As people grow older, they become wiser. No one knows who said it first, but that's the way we understand it according to conventional wisdom. What about it? Do you agree? As the years pile up, each of us certainly ought to be acquiring some kind of mature outlook on life. Because experience has a seasoning effect, age should give us a handle on daily events, so that at least we can take what happens to us with equanimity. Isn't that right? We ought also to be able to pass along to others some practical, intuitive advice to keep them from taking some of the wrong paths we took.
But is that what happens?
I hate to tell you this, but the older I get, the more I am impressed with my distractedness. I drive downtown, get out of my car, and find myself wearing one brown shoe and one black shoe. I board an airplane heading across the continent, take out my newspaper, open my glasses case, and no glasses. I come out of a building,
and not only do I forget where I parked my rented car, I even forget its make and color. Those are some minor aberrations; I won't flagellate myself by telling the others.
Wisdom! What is it anyway? In the greatest of all books on wisdom, Proverbs, King Solomon wrote, "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom,"1 and, "My son, pay attention to my wisdom."2 Solomon was reputed to have been the wisest man who had ever lived. His wisdom was far-ranging in statesmanship, in understanding of human nature, in natural history, and in literature; yet he got into trouble. "When Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God."3
It appears that when we reach our older years we can act foolishly just as easily as we did thirty years earlier. I assure you this condition does not improve with age. One soon discovers that old is not a synonym for wise. The "old wise man" or "wise old woman" may be an archetype, but archetypes are really nothing but "unconscious ideas," which eliminates us from that category. No such person lives in our house or on our street.
What we seem to have in human wisdom is a flying goal. We pursue it into old age, but all we ever manage to grasp are its trailing streamers, and usually we miss it altogether. We are forced to admit that instead of being candidates for such wisdom, we are satisfied if a man in a white coat is not chasing us with his paddy wagon.
As we look at the world around us, we find people seeking to live so much by wisdom as by "smartness." Thus it is said of big-time operators that they "played it smart"; they backed the right horse or bought the right stocks at the right time or correctly estimated economic or demographic trends. They capitalized on something that the rest of us overlooked. But whether all this was due to "smarts" or "kismet" or just plain luck is a matter I am not qualified to discuss.
The Bible uses a different vocabulary; it speaks of the "wisdom of this world" and says God has made such wisdom look silly. The apostle Paul, speaking of the religious leaders of his day, points out that although they knew God, they were not thankful to Him, and he added: "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools."4 The longer we live, the more we realize that worldly success is a chimera; it evaporates like the steam from a boiling kettle. Every day the media regale us with stories of people who by their shrewdness became fabulously rich, only to lose it all through a shift in the market, or the manipulations of a crooked associate, or their own devious dealings, or else their fatuousness and pride. And every day, somewhere in these United States, may be heard a refrain that seems to have originated in Pennsylvania: "We get too soon oldt and too late schmart!"
Still, occasionally we hear it said of a senior citizen: "He's a wise old owl." Two things make that statement questionable. First, ornithologists assure us that owls are not all that wise; and second,
the Bible tells us that old people are not all that wise either at least, not wise in themselves. Any born-again senior citizen can say "Amen" to that. Furthermore the Bible teaches that only God is wise, but that if we ask God to share His wisdom with us, He will.
Then what is wisdom? I didn't pay much attention to it when I was younger. As Larry Lea remarks, "It isn't the buzzword of commerce."5 If, when I was younger, I thought about it at all, I thought of wisdom as something out of the past, dignified, profound, and rather awesome, like the Gettysburg Address or the Ten Commandments.
Now that I am older, I do have a definition: Wisdom is knowing how to live. Not just knowing how to use one's time, or how to figure the square root, or make right decisions, or deal with people, or judge the future, or even memorize all the verses in the Bible. All of such matters are connected with knowledge, but knowledge is not necessarily wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how to live not going on lecture tours to tell others how to live, or writing books or recording videotapes about it, but just knowing how to live.
Assuming that my definition is the right one, how do we older people go about acquiring this wisdom? We really do want to learn the secret of living out our closing years in pleasantness, in rewarding relationships, in comparative freedom, in reasonable health, in useful service to God and humanity in other words, in an atmosphere of rewarding satisfactions and enjoyment. We want to be able to say before we drop
out of sight, "Despite all the obstacles, hardships, quicksands, sin, and suffering encountered along the way, it has been a wonderful life."
My answer will sound bizarre to some readers, but it is a very good answer and when you've thought about it I think you'll agree: We acquire this wisdom, this kind of outlook on life, not from just growing older but from a book. Not just any book, mind you. We find our wisdom in the book. I like what John Wesley said about that book:
I want to know one thing, the way to Heaven: how to land on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach me; for this very end He came down from Heaven. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book. At any price, give me the book of God!6
Well, we have the book. Now what do we do with it? A Bible concordance tells us that the word wisdom is used in the Scriptures "not only for learning, discretion and spiritual insight, but also for skill in the arts and the instinct of birds of beasts." Really, now! No doubt the artisans who worked on the first temple used wisdom as they employed their skills. No doubt homing pigeons are equipped with some kind of wisdom. No doubt wisdom is connected with knowledge, learning, discretion, and spiritual insight. But we still don't know what it is. We haven't traced the fountain to its source. If wisdom is knowing how to live, how do we acquire it?
The answer lies not in looking up words in a
concordance. We can't toy with this subject; we can't play around its edges. The search for wisdom calls for all the brain power we can muster and all the experience of our years, and still we end up having to turn to Almighty God for help. He is the only true source of all wisdom. Gray hair and all, we have to come to Him in our ignorance and inquire of Him what He had in mind when He placed us here. We have to trace in God's own Word what He says His creation is all about and what was "the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord."7 And then we have to examine Jesus' own statement about the reason for His incarnation: "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (italics added).8
Some say that creation exists only to glorify God, but such a statement seems inadequate on the face of it since God is love. Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that God had something in mind beyond simply glorifying Himself when He shaped the universe. Of course, He tells us to glorify Him! And we are to praise Him, adore Him, magnify Him, worship His majesty. For what purpose? Why, to keep us from glorifying ourselves. The New Testament declares, "no flesh should glory in His presence." Even more specifically it says: "Let no one glory in men."9 And there is something else: When we give glory to God we learn to know Him and to love Him; in loving Him, we find that He loves us and hears us when we call upon Him.
Others say that God placed human beings on
the earth in order that they might behave themselves and stay out of trouble in other words, "be good," so they would be fit to go to Heaven someday. But humanity has done poorly in staying out of trouble. Does that mean God made a mistake in His cosmic plan?
That explanation, too, falls short because it ignores the solid teaching of the Bible. Contrary to popular belief, the Holy Book is not primarily a set of rules for circumspect living. It is before anything else a book of love, whose theme is salvation and whose quintessence is joy. The rules are there, but not for their own sake; they are there to enable us to enjoy living. God peopled the earth with men and women, boys and girls, and old folks because it gave Him joy and pleasure to do so, and because He wanted us to participate in that joy. Why else did He create joy in the first place? He provided an abundance of good things for our sustenance in order that we might serve Him with joy and gladness of heart. He even had an eye for beauty: "God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight."10 Biblical evidence shows that Divine Wisdom manifested itself in pleasure. The pleasure was to create joy and gladness in our midst.
As for the "mystery of iniquity," the presence of sin and evil in the world, the Bible's answer is abundantly clear: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."11 Thousands of books have been written about sin, wickedness, judgment, condemnation,
and Hell, but none of them have adequately explained these things. After the finest minds have wrestled with these subjects, we have to conclude that evil is still a mystery.
There is no mystery, however, about God's love, His mercy, and His kindness. That is the good news of the gospel. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians that God "made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself."12 Again and again in the New Testament we come across that expression "good pleasure." In 1 Timothy 6:17 God "gives us richly all things to enjoy." In the Psalms the Lord "takes pleasure in His people," and the Psalmist cries with delight: "In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore."13
Here is the "mystery of His will"; here is the secret element in wisdom. It is the enjoyment of life! We exercise prudence and discretion and self-discipline not to make us "blameless" but in order to enjoy ourselves! God's wisdom does not intend that as we grow old we should be everlastingly repenting, or regretting, or recriminating, or grieving any more than it intends that we should become shaky and doddering. Wisdom is growing older and enjoying it!
Our Father in Heaven is a God of love and joy. He created the universe for His own good pleasure "which He purposed in Himself." He created men and women that they might dwell together on earth's bounty in genuine loving fellowship and gladness of heart. He lavished upon
us all the beauties and good things of creation in order that we might derive pleasure from them.
God wrapped atmospheric bonds around our globe to shield us from harm. He set up pain to warn us not to hurt ourselves. He gave us marriage as a sure foil and buffer against the ravages of promiscuity and disease. He made clothing for our first parents to protect them. He filled the orchards with fruit and the fields with grain. He covered the mountains with trees and hid precious metals inside them. He filled the orchards with fruit and fields with grain. He covered the mountains with trees and hid precious metals inside them. He dropped pure, life-giving water into the lakes and streams. He sent the sunshine and the rain, the snows and the green grass, that we might enjoy to the fullest our brief sojourn on the planet Earth; and it gave Him pleasure to do so.
The only thing God did not send us was sin, because He knew it would take away our enjoyment of life. That is why the Bible says again and again, "Get wisdom!" Don't (for example) go after money; go after wisdom. Money is not the way to enjoy life; wisdom is the way to enjoy life. If we haven't learned that by the time we are senior citizens, we have a lot of ground to make up. History is full of the most pathetic examples of people who had everything that money could buy, and yet their lives were utterly miserable.
Yet millions of people some of them older people are wearing themselves out trying to make a buck. They are putting in seventy and eighty hours a week in the effort. Many old people are also among the millions buying lottery tickets, though what they want with the money,
should they win, I can't imagine. The only certainty is that a lot of other people will want it.
As a young man I borrowed a rowboat and with a friend drifted a thousand miles down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to a point below Beaver, Alaska. One day my partner and I pulled ashore and knocked at the door of a weather-beaten old log cabin. We were simply making a friendly call. It was late afternoon, and we were considering camping that night on the river bank in front of the cabin.
An aged, bent, frail-looking man came to the door. He was obviously a prospector, one of the old Klondikers still looking for a bonanza. His speech was almost incoherent. His clothes were soiled, his beard shaggy, and we could see that the cabin itself was a fright. As we could not make ourselves understood to him, we decided to push off.
As we floated on down the river we spent some time discussing the old man and his prospects. We concluded that even if he found a cache of gold nuggets in the stream by his cabin, it would do him no good. How could he use it? Even if he took his poke to the assayer and changed it into cash, boarded a steamer to Whitehorse and eventually went "outside," he would be unhappy and would probably die. He was beyond enjoying life. He had spent his days in a futile search for something else and had neglected to get wisdom.
And yet it's not that hard to get. One of the blessings of growing older is that, if we only
knew it, we don't have to work so hard for God's wisdom. If we are Christians, we don't need to batter the gates of Heaven to gain God's Kingdom. Jesus said that the Father is going to give it to us anyway. So while we take God very seriously, we don't have to take ourselves quite so seriously. And if we really want wisdom, the first and biggest step is to abandon any pretense at being wise. We will find many nodding in agreement. We are starting out on a sound basis.
If we can maintain a modest posture as we move into our sixties and seventies and eighties, there may well prove to be a unique role we can play in society. People sometimes like to consult older heads before they make an important move, if they can find an older head they can trust. Presidents often call on former presidents before taking a major step. If people are convinced that we are interested in them and not just in ourselves, if they feel safe about our being detached and not wanting to become involved personally, if they think we have some background experience relevant to their problem, and if they are not afraid we will talk them to death, such people will occasionally come to consult us.
When they do, we should be extremely careful what we say. Our experience might be relevant, and it might not. When an editor came to me for counsel, I thought hard about his situation and gave him my best shot. I was pretty sure it was what he needed. I also prayed with him. He wrote, thanking me for my counsel and "especially
for your prayer." Since then I have been stronger on prayer and more diffident about giving advice. Yet there come times when it is clear that something needs to be said. In that case, one can sometimes convey truth more easily if it is couched in a quotation from someone else. What Joe DiMaggio said, or what Moses or Plato or Amy Carmichael or Walt Disney said, seems to be more acceptable than my profundities, especially if it is relevant. And, of course, there is always that moment of breathless expectation when I lean back, stroke my chin, and remark, "Sancho Panza once said . . ."
To those who would like a reputation for wisdom in old age, I have set down some suggestions.
IF YOU WANT WISDOM . . .
. . . go for it. (What can you lose?)
. . . repent. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. Turn about face. Despise sin. Stop fouling your nest. Make restitution.
. . . believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. There's no other way to be saved.
. . . be filled with the Spirit. Remember, the Holy Spirit is love. He is also wisdom.
. . . love everybody. Help everyone you can. Put yourself last. That's where you belong anyway.
. . . live with God. Talk to Him every day about everything and everybody.
. . . let God talk to you through His Word. Read the Bible regularly.
. . . talk up Jesus. We never get too old to do that.
. . . never dispense advice gratuitously. Wait until it is asked for. The longer you hold it back, the wiser it becomes.
. . . relax. You've worked hard. You're a success. Smile. Enjoy life. That's what God put you here to do. I was sixty years old before I discovered in the Bible that God created us for His enjoyment and ours; that His Wisdom is composed of love, joy, and peace; and that He delights to give us pleasure.
And finally, if you want wisdom . . . look for a big day coming.
Chapter 8 || Table of Contents
1. Proverbs 4:7.
2. Proverbs 5:1.
3. 1 Kings 11:3-4.
4. Romans 1:22 NIV
5. Larry Lea, Wisdom: Don't Live Life Without It (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson, 1990), ix.
6. John Wesley, preface, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., 3d ed. (London: 1825).
7. Ephesians 3:11.
8. John 10:10.
9. 1 Corinthians 1:29 and 3:21.
10. Genesis 2:9.
11. John 3:16.
12. Ephesians 1:9.
13. Psalm 16:11.
Chapter 8 || Table of Contents