Theology Tuesdays: Wisdom

Tessa and I are trying to communicate more regularly here on more of a schedule. So every other Tuesday we’ll start adding some theological reflections like this one. They say routine and schedule can add some semblance of order to our lives these days. We’ll see!

I’ve been doing what little I can, having a few people over here at the house to pray, reflect on God’s Word and work in the community. That has taken the form of crafting the biblical story of Job to broadcast on the local radio and some community development as we walk through the book of James together.

Job and ill-timed truths

Job has always fascinated me. As a former theatre junkie, it reads like a dramatic production to me every time. Maybe I’m trying to realize some of my dreams with this radio theatre venture now! James, however, I consider a more familiar book . . . except it’s kicking my butt right now. Both are steeped in the biblical, Jewish wisdom tradition. Along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Job is a reflection on how to live. If Proverbs is the optimist and Ecclesiastes the pessimist, Job is the realist of the wisdom books.

We were reading through Job a month ago. It struck me how much more poignant the story is now. I imagined certain people sitting here in the slums or on the side of the road voicing Job’s cries of injustice. I could see their pastors shaking their heads at them, or the local Christian ladies dressed in their Sunday best doing their best to comfort them by telling them to repent so that things would go back to normal, rubbing salt in an angry wound. I could see myself, speaking platitudes about God’s care to them from a place of privilege and health while they wail and moan and dare to ask why this is happening to them.

Derek Kidner, one of my favorite scholars on the Hebrew Writings for his clarity, put something into words I’ve never noticed before about Job’s friends. It’s not that they’re wrong, per se . . .

“A closer look at the material shows that the basic error of Job’s friends is that they overestimate their grasp of truth, misapply the truth they know, and close their minds to any facts that contradict what they assume.”

Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job,& Ecclesiastes, 61.

The Bible has a category, an ensemble of characters even, that teach we can be technically right but contextually, relationally dead-wrong. To say it another way, if I could speak every language that exists, have the solution to every problem down to global poverty, have enough faith that I can actually physically toss mountains into the ocean, but don’t know how to treat people . . . I’ve got zilch, nada–I am nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-2).

How in the world are we any different than Job’s friends right now? It was startling for me to realize early on in this crisis that I did not need the barrage of spiritual encouragement sent my way. Faith over fear? Really!? As if a catchphrase will help me sleep at night or calm my pent-up three-year-old or suddenly open the borders of the country in which I feel stranded without help.

Then I thought about those around me. How many times do I do the same to them. Instead of sitting with them in their pain, I offer trite solutions. It’s not that “Faith over Fear,” or “God’s in control,” “She’s in a better place now,” or “All Lives Matter” are patently false statements. They aren’t. Neither are they helpful when someone is in pain.

Job’s friends all understand something true about God’s character. But then they misapply that truth and use it against one made in God’s image. And God makes it clear he is not cool with how they’ve handled the situation (Job 42:7-8). He calls their words of wisdom, “foolish.” They kept blabbing on about stuff they didn’t understand, making up excuses for God, it seems like, to help themselves feel more in control. Job gets his own remedial wisdom class, but he passes the test because he loves God too much to accept pat answers about him. He knows something’s up and he won’t rest until he figures it out and knows his relationship with God is solid.

The hinge of the book is chapter 28, where Job declares, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom! And to depart from evil is understanding” (28:28), which bookends the wisdom books at the opening of Proverbs (1:7) and the close of Ecclesiastes (12:13). This is wisdom distilled: Fear God, flee evil. But as we see with Job, this lesson is refined in the furnace not learned in the classroom; it will take our full attention to maintain the tension of standing in awe before the God of the whirlwind as we sit scraping our sores on the trash heap.

Too often, we fall into the trap of making excuses for God to make ourselves feel better instead of honestly wrestling with him. We either say he is too good to let us suffer (though it clearly happens) or we say he is obviously not good at all (which we clearly owe him our very lives!). But for those who say “maybe . . .” and try to push for answers, struggle to find real footing with God, we show only resentment. For some reason, we (and I am right in the middle of we) seem in short-supply of empathy, and it may be because, just like Job’s friends, we would be better off just sitting, listening, and not getting angry at things that contradict what we assume to be true of the world. In a context where, in real time, no one knows what’s really going on, it’s better to wrestle with God than lean on dogma. Because as Job shows, the world is a confusing place, and we don’t even know how much we don’t know.

James and double-talk

Speaking of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (1:19), James stands out as the wisdom book of the New Testament. Reflecting on various proverbs, psalms, the storyline of the Old Testament and also Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” James is giving the first Jewish church in Jerusalem Wisdom 2.0, in light of “glorious Lord Jesus Messiah” (2:1). He even references Job . . .

As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

James 5:11 (NIV)

I recommend James to you as a 2020 read, especially in light of the vitriol, double-talk, and double-mindedness that we’re seeing. James is concerned the church has double-standards:

  • They pray for wisdom, but don’t actually want to be given any (1:5-8)
  • They blame God for the bad without thanking him for the good (1:12-18)
  • They think everyone should hear their opinions, but don’t listen to any others (1:19-27)
  • They help out the upstanding, yet stand on the downtrodden (2:1-13)
  • They claim to follow Jesus, but never do anything for others (2:14-26)

And that’s just the first two chapters!

The wisdom of James is to not forget our history in the faith, the wisdom of God’s word, but to live our lives in gratitude before king Jesus. Re-verbalizing Jesus’ own teaching, his little brother says, “Say what you mean, do what is true, and love others like you want God to love you.” Most of the time, we say, do, and love only in a way that benefits me, myself, and I.

Last week, me and the guys were looking at James 1:19-27; this week we were in 2:1-13. Both times I’m struck by what I’ve never noticed there. James clearly is talking to a stratified congregation of Haves and Have-nots. He says it several times (1:9-11; 2:1-7; 2:13-17; 5:1-6). Let that sink in, because it permeates the whole book. I’ve never understood that being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger are conversation guidelines for Christians in different socioeconomic positions. But it clearly is, as some people were claiming to know Jesus yet hadn’t been listening to the needs in their own community. They were listening to the sermons on Sunday but they hadn’t visited with the poor (1:27). Is there a more Jesus-like thing to do?!

In 2:1-13, James lays down the law (literally), saying “Don’t have faith in Jesus and partiality.” Partiality, discrimination, favoritism, racism, they’re all talking about the same reality. And the passage that I have used as an apologetic for how all sin is equal in the eyes of God (2:10-11) is actually making a much different point in context. As Craig Blomberg, another of my favorite Bible scholars, writes:

Discrimination is sin and breaks the law. The word here for “show favoritism” is the verb from the same root as the noun in 2:1, again with the connotation of viewing people’s external appearances only instead of seeing them as whole persons.

Craig Blomberg, James; ZECNT

God hates our unequal treatment of any person as much as he hates murder and adultery. It doesn’t matter if they have Corona virus, it doesn’t matter if they are or are not wearing a mask. If we are going to take Jesus’ name, we better start treating all people as “whole persons.” Not to improve our position, not just people who agree with us, not just people who look like us. The “law of the kingdom,” as James calls it, is a law of freedom based on the mercy of Jesus who did not come to yell at us but loved us, even as broken people. At a deep level, James is saying to the extent we have a distorted view of others we are distorted ourselves. We have become double-minded.

Wisdom is the opposite. Wisdom is an integrative principle. It is the truth of the living God lived out in loving relationships between God and his image bearers. It is a truth that survives the strongest scrutiny in the worst circumstances, and it is a truth that pulls us together instead of fracturing us. It derives from the fact that how we love all humans has direct bearing on how we love God and even ourselves. But we’ll save that for another Tuesday.

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