When I set out on life with the naivety and hope of a teenager, I was searching (as many do) for the Good Life. Where might it be found? What actions or goals would deserve a lifetime of investment? What could be worthy of all my energy and attention? I was burdened by the sense of ‘you only get one shot at life’, and I wanted to make mine count.
Raised by churchgoing parents, I was of course influenced by the Bible and by Christian values. Perhaps parents are unaware of how dangerous it is to expose a child to such incendiary texts. Without the muting of compromised church culture or a hardening of life experience, a child is likely to absorb the Word quite literally and very trustingly. ‘Unless you become like children…’, Jesus said, ‘you cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.’ So like a child, I read the Proverbs, and thought Lady Wisdom held an answer to my search.
My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
2 turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding –
3 indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
4 and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
6 For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
7 He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose way of life is blameless,
8 for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Here a way of life is proposed: if I did this, then that would result. It sounded like a great deal – finding God? Being protected from harm? Well, I knew I needed that. For me, I already had a sense of inadequacy, and a heightened sense of threat from strangers (that’s another story), so I wanted to build my life on solid ground, and aim for noble goals. Self-righteously, I wouldn’t be going after trivial pursuits. I wouldn’t be enamoured by mere material successes. I wanted to make a difference, to know God and do his exploits. I wanted to be an A-grade Christian, as I’d excelled in every other area of study thus far. I planned to work the system, for good.
I wasn’t arrogant enough to imagine I could do this myself. But doing it for God, and in his name, well surely I would know his favour and enjoy success? The arrogance of youth took a perverse Christian twist: “Out of my way, world. Here I [me and God] come! We’re going to make an impact!”
I was putting all my hopes, like eggs in the basket, in God’s promises and faithfulness, or so I thought. With that innocent, immature understanding, I read the Biblical promises as binding contract, and I tried hard to keep my side of the bargain. Over time, my God became smaller and my expectation that He should bend to my will grew larger. I thought I’d found wisdom by seeking the good life in ‘godliness’ – when in fact I was mostly out for the ‘good life’ promised, rather than the ‘good God’ who gave it.
That illusion of ‘contract’ soon shattered, when we lost mum to cancer in my 20s.
Where’s God in times like that? Why didn’t he come through for us? We were trying so hard to live His way! How can he let such a godly (Proverbs 31 kinda) woman die so young? Didn’t I pray? Could I have prayed harder? Why didn’t he hear my prayer and answer? What of the ‘good life’ now?
Well, it turns out I had made the ‘good life’ an idol, and I was offended that God wouldn’t bow at its feet. After that bitter Christmas loss, I had a bitter heart to deal with. With my sense of how the world (and God) should work in tatters, I shut Lady Wisdom’s simple words out of my heart in disillusionment. I felt betrayed by God, by the Bible, and betrayed by Her. As they say, ‘I threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and gave her no further thought, respect or credence. God had failed me. Wisdom had failed me. And I found myself unmoored, with neither compass nor chart, company nor counsel.
So I sought another guide, one who would prove more trustworthy, and more honest. Well… I found company of a new kind of character: the Teacher of Ecclesiastes:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’
3 What do people gain from all their labours
at which they toil under the sun?
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
Here was a voice that resonated with my own heart, and with my newfound bitter experience of the world. After the cancer-storm brutally wrecked my harbour, I was cast adrift in turbulent seas with this bitter refrain: “What’s the point? What’s the point of loving God? Of seeking out wisdom? Why go on, when life’s so fickle, and it seems God Himself is fickle and indifferent?” The Teacher seemed to affirm my complaint, with a somewhat cold empathy.
The months turn to years… and my heart and mind strains towards a better attitude. I keep up Christian appearances. I still believe the blood of the cross was for my forgiveness, and I’m still convinced by the facts of the resurrection. I can’t ‘unknow’ God. So I try to tug against this black heart, preaching hope and truth to myself, paddling against the current yet always bailing water. ‘What’s the point?’ ‘Where can I find joy in anything?’ ‘How can I live with hope in a world that is so devastatingly random, and where the righteous suffer so?’
The Teacher is not pleasant company to keep, quite the contrary. And so, I found myself grieving not only my mother, but the loss of the hopeful company of Lady Wisdom from the Proverbs too, the one I had so bitterly banished as a cruel betrayer.
Little did I know that Wisdom still travelled by my side, but now I see a different face. I first knew her as the Wise Lady calling to my youth in Proverbs. And now I know him as the Cynic-Preacher of Ecclesiastes who sees things as they desperately are. Meaningless! Smoke shape-shifting in the wind! Who can grasp it? Why bother trying? The two seem to have little in common.
If I had only ever walked in the company of the Lady Wisdom of Proverbs, I would have forever been striving to do the right, to gain the good. I would have forever expected predictable outcomes, retribution for the wicked, reward for the righteous. And so I would never have needed to know the God who created a world where there is justice and reward for right living; know the God who affirms her simple words as true.
And after my experience of death and disappointment, I abandoned this simplistic trust, and chose instead to walk only in the company of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. Without Lady Wisdom’s beauty and hope in an essentially just and rewarding world ruled by a Good God, I found myself sinking immobilised in the despair of the Teacher’s much darker view of reality. What’s the point of working for good, of building a tower or planting a field? If time and chance may destroy it, why invest in anything? Adopting his cynical view, I’m never rudely disappointed by false hopes dashed. I see the cruelties of the world in the daily headlines and in the crazy driving on my roads, and think, ‘yep, that’s just as the Preacher predicted’. But what comfort is it to know the ‘hard truth of things’ but have no hope?
– – –
It’s worth remembering that God has revealed himself to us as three in One, eternally holding difference in tension. It is Love that binds all together, though He shows various faces.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
Seeing God in the face of Christ is often the thorniest and yet most converting encounter; the point at which heaven’s love touches our earthbound hearts, and our fears and doubts melt before him. The High and Lofty One shows us himself in the humble face of Christ. The Jews, holding so fast to their view of the transcendent G-d of Sinai still seem blind to the possibility that such a bloody, earthy face could also be the face of this God – their Glorious Meshiach. This Christ is known as both Lion and Lamb… to know only one side of him is to not know Him at all.
This is the same God who disguised himself to Elijah, and revealed himself not in violent winds or dramatics, but through a quiet whisper. How can this whisper be the voice of the One who spoke the world into being? And how can this despised and rejected Jew – the crucified and buried Jesus – be the Eternal One who lives forever in transcendent power? Could they possibly be one and the same?
– – –
Wisdom is found in the contradictions – inexplicable and irreconcilable – in the company of both the Lady of Proverbial Hope and the Hardened Cynic of Ecclesiastes. These two wise and truthful personas are poles apart, and yet Mystery can hold the two together. We have met two faces of the Wise trinity. Now for the third.
When we lost mum, I turned to Job as a man who intimately knows sudden loss. I cried the tears he cried. And I tried to pray his prayers too:
20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But I couldn’t worship God like Job, and hold the hand of Lady Wisdom at the same time. She’d made me ‘promises’, and not fulfilled them. I turned to the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and he indifferently shrugged, as if to say, ‘What did you expect? Smell the coffee.’ And so I hovered between the two, unable to reconcile my mother’s death and what I read in the Bible. My ‘WHY!’ resonated, the rage hung in the air, and I could find no way of clearing things up between me and God. Finally, wearily, I fell into Job’s story and found his unanswered Question swallowed up mine. Without answers, without ever fully understanding, he became a Companion who truly knows what I’m going through, I’m now in the presence of the third face of Wisdom: Mystery.
When I first charted my course, I hoped – and prayed – that I would live my life in the company of Wisdom. Now 3 decades later, I still pray this… but I am finding Wisdom has a complex personality, and can often be hard to keep up with.
Living in wisdom’s company isn’t easy or predictable. I can’t count on my actions to provoke God’s favour, or my wisdom to result in success as day follows night. I can’t expect that random disaster won’t strike, maybe even from the hand of God himself. But in holding counsel with Wisdom, three+ in one*, I can now live with questions in a way that trusts God’s sovereignty and goodness. Wisdom’s presence overshadows all the highs and lows, twists and turns that this life can send my way.
I now appreciate the Preacher, but I’m no longer choking in his meaningless smoke. And I turn again to Lady Wisdom, receiving her with more forgiveness, and open up to her hope without making her ways into an idol. Like Job, I can face an uncertain and mysterious future with more confidence than ever before, despite the devastation and disappointment in my story thus far.
* God’s wisdom is ‘manifold’ (Ephesians 3:10), so probably has more than 3 faces!
– – –
I thought seeking out wisdom would lead to the good life. Well, God’s upended that misdirected project. He always wanted something far more profound:
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1
Who’s to say the goodness of God won’t break out for me in my latter years, as it did for Job? And if it doesn’t, well, by now that’s of no great consequence. It turns out I’ll have spent my whole life in the glorious, unsurpassing company of Wisdom – God Himself.
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Immense thanks goes to the guys n gals at The Bible Project who invested so much to explain the Wisdom Literature in visual language – my heart language. I can read words, for sure, but the power of an image speaks louder to me than any other. They were the ones who introduced me to these three very different faces of Wisdom – The Lady, The Cynic, and Job – and caused me to finally see that I have been walking through life in the company of Wisdom all along, even when on the darkest and bitterest paths.