduct was founded upon these two biblical principles—“you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength”[2] and “you will love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  Jesus emphasized that this way to life was not easy or crowded. 

“In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.  Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Mt 7:12-14).”

Just like the two great commandments, so too, the “way of life” originates in the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.  There the “way of life” is a choice one makes, a path one takes of loving God by obeying His commandments. 

“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other.  What I am commanding you today is to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live…(Dt 30:15-16a).”

Ultimately, this “way of life” was equated in the Hebrew Bible with the “way of wisdom.” 

I will guide you in the way of wisdom and I will lead you in upright paths.  When you walk, your steps will not be hampered, and when you run, you will not stumble. Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; protect it, because it is your life.  Do not enter the path of the wicked or walk in the way of those who are evil (Pr 4:12-14)."

The Hebrew word here for “instruction” is musar (מוסר ) which is “discipline” or “correction” that a parent or a teacher gives to a child or student.  It is often used in connection with God’s punishment of disobedience.[4]  Musar is a “school of hard knocks” where one learns through his or her attempts and failures.  This sometimes painful education hones ability and acumen while procuring hard-earned knowledge, like precious pearls fashioned from life’s stinging sands.  This type of unhurried, step-by-step learning creates space for a humble self-awareness. 

True wisdom understands how little one knows, and yet, instead of giving up and proclaiming the pursuit of knowledge as pointless, the root of wisdom spurs one on to never stop learning.  One of the greatest blights in today’s instant gratification environment is the widespread phenomena of self-acclaimed expertise.  There is a rat race for prestige and recognition among peers, laity, or friends which is not tested by truth and peppered with humility.  In lieu of wisdom, false pride can prowl the halls of the academy, pontificate from the pulpits of churches, and masquerade on our social “status updates.”

Wisdom is not a sledgehammer for our righteous vindication.  Instead, it is a master’s tool that can craft exquisite lines and alluring angles which culminate in a work of art conceived by attentive forethought and focused vision.  Wisdom understands that every circumstance is uniquely set apart and so, wisdom is gentle and careful.

Ray van Leeuwen emphasizes this—“Wisdom behavior is always ‘fitting’ or appropriate to the concrete, particular circumstances. Part of the folly of Job’s ‘friends’ is that they know the general ‘rules’ of theological wisdom, without recognizing that they do not apply to Job’s particular, indeed unique, case. It is possible to speak the truth in ways that are false.[5]

As followers of Jesus, this is the greatest danger in our pursuit of the “way of life” or the “way of wisdom”.  Scripture constantly warns us that we cannot be wise in our own eyes or lean on our own understanding.  Yes, we should point others to the “right way” but how we do that matters more than we realize.  We should remember that love of others is part of this narrow difficult way of wisdom.  It is hard to love others, especially those with whom we disagree.  Yet, how we speak the truth becomes part of the truth we share.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfishness in your hearts, do not boast and tell lies against the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where there is jealousy and selfishness, there is disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical (Jam 3:13-17).”


[1] Didache 1:2; Mk 12:29-34; Lk 10:25-28; m.Tam 5:1; Testament of Dan 5:3; Testament of Issachar 5:2; Philo Special Law 2.63.

[2] Dt 6:5

[3] Lev 19:18

[4] The Greek word for “discipline” or “correction” in the Septuagint and the New Testament is paideia (παιδεία).  See how Hebrews 12:5-11 develops Proverbs 3:11-12’s idea of God’s fatherly discipline for His children.

[5] Ray van Leeuwen. “Wisdom Literature” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, pg 849.