By Beth Downey
In every season, I have deeply valued those times when people I respected were willing to share their wisdom with me: their perspectives, insights, or hard-won knowledge. In just 26 years, I’ve been blessed with so many excellent teachers: parents, educators, supervisors, artists late and living, clergy, friends, a brilliant spouse, even strangers. What follows is my best effort to pay forward some of that abundance.
The Bible exhorts us to seek wisdom, promising that this work is among the best things we can devote our energies to (see 1 Kings 3 and Proverbs 1 through 9, just for a start). Taking that encouragement on faith and running with it feels now like the single smartest choice I made growing up. Though I wonder sometimes whether it was choice or grace, some kind of divine wink in my personality. From day one, I was voracious about learning how things really are. And the Lord is faithful! In seeking His wisdom, I really have become more like Jesus, more useful and compassionate to others than I might have been.
This is the good news I feel most able to share with others, if wisdom is what we’re talking about: the thrill, the worth, the rewards of the chase. Many things are valuable on this journey, but in my experience, only three are really essential: curiosity, humility, and discernment.
Curiosity helps us ponder whether we are even asking the right questions as we seek wisdom in this life. It reminds us to look closely, to explore, to consider the unexpected, to hold ourselves open to Divine presence and especially Divine surprise.
As Christians, we can sometimes fear curiosity, but we must fight this fear with all our hearts, trusting God to guide us as we learn. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that’s no reason to wave the poor creature’s fate around in the fear-mongering way we do. I am convinced, particularly as a woman, that there is no surer way to outright endanger a person than to smother or slander her curiosity. If she is naturally inquisitive, you will incite her to rashness, and we’re back to the cat. If she is naturally passive, you risk consigning her to ignorance, and woe betide you then.
Thank God for curiosity, the hunger of the mind that reaches toward its Maker in all things! It may be our earliest, most instinctive act of worship. As such it should be prized, encouraged, and tithed through the pursuit of wisdom.
Humility is what makes a quest for wisdom sustainable. Allied with curiosity, it reminds us never to assume we cannot learn something from any particular person or experience. Teachers are everywhere. Similarly, humility helps us keep God in God’s place and ourselves in ours. It protects us from getting inflated or unbalanced when we learn new things, keeping us aware of how much still exceeds us.
Humility also saves us from despair when we finally confront the never-ending tunnel of what we don’t know, our imperfections, and all the brokenness of the world, as Ecclesiastes 1:18 says: “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (NIV). If curiosity is what drives us to scour the Earth looking for truth, humility helps us sort through our discoveries and their implications, so that we never have to be afraid of what we may learn.
Discernment is both the product and the engine of wisdom. The Bible tells us that bad friends, false teachers, and fools are pitfalls we all must learn to avoid. Picture an inexperienced, perhaps young, person, just beginning their search for wisdom: how are they to avoid these things?
Here at the beginning, God teaches us how to select good influences. We are taught to seek the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5), both in ourselves and in others. We are taught that no matter how shrewd or appealing some insights may sound, cynicism is never truly wise (James 3:17–18), and that we must listen to our hearts, which know deep down what is admirable, pure, and lovely (Philippians 4:8).
But this “beginners’ advice” is itself advice. We as learners must be willing to test God, and scripture, on merit (1 Thessalonians 5:21). There is a way in which experience is all we have. We either trust our own experiences, or those of others whom we have experienced as trustworthy when they advise us.
What do we do after this initial testing phase, after we’ve tried a method that seems good, taking God’s advice at face value and (ideally) finding that it works? Let curiosity loose! Ask questions of anyone and everyone. Gather up heaps of different answers and apply the good tools we’ve identified. We sift our findings through the sieve of God’s teaching and test our takeaways with advisors we have reason to trust: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, NIV).
The more we do this, the more discernment grows. We learn to tell the difference between good and poor advisors, sense and foolishness, wisdom and false wisdom. We get better at discerning where to look, more effective in gathering up people, art, experiences – even as curiosity and humility protect us from getting closed-minded.
Wisdom is a positive feedback loop. Get a little, and little begets more. But we needn’t worry if it sometimes feels just the opposite – as though the more we learn, the less we know. This too is normal, and nothing to fear. All of us work our way deeper into wisdom like the thread of a screw, moving forward in circles. We go over and over the same ground, refining and re-learning the fundamentals of truth. My father often says that life is not about learning many things: it’s about learning a few things many times. Godspeed, my friends.
Beth Downey is a graduate student and emerging writer of poetry and fiction, currently dividing her time between Winnipeg, Manitoba, and St John’s, Newfoundland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Quarterly, New Hibernia Review, and others. She also moonlights as a childbirth doula. Locally, Beth and her husband Scott are blessed to call Saint Benedict’s table home.
Rupert’s Land Newsletter, February 7, 2020