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Wisdom vs. self-help (January 14, 2024)

What is the difference between wisdom and self-help? Tara Bulger asks.

Outlook Standard Lesson for January 14, 2024
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Proverbs 3:1-12

If I were to take a trip down to my local bookstore or library, I would be hard-pressed to find a section of books filed under the heading of wisdom. The Collins English Dictionary defines wisdom as “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” I would need help to think of a series of words that seems more out of step with today’s lexicon. Wise? Sagacity? Discernment? Do we even talk about those things anymore?

If I were seeking discernment in the local bookstore, I would find a self-help section. It would likely be a pretty extensive selection of books that purport to make you better at something: stop procrastinating! Get more work done! Have better friendships!

So, what is the difference between wisdom and self-help? I assume there is some overlap. But for those of us who are people of faith, wisdom has a very specific definition that we can discern from today’s passage in Proverbs. For the ancient Israelites and us today, wisdom is not so much about what you know as it is about who you know and who you rely on.

What is the difference between wisdom and self-help?

This passage from Proverbs was written in a specific time and place with a particular rhetorical purpose in mind. The time was around 539 BCE. Judah had fallen to the Persians, thus beginning 200 years in which the Israelites in Judah would live under Persian rule. One of the benefits of this Persian rule was that those whom the Neo-Babylonians sent to live in exile were allowed to return home. The return of the Jewish people from the diaspora and the rebuilding of the Temple was undoubtedly good news for this hurting community. But much had changed, too, in this land now governed by the Persians. Many deities were worshipped by those the Jewish community lived in close community with. The question for these faithful became, “How can we remain faithful to the God of Israel in this new plurality? Even more so, how can we raise the next generation to be faithful to the Lord God?”

One answer to these questions was the beginning of wisdom schools. Faithful Israelites taught these schools with a desire to share their way of life with those growing in the faith. Unlike some schools that relay information or reinforce study alone, wisdom schools developed out of the underlying belief that all wisdom comes from a relationship with God. To be faithful was to rely utterly on the wisdom of God, much like a child depending on a parent’s care. Further, Israelite wisdom saw no difference between body and soul as later Greeks did. For them, wisdom was imbued in the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.

Proverbs, as a whole, is the wisdom of the sages. The author of Proverbs 3 implores the reader to remember their teaching and to keep the commands in one’s heart all their lives. Remembrance and command-keeping are central to having a relationship with God. In the same way, loyalty and faithfulness should always be the bedrock for decisions. While these stanzas are their injunction on how the person should live, the purpose of the proverb is found in verses 5-7: to be in a close relationship with God means that one needs to be aligned with the divine. This was the purpose of the wisdom schools in 300-500 BCE. They didn’t seek to teach wisdom as much as they sought to teach reliance upon God.

In the interest of complete honesty, I have spent my fair share of time in the bookstore’s self-help section. I would love to learn how to be more productive, happier, and more awesome. But when the rubber meets the road, that advice is never of much help to me.

When my oldest daughter went to college this fall, I did not share the habits of highly effective people or time management techniques with her. I did give her the wisdom I had. I told her that life would throw a lot of things at her, and with daily devotional practice and a faith community, things would be more manageable. I told her what my grandfather taught me: that I would never be outside of God’s grace and love and the more I remembered that, the better my life would be. I shared with her all my wisdom, and it all boiled down to this: Try to trust in the Lord with all your heart. Everything else will take care of itself. I pray every day that she has a relationship with God. The wisdom will flow from that.

Questions for reflection

  1. In your own words, what is wisdom? What is some wisdom that you have to share?
  2. Which of the verses of Psalm 3:1-12 speaks to you the most? Why?

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