Wisdom: what is it?

The greater part of wisdom, I was once told, consists in the ability to hold complementary truths together.

It’s an observation worthy of reflection: that wisdom is not so much a matter simply of becoming increasingly more familiar with truth or even more adept at applying it, but that wisdom concerns a growing ability to hold together those truths that stand in some kind of tension with one another.

By holy and welcome sinners

Take, as an example, the way a church might seek to be a community that holds unambiguously to Biblical morality and also to be welcoming to sinners. God certainly calls his people to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Jesus Himself told His disciples to ‘be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt.5:48). Yet Jesus also gained a reputation as one who ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2), and told parables about a God who welcomes prodigals (Luke 15:11-32) and extends mercy to dishonest tax collectors (Luke 18:9-14). How well do our churches exemplify both these things simultaneously?

Mountain ridgeline

It’s a little like staying on the ridgeline of a mountain. Something that is both very important to do and all too easy to get wrong – with disastrous results. For on either side of the ridge are steep slopes down which many have previously tumbled. Some fall off the ridgeline by drifting toward the kind of warm, enthusiastic welcome that embraces everyone without question and has, often without realising it, entirely lost sight of both the holiness of God and the consequent moral demands He makes of His people. Others, meanwhile, have fallen off the opposite side of the ridge. These are churches that have established sharp moral boundaries and uncompromising ethical demands, but done so in such a way that strugglers are alienated and grace is obscured. One becomes a community where Scriptural authority is lost and theological revision is the norm. The other a community where legalism takes root and self-righteousness strangles the gospel of grace.

The elusive middle ground?

So is the solution to be found in some kind of moderation? Must we locate the perfectly ‘balanced’ position that avoids the errors of the extremes? Many believe so and set about energetically pursuing that elusive middle ground. Yet not only are such balanced positions notoriously hard to discover, never mind maintain, they are also so often insipid. Not too much of this and not too much of that soon becomes a rather flavourless theological mush!

Much harder – and yet so much more glorious – is the kind of wisdom that finds a way to hold complementary truth together. Which, in this case, means being utterly committed both to the highest standards of moral excellence and to an extravagant welcoming grace. That may be a hard path to walk – but when a church does stay up on that ridgeline, it will get noticed. Because there is something both wonderfully distinctive and gloriously attractive about a community that succeeds in holding together those truths that others end up pulling apart.

In personal ministry this wisdom will bring a growing ability to say hard things in love. It means the kind of counsellor who will neither soft-soap truth in order to keep a pastoral relationship going, but nor will they simply ‘tell it like it is’ and blame a person’s hard heart for refusing to ‘hear what’s good for them’. Jesus’ personal ministry was never like that. He was indeed ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14, emphasis added). Whether speaking to a much-married woman (John 4:1-26), a rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31) or an overconfident disciple (Matt. 16:15-28), Jesus found a way to communicate the uncompromising nature of God’s demands as well as the unconditional forgiveness of God’s grace. We should – no we must – endeavour to do likewise. Lord, have mercy and grant us wisdom.

Steve Midgley

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