Yesterday in church, our passages of scripture were Proverbs 1:20-33 and James 3:1-12. I found these passages to be especially interesting in the midst of presidential elections - and consequently angry Facebook battles - heating up. I know it offered me a good hard look into how carefully I'm selecting my words.
I bet Forrest Gump read Proverbs. You remember Forrest Gump, right? Tom Hanks’ character in the movie by the same name. A pretty slow guy with a low IQ who never lets life get in his way. He goes on the most unbelievable, but wonderful adventures. He becomes a war hero, meets the president, runs across the country, marries his childhood sweetheart. There are a few quotes from that movie that have become common in our vernacular in the 21 years since that movie came out. “RUN, Forrest, RUN!” “Life is like a. . . (box of chocolates).” And of course, “Stupid is. . . (as stupid does.)”
Lady Wisdom in Proverbs and James in his letter both seem to be telling us that same thing: Stupid is as stupid does. James says specifically, “stupid is as stupid says.” When we consult Lady Wisdom and James, we see that there is some sort of difference between head-knowledge or book-smarts and actual, lived out wisdom. While our buddy Forrest Gump is talking more generally, Lady Wisdom and James are specifically thinking about how we live our lives in regards to our faith and what we know about and have experienced of God.
Lady Wisdom is telling the people to stop acting like fools. The people are acting like a bunch of goobs and they are going to bring all sorts of yucky stuff upon themselves for being foolish. James is telling the people to stop talking like fools. Words and actions both hove power and just one wrong word or mis-spoken idea – a small mis-communication - can set a whole community on fire. The message is the same, however. The foolish will reap the consequences of their folly.
Now, seeing as we’ve all been foolish from time to time – don’t try to tell me you’ve never done anything foolish – this is a little discouraging. James does say that some people seem to be better than others at controlling their foolish words and those ones are going to make better teachers, but the message is that all are fools. Fortunately, Wisdom is not shown to be unattainable or available to just a few select people. Wisdom is not in some far off place on the top of a craggy, snowy, remote mountain like a fancy levitating guru. Wisdom is not available only to the rich or the smart or the noble. Wisdom is standing in the middle of the crowded streets and at the city gates shouting at the top of her lungs to anyone who will stop and listen to her.
There is a saying that we have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. Wisdom is calling us – we just have to listen. James says once we get control of our tongues, other things start to fall into place. Our tongue is so little, we tend to forget about it. We use words so much that we take them for granted. But if we can change our words, control our tongues, just a little bit, we find ourselves counted among the wise – among those who hear Wisdom calling.
The idea of Lady Wisdom as presented in Proverbs is often connected to the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus is the Word of God, the Holy Spirit is the Wisdom of God. Wisdom in Hebrew and spirit in Greek are both feminine words grammatically, so both are often talked about with feminine metaphors like this idea of Lady Wisdom standing on the streets shouting to the people. If we can just control our own chatter for long enough, reign in our own foolish tongues, we can hear the Holy Spirit calling us and guiding us.
At my children’s school, they have a great way of getting the kids’ attention when there is a large group who they need to quiet down. The teacher will say, “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” And a couple of kids will stop talking and clap. Then the teacher will say, “If you can hear my voice, clap twice!” And the first kids to stop talking will clap twice, but this time there will be more kids because some heard the first clap, so they were paying attention when the teacher asked for the two claps. By the time the teacher says, “If you can hear my voice, clap three times!” all the kids have figured out what’s going on and have stopped talking to clap three times and pay attention.
I can almost see Lady Wisdom from Proverbs standing on the street corner yelling, “If you can hear my voice, clap once!” She’s standing in the most prominent parts of town – just like the teacher on the stage in the cafegymnatorium at the school – yelling out, “Pay attention! Who can hear me?!” And can you blame her for raising her voice? Look at how many people are hurrying around the city, walking right past her, and ignoring her. They are like a bunch of unruly children running around the school gym.
Here we are in a society that just loves knowledge. We love to have google at our fingertips on our phones. We like to feel smart and to know more than the people we’re talking to. But in all this knowledge, the craziest stuff still happens! We’re in this knowledge and fact filled world, and we still haven’t solved poverty, racism, street violence, violence in the home, oppression, war, energy issues, etc. Where have all these facts gotten us on their own?
There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge that we tend to miss in our strivings for more knowledge. We say knowledge is power! The more you know! But do all of the choices that we have around us when we’re shopping to fill our heads with knowledge really help us? Do they truly make us wiser or happier? Wisdom is admission that we do not and never can know it all. Wisdom is the admission that all the facts in the world are never going to solve our problems on their own. Wisdom is knowing when to admit that slinging facts at one another and getting angry isn’t going to bring a debate to a resolution or even a friendly compromise. Wisdom is being willing to acknowledge that nobody is always right.
This is where James comes in and says that the wise person watches what they say. Just because you’re right (or think you’re right) doesn’t mean you have to keep talking. We learn and grow and love more when we stop to hear the other person’s point of view than when we insist on arguing someone into the ground. Have you ever read the comments section of any given online news article? I don’t recommend it. It’s usually just one long angry list of competing facts followed by a bunch of name calling. Fact after fact with very little wisdom interjected. This becomes more and more prominent the closer we get to presidential elections, especially.
Proverbs shows us people in the hustle and bustle walking right past Wisdom because they are so set on getting to the goal they have in mind. That’s what I think about when I have the misfortune of reading the comments or some other online fact-battle or debate or hear people having a heated argument over dinner about some hot-button political, social, or theological topic. They are like the people so set on getting to the place they want to go that they hurry right past Wisdom and ignore her words to be careful and loving, godly and faithful in everything that you say and do.
The world around us is changing, but the world is always changing. The world has been changing, cultures and languages and societies and empires have always been changing. This change around us is no new thing. But with the advances in technology and communication that we have seen in our lifetimes, it’s much more visible than it ever has been. We’re more aware of the changes happening and it can be unsettling. It’s easier to be full of facts and harder to be wise when we have all sorts of information at our fingertips and when words and facts are all around us. We cling to them like an anchor when we feel change swirling around us.
There is a gentle humility and vast wisdom in knowing when to speak and when to listen and in being able to stop and just listen to both sides – even when we’re uncomfortable doing so. Even when it might mean we have to admit that things are going to change. Just as there are consequences for rash speech and actions, for talking too much and listening too little, there are consequences when we speak carefully and act purposefully, when we stop talking and start listening.
The wise remember that all it takes to start a fire is one word, so choose each word carefully. The wise remember to stop and listen before rushing in to talk or show off all the facts they know. When we stop talking and start listening, we get to know the people around us and the lives they have lived in a new and deeper way. We learn how to see things from another person’s perspective. Sometimes, we find out our facts were wrong or that their facts were just as right as ours. We grow and change. We become wise. We open ourselves up to see God moving in the world and in others. That is how we grow in wisdom and in the Spirit.