What Is Wisdom?

by Glenn Conjurske

Wisdom is doubtless a very complex thing, having many facets, but I aim at present merely to describe its essence. I suppose the most fundamental part of wisdom consists of an understanding of how to accomplish our ends. Next to that lies an understanding of which ends are worth accomplishing—-the ability to differentiate between the weighty and the frivolous, to distinguish necessity from convenience, etc. Both these aspects of wisdom are well illustrated in the parable of the unjust steward, in Luke 16. This steward was accused to his lord that he wasted his goods, and called to account for it. Expecting to be thrust out of his office, he proceeded to cheat his lord further, by reducing the bills of his debtors, so that when he lost his position, they would receive him into their houses. “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their own kind [Greek] wiser than the children of light.” He had not done justly, but wisely. He had acted in such a manner as to secure his own personal ends. This is wisdom. The children of this world are wiser in their own kind than the children of light. They know how to gain their own ends in their own sphere, better than the children of light do in their sphere.

And observe, the unjust steward acted entirely for himself. Wisdom is the ability to gain our own ends, and it is quite consistent with selfishness, with injustice, and with ungodliness. We suppose there is not a wiser creature in existence than the devil. He knows how to gain his ends. The world, which is his own domain and kingdom, is the virtual perfection of wisdom, by which the fiend has gained the allegiance of almost the whole of the human race, and the more we study the world—-its education, its politics, its religions, its advertising, its pleasures, its customs—-the more impressed we must be with the wisdom of its ruler and god.

But there is a second step of wisdom, which is to know what ends are worth gaining. This will lead us always to put necessity before convenience, and to secure the future even at the expense of the present. This the unjust steward did. His course of action could only render his present position utterly hopeless, yet it secured his future, and this is wisdom. It fell short, of course, of the best wisdom, for it saw nothing of the ultimate future. It secured his future only in this world. This was wisdom, as far as it went, but we hardly need say that the truest wisdom not only secures the future at the expense of the present, but secures the eternal at the expense of the temporal. And here we see that men may be passing wise in their own kind—-with unerring foresight securing their own future in this world—-and yet utter fools, in that they neglect their eternal interests for those of time. “Wise as serpents” in their own sphere, they are utterly destitute of that wisdom of which the fear of the Lord is the beginning.

The devil himself is both the perfection of wisdom, and the most consummate fool. He knows how to gain his own ends in his own sphere, but is utterly destitute of the second step of wisdom, to know which ends are worth gaining. All his wisdom is expended upon the present advantage, while he is utterly regardless of the end. He knows how to gain the present victory, but goes on day after day treasuring up to himself ever greater wrath for the day of judgement. And as he acts himself, so he teaches his disciples to act also. The result is that the world is a system replete with the most consummate wisdom in its own kind, while it reeks of the most astonishing folly with respect to the ultimate future.

The hyperspiritual will of course object to my description of wisdom, on the ground that it is selfish, to which I need only reply that wisdom certainly is “selfish.” That is, it has a paramount regard to its own interests. This was undeniably the case with the unjust steward, who acted solely for his own interests, and was yet commended because he had done wisely. Let any who doubts this but read the book of Proverbs. Any man who can read that book, and yet deny that wisdom has a supreme regard to its own interests, is not an honest man. To take one example among many, “Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth. Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee. Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee.” Many such things are in the Bible, but surely this one is sufficient to establish the matter.

But the selfish nature of wisdom will make it a dangerous possession, if we have it alone, without virtue. None were so wise as Ahithophel, whose counsel was as an oracle of God—-but having no character, he could use his wisdom indifferently, either for the man of God, or against him, either for David or Absalom. It is therefore that the Lord admonishes us in Matthew 10:16, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Wise as serpents, to secure our own interests, and it may be our own skin, while we walk as sheep in the midst of wolves, but harmless as doves, that we tread not on the legitimate interests of the wolves in the process.

Glenn Conjurske