What Is Wisdom and How Do We Get It?

Wisdom, like virtue, is something that we are constantly being encouraged to acquire.

The call to wisdom is explicit in Scripture. “Teach us to count our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart,” says Psalm 90:12. “Get wisdom, get understanding!” urges Proverbs 4:5. Proverbs 8:11 declares that “wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” Such is its power that wisdom itself is depicted as calling out to men later in Proverbs 8.

The primacy of wisdom is also reflected in the New Testament, in verses like James 1:5 and Colossians 3:16.

What is wisdom? It seems related to knowledge but also quite distinct. In everyday parlance, wisdom implies a certain attitude or stance towards reality and issues in action of some kind. I may know that it is unsafe to venture into a crack house, but I am not a wise man unless I put that knowledge into action by actually avoiding such an excursion. A young man is foolish if he lives as if his earthly body were immortal. He is wise if he doesn’t.

In the Old Testament, wisdom is connected with God’s role as Creator. This is particularly clear in Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 3:19 states, “The Lord founded the earth by wisdom; He established the heavens by understanding; by his knowledge the depths burst apart, and the skies distilled dew.” In Proverbs 8 wisdom is cast as the essential companion of God as He undertook the work of creation:

I was there when He set the heavens into place;
When He fixed the horizon upon the deep;
When He made the heavens above firm,
the foundations of the deep gushed forth;
When He assigned the sea its limits,
So that its waters never transgress His command;
When He fixed the foundations of the earth (vv. 27-29).

The connection between wisdom and the act of creation is also reinforced in Job:

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
The birds of the sky, they will tell you,
Or speak to the earth, it will teach you;
The fish of the sea, they will inform you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this?
… With Him are wisdom and courage;
His are counsel and understanding (Job 12:7-9, 13).

We can thus define wisdom as being the knowledge of the Creator in a twofold manner. First there is the wise plan according to which he made the heavens and the earth, the land and the seas, and all the living things that populate them. This in turns leads to a secondary knowledge: because He made all these things, God knows them intimately and perfectly—better than they know themselves, to the extent that creatures do.

But this definition leads us to a paradox. If wisdom is the applied knowledge of the Creator, then how can we ever hope to have it? Would not the pursuit of wisdom be an exercise in futility?

Even Scripture seems to raise this question, in a speech by God no less, in which he scolds Job:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
… Who closed the sea behind the doors
When it gushed forth out of the womb,
When I clothed it in clouds. …
Who is wise enough to give an account of the heavens? (Job 38:4-5, 8-9, 37).

And yet Scripture beckons us on to seek wisdom. “The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom,” says Proverbs 4:7.

Fortunately, Scripture does elaborate on how to do this.

The crucial key comes earlier in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Proverbs 4 then expands upon this point—if we understand wisdom to be one with God, as Proverbs 8 implies and John 1 confirms. “Extol her, and she will exalt you; she will bring you honors if you embrace her” (Proverbs 4:8).

The acquisition of wisdom is narrated in personal terms. Wisdom does not come from reading books, taking notes, or thinking great thoughts. Instead it comes from God. Specifically, it arises when we fear God.

This is exactly the type of response God’s scolding speech to Job cited above should elicit: a sort of holy fear, an awe and reverence. For the God-fearer this requires a stance of humility: a recognition that we don’t know the world as well as God does—that we cannot know the nature of things as He does. For us, then, wisdom consists in a kind of not knowing. It is knowledge of our own ignorance before the infinite knowledge of God.

We can then discern between two forms of wisdom: human wisdom and divine wisdom. Scripture supports this interpretation:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Likewise, in the New Testament:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?”
(Romans 8:33, quoting several Old Testament texts)

What we doing here is speaking of wisdom analogously. Analogous ways of speaking are best explained by contrasting them with two other ways: univocal and equivocal. Univocal terms have one fixed meaning. For example, zoology always refers to the study of life. It does not have a range or diversity of meanings. On the other hand, the word bark can have two completely different and unrelated meanings: it can refer to a boat or the sound a dog makes. (My examples are borrowed and adapted from these two sources here and here.)

The third way of speaking is by analogy. Take the word stellar. Technically it is an adjective for stars, as in a stellar orbit. But we also use the word to talk about amazing things that really stand out, just as the stars stand out in the night sky. So I could talk about how Joe’s presentation is stellar. Now his presentation is completely different than stars—one is a ball of gas that emits light through nuclear fusion. The other is an arrangement of rational thoughts (one hopes at least) expressed through a series of symbols (letters, words, sentences) and images.

Yet the two are related. Like the stars, Joe’s presentation was exemplary in its brilliance, in a way that could not be ignored.

So it is with wisdom. Our wisdom is completely different than God’s: His thoughts are not ours. And yet they are related—this is the key insight of analogy.

In the case of wisdom, ours is related to God’s. His wisdom consists in perfect knowledge of the order of creation. Ours derives from knowing that we do not have such knowledge. What we do know is that we are but one small part of creation a mere individual creature within the cosmic order of creation. Thus both human and divine wisdom are related in that they entail a certain kind of knowledge about creation yet they are otherwise vastly different.

The principle of analogy then comforts us in our quest for wisdom. While we cannot arrive at divine knowledge, we can be confident we are on the right path. And while we cannot know all things, we know one important thing: that God does know all things. As our weakness is perfected in His strength, to paraphrase St. Paul, so also our ignorance is perfected in His knowledge. Or, put another away: our wisdom is made perfect in His.

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Bernardo Cynthia

    Wisdom is a fascinating subject. Thanks, well-written! Coherent and interesting…
    Brilliant

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