August 19, 2018
A Wise and Discerning Mind
I used to meet an old wise man in a pub. He was Allen Verhey, an ethicist at Duke University, author of several books, expert in the theology of John Calvin, and member of my church. Allen was succumbing to Amyloidosis, a rare disease that would kill him within a year. I was a two-time graduate in theology, discerning my call to ministry.
Allen and I met on late afternoons at an Irish pub in 2013 to discuss the Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin the 16th century French theologian and father of the Presbyterian tradition. It puzzled me that Allen chose to spend hours doing this in his late days of life. He would walk slowly into the bar, sit heavy on the old wooden benches. The disease destroying his insides was evident on the outside. But then, we would order our beers, I would ask him some arcane question like, “What does Calvin mean when he says the image of God is engraved upon the soul?” and Allen would lighten up and lecture as I furiously scribbled in my notebook.
Of the more important things Allen taught me was that human wisdom and willpower are given by the grace of God. That is, God gives us the ability to understand right and wrong and our capacity to act on this understanding. Without God’s guidance, Allen explained, we cannot be but fools making foolish decisions. Wisdom is not so much accumulated as it is given. Allen, though wizened by long years and esteemed for his scholarship, taught me that insight is not something we earn, it is something we seek from God.
The Hebrew Bible tells us that Solomon knew as much even as a boy. Solomon was young and inexperienced when he became king of Israel. In a manner that is uncharacteristic of many national leaders, Solomon does not assume or feign that he knows what he is doing or is able to do it. His first act in office was not to impose policies of his own desire or sign orders to please his supporters. His first order of business was to implore God for wisdom. Solomon prays, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
In response to Solomon’s humility, God grants him “a wise and discerning mind.” This wisdom and discernment, however, is not given once and for all. It is available so long as Solomon walks in the ways of God, listens to the word of God, and keeps the commandments. This young man is given great wisdom. But he is only as wise as he is attentive to God.
Solomon’s wisdom and discernment are immediately put to practice when he is forced to make a difficult decision. Two women, living in the same house, give birth to two sons within the span of three days. In a horrific accident, one of the mothers rolls onto her son in her sleep, suffocating him. In her grief that mother swaps the babies in the house, leaving the dead son with the other mother and taking the alive son as her own. She now claims the living baby is her child. The two mothers come before King Solomon to settle the dispute. Solomon asks for his sword. He tells the mothers that he will divide the baby among the two, literally. When the mother of the living baby pleads for her son’s life and the other mother resigns the baby to his fate, Solomon knows who the mother is and so settles the matter. He was esteemed among the nations for his discernment.
In the following days the scriptures say, “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore.” Lucky for him, this is how he is most often remembered. Sadly, Solomon stopped seeking the wisdom of God. The Hebrew Bible cites several occasions where Solomon relied on his own understanding rather than request help of God. This was to his detriment. He was made a fool.
There are two things that the God of Israel wants the people to understand: 1) that their God is the One who brought their ancestors out of slavery, and 2) that there are no other gods besides this One. At some point, Solomon either forgot or failed to understand these most important things of God. He stopped walking in the ways of God. For when Solomon directed the building of the Temple, he “conscripted forced labor out of all Israel.” The way of God is freedom from slavery. The choice of Solomon was to enslave. And by the end of his life, Solomon let his personal desires influence every decision. After marrying 700 foreign princesses, he began following several gods and goddesses. He stopped listening to God alone. Solomon died a fool surrounded by enemies. He left behind a bankrupt kingdom. You don’t have wisdom. As Solomon said in words he failed to follow, you get wisdom.
Here is the irony: Solomon the wise is made a fool and still his life has become a lesson about wisdom. The ability to discern between good and evil, choose between right and wrong, and decide between better and best is not natural to anyone. The wise do not possess wisdom, they are always in pursuit of it. Solomon is not our only negative example of this. So many “wise” leaders are made fools when they stop looking for wisdom.
We make decisions all the time, many of them consciously but most subconsciously. A lot of them are relatively inconsequential, while a few have vast consequences. Some of these are wise choices and others not so much. Daily, we decide how we’re going to spend our time and who we’re going to spend it with, we make choices that impact our wellbeing for the day and days to come, we resolve how we are going to present ourselves in public, we determine how we are going to spend our money, we make up our minds about moral and social issues or choose not to engage, we make decisions at work or about our work, we select our entertainment and who will influence us, and so on. The discerning person asks: What guides all of these decisions? What do these daily decisions amount to? The wise person is the one whose choices are aligned with a greater and good purpose.
For the person of faith, this greater and good purpose is God’s. Faithfully speaking, then, the wise make decisions in line with God’s will. Here is where I must be very clear. Many Christians believe that God’s will is a predetermined plan. For many who believe this, God is something like a puppet master who directs their every movement. For others who believe this, God’s will is laid out like a blueprint, a charted route, or play script and that they need find their place in it and follow. While God is sovereign and omniscient, God does not program our lives. God has purposes for us—even a will for us—but God wants us in on the planning and active in the fulfillment. God’s will is better described as desire. God desires truth, justice, kindness and love. We live according to God’s will when our daily decisions align with God’s desires. This is wise living.
The first step, I think, toward wise living is to remember God in the morning. If we are to hope that our everyday choices reflect God’s dream, then we must remember who God is in our waking hour. The first order of business for many monks and nuns who live in monasteries and convents is to read a Psalm. The Psalms, many of which are attributed to Solomon’s father David, proclaim who God is. You can find Psalm readings for every morning at our denomination’s website, pcusa.org. This morning’s daily Psalm is 19, wherein the writer says that God speaks in all of creation. If we acknowledge this, it will impact our decisions for today. Maybe in the sunrise God is telling you to start fresh, in people you meet something about yourself, or in the plants of summer what is needed for you to grow. There is wisdom in all creation. This was the manner of Jesus’ teaching.
That same Psalm, 19, also says that the word of God makes the simple wise. As God told Solomon from the beginning, the commandments will always keep him on track. Our decisions will be wise if we, as Moses and Jesus said, love the Lord God with heart, soul, and might and the neighbor as ourselves. Our choices will be right if we, as Micah said, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Wise living requires that we meditate, contemplate, and ruminate on these commandments so that they become impulse and instinct, the motive of our choices and the reasons for our every decision. Wise and discerning minds are formed by devoted attention to God. Wise people are made by the daily decision to pay mind to the ways of God. This is the daily discipline that Solomon neglected.
It is not the case that Solomon, one day, forgot to pray for wisdom and then enslaved people and worshipped other gods. He didn’t become a fool overnight. I think his foolish decisions were the product of a long period of neglect. The change was probably subtle. Perhaps one day he got up too late to pray. And on another he slipped on his devotional practices. Then this became the norm and not the exception. Maybe through all his success in negotiating with the nations, building the Temple and a palace, he got smug thinking that he now knows how to govern God’s people. Eventually he lost the way entirely. It is as detectives say in crime novels, there is always a build-up to the offense. This is how even the wise become fools.
As I wrestle with the implications of the child abuse and subsequent cover-up by Roman Catholic priests, bishops, and leaders in Pennsylvania, much of which was revealed this week, I think neglect is part of the problem. Along the way over 300 guilty priests—who were charged with dispensing divine wisdom—forgot all about the Bible’s teaching on the inherent blessing, dignity, and worth of children. The leaders who covered up the atrocious abuse of over 1,000 victims ignored God’s desire for truth and justice. These horrific acts of cruelty and neglect did not happen overnight. They are the product of church leaders failing to pay attention and practice the most basic laws and values of Christian faith. The wise thing the Church must do is be penitent and pay in full for crimes past and present.
Now, I am not saying that if we miss out on our devotional practices we are necessarily going to be guilty of the sins of Solomon or complicit in great evil. But I do think that an insight in Solomon’s story is that wisdom—the discernment of good and evil, right and wrong—is not passively possessed.
Wisdom escapes us whenever we are not looking for it. Wisdom is gleaned whenever we search in earnest for it. Wisdom is gotten from God. And God has dispensed it in all the world. It can be found in nature, in people, and in experiences. It is discovered in unexpected ways: through children, in word of ancient and unusual prophets, on the cross of Golgotha, and by this odd gathering we call church. God gives knowledge and understanding through the prophets and apostles of the Bible and in words of faith uttered today. Look and listen for wisdom, let it be the first and last thing you do each day.
Let us pray.
God of truth: we call upon you to get wise about ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. Help us to understand your purposes and discern your dreams.
Your will is that all in heaven and on earth flourishes. We know that your creation suffers the weight of our errors. Help us understand how we can heal it.
Your dream is that all people live in love and peace. We recognize the pain and hurt of our neighbors near and far caused by war, sickness, and greed. Grant us the insight to see where and how we might care best.
Your will is justice for all people of every nation. We realize that, as a nation, we have sequestered ourselves and served our own interests. Aid our leaders in understanding that we are strongest when we care for the weakest.
Your purpose for the Church is to share the good news of the gospel in word and deed. We admit that we have distorted the message and even forgot its most basic value. Give us wisdom to tell the truth, to be the truth of you in our world.
Your desire is salvation, healing, redemption for all. And so we pray for those who need your saving, restoring graces this day. Amen.