Living skilfully 02: Growing in wisdom

Proverbs 3:1-12

My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. 11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Today we are on the second sermon of our short series on wisdom, “Living skilfully: The art of wisdom.” Why do we need wisdom? We live in a culture in which there are more choices than there ever have been. We also live in a city like Sydney in which there are an enormous number of choices. Back in the day, if I wanted a burger, all I had to do was go to McDonald’s and get a cheeseburger. Simple and easy. But today it is very different. I have the options of McDonald’s, Burger King, Burger Patch, Bar Luca, Ribs & Burgers, Betty’s burgers, and many others. But the decision on what burger to eat has little consequence in life. It doesn’t matter much what choice I make. However, some choices have huge consequences in our lives. “Who should I marry? Where should I live? What job should I take? Which school should I put my children into? Should I stay in this company? Should I start my own business? Should I be planted in this church? Should I move to a different church? Should I live in Sydney? Should I try to live overseas?” Those are important decisions. And if we don’t make good choices, it can be very destructive. Bad choices have bad consequences for us and our future. And what we need to make good choices is wisdom.

Last week we said that wisdom can be defined as competence with regard to how life really works. Let me give you a different definition of wisdom today. This one is from Timothy Keller. “Wisdom is the ability to know what the right thing to do is in the 80% of life situations to which the moral rules don’t apply.” So, wisdom is not only knowing what is right and wrong but also knowing what is the right thing to do in situations where right and wrong don’t directly apply. For example, let’s say you have a choice whether to work in a nightclub or Coles. Which one should you choose? The answer is whichever helps you make more money. Of course not. The answer is Coles. Why? Because working at a nightclub will put you in a position where you might have to compromise your faith again and again. Even though it might make you more money in the short term, it will destroy you in the long run. But what if you have two careers to take? Both of them are morally acceptable. Neither of them is sinful. And both pay well. Which one should you take? It’s not so easy right now, isn’t it? You need wisdom. If you make the wrong choice, you could waste a lot of time. If you make the bad choice because you are out of touch with reality, it could take years to get your life back on track, even though there is nothing morally wrong with the decision you make. So, we can be incredibly good and knowledgeable and still make dumb choices. That’s why we need wisdom. Last week we talked about finding wisdom. Today we will talk about growing in wisdom.

I have three points for my sermon: the path; the process; the pain.



The path

Proverbs 3:1-6 – My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

All of us are on a path. We are heading somewhere. There is no such thing as standing still. Even when we choose not to do anything, that’s a choice we make, and it leads us somewhere. We are on a journey toward a destination. The question is, are we on the path of wisdom? Here is the thing about wisdom. Wisdom is not gained in the classroom. We could listen to this sermon series on wisdom but that does not make us wise. We can’t get wise listening to sermons. Do you know where we learn wisdom? In our paths. In our daily lives. Solomon says, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” The Bible constantly talks about life as a pathway. Living life is likened to a path. And when God makes straight our paths, it means God will direct us where he wants us to go. And the metaphor of a path says a lot. Think about it. How do we make progress on the path we are on? We can run, we can sprint, we can dance, but the best way to make progress on a path is to do something very simple. It’s called walking. How do we walk? We put one foot in front of another foot, and we repeat it again and again and again. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, and so on. It’s boring. It’s steady. It is repeated. It is easy to do. And if we keep doing that again and again, we get somewhere. Walking a path means doing something very simple, steady, and mundane. It is something we do repeatedly.

Here is what it means. The actions we take repeatedly, day after day in our ordinary lives, turn us into something. We can’t stay the same. Who we become is a product of the little things we do every day. The way we behave, the actions we take, the choices we make in our daily lives, are turning us into something. It is turning us into a wise person or a foolish person. So, listen. It is not the dramatic big decision in life that makes us wise; it is the little choices we make every day that make us wise. The actions and choices we make in our daily lives are either making us a wise person or a fool. This might be different from what we think. We think what defines greatness is that one great achievement or that one great moment of courage that wow the world. For example, Daniel and the lions’ den. We are wowed by Daniel’s courage to go against King Darius’ order. He was put in the lions’ den and God sent his angel to shut the mouth of the hungry lions. We want to have courage like Daniel. But we forget that Daniel’s courage was the result of him getting on his knees to pray to God three times a day for decades. It’s the little choices Daniel made for decades that enable him to face the great trouble in front of him and make the godly choice.

The path of wisdom means we are becoming wise by taking upon ourselves a certain set of daily disciplines, things we are going to do over and over again. And if we do them constantly over a long time, eventually we become a wise person. So, growing in wisdom is to walk on a path. Let me put it another way. Wisdom is not a door. Do you know what I mean by it? If wisdom is a door, all we have to do is open the door, enter the door, and voila, we become wise. One second we are unwise, the next second we are wise. But that’s not the way wisdom works. The Bible never says that what we need to be wise is a secret knowledge, a certain experience, and if we have it, we are wise. No. Wisdom is a path. It takes doing a simple thing over and over again, day in and day out, right, left, right, left, over a long period of time. Wisdom is not a door; it is a pathway.

One of the most common questions I received as a pastor is, “How can I know God’s will for my life?” Usually what that means is, “I have a very important decision to make. But I do not know which decision I should make. I am trying to discern God’s will. How can I know for sure what God wants me to do?” This is a good valid question. But unfortunately, people often employ unbiblical methods to find the answer. They randomly open their Bible and hope the first passage they come across will give them the answer or they seek a prophecy to tell them what they must do next. So, if you are struggling for direction, you pray, “God, I am going to close my eyes and open my Bible. Please give me a verse. Speak to me. I really want to know your will for my life.” So, you open your Bible, you put a finger on the Bible, open your eyes and it says, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” “Okay, that can’t be right. Let me try again. I am going to give God another chance.” So, you close your eyes, put down your finger, and you look, and it says, “Go and do likewise.” “Well, I’m sure that must be a coincidence. Let me try one more time.” So, you close your eyes again, put your finger, open your eyes, and it says, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” You are doomed.

Do you know what you are doing if you do that? You think of wisdom as a door. You think what you need is a technique. And that’s how our culture thinks of wisdom. Just go to any bookstore and you know what I am talking about. The biggest section of every bookstore is always the self-help section. They say, “Do you want a better marriage? Do these five things and your marriage will be heaven on earth. Do you want to be successful? Here are the 10 things you need to do. Do you want a stress-free life? Do you want to be confident? Buy this book and it will solve all your problems.” Do you know what that is? Door. Shortcut. But that’s not the way the Bible defines wisdom. So, whenever people say, “I want to know for sure that I am making the right decision. I want a sign from God.” I say, “How’s your walk with God? Do you love God? Do you trust his words? Do you walk in obedience to his words in your daily life? If you do, then make a decision. God has given you a brain. Stop looking for a sign. Make a decision. But if you haven’t been walking on the path of wisdom, if you haven’t been obeying God in the daily routine of life, then don’t expect to have the wisdom to decide. That’s on you. And I am not going to tell you what to do only for you to blame me when things do not turn out well. I am not your insurance company.” Do you see? Wisdom is not a door; it’s a path. There is no shortcut to wisdom.

Let me give you a warning. Because wisdom is a path, if you are walking in the wrong direction, you are not standing still; you are on a path of chaos. Let’s say you don’t like a person. And then you hear something bad about that person from another person. What do you do? You have two choices. One, you give that person the benefit of the doubt. “You know, maybe he is not that bad. Maybe there is another side to the story. I shouldn’t come to any conclusion rashly.” Or two, you say, “I knew it. I can’t trust him. He is a moron. I am going to tell everyone how bad he is.” Those are the two choices you have. And your choice leads you somewhere. If later you find out that he is not as bad as you think, if you gave him the benefit of the doubt earlier, you say, “I’m glad I was wrong about him. He is actually a good person.” But if you reacted negatively earlier, you say, “That person is a fake. I know he is hiding something. Just wait and see. It won’t be long before he messes up and reveals his true colour.” Your choice will either make you a wise person or a fool. If you do the first, you will grow in wisdom. If you do the second, you are on a path of chaos. You will wish the worst for that person, and it’s going to get darker and darker.

At first, you see grey as black. But the more you are on that path, you will start to see white as black. You won’t see clearly. You believe what you want to believe. And in the long run, it turns you into a fool. Why? Because you are not in touch with reality. Your resentment makes you out of touch with reality. You want to believe that he is bad even if he is not. What you are going to do is if you see something that confirms your prejudice, you are going to grab to that. And if you see something that shows he is not as bad as you think, you are going to ignore it. You are creating a scenario in your mind of what that person is like that isn’t true, and you are going to make bad choices. Why? Because wisdom is making choices on the basis of reality, not your own version of reality. But you refuse to see the truth because you think your opinions and your feelings are the right ones. You are wise in your own eyes and that’s the definition of a fool. So, here is my point. It’s the little things we do every day that either make us more proud, more resentful, or more loving, more forgiving. It is the little choices we make that produce wisdom for making the big choices wisely. Wisdom is gained or lost bit by bit, one foot after another foot, step by step. Wisdom is a path. So, the question is, what are the daily, repeated things we do that will turn us into wise people?



The process

There are four things in this passage that help us to grow in wisdom. First, knowing God. Proverbs 3:3-4 – Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man. At first, it seems like Solomon is telling us that for us to be wise, we need to be a loving and faithful person. But that’s not what Solomon is saying. Because the words for love and faithfulness are the Hebrew words that describe God’s covenant love for his people. The word love here is the Hebrew word ‘chesed’, which means God’s unconditional love for his people. It is not talking about the people’s commitment and faithfulness to God but God’s commitment and faithfulness to his people. So, Solomon is saying, “I want you to wear God’s unconditional love and faithfulness toward you on your neck. Don’t ever let it go. Write it in your heart. Never ever forget that. Carry it with you wherever you go and talk about it all the time.” In other words, Solomon is telling us that we need to know at the heart of our hearts, at the deepest core of our being, that God is unconditionally committed to us. He loves us with love beyond our imagination. If we do that, we are growing in wisdom. How? Think about it. Do you know why we make unwise choices? One of the main reasons we are not making wise choices is because we panic. We are not thinking clearly. But if we truly believe deep in our hearts that God is unconditionally committed to us and he loves us, we won’t panic. When we have to make choices, we are calm. We don’t lose our minds. We don’t make decisions out of fear. No matter what the situation is, we have confidence. And that enables us to make wise choices.

So, let me make it more practical right now. It means it is not enough for us to say, “Yes, I know God loves me. I know Jesus died for me.” We have to find ways to make the love of God for us so real that we don’t only know it in our heads, but we experience it in our hearts. If we want to be wise, we need to find ways to pound the gospel truth deep into our hearts every day. We need ways to remind ourselves that God will never leave us nor forsake us. That’s the only way we can have inner poise. Without it, we will continue to make rash decisions that we will regret. That’s why daily spiritual disciplines are important. The daily habit of reading the Bible and praying is important not because that is how we earn God’s favour, but because that is how we remind ourselves of God’s unconditional love and faithfulness toward us. So, the first discipline toward growing in wisdom is to find ways to make God’s love and faithfulness real to our hearts.

Second, trusting God. Proverbs 3:5 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. This is probably the most popular verse in the book of Proverbs. I had to memorize it in Sunday school. Solomon tells us to trust in God with all our hearts. But what does it mean to trust in God with all our hearts? Listen. Trusting God is not the same as believing in God. It is very possible to believe in God, obey God, pray to God, and trust something else with our hearts. It’s very possible to believe in God but trust something else for our significance and security. For example, you are in church today. That means most of you believe in God. Otherwise, you would be on a beach right now. You come to church, you sing a few songs, you listen to the sermon, but the question is, what does your heart trust in? What makes you feel safe at night before you go to bed? What excites you when you wake up in the morning? What makes you feel like you have worth? What makes you say, “As long as I have this, anything else can be taken away from me, I am going to be fine.” What is it? Be honest. Whatever your answer is, that’s what your heart trusts in.

Being wise is about being in touch with reality. And the one reality you must know to know the rest of reality is your own heart. You have to know that. Otherwise, you are going to make dumb choices all the time. Whatever your heart trusts in will affect the way you make decisions. Anything you make your functional trust of your heart, whether it’s your good look, your savings, your career, your family, your relationship, whatever it is, will be the driving force of the choice you make. If you are like me and you trust in human approval, you will do everything you can to be accepted by people around you. You will want to please everyone around you, and you are afraid of criticism. You will make decisions based on whether or not it will make people around you happy. And it is only a matter of time before you explode because you can’t please everyone around you. You will make foolish decisions. Do you see? Unless you trust God with all your heart, unless he is the source of your significance and security, you won’t be wise. Your functional trust will always cloud your judgement and make you unwise. But in order to know what your heart really trusts, you need to do ruthless self-examination. Unless you can truly see what your heart trusts in, you are not in touch with reality. You can’t see who you are, and you are not going to see clearly. We will talk more about this next week.

Third, submitting to God’s words. Proverbs 3:5-6 – Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Solomon tells us to not lean on our understandings but to acknowledge God in all our ways. To acknowledge God is to submit to God’s words. It means when we have to choose to rely on our own understanding or to obey God’s words, we choose to obey God’s word. And this requires us to know God’s words. We can’t submit to God if we don’t know his words. Growing in wisdom requires us to know the Bible. So, how does knowing the Bible make us wise? There are two ways. The direct way and the indirect way. Let’s talk about the direct way first. What do you do when the Bible disagrees with you? Let’s say you are married, and you are attracted to someone who is not your spouse. What do you do? Does the Bible have anything to say about extramarital affairs? Yes, it does. You do not need to think, “I am not sure what is the wise decision to make in this situation. How far can I go before it becomes an affair?” The Bible is black and white on the matter. You shouldn’t do it. You made a covenant with your spouse. You do not need to pray about it. You might not like what the Bible has to say. You might not understand it. But lean not on your own understanding. When your way is at odds with God’s way, you don’t try to change God’s way. You acknowledge God’s way, and you submit to it. And if you continue to do that, you will become wise. The Bible is clear about what choices you need to make in about 20% of life decisions. So, that’s the direct way.

But what about the other 80%? This is where the indirect way is extremely important. The indirect way teaches us this. For us to be wise, we need to have the right narrative. Let me explain what I mean. And I am stealing this illustration from Tim Keller, which he took from someone else. The illustration goes like this. Imagine you are standing at a bus stop and a young man you’ve never met in your life, walks up to you, and says, “Hey, the Latin name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus,” and then he walks away. How do you make sense of that? Why did that happen? There’s only one way to make sense of it, and that is you have to put it in a narrative. You have to say, “What is the story in which this incident makes sense?” It can’t make any sense unless you stick it into a narrative.

Let’s consider three possible stories. The first story is that the man is mentally ill, and he does random things to random people. It’s a very sad story. But that would make sense, right? So that’s one story that would make sense of it and we will feel sympathy for him. The second story is a story of mistaken identity. Maybe several days ago when he was in the library, he was trying to look this book up about the common wild duck. He talked to the librarian, and you look like the librarian. It was dark in there and he couldn’t see clearly. So, when he was at the bus stop, he thought you were the librarian. He walked up to you, and he was saying, “Hey, you know what? I did find the book. I found out the name of that duck.” That’s a little bit less likely, but it’s possible. The third story is that the man is a spy. He had mistaken you for his contact, and he was giving you the code. That’s not very likely, but it could be. Here’s the point. What happened makes no sense unless you stick it into a narrative, and the narrative you put it in completely determines how you respond to it. You’re going to respond in very different ways depending on whether that person is a mental patient, a person who mistook your identity, or a spy.

Let’s think about money for example. What should you do with your money? How do you spend money wisely? What should you prioritize with your money? Do you realize it all depends on what you think the story of the world is? If your narrative is this world is all there is to it, then your happiness in the here and now will be the lens through which you think about money. You will spend all your money to make you as happy as possible. But look at what Solomon says about money. Proverbs 3:9-10 – Honor the Lord with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. Solomon says you must prioritize God with your wealth. God must be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about spending your money. But if your narrative is that this world is all there is to it, Solomon’s words will not make any sense. Why do you need to honour God with your wealth? Isn’t it better to spend your money on what makes you happy? But what if the story of the world is very different? What if we were all created by God and everything we have is a gift from him? What if the world is fallen but God has come to redeem it and someday he’s going to renew it and there’s going to be a new world? What if this entire life on earth is only a small part of your entire existence? In that story, money looks very different. And not only your money, but everything about your life also looks very different. It all depends on what narrative you put it in. If you have the right narrative, you can be wise. Listen. As you immerse yourselves in the Bible and the narrative of the Bible, every part of your life looks different. The more you put everything in the narrative of the Bible, the wiser you get. How you think about careers is different. How you think about relationships is different. How you think about family is different. How you live is different. And now it makes sense to obey God and submit to his words instead of leaning on your own understanding. You are growing in wisdom.

Fourth, living in a community. Proverbs 3:7-8 – Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. The definition of a fool is someone wise in their own eyes. It is someone who cares to see things only from their own perspective. They don’t care about other people. They say, “I don’t care what you think. This is what I think, and I am right.” Wisdom, however, is the total opposite. Wisdom is the ability to see things for what it really is and be competent in making the right choices. And to do this, we need a community. All of us have blind spots and we need other people to help us see our blind spots. Otherwise, we are being wise in our own eyes. We think we are seeing clearly but we are not. And we can’t make the right choices because we are not seeing clearly. And throughout Proverbs, Solomon is saying to us, “You are not wise. You don’t see everything clearly. So, listen to what I say. That’s how you grow in wisdom.” So, here is the rule of thumb. If you don’t think you are a fool, you are a fool. A wise person is unsure of their wisdom, and they seek help. This is why we need a community. That’s why our church puts a very strong emphasis on the importance of small groups. Because we don’t grow in wisdom outside of a community. It is only when we are deeply involved in a community, that we are going to grow in knowing God, trusting God, and submitting to God’s words. And that’s how we grow in wisdom.



The pain

Proverbs 3:11-12 – 11 My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

This might come as a surprise but listen. There is no wisdom without pain. There is no wisdom without fatherly discipline. Sometimes you can do all the right things, you know God, you trust God, you submit to God, you seek counsel from your community, and things still blow up. Instead of a promotion, you get laid off. Instead of health, you get cancer. Instead of a happy family, your children walk away from faith. What’s happening? Solomon says that when that happens to you, don’t get angry at God. It is God’s discipline to make you wise. If you believe that as long as you do what is right then life will go well for you, you are not ready for life. You are actually foolish because you are not in touch with reality. The reality is people who do everything right can still have terrible lives. You don’t believe me? Consider Job. Job was the most righteous person on the face of the earth. Job was so good that God bragged about how good Job was to the devil. And in a matter of days, he lost everything. He lost all his children, all his wealth, and his health. Even his wife told him to curse God.

So, if you believe that people whose lives blow up have always done something wrong for it to happen, you don’t know how life works. You are not wise, and you are not competent with regard to the realities of life. But listen to what Solomon says. He is saying that when those bad things happen, they do not happen without reason. They happen for you to become wise. Because you know this. No one ever gets wise without bad things happening to them. People who lived a good life, people who never experienced pain, they are shallow. They don’t know how to deal with the complexities of life. But wise people are those who say, “I went through fires. I made many mistakes. I had to pay heavy consequences for my failures. But it is through those bad things that I learn the most and become who I am today.” That’s wisdom. Get this. Wisdom does not guarantee that your life will be better, but wisdom will make you better at life. So, when you suffer, don’t just ask God to remove suffering from your life. But ask God, “God, what is it that you are trying to teach me through this pain?” That’s what’s going to make you wise. That’s what’s going to make you able to help others. Unless you went through the hurt yourself, you won’t know what to do to help those who are hurting. Do you see?

Our tendency when we experience pain is to blame others. It is the other person’s fault that we are in pain. Or we try to play God and assume what God is teaching the other person. Am I right? But Solomon is saying, “God allows you to experience those pains because he loves you. He is disciplining you. He delights in you. He wants you to trust in him.” And let me speak from my own experience. I don’t really learn to trust God until I am drowning. I don’t really know God is all I need until God is all I have. I don’t really love God until I get to the lowest point in my life and am absolutely sure that God has abandoned me, only to see his hand holding me up at the bottom. But do you know how God brought me there? Pain. It is not until I am in pain that I really come to God in prayer and trust him with all my heart instead of other things. It is in times of pain that I get to know God, trust God, and submit to his words. And it is in times of pain that I realize I need people and seek help from my community. It is in the painful season of life that I grow in wisdom much faster than at any other time. Pain turbocharges wisdom.

But here is the thing about pain and I am done. Pain can make us wise, but pain can also make us bitter. Pain can either turn us into a wise person or a fool. It can either turbocharge the process of wisdom, or it can destroy us. So, how are we going to make sure that pain makes us wise? Here is the key. The key is we must believe that God delights in us when pain happens. We must absolutely believe that when pain happens, it is not God’s punishment for our sins but the discipline of the heavenly Father who loves us and delights in us. We have to be absolutely sure that God loves us and delights in us when bad things happen, or it will harden us. But how? How can we be absolutely sure of it? Here is how. Consider what it cost God to make us his children. How can a fool like us become children whom God delights in? There is only one way. The perfect wise Son of God must take our place.

Think about Jesus. Jesus did not have to suffer at the cross. He was the wisest person on earth. But he did. Why? Because he took everything that we deserved at the cross. He absorbed the punishment of God for our foolishness. Jesus knew God, trusted God, and submitted to God the Father perfectly. But he was punished at the cross for our foolishness so that we can have the confidence that God is not punishing us in our pain. When we put our faith in Jesus, we can rest assured that all the pain we experience is not punishment but the loving discipline of our heavenly Father to make us wise. So, if we ever doubt God’s love because of the pain we experience, consider Jesus. How can we know in our heart of hearts that God loves us? Because Jesus went to the cross for us. He went through infinite pain at the cross so he can help us in our pain. When we look at what Jesus has done for us at the cross, we can have the confidence that the pain we are going through will not break us, but it will turn us into a wise person. God is shaping us into something great. Let’s pray.



Discussion questions:

  1. What struck you the most from the sermon?
  2. Wisdom is not a door but a pathway. What does it say about your daily life?
  3. Look at the four processes of growing in wisdom (Knowing God; Trusting God; Submitting to God’s words; Living in a community). Which one do you lack the most and what can you do to change that?
  4. “Wisdom does not guarantee that your life will be better, but wisdom will make you better at life.” Explain the meaning of this sentence and what are the implications of it in your life.
  5. How does the gospel help us to grow in wisdom through pain?
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