Editor's note:

In a world where information comes at us in an unending flurry—through our phones, TVs, laptops—Richard Foster asks us to slow down and consider the value of Wisdom literature in Scripture. To quote King Solomon, there really is nothing new under the sun—and the Wisdom Tradition helps us sort the wheat from the chaff in endless fields of information. In the pages of psalms and proverbs, we find timeless truths for discerning what is good and right and helpful in our lives. We would be far poorer spiritually were we not to give these books their due.

—Renovaré Team

The Stored Treasure of Human Insight

I am so glad for the Wisdom Tradition found in Scripture. It does so many things for us:

— it roots us solidly in everyday life and everyday tasks;

— its pithy aphorisms and proverbs give us timeless, portable teachers for the multiple daily decisions that come our way;

— it reminds us that our choices really do have consequences and profoundly shape our lives;

— it allows us to learn from the mistakes of others without having to repeat those same mistakes;

— it gives us a basic moral orientation to guide us in all aspects of our day-in-day-out living; and more.

The Wisdom Tradition has given rise to a whole genre of literature found in our Bible; from Job to Proverbs to the Song of Solomon to the Wisdom Psalms to the Deuterocanonical books of Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon to many of the sayings in the New Testament Pastoral Epistles. Unfortunately, these writings have sometimes been devalued by Christians because they do not focus on the more dominate biblical theme of salvation history and because they sound an awful lot like the works of ancient pagan writers. But we reject this stored treasure of human insight to our peril. Indeed, our wholesale neglect of the Wisdom Tradition may well explain why we have so many foolish Christians today running after every conspiracy theory and succumbing to every propaganda technique.

Values of the Wisdom Tradition

Let me give you four reasons why I find the Wisdom Tradition so valuable for us today. First, we really do need a strong dose of ordinary common sense in the modern scene today. I’m referring here to what an earlier generation called “horse sense” and what the ancients called “prudence.” This is really nothing more than practical wisdom applied to life situations. One reason Dr. Phil on TV and Dr. Laura on the radio have touched such a nerve in the modern psyche is because they dish out exactly this kind of ordinary common sense, allowing for no excuses. And what astonishes me in all this is that people are so totally out of touch with the Wisdom Tradition that they are amazed as if hearing some original insight and are genuinely helped by such common sense counsel. Well, may their tribe increase a hundred-fold. People are so lost today in the most simple matters of managing their personal and family lives that we should rejoice whenever proverbs of good sense triumph, irrespective of their source.

Second, focusing on the accumulated wisdom that comes from the ordinary experiences of ordinary people gives sacramental significance to the commonplace and the everyday. That faith will have the most meaning which touches common life redemptively at the most points. Genuine faith deals more with the home than with the church, more with the office than with the altar. If Christian witness is to gain a hold on the life of post-modern men and women, it must find ways of meeting people in the midst of their everyday experiences. And this will require a disciplined and sanctified imagination. The Wisdom Tradition can point the way.

Third, the Wisdom Tradition can help us deal with the information overload that plagues our daily lives. The Internet, hotlinks, e-mails, blogs, and more give us information by the ton. And there is nothing wrong with these things, but they cannot give us wisdom for living. No, we need times now and again when we will exit the information super-highway and turn onto wisdom’s country lanes. Knowing more and more facts may well be what we want, but it’s not what we need. And it’s time we brought our “want-er” into line with our “need-er.” Reflection … stillness … prayerful observation—these are the things that can teach us better how to live.

Fourth, the Wisdom Tradition stresses character development through moral education, and this is an important ingredient in the spiritual transformation of the human personality. To be sure, it is only one piece in a large and complicated puzzle. But it is a piece. Teaching people how to make wise choices is a good thing. A pithy saying that provides guidance in practical decision making is a good thing. Teachings that aid us in doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time, and in the right way is a good thing.

Like I said, this is not everything, nor is it even the most important thing. We most certainly must go on to understand how ingrained habits of evil can be eradicated by the power of God. We must go on to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the human heart. We must go on to the development of holy habits of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. And more. But natural human wisdom is a foundation upon which these further developments of formation can build. Just because wisdom is “natural” and “human” does not place it in opposition to the divine work of God; it merely places it in a lower order. God does not contradict such wisdom, but presupposes it and builds the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love upon it.

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Originally published in Perspectives in March 2001.