What does the Bible mean by true wisdom? We may speak of it as godly understanding and a faithful orientation to live (1) before the God we fear, (2) for the God we love, and (3) for the lasting benefit of God’s other creatures, whom He from the beginning purposed to bless. Wisdom is a pattern of life characterized by behaving with “godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor. 1:12). We all need this.
Scripture does more than encourage us in this area; it issues an imperative: “Get wisdom” (Prov. 4:5, 7). This wisdom is a “must,” and God’s people are told to make its pursuit a main responsibility in life. For the purposes of this article, we will understand “gaining wisdom” in two senses: acquiring it in the first place and then growing in wisdom.
As a first principle, every Christian must grasp that wisdom comes from God. It does not belong to us but is “from above” (James 3:17). God causes us to know wisdom (Ps. 51:6). Let us say that true wisdom is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God (with apologies to Thomas Aquinas for adapting his aphorism about theology). Worldly wisdom, on the other hand, will never lead us to God (1 Cor. 1:21) and tends toward foolishness in suppressing the truth about God (Rom. 1:18–23).
As the Old Testament uses the term, wisdom has many shades of meaning and practical aspects. More generally, it can denote “learning,” “cleverness,” or “common sense.” It may mean “skill” or technical know-how (Ex. 28:3; 31:6; 1 Chron. 28:21; Ps. 107:27; Isa. 10:13, such as an artisan would possess from long work experience. The Bible associates wisdom with good character and personal discipline. Think of diligence, truth-telling, peacemaking, being a good listener, self-control, and compassion. Wisdom has been defined as “the art of steering” through life, with its obstacles, uncertainties, temptations, and injustices. It includes avoiding the wrong paths (life’s dead ends) and turning back when we make mistakes. This article, however, concerns specifically the wisdom of God that we gain in communion with Him through the gospel. In other words, our question is, How does God mean for us to gain “a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12) in Jesus Christ?
Tremble before god
Fear of the Lord is most basic to acquiring and growing in wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 9:10; see also Job 28:28). Without a deep reverence for our Creator and a dread of offending Him, we lack wisdom. Without the fear of God, we have not made a start. If we lose a proper fear of the Lord, we must go back to the beginning and start over.
If “the fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom” (Prov. 15:33), we must be inducing and exercising a proper fear. Keeping our minds focused on God and the truths about God—He created us for Himself and to accomplish His will; His eyes are always on us; He orders our steps; He is our Judge; and under His sovereignty we return to dust (Ps. 90:3)—will promote a proper fear that, in turn, instructs us. Meditating on the truth of a final judgment (Eccl. 12:13–14; Rom. 14:10, 12; 2 Cor. 5:10) goes a long way toward instilling and strengthening that fear of the Lord that instructs in wisdom.
Sense your need for what is outside yourself
Wisdom can in many respects be equated with spiritual maturity, a growing up into Christ, who is the wisdom of God. The New Testament certainly calls us to strenuous effort in the Christian life (1 Cor. 9:27; Col. 3:23; 2 Peter 1:5–10). And we must indeed apply ourselves with all seriousness to the goal of growing in knowledge and wisdom. As with the entire sanctification process, however, we must never lose sight of the truth that ultimately it is God who works in us to will and to do His good purpose (Phil. 2:13). We do not gain the wisdom of God—what this article is about—by dint of effort and study or by an unceasing determination to become like the Savior. Ultimately, we pray for God the Father to grant us wisdom. We are taught wisdom by Him. We receive His wisdom as God the Son, Jesus Christ, dwells in our hearts by faith. Just as the incarnate Son had the Spirit of God rest on Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding (Isa. 11:2), so the Spirit must rest on us if we are to become wise. The gospel is not only about coming to know in Christ an “alien righteousness” (a righteousness outside ourselves, not our own), as Paul so wonderfully explains in Romans, Philippians, and elsewhere, but it is also about receiving what we might call an “alien wisdom.” There is a righteousness and there is a wisdom that we can never achieve on our own. We will never gain this wisdom without acknowledging our need and seeking the Giver of this good gift. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” to give you His wisdom (James 4:8).
Without a deep reverence for our Creator and a dread of offending Him, we lack wisdom.
I relate this point to the Bible’s teaching on union with Christ. How gloriously Jesus Himself is our salvation! We believers do not have life in ourselves, but we draw it continually from the Lord Jesus, in our faith-union with Him. We have no righteousness of our own, but we are counted righteous and begin to make progress in holiness as we are joined to Christ. He is our life, our righteousness, our sanctification. Likewise, Jesus Christ Himself is our wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24, 30; see also Col. 2:3).
Desire wisdom as an invaluable gift
To gain wisdom, we must seek it, and to seek it, we must first desire it. No wonder, then, that Scripture repeatedly prompts us to count wisdom as not only most desirable but priceless. “Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Prov. 8:11; see also 3:15). What is arguably the most eloquent poem in the Bible, Job 28, tells of the arduous, dangerous efforts of miners digging through mountains to find gold and precious stones. But wisdom is utterly inaccessible to man; “it is not found in the land of the living” (v. 13). “It cannot be bought for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price” (v. 15). Those who seek and gain wisdom will always be those who “prize her highly” (Prov. 4:8).
Ask god for wisdom
Those who prize and love wisdom will, like Solomon, pray for wisdom (2 Chron. 1:10–12). “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5), with a strong faith that God delights to hear and answer such a prayer. (Recall how God was delighted that Solomon had made that request.) Any who gain wisdom have it in answer to prayer.
I suggest that Christians, including me, often fail to pray for wisdom as they should. Yes, there can be occasional earnest prayers for guidance and wisdom in decision-making. But do we implore God to give us a heart of wisdom when there aren’t crucial decisions to be made? Should we not be continually requesting divine wisdom and understanding so that He may answer our prayers and ready us for both the more mundane, everyday deliberations and the sudden crises that call for urgent, potentially life-altering decisions? Surely this is an area to which the Apostle Paul’s injunction applies: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Constant humble prayer, in which we lean hard on God, indicates that we are not foolishly leaning on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5).
Diligently study god’s word
Though true wisdom should never be confused with native intelligence and education, there is need for study and reflection if we are to gain wisdom. Scripture commends to us a study of the “book of nature” down to its tiniest details: “Go to the ant . . . ; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). Biblical wisdom involves a perception of God-given order, purpose, and meaning in creation. We could even say that wisdom is embedded in the created order, as the handiwork of “the only wise God” (Rom. 16:27). To “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9), we study the creation order, since it reveals the glory of Christ (vv. 15–20), by whom “all things were created . . . [and]all things hold together,” and through whom God has “reconcile[d] to himself all things” by the cross.
The “book of Scripture” is of paramount importance for gaining wisdom. Proverbs sets it down as an established principle: “The Lord gives wisdom” (2:6), and the rest of that verse points to how God does this. “From his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” The prophet Jeremiah reinforces this truth in an oracle of devastating judgment. He asks: “Who is the man so wise that he can understand this? To whom has the mouth of the Lord spoken . . . ?” (Jer. 9:12). These parallel lines make clear that wisdom is gained by only those who hear and heed God’s Word. It is “the instruction [Hebrew torah] . . . ; the testimony of the Lord” that “mak[e] the inexperienced wise” (Ps. 19:7, CSB). You will never find a genuinely wise, heaven-taught Christian who does not pore over Scripture and meditate on it. This makes perfect sense, for it is only in the Bible that we come to know the Savior, who is God’s wisdom personified.
Seek counsel from mature believers
Wisdom is something that we are taught by God (in His Word), in our communion with Christ, who is the wisdom of God. The Holy Spirit’s teaching role is ultimate, as stressed in 1 Corinthians 2:10–13. Let us quickly add that it is also taught to us by others who are “spiritual” and have themselves grown in wisdom. Refusing the counsel of other mature believers is the path of folly, not wisdom. Refusing the reproof of godly people is not only foolish but self-destructive (Prov. 15:31–32). It is wisdom to ask for criticism and correction.
Doing so, however, can be exceedingly risky if you ask a proud, less-than-godly person to offer such correction. Some will tear you down and have scant interest in building you up in godliness. When they see faults and failures in you, they may themselves be tempted to pride and self-righteousness; they can forget “the affliction of their own heart” and be harsh with you (see 1 Kings 8:38). As a seminary friend once quipped, this is “the ministry of condemnation” (see 2 Cor. 3:9). Therefore, it requires not only a wise humility on your part to ask for this criticism and correction but also true wisdom in choosing whom to ask.
But if you are led by God to the right person—after praying for God’s wise direction—you may find that it is one of the most instructive experiences of your life. It may be one of the hardest experiences, too. Who might be the right person for you? I would suggest a friend known to be both kind and truthful in equal measure (Eph. 4:15). I assume that you have met those who have such a gentle, loving Christian spirit that they make it easy for you to receive their word of correction. God speaks to your heart through them.
Proverbs puts an emphasis on learning from parents: “My son, be attentive to my wisdom” (5:1). But there are many others from whom we can learn, including the saints from centuries past. Friend, do walk with the wise to become wise (13:20).
As the Bible states, people who think themselves wise, who are “wise in [their] own eyes,” are worse than fools (Prov. 26:12; see also Rom. 12:16; 1 Cor. 3:18–20). Pride blinds us to our faults and blocks us from learning wisdom. John Calvin wrote:
A saying of Chrysostom’s has always pleased me very much, that the foundation of our philosophy is humility. But that of Augustine pleases me even more: “So if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer Humility.” (Institutes, 2.2.11)
Pride leads us into every folly and vice, and God detests it. He means to take a sledgehammer to it, which He does through the gospel of a Suffering Servant. Study “the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).
Learn from trials
Purpose to take the long view, by which I mean to keep in mind your blessings in Christ and your hope of heaven when facing adversity or suffering. That is wisdom. God is doing something truly wonderful in your heart and life: glorifying Himself in you, making you more like Christ, and preparing you for your eternal home. I think of a recent upbeat note from my wife about life’s hardships that illustrates this wisdom: “No man can take the treasure we have within or the eternal relationship we have with our Father above. How can we be anxious, or miserable, or defeated?”
Consider life’s brevity
The prayer psalm of Moses speaks eloquently of our mortality: “We bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; . . . they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:9–10). What lesson should we draw? “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). It seems that nearly every Bible metaphor used to describe human life highlights its brevity. We are the morning mist, a passing shadow, a breath, the grass, a flower of the field—here one day and gone the next. Meditating on this truth, we will gain wisdom to live for God rather than for ourselves; to live for what is eternal rather than passing fashion and consumerism; to live to edify others for Jesus’ sake rather than to impress others. Wisdom contradicts the silly old motto: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” God calls that man a fool who fails to consider his mortality and lays up treasure for himself (Luke 12:20).
Considering life’s brevity, we will be more careful to keep making progress in wisdom all our days. Calvin wrote in his commentary on Zechariah 4:13, “This is our wisdom, to be learners to the end.”
A parting blessing
In conclusion, we receive an extra motivation to seek wisdom in God. Long before Jesus gave us eight beatitudes in His Sermon on the Mount, there were Old Testament beatitudes. Here is a word for us all: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom” (Prov. 3:13).
Dr. John F. Evans is lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Union School of Theology in the United Kingdom.
He is author of several books, including You Shall Know That I Am Yahweh.