What is wisdom? As parents and teachers, how do we view wisdom in light of our vocation? Can we expect education to be a path to wisdom? Is it merely a gift we passively wait to receive? Is it contradictory to say that education is the path to wisdom when it is actually received as a gift, or vice versa? Questions like these are not unimportant, even if they feel a bit philosophical and esoteric. Why, for instance, do we train up our child in the way he should go if his going is a gift?
Wisdom is a gift. It isn’t far-fetched to lay hold of this claim. James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). When we imagine wisdom as a gift, we typically imagine it in the way Christ describes it in Matthew’s Gospel: “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matt. 10:19). We see the gift as a supernatural bestowal of wisdom to us in our hour of need. We are given what we need to be wise, including the very words we will speak, as a gift from God. We ask, and God gives generously.
Is wisdom, in this sense, like an apple? I’m hungry, I desire an apple, I ask for an apple, and God gives me apples generously. This is how the Israelites were fed in the wilderness.
Looking at it another way, though, wouldn’t it be fair to say that the man who labors to grow apples in his orchard, reaps the harvest of those apples, and eats them when he’s hungry has also been given a gift from God? This is how the Israelites were fed in the Promised Land.
In both instances, we can attribute the gift as a supernatural one, even if one feels more natural than the other.
Sometimes, God bestows the gift of wisdom as He did the gift of food to the Israelites in the wilderness: a supernatural, in-the-moment, gift of necessity. This is how one might expect the apostles, having been delivered to governors and kings in a spiritual wilderness, to receive the words they needed to help them bear witness of Christ.
On the other hand, sometimes God bestows the gift of wisdom as He does the apple harvest to the farmer: as the fruits of the farmer’s labor. For example, when James tells those who lack wisdom to ask for it, he says it in a very specific context:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:2-5)
So as we meet trials, those trials test our faith, the testing produces steadfastness, and the steadfastness makes us “perfect and complete”. James then defines “perfect and complete” as “lacking in nothing.” His very next words are, “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God.” But what was it that made us lack nothing? Trials. Our life experiences produce wisdom in us, the same way seeds watered and shined-upon produce fruit.
But teachers also produce in wisdom in us.
James himself is our teacher here, bestowing to us wisdom, telling us what to ask for and how to work through those trials for the sake of wisdom.
Or, take for example, the story of the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch which Luke gives us in his Gospel. When Philip encounters the Ethiopian Eunuch, who is reading the book of Isaiah, he asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch replies, asking, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). Philip then introduces the eunuch to Christ through the prophesies of Isaiah.
How, though, does Philip happen to encounter the eunuch? Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit brought Philip to the encounter. God gave the eunuch wisdom through a teacher, cultivating in him the fruits of wisdom in much the same way the farmer is gifted the harvest of apples in their season.
We, who lack wisdom, ask for it and God, who is generous, gives it to us. Sometimes it is a gift we have to work for, as we endure trials and experiences, and yet other times it is a gift we learn from teachers. Our experiences may be personal trials we endure directly and they may be experiences we endure indirectly, such as through a friend or loved one. Our teachers may be books and letters, like the epistle written by James, or they may be a person, like Philip.
We ough to be be thankful that a faithful and generous God will gift us with the words we need when we need them, but also to not presume upon our faithful and generous father and to always labor for our harvest of apples along the way.